The Economist: Who buys the dirty energy assets public companies no longer want?

It could well be your university or your pension fund
Feb 12th 2022

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, just transferred from one place to another. The same seems to apply to the energy industry itself. Pressed by investors, activists and governments, the West’s six biggest oil companies have shed $44bn of mostly fossil-fuel assets since the start of 2018. The industry is eyeing total disposals worth $128bn in the coming years, says Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy. Last month ExxonMobil said it would divest its Canadian shale business; Shell put its remaining Nigerian oilfields on the block. But much of the time these outmoded units are not being closed down. Instead they are moving from the floodlit world of listed markets to shadier surroundings.

Many are ending up in the hands of private-equity (pe) firms. In the past two years alone these bought $60bn-worth of oil, gas and coal assets, through 500 transactions—a third more than they invested in renewables (see chart). Some have been multibillion-dollar deals, with giants such as Blackstone, Carlyle and kkr carving out huge oilfields, coal-fired power plants or gas grids from energy groups, miners and utilities. Many other deals, sealed by smaller rivals, get little publicity. This sits uncomfortably with the credo of many pension funds, universities and other investors in private funds, 1,485 of which, representing $39trn in assets, have pledged to divest fossil fuels. But few seem ready to leave juicy returns on the table.

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