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Exxon: Juggernaut or Dinosaur?

Steve LeVine, Business Week
Cautious, rigid, and uninterested in alternative fuels, the wildly successful oil behemoth is lumbering ponderously into the future

Like the ever-expanding universe, ExxonMobil (XOM) seems to know no bounds. Its $45 billion profit in 2008 was the biggest haul recorded by a public company in the history of the world. The runner up? Exxon, in 2007. No. 3? Exxon, in 2006.

Plunging oil prices are sure to devour some of those earnings this year. But even that presents opportunity, for Exxon, long the unchallenged exemplar of Big Oil, has an enormous stockpile of cash and shares with which to buy rivals. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the company would soon be knocked from its perch. Even in the sharp recession, Exxon shares have held up, falling just 15% last year compared with a 22% decline by its rivals and 38% for the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. “If one oil company is left standing, it will be Exxon,” says Fadel Gheit, a long-time industry analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. (OPY)

Yet despite its seeming invincibility, Exxon is surprisingly vulnerable. Interviews with industry analysts, consultants, and current and former employees cast doubt on its strategy and growth prospects. Most immediately, Exxon’s oil reserves and production are shrinking, and it is relying on less valuable natural gas to replenish them. Worse, it is getting much of that gas from a single country—Qatar—that could change the terms of their deal at any moment.

More broadly, Exxon seems overly wedded to a playbook drafted decades ago. The company’s aversion to risk, a point of pride, has caused it to withdraw from lucrative exploration projects prematurely. And Exxon’s perceived arrogance, reflected in its dismissal of alternative energy and its strained relations with foreign governments, has cost it business.
(5 February 2009)

Time to toll the warning bells

Syed Rashid Husain, Arab News
The crude world has now traversed the full distance. The inevitable has happened. The bubble has finally burst. Not long ago, the peak oil theory was in robust circulation. New converts were adding to the force and fury of the peak oil camp virtually on a daily basis. Things have changed completely within a very short span of six to seven months.

The tide is exactly on the opposite side today. The market’s obsession today with plummeting oil demand has been so pervasive that it has even fostered a new theory: Peak demand.

In the midst of rapidly falling oil consumption — which as per the IEA is set to contract again in 2009 — the first back-to-back contraction in 25 years. The global focus now is the issue of peak demand and not peak oil. And there exists a world of difference between the two extremes. What a transformation of fortunes indeed!
(6 February 2009)
Journalist Husain seems to be following peak oil for Arab News. -BA

Utilities Turn Their Customers Green, With Envy

Leslie Kaufman, New York Times
The [Sacramento Municipal Utility District] had been trying for years to prod customers into using less energy with tactics like rebates for energy-saving appliances. But the traditional approaches were not meeting the energy reduction goals set by the nonprofit utility’s board.

So, in a move that has proved surprisingly effective, the district decided to tap into a time-honored American passion: keeping up with the neighbors.

Last April, it began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel. The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

Customers who scored high earned two smiley faces on their statements. “Good” conservation got a single smiley face. Customers like Mr. Dyer, whose energy use put him in the “below average” category, got frowns, but the utility stopped using them after a few customers got upset.
(30 January 2009)