The heyday of America’s mighty oil and gas industry may be passing. This week three huge pipeline projects, whose combined length would stretch from New York to San Diego, were ditched.
Further oil and gas output growth in the world’s most prolific energy market depends on new infrastructure. Building it has become immeasurably harder.
This was not supposed to happen under Donald Trump, whose administration has pulled environmental rules to push more drilling — “unleashing American energy dominance”, as the US president put it in 2019. The record during his presidency has been mixed.
Energy production soared to record highs but has tumbled during this year’s price crash. Bankruptcies are tearing through the oil sector. The US remains the world’s largest producer but only because Saudi Arabia and Russia have cut oil and gas output to prop up the price. Investors have fled from a shale sector that does not return cash.
Since Mr Trump took office in 2017, the S&P 500 has risen by 40 per cent but its oil and gas index has halved. The pipeline cancellations this week, however, point to underlying shifts.
These were not run-of-the-mill projects. The Dakota Access Pipeline — ordered shut by a district judge — has been pumping oil from North Dakota for three years. Its operator Energy Transfer, which hopes to overturn the ruling, is run by billionaire Kelcy Warren, who last month hosted a fundraiser in Dallas for Mr Trump.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others fought the project for years, objecting to its route beneath Lake Oahe, which provides them with drinking water.
But against the power of the US government and the energy industry, legal review has been the only real recourse for opponents of such infrastructure.
When Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, two big utilities, scrapped their proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline, they cited just this kind of legal “uncertainty”. On cue, a separate Supreme Court ruling blocked construction of Keystone XL, which would import oil from Canada’s tar sands.
Mr Trump vowed during his election campaign to get it built. It is unlikely ever to progress. Big oil blames eco-warriors. The American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group, hit out at a “barrage of baseless, activist-led litigation”.
Dan Brouillette, Mr Trump’s energy secretary, cited “a well-funded environmental lobby, using our nation’s court system to further their agenda”. It is more than that. Duke and Dominion are both plotting net zero emissions futures.
Battling environmentalists so they could build their pipeline across the Appalachian Trail would not have been a good look.
The backdrop has changed, too. While the US will remain the world’s biggest oil and gas market, renewables are now its growth business. Offshore wind will soak up almost as much capital in the next decade as offshore oil.
Solar farms are sprouting up — not least in Texas. No one talks dreamily about making America’s post-pandemic economy more carbon-intensive but every second politician boasts a plan for a green recovery.
Joe Biden is among them, and if he wins November’s presidential election he will inherit an energy market that, despite Mr Trump’s efforts, is primed for a transition that will be backed by investors increasingly obliged to bet on clean energy. American energy dominance in future will depend less on oil and gas.
By Derek Brower