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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Maverick of the oil industry

Matthew Simmons, who died on Sunday, was a man whose outspoken opinions regularly split the energy community but the company founder and champion of the 'peak oil' theory was never ignored.

The late Matthew Simmons, who sparked a few conspiracy theories with his stance on "Peak oil", has posthumously become the subject of several more himself. In the final chapter of a flamboyant and sometimes surprising career, the outspoken energy investment banker and author turned renewable energy enthusiast died on Sunday in his hot-tub in Maine amid slightly ambiguous circumstances: the local medical examiner's office in North Haven, to where Simmons had recently moved from Houston, was unclear about whether he had drowned while suffering a heart attack or died of a heart attack brought on by drowning.

As they are wont to do in such circumstances, US rumour mills are churning, with some conspiracy theorists suggesting he died of something more sinister than natural causes. Simmons had carved a controversial public profile since at least 2005, when his book entitled Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy hit US book stands before rapidly becoming an international best-seller.

He revelled in the often critical attention that ensued and might have delighted in the wilder rumours surrounding his death. "He had become, in recent years, the crazy old uncle of the oil patch," wrote Christopher Helman of the south-west bureau of Forbes magazine, who had interviewed Simmons often. "Rich, odd, bombastically self-confident, unconcerned with what anyone thought of him; he wasn't often right but he always had a very strong opinion that he was eager to share. More important than being right, he made us think."

In Dubai earlier this year, appearing at ease while addressing an audience of energy insurance professionals, Simmons was in vintage form. "As prosperity and jobs finally spread throughout the [Gulf] region, per capital oil use could soon surge," he warned. "Oil exports will wane if Middle East oil supply does not grow. "There are few resources that are invaluable, in the sense that there are no ready substitutes. The two that top the list are oil and water," he continued, addressing what he argued were intertwined crises of peaking global oil and water supplies. "Sadly, we gave away both precious resources throughout the 20th century. We were hoodwinked by low prices." That may have been Simmons at his best, presenting intelligent, well-reasoned, thought-provoking arguments.

His recent assaults on BP regarding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill came across as less well-informed, with the more outlandish claims being easily de-bunked. One was that the oil spill was exposing millions of inhabitants of the US Gulf Coast to "highly toxic" methane gas, as a result of which the entire coast would have to be evacuated. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is inflammable and a potent greenhouse gas but is not poisonous. If it were, there would have been countless deaths from accidental gas leaks in homes heated by natural gas furnaces or those with gas cookers.

In between the two extremes was the Simmons revered by many as an energy guru whose credibility was bolstered by energy industry connections but who was also often taken to task by petroleum geologists, engineers and economists, among others. Even his critics, however, were charmed by Simmons's cheerful disposition and stimulated by his opinions while being maddened by how readily the public lapped them up.

They could not afford to ignore him as he had the ear of the former US president George W Bush, becoming the president's adviser on energy policy. "I interviewed Simmons in his home in Houston in 2008. I found him to be engaging and fascinating. He liked to drop names of important people he had met but I didn't mind because he knew a lot of interesting people," wrote Elizabeth Souder, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News. "He was a very intelligent oil man with an unpopular view of his industry."

Simmons's journey to both fame and notoriety began in Kaysville, Utah, a US state more noted for its conservative Mormon communities than its comparatively few oil and gas wells. Simmons was raised a Mormon, the son of a businessman, Roy Simmons. "Business was kind of a theme around our home," Matthew's brother Harris told Utah's Deseret News. "Building businesses and how to help others build businesses was something my dad was focused on throughout his career and it rubbed off on us."

Harris Simmons described his brother as a "very entrepreneurial fellow". "For somebody from a state which has very little in the way of energy industry presence, he really became a very notable figure in the industry," he said. "He built a firm that did over 750 investment banking projects over the last 35 years totalling about US$140 billion (Dh514.26bn) in total size and he never shied away from controversy. ? The energy industry has lost one of its greatest fans and one of its sharpest critics at the same time."

That firm was Simmons and Company International, the energy-focused investment banking company that Simmons founded in 1974, spotting a business opportunity in the wake of the 1973 to 1974 Arab oil embargo that caused oil prices to spike on the international market while fuming US motorists queued for hours to fill their tanks. To open the company, he moved to Houston, the US oil capital, from Boston where he had earned his master's of business administration degree from Harvard University.

Over the years, Simmons made a pile of money from helping oil companies arrange financing and the successive waves of mergers and acquisitions activity that coursed through an industry at the mercy of oil price-driven booms and busts. His second big break came with the public success of Twilight, which catapulted him into the public eye. The book, warning of the imminent decline of global oil supplies - as well as Simmons's subsequent strong stance in favour of renewable energy development - brought the lifelong supporter of the US Republican party a following among environmentalists who mostly opposed the Republican agenda.

Simmons was aware of the incongruity. "I find it ironic that here we have the biggest industry on Earth and I'm one of the few people to figure out that we have a major problem," he said. "And I did it all in my spare time. How stupid and tragic is that?" The maverick banker, who finally alienated the board of the company he had headed for decades by taking on BP, died while pursuing the career he had come to believe was his higher calling. He left Simmons and Company in June to devote his full attention to the Ocean Energy Institute, which he had founded in Maine in 2007.

Ocean Energy is a think tank and venture capital fund focused on deepwater offshore wind-power development and harvesting energy from ocean currents. "Oceans are the last energy frontier, yet we know so little about how to harness them," Simmons said. "The Ocean Energy Institute's mission is to quickly fill this knowledge void and let our oceans supply us the energy that fossil fuels have provided for the last hundred years."

In another twist of fate, it was water that finally silenced his voicealthough his intellectual legacy may prove difficult to wash away. @Email:tcarlisle@thenational.ae