Stranded assets and regulatory risk


in Canada, Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

One of the most important economic and political points arising from climate change is uncertainty about how seriously future governments will respond to the problem. If some kind of political change makes governments serious about hitting the 1.5 – 2.0 ˚C temperature targets from the Paris Agreement, it will mean doing everything possible to rapidly reduce emissions, from imposing high carbon prices to mandating the abandonment of especially harmful technologies and practices like burning coal and using exceptionally filthy fuel for international maritime shipping. This is termed “regulatory risk”. Whenever a potential investment project has finances that rely on governments continuing to talk big but do little about climate change, the project risks becoming non-viable after all the costs of development are spent if the government subsequently starts to take climate change seriously.

When it comes to actual fossil fuel reserves, there is a related issue of “stranded assets” – fossil fuel reserves that would be economically viable to extract if they could be sold, but where the climate change and energy policies of governments either directly prohibit their extraction or add other costs like carbon taxes which make the extraction unprofitable. In such a scenario, firms that depended on the value of these reserves to justify their own market value could be in trouble, along with everyone who has invested in them.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail describes how firms are aware of these risks:

[Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec] The Quebec-based pension fund is part of a growing tide of institutional investors – which includes giants such as Vanguard and BlackRock Inc. – pressing companies for more information on how they will manage the transition to a low-carbon economy. Companies in carbon-heavy industries such as energy and mining face the highest pressure, as investors fear being stuck holding stranded assets: companies who fail to plan for the future and whose valuations will likely plummet as a result.

“It’s a risk that we could be left holding the bag in a Minsky Moment and it could be quite costly,” says Toby Heaps, chief executive and co-founder of Corporate Knights Inc., a Toronto-based organization focused on corporate social responsibility. “I wouldn’t say we need to sound the fire alarm, but certainly it’s time to pause and take a serious look at how we can accelerate our transition to a low-carbon economy.”

The pressure has catapulted climate risk to the top of the agenda in many of Canada’s boardrooms as companies grapple with how to measure, mitigate and disclose potential liabilities. Last year, the board at Suncor Energy Inc. recommended that shareholders approve a proposal put forward by NEI Investments to enhance the company’s climate-related disclosures. Shareholders voted overwhelmingly in favour of the resolution.

There is every reason for advocates of stronger climate change mitigation policies to pressure firms to consider these risks before investing. There are ample examples of how – once a project is built and operating – it becomes politically impossible to shut down, regardless of how much harm it is causing. A classic example is coal-fired power plants in the United States that were built before the Clean Air Act and are thus exempt from the obligation to install scrubbers. Arguably, the entire bitumen sands is a massive example of a terrible idea that has become impossible to discontinue because too much has been invested, too many jobs are now at stake, and governments have become too dependent on royalties and other related revenue.

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. November 22, 2017 at 12:27 pm
. July 2, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Electricity also rewards co-operation. Because renewables are intermittent, regional grids are needed to ship electricity from where it is plentiful to where it is not. This could replicate the pipeline politics that Russia engages in with its natural-gas shipments to Europe. More likely, as grids are interconnected so as to diversify supply, more interdependent countries will conclude that manipulating the market is self-defeating. After all, unlike gas, you cannot keep electricity in the ground.

An electric world is therefore desirable. But getting there will be hard, for two reasons. First, as rents dry up, authoritarian oil-dependent governments could collapse. Few will miss them, but their passing could cause social unrest and strife. Oil producers had a taste of what is to come when the price plunged in 2014-16, which led to deep, and unpopular, austerity measures. Saudi Arabia and Russia have temporarily stopped the rot by curtailing production and pushing oil prices higher, as part of an “OPEC+” agreement. They need high prices to buy time to wean their economies off oil. But the higher the oil price, the greater the incentive for energy-thirsty behemoths like China and India to invest in renewable-powered electrification to give themselves cheaper and more secure supplies. Should the producers’ alliance crumble in the face of a long-term decline in demand for oil, prices could once again tumble, this time for good.

That will lead to the second danger: the fallout for investors in oil assets. America’s frackers need only look at the country’s woebegone coalminers to catch a glimpse of their fate in a distant post-oil future. The International Energy Agency, a forecaster, reckons that, if action to limit global warming to below 2°C accelerates in coming years, $1trn of oil assets could be stranded, ie, rendered obsolete. If the transition is unexpectedly sudden, stockmarkets will be dangerously exposed.

. July 2, 2018 at 7:12 pm

AS A citizen, Dave Jones worries that climate change may imperil his two children, and theirs in turn. What exercises him, as California’s insurance commissioner, is the way in which a transition to a low-carbon economy might affect the financial health of the state’s 1,300-odd insurers. On May 8th he unveiled an examination of how well the portfolios of the 672 insurers with $100m or more in annual premiums align with the Paris climate agreement of 2015, in which world leaders vowed to keep global warming below 2°C relative to pre-industrial times.

The answer is, not very. In the next five years carbon-intensive firms in those portfolios plan to produce more internal-combustion engines and coal-fired power than the maximum the International Energy Agency (IEA) reckons is compatible with meeting the 2°C goal (see chart). Meanwhile, investment plans in renewable energy and electric vehicles lag behind the IEA’s projections of what is needed.

The results echo those of a study last year by Swiss authorities of the portfolios of pension funds and underwriters. According to the Two Degrees Investing Initiative, a think-tank that conducted climate stress tests for the Swiss and Californian regulators, global equity and corporate-bond markets also look dangerously exposed to energy-transition risk.

Such findings prompt talk of a “carbon bubble”— overvaluation of businesses that could suffer if the climate threat is tackled resolutely. A study this month in Environmental Research Letters by Alexander Pfeiffer of Oxford University and colleagues found that electricity producers would have to retire a fifth of capacity, and cancel all planned projects, if the Paris goals are to be met. Between 2009 and 2015 Moody’s cut the average credit rating of European power utilities by three notches, partly because of environmental risk.

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