It is probably fair to say that there are some environmental advocates, at least in the United States, who consider the oil and gas industry to be the moral equivalent of tobacco companies, that is, simply out to maximize profits, without any consideration given to the broader, social implications of the use of their products. Furthermore, some such critics may paint the oil and gas sector with a broad brush –ignoring ways in which the various companies may differ from one another.
My guest in the latest episode of my podcast, released today, Spencer Dale, and – more to the point – his employer, may provide a counter-example. Spencer is Group Chief Economist of BP, the multinational oil & gas company based in London, where he leads BP’s global economics team. As readers of this blog will know, in these podcasts – “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program – I talk with well-informed people from academia, government, industry, and NGOs. Spencer Dale has had very significant experience in two of these realms – government and industry.
In his current role at BP, Spencer Dale manages the company’s global economics team, and is responsible for advising the board and executive team on economic drivers and trends in global energy. He previously served in a number of roles at the Bank of England, including as executive director for financial stability, a member of the Financial Policy Committee, and ultimately Chief Economist. You can hear our complete conversation here.
The swift and sharp decline in oil demand experienced in recent months, driven by the global coronavirus pandemic and policy responses to it, has had profound impacts on the oil and gas industry, due to falling prices and reduced revenues. But Spencer Dale notes that it may also create opportunities for companies and countries to support the transition to cleaner energy sources as they strive toward net-zero emissions in the coming decades.
“I think the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the planet and the unsustainable way in which we are living on the planet today. Moreover, the scale of the government interventions we are seeing around the world give us an unprecedented opportunity to use those government interventions to boost the economy in such a way that the growth we see going forward is greener and more sustainable than it otherwise would have been,” he says.
Spencer predicts that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to take its toll on oil demand as people and businesses conclude that they and their employees can work just as productively at home as in an office, and can save considerable amounts of time and money via reduced business travel.
“I think the far greater impact on oil demand is not through these behavioral changes, however, it’s through the economic impacts,” he says. “Hopefully the pandemic will be brought under control within the next year or so, but the economic scars from the pandemic are likely to last far longer, and in particular, those economic scars are likely to fall disproportionally on emerging markets around the world.”
Dale says he is proud of the leadership role BP is playing in the industry by pledging to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and by shifting its business profile away from being an “international oil company” toward being an “integrated energy company.”
“The nature of energy demand is likely to shift materially over the next 20 to 30 years, away from fossil fuels,” he observes. “And that’s to be replaced by very significant growth in renewable energy led by wind and solar power, and so we want to pivot away from those fossil fuels into a wider energy company.”
Dale also acknowledges the difficult challenge facing policymakers as they try to revive their economies and address the threats posed by climate change.
“If you ask governments today, with levels of unemployment…going back to levels not seen since many decades, if you ask them to trade off near-term jobs versus long-term climate issues, that’s a hard challenge,” he states. “But there doesn’t need to be a tradeoff between those two. You can design smart policies which are both good for long-run sustainability and also generate jobs in the near-term.”
All of this and more is found in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” I hope you will listen to this latest discussion here. You can find a complete transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.
My conversation with Spencer Dale is the 18th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month. Previous episodes have featured conversations with:
- Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Nick Stern of the London School of Economics discussing his career, British politics, and efforts to combat climate change
- Andrei Marcu, founder and executive director of the European Roundtable on Climate Change and Sustainable Transition
- Paul Watkinson, Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Jos Delbeke, professor at the European University Institute in Florence and at the KU Leuven in Belgium, and formerly Director-General of the European Commission’s DG Climate Action
- David Keith, professor at Harvard and a leading authority on geoengineering
- Joe Aldy, professor of the practice of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, with considerable experience working on climate change policy issues in the U.S. government
- Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, and an authority on infectious disease policy
- Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University, and founding co-director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard Business School.
- Sue Biniaz, who was the lead climate lawyer and a lead climate negotiator for the United States from 1989 until early 2017.
- Richard Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and Professor of Economics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Kelley Kizier, Associate Vice President for International Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
- David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser, Shell International.
- Vicky Bailey, 30 years of experience in corporate and government positions in the energy sector.
- David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego.
- Lisa Friedman, reporter on the climate desk at the The New York Times.
- Coral Davenport, who covers energy and environmental policy for The New York Times from the Washington bureau.