Speaking to the Texas Oil & Gas Association in July, Chevron Corp. Chief Executive Officer Mike Wirth assured his audience that the global clamor for clean energy “doesn’t mean the end of oil and gas.” On the contrary, Wirth said, the energy business is simply undergoing another of its natural transitions. “We’ll find ways to make oil and gas more efficient, more environmentally benign,” he said. “And it will be a part of the mix, just as biomass and coal are still enormous parts of the mix today.”
To activists alarmed at the urgency of the climate crisis, Wirth’s comments are as out of touch as they are predictable, coming from someone who profits from the status quo. For unlike its rivals in Europe, Chevron is betting its future less on renewable energies such as wind and solar and more on the subterranean stuff derived from hydrocarbons. It’s a multibillion-dollar gamble that would have been even less surprising before the coronavirus reared its spiky head. By eviscerating demand for petroleum products when business and consumer activity suddenly slowed, Covid-19 has shown the world’s biggest oil and gas companies a vision of a bleak future in which they’re neither wanted nor needed.
A chastened BP Plc responded on Aug. 4 by announcing dramatic steps to address climate change, including an unexpected vow to reduce oil and gas production 40% over the next decade; CEO Bernard Looney said the strategy was “amplified by Covid.” In sharp contrast, Exxon Mobil Corp. has reiterated its commitment to being oil’s last man standing decades from now. Chevron, for all of Wirth’s prognosticating about crude’s bright future, is pursuing a more nuanced path that embraces something frequently alien to Big Oil: flexibility.
Wirth cut Chevron’s capital spending to half what it was in 2014 and shifted its focus to shale. Although drilling in shale can be more pricey than conventional oil extraction, it also produces energy more quickly. Wells can be drilled and crude flowing within weeks, vs. 5 to 10 years for offshore platforms or liquefied natural gas terminals. Shale wells also can be shut down quickly when falling prices dictate—as they were when oil dropped below zero dollars per barrel in April, and some producers had to pay buyers to take crude off their hands because there was no room to store it. Other supermajors have expanded their shale production, but none has been as aggressive as Chevron. It’s now the biggest producer in West Texas’ prodigious Permian Basin.