Every few years a word comes along that means more in the context of the day than it usually does in the dictionary; it becomes the catch-all term that encompasses and typifies a cultural moment, and business leaders and regulators find themselves using it constantly as a kind of shorthand.
In the media business that word has been “social,” in the internet business it has been “cloud” and in the financial business it has been “securitization.” Each speaks to an underlying set of assumptions and practices that force change in industries and reflect shifts in the broader world’s understanding of an organization’s role and purpose.
In the energy industry, that word is now “infrastructure.”
The Long Crisis
Except for occasional and short-lived spikes in oil prices, or the localized impacts of expanded natural gas drilling in communities unaccustomed to it, energy is often largely invisible to the average American. They turn on their lights and computers without giving much thought to what powers them, and drive under transmission lines concerned more about the potential for health complications than the inherent insecurity of a hub-and-spoke system in which fundamental economic activities are driven by steam-powered motors hundreds of miles away.
Energy becomes visible when there is a crisis, but that crisis doesn’t always have to be a nuclear meltdown or a blackout. Widespread panicked predictions to the growth of carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting global warming were often characterized a crisis, but the impacts were too diffuse and long-term to hold the popular imagination beyond the collapse of climate change talks early in the Obama administration.
The crisis of the day is unemployment, and increasingly energy infrastructure is seen as its solution.
The Stars Align
The week started with industry reactions to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s energy plan, released as part of his campaign for the US presidency in 2012. Perry didn’t mix words, going so far as to call the energy sector generally “the next American economic boom” in a quote that used the word “American” six times in two sentences.
A few days later the Obama Administration’s Jobs Council zeroed in on energy infrastructure as its top recommendation for resurgent employment in the US, perhaps an unsurprising conclusion given the presence of GE’s Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt at its head. GE knows better than most firms the degraded and strained nature of energy infrastructure across the US, as it provides many of the solutions. Pressing for more spending in the area is good both for short term employment figures and long-term economic efficiency, the Jobs Council argues.
And next week, energy companies and bankers will gather to discuss the burgeoning opportunities for infrastructure spending in their sector. First they will meet in Florida at exchange operator CME Group’s Global Financial Leadership conference, featuring a former US Energy Secretary and senior executives from BP and Chevron. Then the action will move to New York City, where Platts’ Financing US Power conference will feature panels that address issues like how to access debt and equity markets “flush with capital.” Breaking Energy will be reporting from both events.
Start Your Engines
Companies have not waited for government action on infrastructure policy to begin positioning themselves at the center of existing energy market infrastructure plays.
Kinder Morgan, itself almost solely an infrastructure operator rather than an exploration or commodity production firm announced it would buy El Paso for $38 billion this week, putting it at the core of evolving natural gas infrastructure in a nation preparing to produce much more of the fossil fuel. It was telling that Kinder said in the same announcement it would plan to sell the target firm’s actual production assets.
There are three multi-billion dollar power industry mergers in the works, and rumors of other deals swirl continuously in the sector. Open interest on CME Group‘s power contract suite passed the historic level of one billion megawatt hours this week, marking the unexpected revival of an energy market that many left for dead a decade ago.
Booms can be just as dangerous as busts; ask mortgage brokers or the former employees of Enron. But if a boom is coming for energy, it will be built on the back of infrastructure.
Get used to using the “I” word – it is only going to become more popular.