Energy scholar Robert Bryce offers an unabashed view of the industry that you don’t often come across. You might disagree with him, but you can be reassured that his often provocative comments are well thought out. And, it won’t hurt his feelings if you disagree.

I’ve known Bryce since 2002 when he wrote “Pipe Dreams, Greed, Ego and the Death of Enron.” A native of Tulsa, Okla., he has written several other energy books including “Power Hungry, The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.” His articles have frequently appeared in leading magazines and newspapers. He has also produced a new documentary called Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.

I visit with Bryce periodically to gain his perspective on the business, especially as energy remains a divisive issue in our nation. So, can today’s oil and gas industry survive without dramatic change?

“They have survived a long time, and they’re going to survive a lot longer. I don’t mean to be flip, but this idea that the industry is going to go away and we will quit using oil and gas, I just don’t see that happening,” Bryce said.

Who Will Dominate?
But who will be the players watch? Will activity continue to be driven by the major oil companies who have always seemed to control the industry? Look beyond that, Bryce suggested.

“The state-owned companies still have plenty of clout, whether it’s Rosneft and Gazprom (Russia), NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company), Saudi Aramco, or Statoil (now Equinor),” he said. “The publicly traded supermajors obviously are going to get a lot of attention. They are the big natural resource players, but they’re not the only ones.

“Watching the supermajors going back to the Permian Basin is a fascinating development. Chevron bidding for Anadarko (only to be outbid by Occidental) was intriguing in that the independents are leading the way on some of these greenfield opportunities; true, the Permian is hardly a greenfield, but the independents continue to be the ones that discover and develop many of these resources. So, it’s going to be a lot of what we’ve seen in the past: super-majors scooping up assets from smaller companies when it fits their needs,” he said.  


Bryce has written extensively on alternative energy sources and doesn’t foresee any of them taking the place of petroleum products for years to come.

“In transportation, oil will dominate for many decades to come. If oil didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. It’s a nearly miraculous substance in terms of ease of handling at both atmospheric pressure and normal temperatures; it doesn’t require super expensive tankage or containment systems.

“Natural gas, particularly, will have a long run. Look at the staggering growth in the LNG business just in the last few years and the emergence of the United States as a major LNG exporter. These are important trends that are going to be sustained for many years to come and by that, I mean decades,” Bryce continued, agreeing with many experts who call natural gas the fuel of the 21st century.

“If we’re serious about reducing emissions, natural gas and nuclear offer the best no-regrets pathways. The fact that now you have natural gas from the U.S. displacing diesel fuel for transportation in China and competing for market share with coal-fired electricity in Japan, are phenomenal developments.  

“Just a quick aside, in 2007 [then ExxonMobil Chairman] Lee Raymond said that the U.S. had to build the arctic gas pipeline because there was no more gas to be found in the continental U.S. Fast forward to today and we’ve seen U.S. natural gas consumption nearly double just in the last decade. A year from now we’ll have 10 Bcf/d of LNG export capacity. We flipped from being a prospective LNG importer of 20 Bcf/d to a real exporter of 10 Bcf/d. This a very, very big deal.”


The Shale Revolution
Bryce describes the shale revolution as “the single biggest and most important energy breakthrough probably in my lifetime, and as my friend Mark Mills, put it, this has been the single biggest addition to global energy supply in world history. We’re just now coming to grips with it and what it’s going to mean.

This has been an incredible gift to the United States economy, consumers and to the petrochemical industry, and we’re still in the beginning stages.”  
How so?

“We might be in the second or third inning. We’re seeing the maturation of the shale business. Everyone is settling in for the long haul and turning this into a long-term manufacturing process. Chevron CEO Mike Wirth said that the shale game is a scale game. That’s what we’re seeing now in the Marcellus, Utica, Permian, Eagle Ford, Haynesville. It’s all about scale now.”

Then we come to the inevitable question of climate change, and its impact on oil and gas. It’s an issue the industry is trying to cope with, he says. 

“We’ve already seen the industry try to respond and add its weight to the discussion. Many companies are advocating for carbon taxation because they see it as a chance to affect policy in a positive way. The big European oil and gas companies are clearly under tremendous pressure to toe the line and try to do something substantive on this issue. Let’s be clear, it’s going to be difficult for them,” Bryce said.
Climate Change
Climate change is also looming as a leading issue in next year’s presidential election.

“Nearly all the Democratic candidates are saying they love renewables. Climate change is a litmus test for the Democratic Party where 80% to 90% of Democratic voters say this is their number one issue. It’s going to be a hot issue for a long time to come, but how much of that is going to be political posturing versus actual efforts to dramatically reduce fossil fuel emissions? Are they serious about wanting to cover the countryside with solar and wind projects and high-voltage transmission lines? That’s a whole other set of questions,"Bryce said.

Bryce advises that wind and solar aren’t quite the answers their advocates claim them to be.

“We’re seeing already with solar, and particularly with wind, an increasing number of collisions with rural communities across the country over land use. This is not new. Land-use policy and energy policy are inextricable. Whether it’s Keystone XL or Dakota Access pipeline, these land-use issues and conflicts over energy projects are multiplying all over the country, in fact, all over the world.

“More and more communities are moving to reject or restrict wind projects. Only this year, San Bernardino County, CA, the largest county by area in America, approved a ban on large-scale wind and solar projects. Two wind projects in New York state in recent months have been canceled because of local opposition. Dewitt County, IL just refused to grant permits for a big wind project.

“I call this the vacant-land myth; it’s the idea that there is a whole lot of unused land out there in flyover country that is ready and waiting to be covered with renewable-energy stuff,” Bryce says. “The truth is quite different.”
Still, this represents a cultural challenge for the oil and gas industry.

“The hard truth is that here in America we have extreme scientific illiteracy. That illiteracy contributes to this delusion that we can run the world on renewables alone. The lack of scientific understanding and basic mathematics combined with this romantic notion about we’re going to turn back the hands of time and going to rely just on solar and wind, it’s a very powerful set of beliefs. That set of beliefs holds a lot of currency among the general public. It’s going to be a very difficult battle to fight and it’s almost a religious one.”

The Future of Energy
What might the energy company of tomorrow look like?

“That’s a broad question, but there are a couple of mega-trends that are underway that I think are inexorable. One of those is electrification,” said Bryce, whose next book, “A Question of Power, Electricity and the Wealth of Nations,, is scheduled to be released next year. “I testified recently before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and made a few points that are pretty much self-evident.

“Electricity is the world’s most important and fastest growing form of energy. Second, CO2 emissions from the electricity sector are greater than that of any other single sector. The latest IEA [International Energy Agency] data shows   electricity generation is growing at about 4% per year. That means it’s doubling every 18 years or so. This is a big deal. How countries decide what fuels they choose to generate the electricity that’s going to be needed the next 20-30-40 years is going to have a big impact on reducing CO2 emissions.

“But it’s also going to be about the conversion of primary energy into secondary energy. Shell and some other companies are trying to get more into the power business. That’s going to be one of the big trends we see, whether it’s electricity for cars, data centers, or growing marijuana, all of which are potential growth areas. The energy companies of tomorrow are going to look much like the ones today, but definitely with a bigger interest in electrification,” he said.

[Editor’s note: A new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reports that the shale boom significantly impacted the nation’s economic growth from 2010-15. The Fed estimated that the increase in light oil production by itself was likely responsible for raising economic output by 1% despite the oil and gas sector providing less than 1.5% of the nation’s economy

Economic output overall increased by about 11% during that period. “The effect of the shale boom is significant, at about one-tenth of growth," the Fed reported.

As reported by the Fed, prior to the shale boom the U.S. imported twice as much oil as it produced. Today the U.S. exports about 3 million barrels of crude daily. The result is that the petroleum trade imbalance has shrunk by $356 billion between 2005-2018.]