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What the World's Oil Giants Say About Electric Cars

March 7, 2018
Some say they’re coming, in a big way. Others aren’t so sure.

We’re only two days into CERAWeek by IHS Markit -- the week-long gathering in Houston of some of world’s biggest names in energy -- and fossil-fuel executives are already dumping on electric cars.

To be fair, some say they’re coming, in a big way. Others aren’t so sure. Here’s what they’ve all said so far.

BP: Not a Silver Bullet

While BP Plc Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley sees “tremendous” opportunities around the arrival of electric cars, he said they’re “not the silver bullet that everyone’s looking for.” Crude and natural gas will remain a part of the global energy mix for decades, and the pace at which oil demand declines after peaking will be very slow, he said.

Saudi Aramco: EVs Still Make Emissions

“Many wrongly believe that it is a simple matter of electric vehicles quickly and smoothly replacing the internal combustion engine,” Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser said. To him, the path toward cutting carbon emissions is a lot more complicated.

While it should be a global priority to improve efficiency and cut emissions from internal combustion engines and fuels, he said, pure electric and hydrogen cars still “face a range of problems.” He noted that electric cars still depend on power, and in markets like China and India, emissions-intensive coal supplies as much as half of that power.

“Right now, with battery-electric vehicles, we are simply moving emissions from tailpipe to smoke stack,” he said.

“So, yes, battery electric vehicles will grow and have a welcome role to play in global mobility,” he said. “But given the competition and complexity of the transition, their impact on the 20% oil demand should not be exaggerated. And that still leaves the other 80%, where oil demand continues to grow.”

Meanwhile, Total’s CEO Is Driving One

Total SA CEO Patrick Pouyanne disclosed that he had gotten himself an electric car. And yes, he acknowledged, that is “a bit odd for the CEO of an oil and gas company,” but he wanted to test one.

His observations so far? It’s a quiet car. But he has to rent a battery, which costs about $60 per month. “I’m spending more to rent my battery than to pay for the gasoline I was putting in my small car, but OK,” he said. “I’m convinced that, in a big city, we’ll have plenty of electric cars in 10 to 15 years,” he said.

When it comes to oil demand though, he said, “let’s be clear that what is important is the kilometers driven, and a small car in the city does not drive a lot of kilometers a year.” Despite technologies that are rapidly developing, he said, “there is a longer story for oil in front of us.”

Credit Suisse: Wall Street’s Worried

EVs may not have some oil giants shaking in their boots, but “there’s a wall of worry from a lot of equity investors about EVs coming in -- 10 years out or 50 years out,” said Tim Perry, global co-head of oil and gas investment banking at Credit Suisse Group AG. “Your views on that make for a very different understanding of participation in the sector.”

Maynard Holt, CEO of the boutique energy investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., didn’t comment on EVs in an interview, but perhaps that’s because his heart lies elsewhere. The lapel pin he was sporting read: “I <3 fossil fuels.”

And what do these guys think about self-driving cars?

Tom Nimbley, chief executive officer of U.S. refiner PBF Energy Inc., went as far as to question whether refineries were still worth investing billions of dollars in. Refineries are “great structures,” he said, “but you are really kind of taking a leap by saying, ‘that’s what I want to do,’ in this day and age because perhaps we are starting to approach some headwinds on demand.”

If EVs or autonomous cars take off and cut into gasoline demand, he said, “Obviously, you want to be the last person standing.”

So it’s a good thing for the refining business that Mike Lorenz, executive vice president of gasoline retail company Sheetz Inc., doesn’t see autonomous vehicles in the cards. “It’s one of those things that -- it sounds cool -- but I can’t see that happening any time soon.”

Don’t worry -- the car talk is far from over. General Motors Co. CEO Mary T. Barra is scheduled to speak at the conference on Wednesday. So stay tuned.

By Tina Davis and Javier Blas

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