Select Page

Oil and other fossil fuels aren’t going to go quietly. And it’s extremely unlikely that the countries whose global power is predicated on oil are going to give up that power easily either.

From this viewpoint, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the first in the next generation of energy wars, as fossil-fuel powers fight to extend their power into a new global energy age.

By this point, you’ve undoubtedly read endless speculation on why Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed an invasion of Ukraine. The causes are a murky stew of the psychology of an aging autocrat, the shambles that is the Russian economy, the myths of the origins of the Russian state, the effort to reverse the “damage” from the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the pull of the pre-Soviet image of an imperial Russia.

Good luck sorting that out. Or deriving any useful strategy to use as an investor.

The question “Why now?” though is simpler and does indeed offer important advice for investors over the next decade.

Russia invaded its neighbor now–in pursuit of whatever makes up that stew of motives–because, If not now, when?

This moment may not to the precise peak of Russian global energy leverage but it’s sure close to it. And it’s hard to see Russia’s power in the global economy increasing as the world moves away from fossil fuels and toward alternatives.

Right now, Russia is a hugely powerful swing producer in OPEC+. The countries of the European Union are strikingly dependent on Russian natural gas. Global oil supplies are so constrained–and so close to falling behind demand–that Russia’s ability to produce and export is a key factor in the price of oil and the future direction of oil.

Want some evidence of that energy clout? So far at least, the sanctions announced by the United States (as of Thursday afternoon) have not targeted the Russian energy sector.

Yep, as promised the Biden administration added sanctions on more Russian banks and on more members of Russia’s economic elite. The actions will target nearly 80% of all banking assets in Russia, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen said Thursday.

Yes, the administration announced export controls on high technology goods such as the semiconductors now found in Russia’s drones.

And, yes, Germany has announced that it will not give the go ahead on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline designed to carry natural gas to Germany from Russia thus bypassing current pipeline routes across Ukraine.

But the sanctions to date would allow energy-related payments to Russia to continue. White House officials told Yahoo Finance Thursday that shutting off the oil spigot and further destabilizing markets would be Putin’s choice. “It would be a terrible mistake for Russia to weaponize its oil supply,” said White House advisor Daleep Singh. “[Russia] depends on oil and gas revenues for its exports and for the Russian government’s budget revenues.”

Well, yes, but Russia is also the world’s second largest producer of natural gas and its third-largest producer of oil.

Holding sanctions in place when citizens of U.S. allies are facing massively higher energy bills (or a lack of natural gas at all) might be a bit difficult.

And I’m sure Putin knows this and is counting on it.

Would Russia have as much leverage in, say, five years, or even next year as Germany, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom push ahead with plans to increase energy production from solar cells and wind turbines?

No way. Every new offshore wind turbine reduces the need for Russian natural gas.

Eliminates the need for Russian gas? No way any time soon, but the painful shortages that Russia can produce by reducing exports get just a little bit less painful every year from now on.

If Russia gets it, you can be sure that other fossil-fuel powers do too.

Right now the Saudis, to take one example, feel empowered to deal with a civil war in Yemen by dropping enough bombs to kill all combatants–and a very large number of civilians too–with U.S. provided weapons despite protests from some members of the international community and some members of the U.S. Congress. But force the Saudis to change course when the Saudis are, for all intents and purposes, the global oil market? Not as long as the world runs on oil.

What I expect is that the world’s oil powers taking a hard look at global trends are feeling some pressure right now to “clean up lose ends” like that civil war in Yemen or that peskily independent Ukraine NOW before their leverage–their ability to tell the rest of the world to take a long walk off a short pier–lessens so much that other powers, with other agendas, can push back without so much fear that their citizens will wind up freezing in the dark.

What does that mean for investors?

How about an era of more conflicts as fossil-fuel powers try to set their advantage in stone–to the degree that they can? How about less rational decision-making by those fossil-fuel powers as they feel under pressure to do something now whatever that something might be?

In other words a period of increased global conflict and market and economic volatility as the world grinds its way, slowly with slips and shudders, to (we hope) a sustainable energy future. (The alternative, the failure to control global climate change, results in a period of even more conflict and volatility. So a period of “fossil fuel wars” might actually be the best case scenario. Yeah, may you live in “interesting” times.)

In this scenario, the Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t a one-off. We’re likely to see more efforts by Russia to “correct” its position in the world as it feels its energy edge slipping away. And those efforts will become more frantic as the edge slips ever further.

The Middle East goes from a region torn by conflict because of the economic power of the fossil-fuel states to a region torn by conflict because of the declining power of these fossil-fuel states and their efforts to resist that decline.

Other potential hot spots? Nigeria and Algeria, perhaps. Although the conflict there seems more likely to be domestic rather than international. Mexico? It’s hard to see how that country reverses the current downward course of its civil society if oil revenue starts to flag. The United States? Of course. Although the conflict is again more likely to be domestic. We’ve already got states like Wyoming and Texas threatening to punish “entities” such as banks that adopt policies that disadvantage fossil fuels.

I know. Exactly what you wanted as an investor: more unpredictable volatility.

But if I’m right that’s the hand that we’re being dealt in the financial markets right now as the world makes a necessary transition away from fossil fuels.