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flaring

More attention paid to all the natural gas we’re wasting

Energy experts are starting to pay more attention to an important byproduct to U.S. oil extraction: the incredible amount of natural gas that gets burned off into the atmosphere, or “flared,” because it’s not profitable enough to capture at the well head.

Forbes contributor Michael Kanellos is the latest to examine the absurd practice, writing:

… the sheer volume of gas that gets flared or emitted into the atmosphere t remains truly astounding. A potential source of profits and jobs is literally transformed in bulk into an environmental hazard and potential liability around the clock.

It’s an environmental hazard because natural gas is made primarily of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s many times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. Some methane leaks from wells and pipelines, but even when the gas is burned off, it creates some GHG emissions.

Methane has tremendous potential as a commodity, however, because it can be turned into alcohol fuels — ethanol and methanol — to run our cars and trucks. Both fuels burn much cleaner in engines, and can be cheaper for the consumer.

When the price of oil was $115 a barrel, there was little incentives for oil drillers — who put bits in the ground mainly for oil, after all — to capture and store the natural gas, because gas remains stuck in the cellar in terms of pricing. Now that oil has dropped by 60 percent over the past seven months, maybe U.S. drillers will be incentivized to keep more of the gas that comes up in the wells.

(Our blogger William Tucker has written about the flaring issue before. It’s also discussed, along with many oil-related issues, in the documentary PUMP, which is available for download on iTunes now.)

Landfills also emit methane, and much of that is flared as well. If we captured more methane and turned it into fuel, there would be more of a market for it, and the infrastructure for converting it to fuel and distributing it would grow. A whole new generation of jobs could be created in the sector, jobs that by their nature would stay in America.

Kanellos has compiled many fascinating statistics about how much natural gas is wasted by flaring, including these nuggets:

  • Since the beginning of 2010, more than 31% of the natural gas in the Bakken region has been burned off or flared. It was worth an estimated $1.4 billion.
  • Over 150 billion cubic meters, or 5.3 trillion cubic feet, get flared annually worldwide, or around $16 billion lost.
  • Flaring in Texas and North Dakota emit the equivalent amount of greenhouse gases as 500,000 cars.

Related:
Dispute flares over burned-off natural gas (WSJ)

Fracking boom waste: Flares light prairie with unused natural gas (NBC News)

Natural gas flaring in Eagle Ford Shale already surpasses 2012 levels of waste and pollution (Fox Business)

fracking-wells

Fracking offers hope

I’ve just finished The Frackers, the excellent history of how the United States became the world’s leading developer of fossil fuels, by former Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman.

There are three lessons that can be taken away from this history, all of which relate to the development of alternative sources of energy:

  • The government had very little to do with the development of fracking. It was all done by wildcatters who operated far outside major institutions.
  • The founders of these methods didn’t necessarily get permanently rich. All have done well initially but have been undone by their very success, producing a superabundance of gas and oil that has driven down prices to the point where producers are overextended.
  • The maverick wildcatters who have opened up our gas and oil resources are not necessarily opposed to alternative sources of energy. In fact, they have often become the biggest promoters of wind, solar and alternative fuels for our transport sector.

Let’s examine those myths one by one:

The government should get credit for the breakthroughs. Proponents of big government often try to promote the idea that the fracking revolution never would have occurred without the help of the government. They even argue that government was responsible for the fracking initiative. Three years ago, Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute published a piece in The Washington Post in which they practically argued that fracking had been invented in the laboratories of the Department of Energy. George Mitchell, who spent 40 years developing fracking, had simply borrowed a few ideas that the DOE had designed.

Read the opening chapter on Mitchell in The Frackers, and you’ll hardly find one reference to the Department of Energy or government help. At one point the DOE contributed a few million dollars to an experiment that Mitchell had designed, but that was it. The rest of the story tells of Mitchell’s fascination with trying to suck oil out of shale rock, and how he nearly bankrupted his moderately successful oil company in the effort. He had no luck trying to convince the major oil companies that shale could be accessed. At one point, Chevron came very close to fracking the Barnett Shale, where Mitchell had his first breakthrough, but the company gave up on the effort. Harold Hamm experienced the same frustrations in the Bakken, where he alone believed there were vast reserves of oil but couldn’t get anyone to support him, until he finally made a breakthrough. The government had nothing to do with it.

Fracking wildcatters always get rich. The great irony for many of these pioneers is that they are often undone by their own success. Aubrey McClendon built Chesapeake Gas into the nation’s second-largest producer of natural gas but was forced to give up his company because the success of his fracking had driven the price of gas so low that he was overextended. The same thing happened to Tom Ward, an early associate of McClendon’s who had built his own company, SandRidge, based on fracking. Ward was forced out of his ownership by the board of directors. Harold Hamm has been having the same trouble in The Bakken since the superabundance of oil has forced the price down. Developing a new source of energy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be permanently rich.

The developers of new ways to access fossil fuels are opposed to other alternatives. Because they have been so successful in reviving production of oil and gas, the assumption has been that the Frackers are wedded to fossil fuels and are undercutting alternatives. This is not true. The primary motive of all these innovators has been to make America more energy-independent and reduce our reliance on foreign oil. All of them see the development of fossil fuels as only a temporary step, and acknowledge that we must ultimately find some other sources of energy. T. Boone Pickens, the dean of oil magnates, put forth a plan that would try to get the electrical sector to rely on wind so that natural gas could be moved over to the transport sector to replace oil. His Clean Energy Fuels Corporation had some success in building a “natural gas highway” that substitutes compressed natural gas for diesel fuel in long-haul tractor trailers. Both Mitchell and Hamm have been exploring alternative energy, and they’re funding efforts to try to substitute renewables for fossil fuels, both domestic and imported.

As Zuckerman concludes at the end of The Frackers:

The great leap forward should have involved alternative energy, not oil and gas. The U.S. government allocated over $150 billion to green initiatives between 2009 and 2014. … There’s little to show for the investments, however. … Instead a group of frackers, relying on market cues rather than government direction, achieved dramatic advances by focusing on fossil fuels, of all things. It’s a stark reminder that breakthroughs in the business world usually are achieved through incremental advances, often in the face of deep skepticism, rather than government inspired eureka moments.

It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind as we pursue alternative fuels to substitute for foreign oil.

natgas

Obama aims to cut methane emissions 45 percent

President Obama’s latest effort to mitigate the effects of climate change will be to crack down on methane leakage from oil and gas wells, The New York Times reported.

The EPA will announce new regulations this week aimed at reducing methane emissions by 45 percent by 2025, compared with 2012 levels. Final rules will be set by 2016, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous sources.

Obama, stymied by Republican opposition that stands to become more solidified now that the party controls the Senate as well as the House, has increasingly turned to executive action, skirting Congress, to deal with climate change. The administration says the Clean Air Act gives it the green light to issue such mandates.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, sometimes escapes from oil and gas wells, in addition to pipelines. Although the gas accounts for only 9 percent of overall greenhouse-gas emissions, it’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, another GHG that accounts for the majority of emissions.

The Natural Resources Defense Council applauded the proposed regulations, but the oil and gas industry said they’re unnecessary, since they’re already motivated to capture methane instead of allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. If it’s captured, it can be burned in power plants to generate electricity, making it a cleaner alternative to coal. Methane can also be used to fuel cars and trucks, as compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG) natural gas. It can also be converted into two types of inexpensive liquid alcohol fuels, ethanol or methanol.

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said:

“We don’t need regulation to capture it, because we are incentivized to do it. We want to bring it to market.”

That market would grow if the infrastructure for transportation fuels were expanded, creating more of an incentive to capture methane. The price of natural gas stood at $12.68 per million metric British Thermal Units (MmBTU) in June 2008, only to crash to $1.95 by April 2012. Last month the average was $3.43 at the Henry Hub terminal in Louisiana. Profit margins are still so low that oil drillers flare off much of it.

On the other hand — Steven Mueller, Southwestern Energy

steve-muellerLet’s apply a bit of Talmudic dialect to the visible dialogue now going on in the nation concerning decisions to drill for more natural gas and related considerations concerning the effect that using natural gas as a transportation fuel will have on the environment.

Now on the one hand, the price of natural gas, like gasoline, has significantly decreased over the past months and some producers seem to be abandoning or limiting production at least for a time. To many, drilling in shale seems too costly for so little revenue per thousands of cubic feet. Besides, they say there is now too much natural gas on the market for too little demand and available infrastructure to get it where it’s supposed to be. “After so much hype and billions of dollars of investment, the nation is deluged with gas and not enough pipelines…One energy company after another, year after year, has written down its investments in Arkansas and in Texas and Louisiana,” said Clifford Kraus in The New York Times.

So far, the Times’ description of the gas market is relatively similar to the analyses of most experts. But don’t despair; lately, the definition of “expert” has taken a beating in light of the lack of confidence in the stability and the almost weekly amendments to projections of natural gas supply and demand. However, because the national unemployment rate will go up significantly if we abandon experts, let’s not abandon them, for the time being. Let’s, however, not grant them grace, adoration and pedestal-like obedience. They need to do better concerning use of data and methodologies. Our knowledge concerning the natural gas profile is at best uneven and at worst…well, you insert the word.

Try looking on the other hand of iconoclast Steven Mueller, CEO of Southwestern Energy. Mueller does not believe that current data concerning the relatively depressed condition of the natural gas market should predetermine his own and his company’s decisions. His actions, some time ago, in buying shale fields cheap and in discovering new fields have turned Southwestern Energy into one of the top natural gas producers.

Mueller shares the view that the natural gas market is now down and that some companies are pulling out, at least temporarily, or reducing production. But where other producers and analysts see problems, he sees opportunities. According to The Times, Southwestern just put $5 billion down to develop 413,000 acres of reserves in the Marcellus and Utica shale fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Similarly, he acquired another gas play in Pennsylvania for $300 million.

According to Mueller, gas will soon be moving up in price because of demand. He notes, “The situation is not as bad as the industry thinks it is….I am looking at it from a different angle and I think the odds are in my favor.”

Mueller seems like he is out of place using the other hand in the oil and gasoline industry. While his company’s activities are not without environmental problems and critics, he is unusual in that he has taken the lead among companies in searching for international and national solutions to methane leakage as well as extensive water usage with respect to fracking. Significantly, he has also seen benefits, where other natural gas industry titans have stayed mum, concerning the long-term use of natural gas for fueling hydrogen-fuel cars and for other transportation fuels. Additionally, Mueller views the continued conversion of coal-fired electric plants to natural gas as a done deal and a deal that will help sustain the industry and the environment.

Checking Google for recent stories about Mueller and other CEOs in the natural gas industry suggests that Mueller, contrary to most of the others, will soon be ripe either for sainthood or tenure at Mad Magazine. What? Me worry?

Sure, he has some critics who indicate his bet on natural gas is risky and a few, implicitly, suggest he will fail (some pundits and competitors no doubt would not be too sad if he does). Most Google entries, however, view him as somewhat of an outlier in the industry, whose commitment to growth has saved his company. They grant him the benefit of their respective doubts about his imperialism concerning acquisition of natural gas plays. Some view his environmental and GHG sensitivities as necessary in helping the industry move forward as a good or reasonably good citizen. Whatever he is or will be, Mueller will not be one to devote lots of time to the thought processes associated with on the one hand, on the other hand. He seems to like being a permanent on the other hand.

“Natural Gas: The Fracking Fallacy” — a debate over the recent article in Nature

Nature ChartT’was the week before Christmas, a night during Chanukah and a couple of weeks before Kwanzaa, when, all through the nation, many readers more interested in America’s energy supply than in the fate of Sony’s “The Interview,” were stirring before their non-polluting fireplaces (I wish). They were trying to grasp and relish the unique rhetorical battle between The University of Texas (UT), the EIA and the recent December article in Nature, titled “Natural Gas: The Fracking Fallacy,” by Mason Inman.

Let me summarize the written charges and counter charges between a respected journal, university and government agency concerning the article. It was unusual, at times personal and often seemingly impolite.

Unusual, since a high-ranking federal official in the EIA responded directly to the article in Nature, a well-thought of journal with an important audience, but relatively minimal circulation. His response was, assumedly, based on a still-unfinished study by a group of UT scholars going through an academic peer review process. The response was not genteel; indeed, it was quite rough and tough.

Clearly, the stakes were high, both in terms of ego and substance. As described in Nature, the emerging study was very critical of EIA forecasts of natural gas reserves. Assumedly EIA officials were afraid the article, which they believed contained multiple errors and could sully the agency’s reputation. On the other hand, if it was correct, the UT authors would be converted into courageous, 21st century versions of Diogenes, searching for energy truths. The article would win something like The Pulitzer, EIA would be reprimanded by Congress and the UT folks would secure a raise and become big money consultants to a scared oil and gas industry.

Just what did the Nature article say? Succinctly: The EIA has screwed up. Its forecasts over-estimate America’s natural gas reserves by a significant amount. It granted too much weight to the impact of fracking and not enough precision to its analysis of shale play areas as well as provide in-depth resolution and examination of the sub areas in major shale plays. Further, in a coup de grace, the author of the Nature piece apparently, based on his read of the UT study, faults the EIA for “requiring” or generally placing more wells in non-sweet-spot areas, therefore calculating more wells than will be developed by producers in light of high costs and relatively low yields. Succinctly, the EIA is much too optimistic about natural gas production through 2040. UT, according to Nature, suggests that growth will rise slowly until early in the next decade and then begin to decline afterwards through at least 2030 and probably beyond.

Neither Wall Street nor producers have reacted in a major way to the Nature article and the still (apparently) incomplete UT analysis. No jumping out of windows! No pulling out hairs! Whatever contraction is now being considered by the industry results from consideration of natural gas prices, the value of the dollar, consumer demand, the slow growth of the economy and surpluses.

Several so-called experts have responded to the study in the Journal piece. Tad Patzek, head of the UT Austin department of petroleum and geosystems, engineers and “a member of the team,” according to the Journal, indicated that the results are “bad news.” The push to extract shale gas quickly and export, given UT’s numbers, suggests that “we are setting ourselves up for a major fiasco.” Economist and Professor Paul Stevens from Chatham House, an international think tank, opines “if it begins to look as if it’s going to end in tears in the U.S., that would certainly have an impact on the enthusiasm (for exports) in different parts of the word.”

Now, generally, a bit over the top, provocative article in a journal like Nature commending someone else’s work would have the author of the article and UT principal investigators jumping with joy. The UT researchers would have visions of more grants and, if relevant, tenure at the University. The author would ask for possible long-term or permanent employment at Nature or, gosh, maybe even the NY Times. Alas, not to happen! The UT investigators joined with the EIA in rather angry, institutional and personal responses to the Journal. Both the EIA and UT accused Nature of intentionally “misconstruing data and “inaccurate…distorted reporting.”

Clearly, from the non-scholarly language, both institutions and their very senior involved personnel didn’t like the article or accompanying editorial in Nature. EIA’s Deputy Administrator said that the battle of forecasts between the EIA and UT, pictured in the Journal, was imagined and took both EIA’s and UT’s initiatives out of context. He went on to indicate that both EIA’s and UT efforts are complementary, and faulted Nature for not realizing that EIA’s work reflected national projections and UT’s only four plays. Importantly, the Deputy suggested that beyond area size and method of counting productivity, lots of other factors like well spacing, drilling costs, prices and shared infrastructure effect production. They were not mentioned as context or variables in the article.

The principal investigators from UT indicated that positing a conflict between the EIA and themselves was just wrong. “The EIA result is, in fact, one possible outcome of our model,” they said. The Journal author “misleads readers by suggesting faults in the EIA results without providing discussion on the importance of input assumptions and output scenarios. “Further, the EIA results were not forecasts but reference case projections. The author used the Texas study, knowing it was not yet finished, both as to design and peer review. Adding assumed insult to injury, it quoted a person from UT, Professor Patzek, more times than any other. Yet, he was only involved minimally in the study and he, according to the EIA, has been and is a supporter of peak oil concepts, thus subject to intellectual conflict of interests.

Nature, after receiving the criticism from UT and EIA, stood its ground. It asserted that it combined data and commentary from the study with interviews of UT personal associated with the study. It asked for but only received one scenario on gas plays by EIA — the reference case. It was not the sinner but the sinned against.

Wow! The public dialogue between UT, the EIA and Nature related to the article was intense and, as noted earlier, unusual in the rarefied academically and politically correct atmosphere of a university, a federal agency and a “scientific” journal. But, to the participants’ credit, their willingness to tough it out served to highlight the difficulty in making forecasts of shale gas reserves, in light of the multitude of land use, geotechnical, economic, environmental, community and market variables involved. While it is not necessary or easy to choose winners or losers in the dialogue, because of its “mince no words” character, it, hopefully, will permit the country, as a whole, to ultimately win and develop a methodology to estimate reserves in a strategic manner. This would be in the public interest as the nation and its private sector considers expanding the use of natural gas in transportation, converting remaining coal-fired utilities to environmentally more friendly gas-powered ones and relaxing rules regulating natural gas exports. We remain relying on guesstimates concerning both supply and demand projections. Not a good place to be in when the stakes are relatively high with respect to the health and well-being of the nation.

On a personal note, the author of the article in Nature blamed, in part, the EIA’s inadequate budget for what he suggested were the inadequacies of the EIA’s analysis. Surprise, given what the media has often reported as the budget imperialism of senior federal officials, the Deputy Administrator of EIA, in effect, said hell no, we had and have the funds needed to produce a solid set of analyses and numbers, and we did. Whether we agree with his judgments or not, I found his stance on his budget refreshing and counterintuitive.

Four new anticipated novels about the decline of oil and gas prices

Harlequin novel cover“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” said John Naisbitt, American author and public speaker. Because of this fact, intuition and instinct, rather than rational thinking, often guides leadership behavior. Guess right, based on what your intuitive self or instinct tells you concerning your iterative policy decisions — particularly the big ones — and the payoff for you and the nation may well be significant. Guess wrong, and the nation could be hurt in various ways and you might not be around for a long time, or get buried in an office close to a windowless washroom. Charles Lindblom, noted political scientist, probably said it correctly when he noted that in complex environments we often make policy by “muddling through.”

Confusion reigns and analyses are opaque and subject to quick amendment concerning the current, relatively rapid decline in oil and gasoline prices. Indeed, key government institutions such as the EIA (Energy Information Administration) and the IEA (International Energy Agency) appear to change their predictions of prices of both, almost on a daily basis. Oil and gas production, as well as price evaluations and predictions resulting from today’s imprecise methodologies and our inability to track cause-and-effect relationships, convert into intriguing fodder for novels. They do not often lend themselves to strategic policy direction on the part of both public and private sector. Sometimes, they do seem like the stuff of future novels, part fiction, and, perhaps, part facts.

Ah … the best potential novels on the decline of oil and gas, particularly ones based on foreign intrigue, will likely provide wonderful bedtime reading, even without the imputed sex and content of the old Harlequin book covers and story lines. Sometimes their plots will differ, allowing many hours of inspirational reading.

Here are some proposed titles and briefs on the general theme lines for four future novels:

An Unholy Alliance: The Saudis and Qatar have joined together in a new alliance of the willing, after secret conversations (likely in a room under a sand dune with air conditioning built by Halliburton, in an excavated shale play in the U.S., a secret U.S. spaceship, or Prince Bandar’s new jet). They have agreed to resist pressure from their colleagues in OPEC and keep both oil production and prices low. By doing so, they and their OPEC friends would negatively affect the Russian and Iranian economy and limit ISIS’s ability to convert oil into dollars. Why not? The Russians and the Shiite-dominated Iranians have supported Syria’s Assad and threated the stability of Iraq. Qatar and the Saudis support the moderate Syrian rebels (if we can find them) but not ISIS, and are afraid that Iran wants to develop hegemony over Iraq and the region, if they end up with the bomb. Further, ISIS, even though it’s against Assad, is not composed of the good kind of Sunnis, and has learned a bit from the Saudis about evil doings. If ISIS succeeds in enlarging the caliphate, it will threaten their kingdoms and the Middle East. According to a mole in the conversations, Russia was really thrown into the mix because, sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to show that you might be helping the West while paying attention to market share.

OPEC in Fantasy Land: Most OPEC members see U.S. oil under their bed at night and have recurring nightmares. “Why,” they asked, “can’t we go back to the future; the good old days when OPEC controlled or significantly influenced oil production and prices in the world?” Several members argued for a counter intuitive agreement.

Let’s surprise the world and go against our historical behavior. Let’s keep prices low, even drive them lower. It will be tough on some of us, whose budgets and economy depend on high oil prices per barrel, but perhaps our “partner” nations who have significant cash reserves, like my brothers (the hero of this novel started to say sisters, but just couldn’t do it) in the Kingdom, can help out.

Driving prices lower, agreed the Saudis, will increase our collective market share (really referring to Saudi Arabia), and may permanently mute any significant competition from countries such as Russia, Mexico, Iraq, Venezuela, and others. But, most importantly, it will probably undercut U.S. producers and lead to a cutback in U.S. production. After all, U.S. production costs are generally higher than ours. Although some delegates questioned comparative production cost numbers and the assumption that the U.S. and its consumer-driven politics will fold, the passion of the Saudis will win the day. OPEC will decide to continue at present production levels and become the Johnny Manziels of oil. Money, money, money? Conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy!

Blame it on the Big Guys: The U.S. will not escape from being labeled as the prime culprit in some upcoming novels on oil. The intuitive judgments will go something like this: Don’t believe what you hear! U.S. producers, particularly the big guys, while worried about the fall in oil and gas prices, on balance, believe both will have intermediate and long-term benefits. They have had it their way for a long time and intuitively see a rainbow around every tax subsidy corner.

Why? Are they mad? No? Their gut, again, tells them that what goes down must come up, and they are betting for a slow upward trend next on the following year. Meanwhile, technology has constrained drilling costs. Most feel they can weather the reduced prices per barrel and per gallon. But unlike the Saudis and other OPEC members, they are not under the literal gun to meet national budget estimates concerning revenue. Like the Saudis, however, with export flexibility in sight from Congress, many producers see future market share as a major benefit.

Split Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personalities exist among the U.S. producers. Jekyll, reflecting the dominant, intuitive feeling, supports low prices. The Saudis and OPEC can be beaten at their own game. We have more staying power and can, once and for all time, reduce the historic power of both concerning oil. While we are at it, big oil can help the government put economic and political pressure on Russia, Iran and ISIS, simultaneously. Wow, we may be able to get a grant, change our image, a Medal of Freedom and be included in sermons on weekends!

Hyde, who rarely shows up at the oil company table until duty calls, now joins the group. He offers what he believes is sage, intuitive advice. He is the oldest among the group and plays the “you’re too young to know card” a bit, much to the chagrin of his younger colleagues. He expresses some rosy instincts about the oil market but acknowledges the likelihood that the future is uncertain and, no matter what, price cycles will continue. He acknowledges that there might be a temporary reduction of the political pressure to open up the fuel markets and to develop alternative fuels because of present relatively low prices. However, based on talking to his muses — both liberals and free market conservatives — and reading the New York Times, he suggests that it might not be a bad idea to explore joining with the alternative fuel folks. Indeed, Hyde indicates that he favors adding alternative fuel production to the production menu of many oil companies. If this occurred, oil companies could hedge bets against future price gyrations and maybe even win back some public support in the process. The industry also might be able to articulate their overblown claim that the “drill, baby, drill” mantra will make the U.S. oil independent. (At this point, the background music in the room becomes quite romantic, and angelic figures appear!) Hyde doubt that going after global market share would bring significant or major early rewards because of current regulations concerning exports and may interfere with the health of the industry in the future as well as get in the way of the country’s still-evolving foreign policy objectives.

Tough sell, however! Contrary to Hyde’s desires, Jekyll carries the day and “kill the bastards” (assumedly the Saudis) becomes the marching orders or mantra. Let’s go get ‘em. Market share belongs to America. Let’s go see our favorite congressperson. We helped him or her get elected; now is the time for him or her to help us eliminate export barriers. A U.S. flag emerges in the future novel. Everyone stands. The oil groupies are in tears. Everybody is emotional. Even Hyde breaks down and, unabashedly, cries.

David and Goliath: Israel has also become a lead or almost lead character in many potential novels on oil. According to its story line, because of Israel’s need for certainty concerning U.S. defense commitments, it has convinced the “best in the west” to avoid a significant reduction in drilling for and the production of oil. Israel advises the U.S. to extend its security-related oil reserves! Glut and surplus are undefined terms. Compete with the Saudis. Drive the price of oil lower and weaken your and our enemies, particularly Iran and Russia. The U.S. should play a new and more intense oil market role. For some, an alliance among U.S.-Israel and other western nations to keep oil and gas prices low is not unimaginable and, indeed, seems quite possible. What better way to anesthetize Iran and Russia? Better than war! An Iran and a Russia unable to unload their oil at what it believes are prices sufficient to support their national budgets would be weakened nations, unable to sustain themselves and meet assumed dual objectives: defense and butter. Finally, what more “peaceful” way to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas, to some extent, than to cut off Iran’s ability to lend them support?

Each of the future novels summarized above clearly suggests some reality driven by what we know. But overall, each one has a multitude of equally intuitive critics with different facts, hypotheses, intuition and instincts. As indicated earlier, it is too bad we cannot generate better more stable analyses and predictions. For now, however, just realize how complex it is to rest policy as well as behavior on, many times, faulty projections and intuition or instinct. Borrowing a quote by the noted comic and philosopher, George Carlin, “tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.” Similarly, restating but changing and adding words, a quote from the Leonard Bernstein of science, Carl Sagan, that the nuclear arms race (if it does occurs in the Middle East) will be like many “sworn enemies waist-deep in gasoline,” the majority with many matches and one or two with only a few matches.

Novels and Alternative Fuels:

Where does this all leave us with respect to alternative fuels and open fuel markets? Too many producers and their think tank friends believe that low oil and gas prices will reduce the likelihood that alternative fuels will become a real challenge to them in the near future. They, instinctively, opine that investors, without patient money, will not risk funding the development of alternative fuels because prices of oil and gas are so low. Further, their “house” economists argue that consumers will be less prone to switch from gasoline to alternative replacement fuels in light of small or non-existent price differentials between the two.

The truth is that we just don’t know yet how the market for alternative fuels and its potential investors will respond in the short term to the oil and gas price crash. Similarly, we don’t know how long relatively low prices at the pump will last. We do know that necessity has been and, indeed, is now the mother (or father) of some very important U.S. innovations and investor cash. In this context, it is conceivable that some among the oil industry may well add alternative fuels to their portfolio to mute boom, almost boom and almost bust or bust periods that have affected the industry from time immemorial. Put another way, protecting the bottom line and sustaining predictable growth may well, in the future, mean investing in alternative fuels.

Low gas prices presently will likely be followed by higher prices. This is not a projection. History tells us this: importantly, lower gas prices now may well build a passionate coalition of consumers ready to, figuratively, march, if gas prices begin to significantly trend upward. The extra money available to consumers because “filling ‘er up” costs much less now, could well become part of household, political DNA. Keeping fuel prices in line for most consumers, long term, will require competition from alternative fuels — electricity, natural gas, natural gas-based ethanol, methanol, bio fuels, etc. Finally, while our better community-based selves may be dulled now by lower gas prices, most Americans will probably accept a better fuel mousetrap than gasoline because of their commitment to the long-term health and welfare of the nation. But the costs must be competitive with gasoline, and the benefits must be real concerning GHG reduction, an enhanced environment and less oil imports. My intuition and instincts (combined with numerous studies) tell me they will be! Happy Holidays!

CNG-pump

Will falling gas prices hurt alternative vehicles?

Everyone is saying that falling gas prices will ruin the market for alternative fuels and vehicles. But it isn’t time to give up on them now.
Ethanol and methanol are still two liquid fuels that will easily substitute for gasoline in our current infrastructure. Ethanol is making headway, particularly in the Midwest, where it is still cheaper than gasoline and has a lot of support in the farm economy. The big decision will come when the EPA finally sets the quota for ethanol consumption for 2015 – if the agency ever gets around to making a decision. (The decision has been postponed since last spring.) A high number should guarantee the sale of ethanol no matter what the price of gasoline.

That leaves methanol, the fuel that has the most potential to replace gasoline and would it fit right into our present infrastructure but must still run the gamut of EPA approval and would require a change in habits among motorists. Methanol is still relatively unknown among car owners and is hindered by people’s reluctance to try new things. But the six methanol plants that the Chinese are building in the Texas and Louisiana region could break the ice on methanol. The Chinese have 100,000 methanol cars on the road now and are shooting for 500,000 by 2015. Some of that methanol might end up in American engines as well.

Another alternative that is still in play is the electric car. In theory, electric cars should not be affected much by gas prices because that is an entirely different infrastructure. The appeal is not based on price so such as the idea of freeing yourself from the oil companies completely and relying on a source of energy.

The Nissan Leaf has not been badly hit by oil prices. Tesla’s cars, of course, have not gone mass market yet, but the company is relying on a new breed of consumer who does not worry too much about the price and will appreciate the car for its style and performance. Elon Musk has shown no indication of backing down on his great Gigafactory, and Tesla is still aiming to have the Model III (its third-generation vehicle, which will come at a much lower expected price point of $35,000) ready by 2017.

This leaves natural-gas-powered vehicles as the only group that might be hurt by falling gas prices, and here the news is not too good. Sales of vehicles that have compressed natural gas as their fuel declined 7.2 percent in November. As David Whiston, an analyst at Morningstar, told the Houston Chronicle’s Ryan Holeywell: “I hear all the time from dealers: As soon as gas starts to go down, people look at light trucks.”

CNG’s appeal has always been that it will be cheaper than regular gasoline, so plunging gas prices make it lose much of its appeal. It costs $5,000 to install a tank for CNG fuel, and that is not likely to attract a lot of takers with oil prices low. For a gas-electric hybrid, there is similar math. For the Toyota Corolla, the electric portion adds another $7,000 to the price. That’s why the CNG-based solutions never caught up with the light-duty vehicle. They are still attractive for high-mileage vehicles like buses and garbage trucks. “For the consumers doing the math, if gas goes below $3 per gallon, the payback period goes out a number of years,” Whiston told Holeywell. “And the break-even point makes sense for fewer people.”

The collapse in gas prices is not the end of the road for alternative fuels. In a couple of months, the price may be up again, and all those people who have rushed out to buy light trucks will be stuck with them. The changeover to alternative fuels is a slow process, fraught with false starts and misleading signals. But in the end, it will be well worth it to reduce our dependence on imported oil and achieve some kind of energy independence. Car buyers have very short memories and an inability to look very far into the future. Remember, it’s always a passing parade. Consequently, their reaction has been only short-term. But once people buy those trucks, they’re stuck with them for the next 5 to 10 years. If the price of gas goes up again, they may live to regret it.

Abbott and Costello, war, sectarianism and Middle Eastern oil — a trifecta

Abbott & CostelloI bet only those on Medicare, like me, remember the old Abbott and Costello joke, “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third”… or something like that.

The dialogue was funny at the time. But the joke, in some respects, tracks the current, very serious situation in the Middle East: Who’s on first, a very militant Sunni group called ISIS; What’s on second, well maybe Iraq (if it can get its act together, which is increasingly unlikely); and, I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe the Peshmerga from among the Kurdish Regional State in Iraq and, perhaps soon, a surprise addition from the Kurdish PKK military group living among Kurds in Turkey. Who are the umpires? Perhaps Israel. Maybe OPEC. How about the world’s respected ethicists — if they can ever agree.

Isn’t this fun? Let’s try it again, for there are several possible lineups. Let’s try this one: Who’s on first, how about the Assad-related Shiites in Syria. What’s on second, the new caliphate in Iraq and Syria. I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe, but unlikely, in light of its numerous conflicting interests (e.g., NATO, Islam, etc.), Turkey. Who’s the hapless lonely umpire or umpires at home plate? Perhaps, the U.N. — the so-called moderate rebels. Perhaps the USA, England or France, or perhaps all three. After all, each Western country has had, at best, a difficult, morally ambiguous historical record in the area, and faces a tough, complex future. Justice and fairness have not always guided their respective objectives and actions. If you believe they have, step up to the plate and you can buy the Brooklyn Bridge for a dollar.

It’s a crazy baseball game! I know the Israelis are in the stands but they have found it tough to get emotional. In their view, at least, both of the team’s captains are Iranian. Since it’s not in the official lineup, the game has little meaning to the Israelis.

We are not sure that all the batters, base runners and umpires are on the same team or in the same game. At times, some players appear to run right and some left. Some run into each other. Others don’t run at all. Most appear to be playing by Middle Eastern norms, which mean they frequently change uniforms, roles, rules and alliances. The umpires seem to be confused and frustrated. They may be ready soon to go for a higher legal or spiritual reviewer but they cannot agree on which one (e.g., the International Court of Justice, God or his or her surrogate).

I yearn for the simplicity of just a year or two ago — before ISIS. Many of our leaders and media types referred to America’s role then in terms of seeking stability in the Middle East. Some even suggested, often knowing better, that it was based on a commitment to establishing western-style democracy. Very few played Don Quixote, or even a good forensic economist searching for the truth. U.S. and Western involvement in the Middle East for a long time has been, to a large degree, premised on dependency on oil. As dependency on oil imports was recently reduced significantly to about 30-35 percent of total oil use because of tight oil development, increased fuel standards, and a slow growth economy, the U.S. has agreed to defend our allies’ right to unfettered international oil transportation from wellhead to refinery.

Democracy and oil proved to be an uneasy mix. Secular animosity and intense internal as well as external competition for oil revenue and market share seemed much more difficult than the naive assertion made after 9/11 that the Iraq citizenry would welcome U.S. military with cheering crowds — shades of WWII after U.S. troupes retook Paris. If only it could have been!

What has occurred in the past year or so has once again shifted the game players, the rules and roles (the ecology of Middle Eastern games). The rise of ISIS and its quick absorption of land in both Syria and Iraq combined with its brutality toward the vanquished in captured territories as well as detained westerners has shifted U.S. and its new coalition’s (e.g., England, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Kurds, etc.) attention away from getting rid of Assad to stopping establishment of the caliphate. No longer is democracy a major goal. How could it be with such tested democratic states as Saudi Arabia and Qatar front and center? I shouldn’t be cynical…or should I? Now the focus is on stability — translated: salvage what can salvaged from what is left of Iraq and assumedly prevention of what appears to be an increasing sectarianism from disintegrating into wars fought over God and Mammon or maybe my God and your Mammon or vice versa. The new coalition led by the U.S., apart from the British and French includes:

  • Implicitly, Iran, despite Iran’s enmity and its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
  • Syria, despite its vicious regime, a regime that has killed or terrorized large sectors of its population, far more than ISIS has to date and probably will far into the future.
  • Qatar, whose chameleon foreign policy reminds one constantly of Ronald Reagan’s quote about the Russians, “Trust but verify.”
  • Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-dominated kingdom, that, until the Arab Spring, seemed reasonably secure in its religious, non-democratically based, very conservative legal framework, as well as a caste and class system based on discrimination and corruption.
  • Iraq, a country that, despite U.S. support, is a nation in name only. It is divided by sectarianism into at least three potential would-be nations — each one dominated by dominant religious and ethnic groups. Its central government is unable or unwilling to secure consensus as to governance and military approaches. Its army, despite years of U.S.-supported training and U.S.-supplied weaponry has been, up to now, no match for ISIS. Its sectarian-controlled militias are not committed to consensus building and may end up as a threat to further nation building.

The new coalition has shaken up the Middle East and suggests the old adage that, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Endorsement of the present nation states in the Middle East, as well as opposition to territorial aggrandizement and religious extremism, provides the rationale for U.S. and Western involvement in the current war.

But, irrespective of the coalition’s normative marching orders about stopping extremism and a big land grasp, I suspect that oil or trafficking in oil remains a key factor, indirectly or directly, in back-room decisions to push back ISIS boundaries. Let’s see: the Saudis must soon consider increasing the price of a barrel of oil if it is to avoid the need to cut back on services to its citizens and risk tension. It also must soon consider an increase in oil prices if it is to sustain its defense budget in terms of the present conflict with ISIS. While the U.S. has surpassed the Saudis in oil production, Saudi oil is needed by the West and Asia to avoid significant future price rises premised on future growth. As a result, the U.S. will remain a protector of oil transit. Apart from fearing the collapse of Iraq for political, economic and moral reasons, the U.S. is still committed to safeguarding Iraq’s oil and the oil from one of its regions, the Kurdish Regional Government, for its allies and also for the revenue needed by both. Qatar is a conundrum. Today, it’s a western ally against ISIS; yesterday, reports indicated it supported militants in the Gaza. Which twin has the Tony? Where will it be tomorrow? Finally, remember ISIS needs oil for revenues to function as a government.

If only! If only we could find home-grown, market-acceptable substitutes for oil and its derivative gasoline that would relieve any hint or suspicion that oil or gasoline would be even an indirect consideration in a U.S. or Western nation decisions to go to war. We are not there yet, in terms of the majority of the vehicle owners. But we are getting close with alcohol-based fuels, biofuels, and hydrogen and electric cars.

By health check or economic necessity: A tale of two oil industries and their response to illness

By John Hofmeister and Marshall Kaplan

shutterstock_118647259A bad cold starts with a tickle in the throat and a languid day. It grows to painful swallows, stuffed sinuses and likely a fever. Does the patient treat the symptoms? Does he or she transform to avoid illness in the future?

Few oil company players will admit to it yet, but the future threatens a very bad cold for the current industry, or worse. Very few feel it coming because current business plans are robust and the workload is on overload. When they are recognized, the threats to the current business model are going to take more than treating the symptoms; there are transformative requirements to avoid getting permanently sick, including, for many, a difficult transition to alternative fuels. The industry’s investors are not likely to remain committed to oil. Neither are the politicians, the Wall Street analysts and the public who, for different reasons, some economic and some with concerns for the environment, are already shaky with respect to the future of oil. Unenthused investors actions, however, will speak much louder than concerned words.

Everyone agrees that conventional oil has peaked. Unconventional oil may be abundant, but it’s expensive. It’s so expensive that industry valuation is already being impacted by worried investors who don’t like companies borrowing cash to pay dividends. Shale formation decline rates demand evermore drilling. Drilling costs increase as more wells per amount of production are completed, raising per barrel costs. Sweet spots are finite as the majors have learned the hard way. They bought into many plays too late. The Middle East is, well, the Middle East. Don’t look for reduced tension in the near future. Do look for OPEC nations to increasingly shift oil for export into oil for local consumption — a residual of the Arab Spring. Business as usual is history. Brazilian, East African, Russian and Arctic production opportunities abound, except that the degrees of difficulty are unclear and uncertain, but are sure to be costly. The high costs and regulatory uncertainties of oil limit global growth and nourish alternative fuel prospects. Oil investors don’t like sore throats emerging from hard to swallow realities. They will want to create a new reality to protect their financial wellbeing.

The costs of carbon have yet to be added onto oil and we know they’re coming. There’s debate over the form of payment, not the reality. Take a look not only at the number of governments backing carbon constraints coming out of this year’s climate meeting at the UN, but, more importantly, count the companies! Count the crowd recently claiming the high ground from Central Park to Midtown in New York and other cities around the world. The oil industry’s low favorability gives it limited public influence. While special-interest money may run out the clock on near-term legislation in the next Congress, for the industry, it not a long term solution. Civil society and political trends are inevitably contrary to the industry’s status quo interests. The rhetoric alone will tax the bronchial capacity of oil and gas leaders; investors will cease shaking hands with infected stocks.

Cash is to oil what gasoline is to the internal combustion engine. Higher upstream costs and more expensive fuels reduce consumer demand and, inevitably, cash flow. Downstream cash can’t make up the difference for higher upstream capital (cash) outlays when consumers drive less or take advantage of increasing availability of lower-cost alternative fuels, despite the BTU and/or mileage disadvantages of alcohol fuels versus oil products.

Finally, when divestment trends start to impact the industry, perhaps initially not directly through actual shifting of resources, but because of the growing perceptions of the risk of stranded assets, opportunity costing equations will begin to hit hard. The value associated with increasing capital costs for oil development will be muted. With ever higher costs, more difficult unconventional production, more challenging resource basins and tighter regulatory scrutiny, along with environmental constraints, existing assets may never get produced. The probable reserve that never makes it to proven becomes ever less valuable with time, perhaps even worthless. Investors don’t like that. Oil price to support such production is unsustainable; the price rises until it crashes; production cannot recover from the collapse because sustainable alternative fuels will have taken increasing market share. To remain competitive, oil may not be able to climb above the $55 – 75 range. This prospect will cause full blown pneumonia for oil companies. Most still do not see it coming. For OPEC countries who are under inconsistent pressures — first to increase exports for needed revenues at home to fund services for an often restive population; second, to reduce exports to provide energy and gasoline products to larger population numbers, it could present real challenges affecting political stability.

Some companies that sense it coming will not wait for the cold symptoms to lodge in their respiratory systems. They will get out in front with natural gas, using an entirely different cost/price structure to displace high cost oil by producing natural gas for fuels, including ethanol, methanol, CNG and LNG. They’ll also embrace biofuels as a sustainable and carbon-reducing alternative to oil products only. In both cases, their cash flows and capital outlays will fund reasonable and rational alternative investments in downstream and midstream infrastructure to produce, distribute and sell alternative fuels, extending their business models and capabilities rather than risking everything on their past model. They’ll choose investor and their own health and economic necessity as the basis of a new business model transforming the mobility industry with fuels competition.

A handful of smart companies will astutely come to grips with their industry’s endemic inability to change their historic focus on oil as their base business. They’ll see diversity as an opportunity to run the race with competitive fuels, and they’ll recognize that oil and gasoline will only be able to sustain their monopoly status at the pump for a relatively short period of time. They will trade one form of steel in the ground for another, bringing the competencies of size, scale and execution to an ever-growing, oil-displacing, alternative fuels industry. In the process, they will simultaneously reduce the size of the oil upstream capital, cash, environmental and stranded asset problems that alienated investors, and, at times, the public, particularly related to emissions and other pollutants.

With a proper health check, after scanning the industry’s economic and environmental horizons, they acknowledge the inevitability of the changing critical role of investors. Their own financial health and economic necessity will redefine the role of oil and change the competitive landscape.

 

John Hofmeister, Former President Shell Oil Company (retired), Founder and CEO Citizens for Affordable Energy, Author of Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider (Palgrave Macmillan 2010)

Marshall Kaplan, Advisor Fuel Freedom and Merage Foundations, Senior Official in Kennedy and Carter Administrations, Author

Religion, structural changes in the oil Industry and the price of oil and gasoline

Oil barrelAmericans — in light of the decline in oil and gas prices — don’t take happy selfies just yet! Clearly, the recent movement of oil prices per barrel below $80 and the cost of gasoline at the pump below $3 a gallon lend cause for, at least strategically, repressed joy among particularly low-income consumers, many of whose budgets for holiday shopping have been expanded near 10 percent. Retail stores are expressing their commitment to the holiday by beginning Christmas sales pre-Thanksgiving. Sure, sales profits were involved in their decisions, once it appeared to them that lower gas prices were here to stay, at least for a while. But don’t be cynical; I am sure the spirit moved them to play carols as background music and to see if in-store decorations made it easier for shoppers to get by headlines of war, climate change and other negative stuff and into, well yes, a buying mood. If retail sales exceed last year’s and GNP is positively affected, it will provide testimony and reaffirm belief that God is on America and the free market’s side, or at least the side of shopping malls and maybe even downtowns. Religious conversions might be up this year…all because of lower costs of gasoline at the pump. The power of the pump!

But, holy Moses (I am ecumenical), we really haven’t been taken across the newly replenished figurative Red Sea yet. There are road signs suggesting we won’t get there, partly because of the historical and current behavior of the oil industry. Why do I say this?

If history is prologue, EIA’s recent projections related to the continued decline of oil and gasoline prices will undergo revisions relatively soon, maybe in 6 months to a year or so. I suspect they will reflect the agency’s long-held view that prices will escalate higher during this and the next decade. Tension in the Middle East, a Saudi/OPEC change of heart on keeping oil prices low, a healthier U.S. economy, continued demand from Asia (particularly China), slower U.S. oil shale well development as well as higher drilling costs and the relatively short productive life span of tight oil wells, and more rigorous state environmental as well as fracking policies, will likely generate a hike in oil and gasoline prices. Owners, who were recently motivated to buy gas-guzzling vehicles because of low gas prices, once again, may soon find it increasingly expensive to travel on highways built by earthlings.

Forget the alternative; that is, like Moses, going to the Promised Land on a highway created by a power greater than your friendly contractor and with access to cheap gas to boot. Moses was lucky he got through in time and his costs were marginal. He was probably pushed by favorable tides and friendly winds. The wonderful Godly thing! He and his colleagues secured low costs and quick trips through the parting waters.

Added to the by-now conventional litany concerning variables affecting the short- and long-term cost and price of gasoline and oil (described in the preceding paragraph), will likely be the possible structural changes that might take place in the oil industry. If they occur, it will lead to higher costs and prices. Indeed, some are already occurring. Halliburton, one of the sinners in Iraq concerning overpricing services and other borderline practices (motivated by the fear of lower gas prices), has succeeded in taking over Baker Hughes for near $35 billion. If approved by U.S. regulators, the combined company will control approximately 30 percent of the oil and gas services market. According to experts, the new entity could capture near 40 percent relatively quickly. Sounds like a perfect case for anti-trust folks or, if not, higher oil and gas costs for consumers.

Several experts believe that if low gas prices continue, oil companies will examine other profit-making, competition-limiting and price-raising activities, including further mergers and acquisitions. Some bright iconoclasts among them even suggest that companies may try to develop and produce alternative fuels.

Amen! Nirvana! Perhaps someday oil companies will push for an Open Fuels Law, conversion of cars to flex-fuel vehicles and competition at the pump…if they can make a buck or two. Maybe they will repent for past monopolistic practices. But don’t hold your breath! Opportunity costing for oil companies is complex and unlikely to quickly breed such public-interest related decisions. Happy Thanksgiving!