Monthly Archives: February 2021

Green-Shaming ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil’s shareholders concerned about greenery are angered by ExxonMobil’s continued carbon-cuddling. Those who care more about greenbacks are irked by its capital indiscipline. Right now, both are pushing in the same direction.

D.E. Shaw, a big hedge fund, is urging ExxonMobil to spend more wisely… More eye-catchingly, Engine No.1, a newish fund with a stake of just 0.02%, is trying to green-shame Mr Woods with a mantra as straightforward as ExxonMobil’s: if the company continues on its current course, and demand shifts quickly to cleaner energy, it risks terminal decline. The fund has launched a proxy battle by proposing four new directors; the current board, it complains, is long on blue-chip corporate credentials but short on energy expertise. Engine No.1’s agitation for a shake-up has won backing from, among others, Calstrs, which manages $283bn on behalf of California’s public-sector workers.

Most important, the tone from ExxonMobil’s three biggest institutional shareholders—BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street—has also shifted…In a recent letter to clients, Larry Fink, boss of BlackRock, talked of greener stocks enjoying a “sustainability premium” and dirty ones jeopardising portfolios’ long-term returns. He hinted that his firm—the world’s largest asset manager—might divest from firms that failed to appreciate the “tectonic shift” taking place. Vanguard, too, has called out ExxonMobil for flawed governance…

Excerpt from Schumpeter: The Long Squeeze, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

Designers Not Doers: Who’s Gonna Save the Chip Industry?

Although designing chips for electronic devices is now easier than ever, making them has never been harder requiring spending vast—and growing—sums on factories (called fabs) stuffed with ultra-advanced equipment.

At the turn of the millennium, a cutting-edge factory might have cost $1bn… More recently, a TSMC factory that produces 3 nm (nanometer) chips, completed in 2020, in southern Taiwan, cost $19.5bn. The firm is already pondering another for factory for 2nm chips, which will almost certainly be more. ..Asia’s nanoscale manufacturing duopoly remains fiercely competitive, as Samsung and TSMC keep each other on their toes… At some point, one company, in all likelihood TSMC, could be the last advanced fab standing. For years, says an industry veteran, tech bosses mostly ignored the problem in the hope it would go away. It has not…

The other big industry rupture is taking place in China. As America has lost ground in making chips, it has sought to ensure that China lags behind, too. The American tech embargo began as a narrow effort against Huawei over national security, but bans and restrictions now affect at least 60 firms, including many involved in chips. SMIC, China’s chip champion, has just been put on a blacklist, as has Xiaomi, a smartphone firm.

Excerpts from Betting All Chips, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021 and Semiconductors: A New Architecture, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021

Natural Capital and Human Well-Being

What is the contribution of nature to the economy?… The breathable air, drinkable water and tolerable temperatures that allow humans to do everything they do, and the complex ecosystems that maintain them, tend to be taken for granted. Professor Dasgupta’s review on the Economics of Biodiversity does not seek to play on the heartstrings with tales of starving polar bears. Rather, it makes the hard-headed case that services provided by nature are an indispensable input to economic activity. Some of these services are relatively easy to discern: fish stocks, say, in the open ocean. Others are far less visible: such as the complex ecosystems within soil that recycle nutrients, purify water and absorb atmospheric carbon. These are unfamiliar topics for economists, so the review seeks to provide a “grammar” through which they can be analysed.

The report features its own illustrative production function, which includes nature. The environment appears once as a source of flows of extractable resources (like fish or timber). But it also shows up more broadly as a stock of “natural” capital. The inclusion of natural capital enables an analysis of the sustainability of current rates of economic growth. As people produce GDP, they extract resources from nature and dump waste back into it. If this extraction and dumping exceeds nature’s capacity to repair itself, the stock of natural capital shrinks and with it the flow of valuable environmental services. Between 1992 and 2014, according to a report published by the UN, the value of produced capital (such as machines and buildings) roughly doubled and that of human capital (workers and their skills) rose by 13%, while the estimated value of natural capital declined by nearly 40%. The demands humans currently place on nature, in terms of resource extraction and the dumping of harmful waste, are roughly equivalent to the sustainable output of 1.6 Earths (of which, alas, there is only the one)…Indeed, Professor Dasgupta argues that economists should acknowledge that there are in fact limits to growth. As the efficiency with which we make use of Earth’s finite bounty is bounded (by the laws of physics), there is necessarily some maximum sustainable level of GDP…

Professor Dasgupta hints at this problem by appealing to the “sacredness” of nature, in addition to his mathematical models and analytical arguments.

Excerpts from How should economists think about biodiversity?, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

At Gunpoint in Congo: Is Coltan Worse than Oil?

Tantalum, a metal used in smartphone and laptop batteries, is extracted from coltan ore. In 2019 40% of the world’s coltan was produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to official data. More was sneaked into Rwanda and exported from there. Locals dig for the ore by hand in Congo’s eastern provinces, where more than 100 armed groups hide in the bush. Some mines are run by warlords who work with rogue members of the Congolese army to smuggle the coltan out.

When demand for electronics soared in the early 2000s, coltan went from being an obscure, semi-valuable ore to one of the world’s most sought-after minerals. Rebels fought over mines and hunted for new deposits. Soldiers forced locals to dig for it at gunpoint. Foreign money poured into Congo. Armed groups multiplied, eager for a share.

Then, in 2010, a clause in America’s Dodd-Frank Act forced American firms to audit their supply chains. The aim was to ensure they were not using minerals such as coltan, gold and tin that were funding Congo’s protracted war. For six months mines in eastern Congo were closed, as the authorities grappled with the new rules. Even when they reopened, big companies, such as Intel and Apple, shied away from Congo’s coltan, fearing a bad press.

The “Obama law”, as the Congolese nickname Dodd-Frank, did reduce cash flows to armed groups. But it also put thousands of innocent people out of work. A scheme to trace supply chains known as ITSCI run by the International Tin Association based in London and an American charity, Pact, helped bring tentative buyers back to Congo.  ITSCI staff turn up at mining sites to see if armed men are hanging about, pocketing profits. They check that no children are working in the pits. If a mine is considered safe and conflict-free, government agents at the sites put tags onto the sacks of minerals. However, some unscrupulous agents sell tags on the black market, to stick on coltan from other mines. “The agents are our brothers,” Martin says. It is hard to police such a violent, hilly region with so few roads. Mines are reached by foot or motorbike along winding, muddy paths.

For a long time those who preferred to export their coltan legally had to work with itsci, which held the only key to the international market. Miners groaned that itsci charged too much: roughly 5% of the value of tagged coltan. When another scheme called “Better Sourcing” emerged, Congo’s biggest coltan exporter, Société Minière de Bisunzu, signed up to it instead.

Excerpts from Smugglers’ paradise: Congo, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021

When Life Colonizes Plastic: the Deep Sea Wonder

The ocean deep, where pressure is high, light absent and nutrients scarce, is often seen as a desert. But, as with other deserts, it has oases. Hydrothermal vents, methane-gas seeps and whale corpses are hot spots for marine wildlife.  These natural loci of biodiversity are now being joined by unnatural ones made of plastic. Researchers obtained 33 objects from the deep sea in the South China Sea. Most were bags, bottles and food wrappers, but they picked up some derelict fishing ropes and traps as well…

These objects were teeming with life. When the researchers examined their finds in a laboratory, they found nearly 1,200 individual organisms representing 49 species of crustaceans, corals, echinoderms, flatworms, molluscs, polychaete worms and fungi. They also discovered evidence that some of these species were breeding. There were egg capsules from four different types of snail, and a cocoon from a flatworm known for parasitising crustaceans. This result suggests that accumulations of plastic are, indeed, benthic oases… As to why organisms colonise the objects in these accumulations, the short answer is, “because they are there”.

Excerpts from Marine Ecology: Deep-ocean plastic is a haven for life, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

Who Will Rule the Arctic?


Rosatom joined the Arctic Economic Council*in February 2021. Rosatom is a Russian state-owned corporation supplying about 20% of the country’s electricity. The corporation mainly holds assets in nuclear power and machine engineering and construction. In 2018, the Russian government appointed Rosatom to manage the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR grants direct access to the Arctic, a region of increasing importance for Russia due to its abundance of fossil fuels. Moreover, due to climate changes, the extraction of natural resources, oil and gas are easier than ever before.

Since Russia’s handover of NSR’s management, Rosatom’s emphasis on the use of nuclear power for shipping, infrastructure development and fossil fuel extraction is likely to become more prevalent in the Arctic region. Rosatom already operate the world’s first floating nuclear power plant in the Siberian port of Pevek and is the only company in the world operating a fleet of civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers…The company has numerous plans up its sleeves, among them to expand the fleet of heavy-duty nuclear icebreakers to a minimum of nine by 2035.

*Other members of the Arctic Economic Council.

Excerpt from Polina Leganger Bronder, Rosatom joins Arctic Economic Council, BarentsObserver, Feb. 8, 2021

Building Factories in Space: DARPA

DARPA announced on February 5, 2021  its Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials and Mass-efficient Design (NOM4D) program. The effort, pronounced “NOMAD,” seeks to pioneer technologies for adaptive, off-earth manufacturing to produce large space and lunar structures,  “NOM4D’s vision is to develop foundational materials, processes, and designs needed to realize in-space manufacturing of large, precise, and resilient Defense Department systems,” said Bill Carter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “We will also explore the unique features of in-situ resources obtained from the moon’s surface as they apply to future defense missions.” 

Concerning mass-efficient designs, the vision is for completely new concepts that could only be manufactured in space….In order to take the next step, we’ve got to go about materials, manufacturing, and design in a completely new way.

Excerpts from Orbital Construction: DARPA Pursues Plan for Robust Manufacturing in Space, DARPA Website, Feb. 5, 2021

Living in the World of Tesla: Cobalt, Congo and China

 A 20% rise in the price of cobalt since the beginning of 2021 shows how the rush to build more electric vehicles is stressing global supply chains. 

A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. It typically is carried overland to South Africa, shipped out from the port of Durban, South Africa, and processed in China before the material goes to battery makers—meaning the supply chain has several choke points that make it vulnerable to disruption…

Car and battery makers have been looking for more control over their cobalt supply and ways to avoid the metal altogether. Honda Motor Co. last year formed an alliance with a leading Chinese car-battery maker, Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. , hoping that CATL’s supply-chain clout would help stabilize Honda’s battery supply..

Meanwhile, China plays a critical role even though it doesn’t have significant reserves of cobalt itself. Chinese companies control more than 40% of Congo’s cobalt-mining capacity, according to an estimate by Roskill, the London research firm…China’s ambassador to Congo was quoted in state media last year as saying more than 80 Chinese enterprises have invested in Congo and created nearly 50,000 local jobs…

To break China’s stronghold, auto makers and suppliers are trying to recycle more cobalt from old batteries and exploring other nations for alternative supplies of the material.  Another reason to look for alternatives is instability in Congo and continuing ethical concerns about miners working in sometimes-harsh conditions with rudimentary tools and no safety equipment.

Excerpt from Yang Jie, EV Surge Sends Cobalt Prices Soaring, WSJ, Jan. 23, 2021

A Lethal Combination: Pentagon and NASA

U.S. government and aerospace-industry officials are removing decades-old barriers between civilian and military space projects, in response to escalating foreign threats beyond the atmosphere. The Pentagon and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are joining forces to tackle efforts such as exploring the region around the moon and extending the life of satellites. Many details are still developing or remain classified.  Driving the changes are actions by Moscow and Beijing to challenge American space interests with antisatellite weapons, jamming capabilities and other potentially hostile technology. Eventually, according to government and industry officials briefed on the matter, civil-military cooperation is expected to extend to defending planned NASA bases on the lunar surface, as well as protecting U.S. commercial operations envisioned to extract water or minerals there…

Large and small contractors are maneuvering to take advantage of opportunities to merge military and nonmilitary technologies. They include established military suppliers that already have a foot in both camps, such as Northrop Grumman,  the Dynetics unit of Leidos Holdings, and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Smaller companies such as Maxar Technologies Holdings,  closely held robotic-lander maker Astrobotic Technology, and small-satellite producer Blue Canyon Technologies, recently acquired by Raytheon Technologies, also seek to diversify in the same way…

The U.S. astronaut corps always has included many military officers, some previous NASA scientists quietly shared data with military counterparts and NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle fleet was supposed to launch Pentagon satellites. But today, veteran industry and government experts describe the cooperation as much more extensive, covering burgeoning capabilities such as repairing and repurposing satellites in orbit, or moving them around with nuclear propulsion. Intelligence agencies are more involved than ever in leveraging civilian technology, including artificial intelligence, robotic capabilities and production know-how.

Excerpt from Pentagon, NASA Knock Down Barriers Impeding Joint Space Projects, WSJ, Feb. 1, 2021

How to Find the True Cost of Water

At current rates of consumption, the demand for water worldwide will be 40% greater than its supply by 2030, according to the UN. Portfolio managers are realizing that physical, reputational and regulatory water risk could hurt their investments, particularly in thirsty industries such as food, mining, textiles and utilities.

One worry is that shocks to supply could drown or dry out a company’s assets. In recent years Coca-Cola has been forced to close plants in India because of drought. In 2019 floods in America’s Midwest caused disruptions at the facilities of two food giants, Cargill and Tyson Foods. A survey by CDP, a non-profit firm, found that 783 big listed companies had faced a total of $40bn of water-related losses in 2018.

Another concern is that the price a company pays for water could rocket. The market price of water does not reflect the environmental and social costs of using it. Government subsidies also mean that companies often do not pay for its true cost. As aquifers are depleted, though, subsidies could become more costly and unpopular, forcing governments to retract them. S&P Global Trucost, a data provider, reckons that if Fortune 500 companies paid the true cost of water, based on estimates of scarcity, rather than current prices, their profit margins would shrink by a tenth. Margins for food, drink and tobacco firms would fall by three-quarters.

Disclosures of water risk are even patchier than those of greenhouse-gas emissions…Established names like Bloomberg and S&P Global are plugging the gap, as are startups. The result is that investors can approach management armed with data rather than questions. “We are getting rid of the black box that companies hide in.” 

Ceres, a non-profit firm, scores businesses on everything from direct water management to risks in the supply chain. Those seeking more detail can use visual tools, such as Bloomberg’s “maps” function, which plots a company’s facilities over a heat map based on water stress. (California is the same color as swathes of sub-Saharan Africa; far-eastern Russia looks a lot like western Europe.) Firms like Aquantix go further, and try to predict the financial cost of water risk.

The accuracy of such forecasts is not yet proven. For Andrew Mason of Aberdeen Standard Investments, though, they are still useful. They show companies that investors care about water risk and encourage them to share data. “This is where carbon was ten or 15 years ago,” he says.

Excerpt from An expanding pool: Investors start to pay attention to water risk, Economist, Jan. 9, 2021

The New Lepers: Oil in Ecuador and Arctic Drilling

Some of Europe’s largest banks are phasing out trading services for the export of oil from the Ecuadorean Amazon, a move that reflects the growing focus of global banks on climate change and their shift away from increasingly risky fossil fuels.

On January 25, 2021, Switzerland’s Credit Suisse Group AG and Holland’s ING said that they were excluding new transactions related to exports of Ecuador’s Amazonian oil from their trading activities, citing climate change and concerns for the Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous people. France’s BNP Paribas SA, the largest bank in the eurozone and one of the region’s trading powerhouses, said in December 2020 that it would immediately exclude from its trading activities the seaborne exports of oil from the Esmeraldas region in Ecuador under its latest environmental finance policies.

Ecuador isn’t one of the world’s top oil producers, but petroleum exports are a key contributor to the country’s economy. Petroecuador, the nation’s state-owned oil company, didn’t respond to requests for comment.  The banks’ flight from Amazonian crude follows last year’s crash in oil prices and growing fears of so-called stranded assets, which are fossil fuels that lose value due to the world’s transition to cleaner forms of energy…

Banks are also facing calls from environmentalists and Indigenous peoples to limit their involvement in fossil fuels. In Ecuador, a campaign by activists and Indigenous people spurred ING and Credit Suisse to reduce their exposure to the Amazonian oil trade. The nonprofits Stand.earth and Amazon Watch published a report in 2020 that called out banks—including ING, Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas—for their financing of Amazonian crude…

Banks and insurers are also cutting ties with Arctic oil drilling. This month, Axis Capital Holdings joined fellow insurers AXA and Swiss Re in pledging not to underwrite any new oil-and-gas drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.  The six biggest U.S. banks— Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. , Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo & Co.—have also said they would end funding for new drilling and exploration projects in the Arctic.

Excerpts from Dieter Holger & Pietro Lombardi, European Banks Quit Ecuador’s Amazonian Oil Trade, WSJ, Jan. 25, 2021

The Struggle of Managing Dis-Used Nuclear Sources

Two disused radioactive sources, previously employed in cancer treatment, are now in safe and secure storage in the Republic of the Congo, following successful transport and increased security at their temporary storage facility, with the support of the IAEA. The sources no longer emit enough radioactivity to be useful for radiotherapy but are still radioactive and therefore need to be controlled and managed safely and securely. They are expected to be exported outside the country in 2022.

“It took time to understand the risks posed by the disused radiotherapy sources stored for so long in our country…,” said Martin Parfait Aimé Coussoud-Mavoungou, Minister for Scientific Research and Technological Innovation.

Around the world, radioactive material is routinely used to diagnose and treat diseases… This material is typically managed safely and securely while in use; however, when it reaches the end of its useful lifespan, the risk of abandonment, loss or malicious acts grows. 

In 2010, the University Hospital of Brazzaville received a new cobalt 60 (Co-60) sealed source for the hospital’s teletherapy machine, replacing its original source, which was no longer able to deliver effective treatment. The disused sealed source was then packaged and shipped by boat to the supplier. However, the delivery of the package was blocked in transit due to problems with the shipping documents and was returned to the Republic of the Congo. Since 2010, the Co-60 source has been stored at the Autonomous Port of Pointe Noire, one of the most important commercial harbors in Central Africa…

“The August 2020 explosion that occurred in Beirut Harbor reminded the Congolese Authorities of the risks to unmanaged or unregulated material, particularly in national ports and harbors,” said Coussoud-Mavoungou. Congolese decision-makers agreed that the disused source had to urgently leave the Autonomous Port of Pointe Noire.

Following a comprehensive planning and preparation phase, a transport security plan was finalized on location in November 2020, with the support of IAEA experts. They designed a security system for the package and conducted a pre-shipment verification and simulation. At the same time, 45 participants were trained from the five government Ministries involved in the transport by road of the source in Pointe Noire.

Excerpts from Security of Radioactive Sources Enhanced by the Republic of the Congo with Assistance from the IAEA, IAEA Press Release, Jan. 18, 2021

Assigning Responsibility for Oil Leaks: Shell’s Deep Pockets

Royal Dutch Shell’s  Nigerian subsidiary has been ordered on January 29, 2021 by a Dutch court to pay compensation for oil spills in two villages in Nigeria…The case was first lodged in 2008 by four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands. They had accused Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary of polluting fields and fish ponds through pipe leaks in the villages of Oruma and Goi.

The Court of Appeal in the Hague, where Shell has its headquarters, also ordered the company to install equipment to safeguard against future pipeline leaks. The amount of compensation payable related to the leaks, which occurred between 2004 and 2007, is yet to be determined by the court.  The case establishes a duty of care for the parent company to play a role in the pollution abroad, in this case by having the duty to make sure there is a leak-detection system…

Shell argued that the leaks were caused by sabotage…

In recent years there have been several cases in U.K. courts related to whether claimants can take matters to a parent company’s jurisdiction. In 2019, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that a case concerning pollution brought by a Zambian community against Vedanta, an Indian copper-mining company previously listed in the U.K., could be heard by English courts. “It established that a parent company can be liable for the actions of the subsidiary depending on the facts,” said Martyn Day, partner at law firm Leigh Day, which represented the Zambians.

The January 2021 case isn’t the first legal action Shell has faced related to pollution in Nigeria. In 2014, the company settled a case with over 15,000 Nigerians involved in the fishing industry who said they were affected by two oil spills, after claims were made to the U.K. High Court. Four months before the case was due to go to trial Shell, which has its primary stock-exchange listing in the U.K., agreed to pay 55 million British pounds, equivalent to $76 million…  

The January 2021  verdict tells oil majors that “when things go wrong they will be held to account and very likely held to account where their parent company is based,” said Mr. Day, adding that the ruling could spark more such actions.

Excerpts from Sarah McFarlane, Shell Ordered to Pay Compensation Over Nigerian Oil Spills, WSJ, Jan. 29, 2021