Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources, Khalid A. Al-Falih, who is also chairman of Saudi Aramco, the “world’s most valuable company,” was interviewed in Abu Dhabi for Global Action Day last week. I happened to be in attendance and captured Al-Falih making some rather interesting comments.
Asked about longtime ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson acting as Secretary of State for Donald Trump’s administration, the minister didn’t seem phased, didn’t really seem to care, and simply indicated that the USA is one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest friends and he hopes that will continue under Trump. In any case, Al-Falih didn’t display the type of concern or distress that many of us Americans have been having.
Presented with the need to cut emissions (something the minister agreed is the case) and asked what the role of leaving fossil fuels in the ground is, things then got quite weird. He replied, “I don’t think we need to do that.”
In other words, yes, we need to cut emissions a great deal, but no, we don’t need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
That was just the beginning. Al-Falih added: “In fact, I believe that, without the fossil fuels — by constraining their production — you actually are going to have a less sustainable global economy.” Wait, what?
Recognizing that he had said something that many people would view as absolutely absurd, Al-Falih cherry picked the one renewable technology that arguably hasn’t worked out as hoped. “We have seen biofuels create more emissions than fossil fuels.” In certain cases, yes. Luckily, cleantech enthusiasts have largely shifted their focus and hope toward the clean, cost-competitive leadership of solar and wind power combined with electric transport.
Unwilling to leave weird enough alone, Khalid Al-Falih then vaguely claimed that people in poverty have somehow created more emissions than if they had access to fossil energy. He skipped over the fact that solar is now cheaper than fossil fuels for off-grid applications and that developing countries can get electricity cheaper, quicker, and cleaner from renewables like solar and wind energy than from fossil fuels. Instead, he alluded to what must be a very niche situation in a comment that must have shocked plenty of others in the audience besides me: “We have seen people in poverty create more damage to the world’s ecosystem than people who have access.”
Knowing these comments were ridiculous as a response to the interviewer’s questions and wouldn’t lead him down a very persuasive avenue, Al-Falih quickly shifted to a focus on “more efficient” use of fossil fuels. “Fossil fuels will need to be further improved — through efficiency, through carbon mitigation, through carbon capture,” he stated, as if that would be enough for the fossil industry to otherwise keep rolling with business as usual.
He then came back to the topic of poverty, though, and tried to make the argument that we for some reason will need fossil fuels indefinitely to help bring people out of poverty. “Development is not an option, it’s an imperative. … Economic development will not happen without accessible, affordable energy. And I cannot see, I cannot see renewables alone doing it.”
Solar and wind are cheaper. Electric vehicles and the batteries at their cores are practically there as well. Hydro and geothermal energy still provide good, cheap supplements in certain regions. All of those options offer greater energy reliability, energy security, and swift energy access than fossil fuels. Let’s be frank, though, when the world stops needing a tremendous amount of oil & gas, Saudi Arabia is going to get a lot poorer and Saudi Aramco is no longer going to be the most valuable company in the world — that is the issue Al-Falih was trying to skirt around and is surely trying to delay.
The $1.25 trillion to $10 trillion “value” of Saudi Aramco is a significant portion of the carbon bubble I wrote about the other day. If a lot of Saudi Arabia’s oil & gas is left in the ground, the value of Saudi Aramco is not so high, and more importantly for the minister and country, Saudi Arabia’s government and citizens will no longer be so rich. I am not saying this in order to spite them, but it is a practical reality they must at some point face … even if they don’t yet want to acknowledge it.
It’s not a huge surprise that Saudi Aramco’s projection for 2016–2040 was a battery price reduction of 40% despite battery prices dropping 35% in 2015 alone — it’s laughable, but not a huge surprise. Saudi Aramco and mother country Saudi Arabia don’t want to acknowledge that a large portion of the value of Saudi Aramco is in fossil “fuels” that need to — and likely will — stay in the ground as cherished but unused fossil liquids and gas. But denying this point doesn’t do justice to the intelligence of the speaker or the listeners, nor to the critical needs of the world as a whole.
In summary, with a totally straight face and the calm tone, just moments after discussing the need to cut carbon emissions and combat climate change, Saudi Arabia Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid A. Al-Falih last week argued that fossil fuels are often better and even cleaner for the world than renewables, and that they are absolutely necessary.
It seemed to me like an embarrassing attempt to divert attention and not let on that the world has all it needs to intelligently move away from fossil fuels. It was pretty stunning as an attendee who, like others in the audience, was there for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the World Future Energy Summit, the International Renewable Energy Agency General Assembly, etc. But that’s the world we live in today — we’re in the midst of a historic societal transition like no others. This transition will bring about a monumental socioeconomic and sociopolitical shift globally as we finally stop burning stuff for heat and electricity.
Perhaps Khalid Al-Falih didn’t seem bothered by Rexx Tillerson’s nomination for US Secretary of State under Donald Trump because, in many ways, Al-Falih and Tillerson have a lot in common — probably more than you or I have in common with Rex Tillerson or Donald Trump. Tillerson will presumably cheer for his side rather than Al-Falih’s in the world’s ongoing game of fossil energy Russian roulette, but he won’t try to change the game — he won’t try to get us playing tennis instead. For people like Al-Falih, that is apparently still seen as a positive thing, or at least nothing to stress over. Though, I would still love to get into an hour-long moral interrogation with people like Al-Falih and Tillerson. The denial can only run so deep.
Watch this exclusive CleanTechnica video of Khalid A. Al-Falih’s Global Action Day interview if you skipped doing so at the top:
Photo of happy off-grid solar customer via Off Grid Electric