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Oil, coal approaching "Kodak moment" says analyst

Marathon is upgrading its Detroit refinery to process more heavy crude from the Canadian oil sands.
Adee Braun
Changing Gears
Marathon is upgrading its Detroit refinery to process more heavy crude from the Canadian oil sands.

An analyst who tracks the fossil fuels industry says natural economic and political trends will make the fight against global warming easier than many people predict.  

Phllip Verleger runs PKVerleger, LLC, which provides economic consulting to firms, governments, and individuals on energy and commodity markets.

Verleger thinks global oil use will plummet much faster than most people believe, for three main reasons.

First, he says it's unlikely that future economic growth will be as robust as in the past.  Instead of the 3-4% growth rates in some models, he says, think more along the lines of 2%. 

Second, most forecasts assume oil-rich Iraq will double its current output to meet rising global demand.  "Given recent events, the ISIS attacks, and the collapse in the Middle East, that's not gonna happen," asserts Verleger.

Third, it's becoming increasingly expensive to establish new drilling projects.   

"The very high prices required to profit from mammoth projects planned to meet forecasted demand will kill the fossil fuel industry quickly," asserts Verleger. 

He says the industry will have its own "Kodak moment," referring to the collapse of the photographic film industry, which ignored, until it was too late, the technological changes like digital photography and the I-phone.

Oil companies that expand into high-cost areas like Alaska are likely to find themselves with stranded costs.  Verleger says the assumption is there will be a market for oil at $200 a gallon - but demand for it at that price will be minimal.

Instead, users of oil and products made from it like gasoline will cut back.

Combine these economic realities with the effect of government policies that encourage efficiency, Verleger believes, and the effort to control CO2 in the atmosphere won't be as daunting as some of the global-warming doom-sayers predict.

But what about all that coal being burned in China?

Verleger says pollution from coal-burning has become so horrific in China, its leaders will be forced to take dramatic action soon.  He says the situation is not unlike that in London in the winter of 1952, when an unusually thick, persistent smog laced with sulfur dioxide and particulates from coal killed 12,000 people in just a few weeks.

"I think China will move much more rapidly away from coal and towards conservation and towards alternatives than any other country," he says.
Verleger also thinks oil prices will get so high, solar and wind energy will soon be able to compete on cost alone. 

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.