The end of Big Oil (and Gas)

When historians one day dissect the long arc of humankind’s use of fossil fuels, they may very well zero in on October 9, 2006, as a turning point for Big Oil. That’s when it became clear that the major oil companies—the giants that had survived numerous predicted extinctions and gone on to ever-greater profit and influence—were undergoing a tectonic shift and would either reinvent themselves or die. It’s the day Moscow dashed the hopes of five major oil companies from three countries and announced that Russia itself, and not they, would develop the biggest new natural gas field on the planet, an undersea Arctic reservoir called Shtokman.

Shtokman is the oilman’s Angelina Jolie: much-coveted but out of reach. Experts believe it contains the carbon fuel equivalent of 23 billion barrels of oil—that in an industry that considers a field of one billion barrels gigantic. Shtokman alone contains sufficient energy to power all of Europe for several years, and the world’s big oil companies had sought rights to it for years.

[…]

Big Oil, then—the indomitable giant symbolized by the pitiless John D. Rockefeller—is dying. At the very least, it will soon have to fundamentally change the way it does business. But the shock of Shtokman is merely a tremor compared with the coming revolutionary transition to a non- carbon energy economy. Big Oil could transcend its current woes and weather that future revolution—perhaps even lead it—if it reinvented itself as Big Energy, striving to develop renewable power sources like wind and solar, or even to deliver the industry’s holy grail: a clean energy mechanism that renders fossil fuels obsolete. True, no one yet knows what the revolution will look like; but the odd thing is that, for the most part, the oil companies don’t seem to care.

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