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Cole writes: "If you are still fairly young and you or your pension fund bought a lot of petroleum or gas or coal stocks in hopes of retiring on them, think again. You will lose your shirt."

A coal-fired power plant in Texas. (photo: AP)
A coal-fired power plant in Texas. (photo: AP)


The "Hindenburg Trap": Dump Oil, Coal & Gas Stocks if You Want to Retire

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment

08 March 15

 

hat is the actual value of the oil, gas and coal fields owned by big energy corporations, which gives them their stock price and allows them to be counted as assets for borrowing purposes?

The real value of those hydrocarbon resources is zero.

Or actually it is much less than zero, since there are likely to be a lot of liability lawsuits and insurance claims for severe environmental and property damage. Coal, oil and gas are now where the cigarette companies were in 1990, on the verge of getting hit with massive penalties. Big Coal and Big Oil are dead men walking.

The only thing that stops the entire world economy, including that of the United States, from collapsing is that investors continue to pretend that what I just said is not true. Because of this pretense, some people will go on making a lot of money with hydrocarbon investments in the short and perhaps even the medium term. Much investment and assignment of value is a matter of confidence.

But the confidence is misplaced. If you are still fairly young and you or your pension fund bought a lot of petroleum or gas or coal stocks in hopes of retiring on them, think again. You will lose your shirt.

Worse, because so many loans and other investments are anchored by the supposed value of coal, oil and gas, the world is walking an economic tightrope and the gentlest of breezes could knock it off into a crisis that would make 2008-2009 look like a minor hiccup.

In particular, if a sizable ice shelf breaks off in the Antarctic, you could see a sudden sea level rise that would panic the public and possibly lead some countries to outlaw things like coal and gas.

The Bank of England is doing a big study of this problem, which economists call that of “stranded assets.” That is a fancy phrase for when you invest in something that suddenly loses its value.

For instance, say you invested in Blockbuster Video Entertainment, Inc., when people used to rent DVD’s of movies from brick and mortar stores. In 2006 it seemed a good stock to buy– it had 9000 stores and 60,000 employees (almost as many as there are coal miners). And then streaming video came along. Stranded asset. Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2010 and survives only as a streaming service of Dish satellite television, which bought it and was gradually forced to liquidate all the stores.

The same thing will happen to coal, oil and natural gas, for two big, inexorable reasons. First, burning hydrocarbons is fatal to the health of our planet– in terms of the energy it releases, it is like setting off atomic bombs constantly. After a while that would take a toll. Second, other far less destructive ways of generating electricity are every day becoming cheaper and more efficient, especially wind and solar.

That coal as an industry is a bad investment should be obvious. The Obama Environmental Protection Agency has decided finally to start actually enforcing the Clean Air and Water Act, and has also claimed the right to regulate states’ carbon dioxide emissions (in which it has been upheld by the Supreme Court). Most coal plants will likely close over the next five years. Can you say, Blockbuster Video? I’d dump those coal stocks, like yesterday, or call my pension fund and make them drop them.

Of course, there was already a social conscience argument against investing in coal, which is dirty– burning it emits mercury (a nerve poison) and other dangerous pollutants and makes people sick. It also causes acid rain. And it is a major emitter of carbon dioxide, the deadliest poison of all. It is a horrible thing.

Let’s consider what has happened in Iowa just since 2005.

In 2005, wind generated 4% of Iowa’s electricity. Coal was responsible for a whopping 79%, about 4/5s.

In 2013, wind generated 28% of Iowa’s electricity. Coal had fallen to only 59%.

Given those trend lines, in such a short period of time, does coal look like a good investment to you? Or does wind? Especially since we know what the EPA is planning for coal.

Coal isn’t just competing with wind. The conservative Deutsche Bank has just concluded that in 14 states of the US, solar power is now as inexpensive as that from coal and natural gas. Right now. That is, it would be crazy to build a new coal plant today when you could generate electricity just as cheaply with solar.

And get this: by 2016– next year! — Deutsche Bank concludes that solar will be competitive with coal and natural gas in all but three or four states. And that is not an argument based on subsidies for solar. It will be as inexpensive as coal-generated electricity just purely on a market basis (in fact, it will be even cheaper, since there are massive government subsidies for coal, gas and oil).

Critics say that the wind dies down sometimes and the sun doesn’t shine on half the earth at night. This problem is referred to as that of “intermittency.” But it isn’t an insoluble problem. For one thing, the wind often blows more at night, so turbines can take up the slack from solar plants. For another, there are now molten salt solar installations that go on generating electricity for six hours after sunset. As batteries improve in efficiency and fall in price (both things are happening already, big time), the problem of intermittency will fade into insignificance, likely within a decade.

Another drag is that the electricity grid in many states needs to be redone. Wires need to be laid from the Thumb in Michigan where the wind is to the Detroit metropolitan area where most of the electricity is used. But it really is a relatively minor expense, and since the fuel for wind turbines is free, it would pay for itself fairly quickly. That is just a matter of having a state government that is on the ball and sees where the future profits are to be made. Cheap wind- and solar- generated electricity will allow factories to save money on energy and make their products more inexpensively, allowing them to compete on the world market. A solar facility is helping power the Volkswagon plant in Chattanooga. They’re not paying for coal or gas to produce that portion of their power, because the sunlight is free, and that will make their cars more competitive in price. Some buyers may throw their business to Volkswagen because they are greener. All factory owners will quickly move in this direction over the next few years.

So there isn’t any doubt about it. Buying stocks in coal, gas and oil companies is like buying stocks in zeppelins. They are outmoded and prone to crashing and burning, a Hindenburg waiting to happen. (Zeppelins were good investments once, too; they carried tens of thousands of people across the Atlantic and the top of the Empire State Building was designed to anchor them; but they became a stranded asset.)

It is therefore absolutely amazing that institutions of higher education like Harvard often refuse to divest from oil, gas and coal companies. The science and the economics are clear as day– burning hydrocarbons is disastrous for a city like Boston over time, and holding stranded assets is a one way ticket to bankruptcy court. I couldn’t tell you whether this decision is made out of short-sightedness or out of ethical and moral corruption (universities live nowadays on donors’ donations and don’t want to anger generous alumni who make their living purveying coal, gas and oil).

But those hydrocarbon stocks, and loans made on the basis of those worthless assets, are endangering the economic health of us all. Buying and holding them is the equivalent of refusing to vaccinate your children against measles. It is an individual decision that imperils the rest of the public. You and I may not be able to do much about the Koch brothers’ hold on state legislatures, or about the mysterious insidiousness of the Harvard regents. But most of us have some say in what stocks are in our pension funds or 401ks. There shouldn’t be any coal, gas or oil securities in there. Unless you like the idea of working backbreaking minimum wage jobs into your 80s.


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-62 # brycenuc 2015-03-08 18:03
Juan Cole needs a course in basic science. It is no accident that Germany and Denmark who have the highest percentage of renewable electricity generation also have the highest electricity prices in the world. When the taxpayers and rate payers tire of paying for the exorbitant government subsidy required to keep them running, "renewable" energy will become the stranded asset. Where did Germany turn, when it realized it had to have a more reliable source of electricity? IT TURNED TO COAL. Germany's conversion to more "renewable" energy has caused its carbon emissions to increase.

Incidentally, the huge volume of emissions shown in the photograph accompanying Cole's message is not from gas, oil, or coal; it is from steam.
 
 
+46 # Dust 2015-03-08 18:45
You need a course in basic logic and evidentiary reasoning.

Cite your sources. Post some evidence to support your claims.
 
 
+2 # Mannstein 2015-03-09 16:48
German electric rates are .30EURO per Kwh.
 
 
+42 # sean1303 2015-03-08 19:05
Just saying this doesn't make it so. The largest direct government subsidies are to the nuclear power industry. The largest indirect subsidies (by not making them pay for the health and environmental cost of making power) has always gone to the fossil fuel industries.
 
 
+36 # reiverpacific 2015-03-08 19:29
Quoting brycenuc:
Juan Cole needs a course in basic science. It is no accident that Germany and Denmark who have the highest percentage of renewable electricity generation also have the highest electricity prices in the world. When the taxpayers and rate payers tire of paying for the exorbitant government subsidy required to keep them running, "renewable" energy will become the stranded asset. Where did Germany turn, when it realized it had to have a more reliable source of electricity? IT TURNED TO COAL. Germany's conversion to more "renewable" energy has caused its carbon emissions to increase.

Incidentally, the huge volume of emissions shown in the photograph accompanying Cole's message is not from gas, oil, or coal; it is from steam.


Backup please; this isn't "Fixed" News or "USA Today" y'know.
Here's a bit of backup to counter y'r reactionary contention.
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/05/18/1300249/-Germany-got-74-of-its-electrical-power-from-Renewable-Sources-the-other-day?detail=email#
Choke that down with y'r next inhalation of coal dust.
If we were all like you we'd still be living in caves and eatin' raw meat!
 
 
+11 # Malcolm 2015-03-08 19:46
Slight correction. That "steam" is actually water droplets. Steam itself is, of course, invisible. But your point is well taken.

Regardless, I'll never support the petroleum industry, and will-and have-FOUGHT the nuclear power industry.
 
 
+34 # Texas Aggie 2015-03-08 19:52
There was an article about two months ago about how the Scandinavian countries are shutting down their coal plants because they can't compete with wind or solar anymore. The data you present is based on history of quite a few years ago. Since then, the price of renewable energy has decreased practically exponentially, just like computing power.

And your suggestion that the German government turned to coal without mentioning nuclear energy plants all being shut down after Fukishima suggests that other things you say may also be half truths.
 
 
-30 # BKnowswhitt2 2015-03-08 22:52
Alternative footprints cost more .. solar requires batteries and a landfill full of those full of acid .. but Juan Cole like the others promoted at RSN keep their 'Mantra' intact though the promote a message that in reality does most Lack .. that's why it's no longer the Truthout .. but Reader Supported and i'll add 'Almost' News ..........
 
 
+6 # Malcolm 2015-03-09 20:37
Um, BKnowswhitt, solar does NOT require batteries. I've got 6000 Watts DC on my roof. Not one battery in sight!

Where did you come up with that WRONG information?
 
 
-2 # Depressionborn 2015-03-10 18:56
Good for you. What do you do in the winter when there is no sun?
 
 
+2 # Malcolm 2015-03-11 20:44
There's SOME sun in the winter, even in Orygun. But our solar panels produce more power than we use during our sunny months, which our friendly neighborhood power company "stores" for us, for use during our dreary winters.

It's possible,too, to store excess energy without being grid tied, but without batteries, by using "pumped hydroelectric storage", but using the power company is so much easier and cheaper.

Hope that helps-with PV getting cheaper and cheaper, and tax credits, etc getting so much more generous, PV is actually a money maker for us on our more recent 3000 watt system.
 
 
+2 # bmiluski 2015-03-09 10:44
Hello brycenuc....... Are you new here? Fresh from some neo-con blog? Well, you're going to learn here that, unlikel your righty sites, you are going to need to provide reputable sources for any of your pronouncements.
I know, not something you people are used to....right?
 
 
0 # Depressionborn 2015-03-10 19:03
I looked up ice core temp data. There is lots and lots of years of data in simply to read graphs. It appears that C02 follows temp.

I think there might be some politics involved.
 
 
+2 # Ken Halt 2015-03-10 20:43
depression: Yes, politics involved. Follow the money, oil corporations and Koch brothers have lots of it and are able to buy lots of politicians. Oil/gas extraction and nuclear energy are expensively subsidized by tax payers. Connection? But then you don't understand science and may not understand venality and greed.
 
 
+24 # jon.traudt 2015-03-08 19:09
Dear #brycenuyc
Germans and Danes are preparing for the day when fossil fuels become very scarce and expensive. They realize that things that cannot go on forever, DON'T. Germans minimize the use of coal because coal's emissions have been making Germany's people sick, trees dead, and farms less productive.
Emissions from fuel fired power plants do indeed include steam, along with mercury, radioactive elements, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and other pollutants.
Are you willing to continue government subsidies for fossil fuels until they are all gone?
After fossil fuels become very scarce and expensive, how will we be able to manufacture and deploy enough renewable energy systems to power our society?
 
 
+17 # Malcolm 2015-03-08 19:49
Juan Cole may be correct, but personally, I don't trust governments to stop subsidizing the oil and gas companies. Their OWN power and riches depend on these horrible industries.

And I ain't gonna lose MY shirt! All my stocks are "environmentall y sound". Amazingly, even though I expected smaller returns on them, they've outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average return over the last 20 years. I'm a very happy camper! It don't get no better dan dat!
 
 
-2 # C-SIK 2015-03-10 09:23
Dear Happy camper :
I'm am happy too about the absolute inevitability of the end of The Fossil Fuel Slave Masters
But I am afraid that in it's death throws -
The Slave Masters will find new way to CONTROL US SLAVES - i.e. the 99% --
THE ONE PERCENT
IS GOING TO END UP SELLING
THE 99% --
THINGS LIKE CLEAN AIR AND WATER -

WE WILL END UP HAVING TO BUY MONTHLY CANISTERS OF FRESH RECONSTITUTED AIR -
FROM EXXON !!!
OR ANY GATED COMMUNITY WE CAN AFFORD -
WE WILL STILL HAVE CHOICES!-
I'm having a hard time being Happy with that perfectly likely scenario -
PRAISE YRSELVES FOR READER SUPPORTED NEWS!
I HOPE FOR YOUR PEACE OF MIND U R-
A SUPPORTER --
I AM !!!
ALTHOUGH I FEEL THE PINCH CONSTANTLY
PEACE - LOVE DOVE!
 
 
+3 # margpark 2015-03-08 20:20
I am old and getting older by the minute. Can I count on those stocks for five years?
 
 
0 # Malcolm 2015-03-08 22:23
Are you talkin ta me, margpark? If so, we are ALL getting older by the minute. Go with the flow, girl-it's all good! I wish I could tell you my stocks were going to keep on outperforming the Dow for five years, but my crystal ball is getting blurry.

Who'da thunk, margpark? My hon insisted on buying Apple stocks a few years ago. They've made up us "rich" by any normal standards. And now, they've replaced AT&Fucking T on the Dow!

WhatEVER. THE Dow SIPHONS!
 
 
-4 # ronnewmexico 2015-03-08 20:50
All said is true, Following the nuclear disaster in Japan, the Japanese did make attempts to go non nuclear, it continues but only in a very limited fashion.

The problem with going only solar and wind immediately is no alternative exists to do so. Not that it could be done with renewables but that they do not exist in the quantity to replace nonrenewables or fossil fuels at the present time.

So going totally off them following a catastrophic event..is pretty impossible. Discouragement to use, following such a event certainly.

In the stock market stocks would becomes very depreciated immediately, likely recovering some value after the event.
But such a event though being a certain event in the future, is not thought to be a immediate event in say the next five years.

Nat gas in the US is seeing liquification for transport which will likely corrospondingly see it become, over time, a global commodity as opposed to regional as we see now.
Your five years time line would probably see that eventuality, which will cause US nat gas holding companies, appreciate in value as the price for nat gas increases.

Five years would certainly see the return to higher levels of price for oil.
Coal companies with only coal as product….I say they will depreciate. Long term I think it will be done, and don't see much in appreciation, other than temporary blips. Appreciating coal companies are those who diversify out of it like consel energy. .
Just my opinion.
 
 
+1 # ronnewmexico 2015-03-08 20:57
Investment wise..I'd say solar is the way to go. They go up and down in value however considerably, and have traded with oil for some unknown reason recently.
etf's that represents solar companies at large rather than individual stocks mitigates risk a bit.

Be expecting wide swings in value regardless. Long term they are a good bet to my opinion, way better overall than fossil fuels..
Ask your investment manager about solar, One eastern electric company is diversifying into solar. So one can get a mix as well. New vehicles of trade... companies related to the parent solar companies, but operate on the actual generation of continual cash flow...that act like stocks but offer high dividends are now available in solar as well. They are new to the market, but seem quite interesting. In a low rate environment they are preferable, to my opinion. In a high interest rate environment…no.
All this to my personal opinion…contact your investment or financial advisor…I am not one.
 
 
+5 # professor 2015-03-08 21:39
The original article did not clearly state the numbers behind the assertion that coal or oil will lose major value in the future. The numbers are in a comparison of (1) the estimated amount of carbon that can be released into the atmosphere without causing a 2-degC temperature increase with (2) the amount of carbon in the proven reserves used to value the worth of the companies. The proven reserves are at least 5x the allowed release amounts. Thus these reserves should be valued at perhaps 20% of their present worth. This loss of asset value behind the stocks is the basis for the recommendation in the original article.
 
 
-35 # BKnowswhitt2 2015-03-08 22:40
I'd bet a zillion dollars if i had it so i'll bet instead THE HOUSE that C02 has no that is NO EFFECT what so ever on climate .... or GLOBAL WARMING ....... and i'd win any bet any time ............... ..
 
 
+20 # Dust 2015-03-08 23:49
No, you'd lose hands down. In complete and utter seriousness - how can you possibly make such an assertion when you have never read a single scientific paper on climate, and have no experience with the data or climate research? I am staggered by the incredible cognitive dissonance that allows conviction of a world view to somehow translate into scientific surety.

The very first person to consider the effect of CO2 on climate was Svante Arrhenius, beginning in 1896. He was building on the work of Joseph Fourier, a mathematician without whom you'd not have a ton of things, including mp3s.

The thing I find especially interesting is that I could cite a ton of peer-reviewed scientific papers, all documenting the research into CO2 and its effects on atmospheric temperature. Of course, you'd never read any of them, but the interesting thing is that you would simply dismiss them out of hand. Completely. The work of thousands of researchers, you refuse to consider because it contrasts with your world view, and you would label ALL of that research as fraudulent, ignorant, or whatever label most appealed to you.

What you would NOT do is read it and assess its merits and faults, paper by paper.
 
 
-1 # vicnada 2015-03-11 08:28
"...a man hears what he wants to hear,
and disregards the rest.
La la la la la lala la"
Paul Simon "The Boxer"
 
 
+2 # tclose 2015-03-09 09:51
You lose.
 
 
+4 # bmiluski 2015-03-09 10:48
And BKnowswhitt2... .I'd bet a zillion dollars that YOU ARE A TROLL.........
 
 
-3 # C-SIK 2015-03-10 09:38
Quoting BKnowswhitt2:
I'd bet a zillion dollars if i had it so i'll bet instead THE HOUSE that C02 has no that is NO EFFECT what so ever on climate .... or GLOBAL WARMING ....... and i'd win any bet any time .................

DEAR BKNOWSWHIITT2 -
SERIOUSLY THE ISSUE ISN'T WHETHER GLOBAL WARMING IS HAPPENING OR NOT !!!
THE REAL ISSUE IS WEATHER U CARE ABOUT YOUR OWN HAPPINESS ENOUGH !
TO CARE ABOUT THE HUMAN RACE - !!
INSTEAD OF YOUR OWN DELUDED DISCOMFORT
I WILL PRAY HARD FOR U TODAY--
2 GIVE URSELF A BREAK!
THANK GOD FOR READER SUPPORTED!!!
I DO -
PEACE ,LOVE DOVE !!!
 
 
-30 # BKnowswhitt2 2015-03-08 22:38
Oh Good another RSN article showing the smoke stacks polluting the biosphere. The Truth is Clean Coal worked hard to keep it to a minimum .. Oil and Natural Gas Stocks no good? Based on what? CO2 causing What .. the antactic ice shelf to MELT? Let's see how 'bout Iran gets Nukes .. Putin loses his mind and launches a small nuke in Ukraine .. that might melt the planet but probably not .. so then what do we invest in .. when we're back to cutting wood ... killing our own game to survive .. keeping the planet safe i suppose you would claim .. let me ask the author .. Do you live in the Woods .. do you do it all your self? My guess is not. If that is the case ... impress us so with your committement to your cause .. and then i say .. COME OUT OF YOUR BUNKER my friend as you have been wrong all along .. but that is o.k. ............... ...
 
 
+20 # Dust 2015-03-08 23:50
Dude, put the bottle down.
 
 
+2 # DPM 2015-03-09 10:01
Quoting BKnowswhitt2:
Oh Good another RSN article showing the smoke stacks polluting the biosphere. The Truth is Clean Coal worked hard to keep it to a minimum .. Oil and Natural Gas Stocks no good? Based on what? CO2 causing What .. the antactic ice shelf to MELT? Let's see how 'bout Iran gets Nukes .. Putin loses his mind and launches a small nuke in Ukraine .. that might melt the planet but probably not .. so then what do we invest in .. when we're back to cutting wood ... killing our own game to survive .. keeping the planet safe i suppose you would claim .. let me ask the author .. Do you live in the Woods .. do you do it all your self? My guess is not. If that is the case ... impress us so with your committement to your cause .. and then i say .. COME OUT OF YOUR BUNKER my friend as you have been wrong all along .. but that is o.k. ..................

WOW!
 
 
+5 # bmiluski 2015-03-09 10:49
Oh Good another NEO_CON TROLL showing the smoke an mirrors they use to make it look like their heads are not stuck in some neo-con dung pile.
 
 
+1 # C-SIK 2015-03-09 23:52
PEOPLE PLEASE !
DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME BICKERING STUPID STUFF --
PLEASE DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME MISSING THE GIST OF THE ARTICLE --
WE SHOULD ALL B DANCING IN THE STREET !
I AM !!! BIG COAL AND OIL IS LOSING !!
CLEAN AIR AND WATER ARE WINNING !!!
THIS MEANS NO CONSTITUTION PIPELINE$
FOR OVERSEA SALES AND OFFSHORE PROFITS -
TAR SANDS?
' FORGET IT U BRUTES" !!
LET'S HOPE THE CRASH DON'T HURT US 99 TOO BAD ---
THANK THE LORDS, JESUS AND BUDDA FOR READER SUPPORTED !!!
 
 
+5 # ktony 2015-03-10 10:31
Quoting C-SIK:
PEOPLE PLEASE !.....


Please stop shouting.
 
 
+4 # kevenwood 2015-03-10 00:55
Want to help make a difference? Here are a few things you can do now:

1) Invest in socially conscious mutual finds -- I put much of my money in DSI, a popular one. Solar and wind companies are good choices. And, individual companies like Apple, Microsoft and Wells Fargo have very limited exposure to Gas and Oil.

2) Drive a hybrid (until something better comes along). The more who drive them and buy them, the more the market responds. And consider carpooling.

3) Eat less meat and dairy, which are very energy intensive to produce, as cows and their highly-potent greenhouse gas, methane, are replacing the Amazon forest and other lands to feed the world's demand for meat and dairy. Eating veggies are great for your health and the better for the world.

4) Replace your light bulbs with the new LED light bulbs, which produce less heat (especially good for those in warm weather) and use less energy, even less than CFL light bulbs.

5) Vote for the environmental candidate. And let your representatives know environmental issues are important to you.

6) If you have a choice, switch to an electricity service that offers 100 renewable sources(solar/w ind), and sign up for that plan. Most companies offer such a plan. This creates more demand for wind at the Business to Business level, which matters greatly.

There's more, of course.

"Be the change you want to see in the world." -- Ghandi
 
 
+1 # Depressionborn 2015-03-10 17:45
We burn wood. It is renewable, and cheap.
 
 
0 # Malcolm 2015-03-11 20:47
And "carbon" neutral.
 
 
+1 # kando@ltidewater.net 2015-03-11 15:15
Why argue from the perspective and frame of the money-based corporate system? Ultimately systems and solutions that try to buck nature are bound to fail. It would be more creative to put our minds (not just 10% of them) to work to figure out how we can create a system in harmony with nature. Or else nature will shed us along with our self-important notions.
 
 
0 # Depressionborn 2015-03-11 20:36
There is a way, one that builds on nature. Elusive, it is the photo theses thing we have yet to duplicate. Using sun energy it breaks down CO2 into useful food and fiber hydro carbons and 02.I believe it is being actively persecued by some pretty smart guys to provide low cost pollution free power.

I have heard also that direct conversion of photons into electrons may be being worked on . Sounds weird though.
 

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