Americans use the term “Saudi Arabia of” to describe an abundance of something — usually energy. We are the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” the “Saudi Arabia of coal,” the “Saudi Arabia of efficiency,” and so on and on and on.
I’ve come to jokingly use this term for anything really huge. (We are, after all, the Saudi Arabia of climate denial.) So in true American spirit, I am dubbing yesterday’s speech by Saudi Arabia’s Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi the Saudi Arabia of bold statements.
In a speech at the Middle East and North Africa energy conference in London yesterday, Al-Naimi — who once called renewable energy a “nightmare” — hailed energy efficiency and solar as important investments, global warming “real” and “pressing,” and explained that drilling for oil “does not create many jobs.”
“We know that pumping oil out of the ground does not create many jobs. It does not foster an entrepreneurial spirit, nor does it sharpen critical faculties.”
In the U.S., which is definitely not the Saudi Arabia of oil (that would be Saudi Arabia), there is a major industry campaign underway to convince Americans that drilling for fossil fuels will create over a million jobs in the country. However, assuming we drill virtually everywhere possible in America, credible analysis puts the real figure at a small fraction of that claim.
Even the Saudis, who pump out 12% of the world’s oil, understand that simply drilling for more oil isn’t a long-term economic strategy.
A business-as-usual path also puts us deeper into environmental debt, a point that the Saudi oil minister seems to understand as well. While Al-Naimi said he believes that oil production “will continue to play a major role in the overall energy mix for many decades,” he also made some very explicit statements about carbon emissions:
“Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming are among humanity’s most pressing concerns. Societal expectations on climate change are real, and our industry is expected to take a leadership role.”
It’s still not really clear what that “leadership role” is — except to pump out more oil and gas. Although, Al-Naimi did give a plug to efficiency and renewables as increasingly important part of the country’s energy strategy:
“The efficient use of energy is as much an issue for Saudi Arabia, with its huge natural resources, as it is for all countries. Increased efficiency makes sense environmentally, but also economically.”
“We are striving, also, to raise awareness among the public, and specifically addressing children and schools about the tangible benefits of energy efficiency. And we are investing manpower, and brainpower, in efforts to develop new thinking when it comes to energy efficiency.”
“I see renewable energy sources as supplementing existing sources, helping to prolong our continued export of crude oil. And this is why we are investing in solar energy, which we also have in abundance. The Kingdom experiences roughly 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, emitting about 7,000 watts of energy per square metre. Saudi Arabia also features empty stretches of desert that can host solar arrays and it is blessed with deposits of quartz that can be used in the manufacture of silicon photovoltaic cells.”
Saudi Arabia is considering a renewable energy law that would help promote a modest increase in solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, biogas and waste-heat-to-energy. However, if the strategy is seen only as a way to “prolong continued export of crude,” it doesn’t really match Al-Naimi’s statement that carbon-based resources are “among humanity’s most pressing concerns.”
Indeed, the gap between rhetoric and the pace of change in global energy production is one big Saudi Arabia of contradictions.