OPEC stands pat … will $70 oil be the new normal?

The big news in the international oil markets last week was that OPEC decided not to cut production, which would have propped up free-falling prices, at least temporarily.

OPEC’s non-action sent oil prices falling further Friday, with the Brent benchmark slipping below $70 for the first time in four years.

NPR reports that some experts say oil in the range of $70 a barrel could last through 2015:

Igor Sechin, the head of Russia’s Rosneft, says he thinks oil prices will average $70-75 per barrel through 2015. That prediction was in line with what Bill Hubard, chief economist at Markets.com, told Reuters: “I think $70 a barrel will be the new norm. We could see oil go considerably lower.”

Some OPEC member nations, including Iran and Venezuela, which need a higher oil price to pay for their generous public services, had been pushing for the cartel to ease back on production to halt the plunge in prices. A moderate pullback would have come amid a global oil glut, thanks in part to reduced demand in Asia and Europe, as well as soaring production in the U.S.

Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, said OPEC’s decision was no guarantee that the United States would scale back production in North Dakota and Texas, a surge aided by advances in hydraulic fracturing.

“High prices are a disadvantage to OPEC’s market share,” Zanganeh said, according to Bloomberg. “If you want to increase your share, you have to reduce prices, but you can’t do it through ‘shock therapy’ over the course of three months if you want to change everything.”

EPA touts health, economic benefits of reducing smog

The battle lines already are drawn over the Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement Wednesday that it’s seeking to reduce the nation’s levels of ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review air-quality standards every five years. Under President George W. Bush, the agency set the ozone threshold at 75 parts per billion in 2008.

The EPA now wants to lower the bar to between 65 ppb and 70 ppb, the level that the agency’s advisory board of independent scientists and physicians has recommended. However, EPA will review comments on a lower benchmark of 60 ppb during its commentary period.

Ozone is created when sunlight hits emissions coming from vehicles, electricity-generating plants and factories. The EPA said ozone at the current accepted levels “can pose serious threats to public health, harm the respiratory system, cause or aggravate asthma and other lung diseases, and is linked to premature death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes.”

The NRDC said medical evidence shows that the revised limit, even at the lower end of 65 ppb, is harmful to health. ”So we urge EPA to set the standard at 60 ppb.”

AQI (Click on the image at right to check the national Air Quality Index.)

That stance will put the EPA on a collision course with the manufacturing sector and Republican elected officials, who will control both the Senate and House in January. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who will take over as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that the lower threshold “will lower our nation’s economic competitiveness and stifle job creation for decades.”

National Association of Manufacturers president and CEO Jay Timmons said the new ozone regulation “threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing by placing massive new costs on manufacturers and closing off counties and states to new business …”

The Associated Press notes that the EPA initially proposed a range of 60 to 70 ppb in January 2010. Had that gone into effect, it would have come with an estimated price tag of between $19 billion and $90 billion and would have doubled the number of U.S. counties in violation.

In 2011, President Obama, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign, “reneged on a plan by then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson to lower the permissible level to be more protective of public health,” The AP wrote.

“Seldom do presidents get an opportunity to right a wrong,” Bill Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies told AP. “Obama has walked the walk on air.”

Current EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, in a post on CNNMoney.com, put the health argument front and center. But she also said cutting emissions would help the economy, not hinder it:

“Missing work, feeling ill, or caring for a sick child costs us time, money, and personal hardship. When family health issues hurt us financially, that drags down the whole economy. … Special-interest critics will try to convince you that pollution standards chase away local jobs and businesses, but, in fact, healthy communities attract new businesses, new investment, and new jobs.”

 

Naomi Klein: 4 reasons Keystone matters

Environmental writer and activist Naomi Klein writes in The Nation that the conventional wisdom, at least among supporters of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, is that the project didn’t really matter. Even if it were scuttled, TransCanada, the company hoping to build the pipeline extension from tar-sands oil in western Canada to Nebraska, would find another way to get the oil to market, either by way of another pipeline across Canada or by rail.

But opposition to the project has put pressure squarely on President Obama, Klein writes.

His decision is no longer about one pipeline. It’s about whether the US government will throw a lifeline to a climate-destabilizing industrial project that is under a confluence of pressures that add up to a very real crisis.

Klein, author of the new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, then outlines four ways in which the Keystone XL debate does, indeed matter.

Read it and tell us what you think.

BusinessWeek: Ethanol just avoided a death blow

BusinessWeek’s Matthew Phillips reflects on the EPA’s decision to delay proposed changes to the renewable fuel standard, a revision that was expected to reduce the amount of corn-based ethanol to be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply.

Now that the new RFS standards have been put off until sometime in 2015, ethanol producers have the chance to regroup and fight another day, Phillips writes.

The ethanol industry just avoided a death blow. Rather than deciding to permanently lower the amount of renewable fuels that have to be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply, as it first proposed a year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency last week opted to wait until next year to decide. The delay (official notice here) means this year’s ethanol quotas won’t be set until 2015 and ensures they will be lower than the original mandate envisioned. That’s not great news for ethanol producers, but it gives them more time to fight and avoids an outcome that could have been far worse.

Ethanol industry leaders pretended to be angry at the EPA’s decision to delay on Friday: “Deciding not to decide is not a decision,” Bob Dinneen, chief executive of the Renewable Fuels Association, said in a written statement. But the reality is that they’re relieved the White House didn’t choose a more aggressive plan pushed by refining and oil companies.

Whatever OPEC does, U.S. oil companies will keep drilling

Bloomberg has a story about what U.S. drillers will do in response to whatever OPEC does this week at its regular meeting.

OPEC, led by its top producer, Saudi Arabia, will do one of two things: Nothing, which means the cartel’s output will remain unchanged, and crude prices will say flat (or keep sliding). Or it could cut production, which “would lift prices and profits across the board and help finance further U.S. energy innovation,” the Bloomberg story says.

Either way, U.S. producers will have the same response: Drill on.

“The industry is very resilient, as strong as ever in recent history,” Tony Sanchez III, chief executive of Texas producer Sanchez Energy Corp. (SN), said in an interview. “The technological advances we’ve made underpin virtually everything right now.”

A continued price plunge would put more pressure on U.S. companies, but they’re increasingly insulated by OPEC’s actions, the story says.

The swagger of U.S. producers in the face of plunging oil prices shows the confidence they’ve gained from upending OPEC’s six decades of market dominance with technology that wrings oil from dense rock for prices as low as $40 a barrel. The shale boom has placed the U.S. oil industry in its strongest position since OPEC began flexing its pricing power in the early 1970s.

Can alternative vehicles still play a role?

A couple of Google engineers shocked the world last week by announcing that after working on the RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal) Initiative for four years, they had concluded that renewable energy is never going to solve our carbon emissions problem.

In a widely read article in IEEE Spectrum, the prestigious journal published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Ross Koningstein and David Fork announced that after working at improving renewables on the Google project, they had decided that it wasn’t worth pursuing. Google actually closed down RE<C in 2011, but the authors are just getting around to explaining why.

At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope.

Google’s abandonment of renewable energy raises the immediate question: What about the effort to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles? And here the news is much better.

Although everyone concentrates on coal and power plants, they regularly forget that half our carbon emissions come from vehicles. It’s typical that Google’s RE<C effort didn’t address what to do about our cars. It’s too complicated to try to control the emissions from 200 million point sources.

But what’s never discussed is the fuel that goes into these vehicles. It’s well known that ethanol and methanol cut carbon emissions compared with gasoline. That’s a good chunk of the battle right there. But it doesn’t even take into account the possibility of making both fuels from non-fossil-fuel resources, so that both would be all pluses on our carbon budget.

Ethanol, as currently produced in this country, is synthesized entirely from corn, so there is no fossil-fuel element involved. Ethanol currently takes up 10 percent of all the gasoline sold is this country, but it is currently marketed at 85 percent ethanol in the Midwest, with only a 15 percent element to guarantee starting on cold days.

Methanol is generally synthesized from natural gas, so there is still a fossil-fuel element there, but there is always the possibility of making methanol from non-fossil sources. Municipal waste could easily be converted directly to methanol.

And of course there is always the possibility of synthesizing ethanol and methanol using renewable energy. People always talk about storing wind or solar energy as hydrogen, but methanol would be easier to store than hydrogen since it is a liquid to begin with and not subject to leakage and escape. Methanol can be easily stored in our current infrastructure.

The Chinese are currently building six methanol plants in Texas and Louisiana to take advantage of all the natural gas being produced there. All this methanol is slated to be shipped by tankers back to China, where it will be used to boost China’s own methanol industry — and to run some of the 1 million methanol cars the Chinese have on the road.

Yes, the Chinese are far ahead of us when it comes to using methanol a substitute for oil. But there’s a scenario that will introduce methanol in the American auto industry. With all this methanol on hand in Texas and Louisiana, someone will install a pump on one of the premises for dispensing methanol. Cars at the site will use it. Then someone will say, “Hey, why don’t I use this in my car at home? It’s cheaper.” Before you know it, there will be a contingency to have the EPA decide that methanol can be used in automobile engines the same as ethanol is currently used. And in the end, we will have large quantities of methanol substituting for foreign oil.

Is it a dream? No more unrealistic than the dreams that kept the Google scientists occupied for four years.

New York Times launches series looking at N.D. oil industry

You won’t be fully up to speed on how oil production, and hydraulic fracturing, has transformed the rural communities of North Dakota unless you read Deborah Sontag’s exhaustive piece in The New York Times.

Sunday’s Part I of a series, “The Downside of the Boom,” includes video, satellite maps and other visuals to complement its reporting.

At the heart of Part I is the way land has been “sliced and diced” in North Dakota for years, and rights to the surface don’t necessarily mean the landowner has control over the resources that lie beneath.

Given that mineral rights trump surface rights, this made many residents of western North Dakota feel trampled once the boom began.

In 2006, a land man for Marathon Oil offered to lease the Schwalbe siblings’ 480 acres of minerals for $100 an acre plus royalties on every sixth barrel of oil.

“Within a few years, people were getting 20, 30 times that and every fifth barrel,” Mr. Schwalbe said. But the Schwalbes did not expect “to see any oil come up out of that ground in our lifetime.”

Oil companies were just starting to combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing to tap into the mother lode of Bakken oil. “We didn’t really know yet about fracking,” he said.

The Schwalbes’ first well was drilled in 2008, their second the next year. Powerless to block the development, Mr. Schwalbe and his wife, nearing retirement, took some comfort in the extra income, the few thousand dollars a month.

Then that was threatened, too.

EPA delays decision on whether to reduce ethanol in gas

The federal government’s new threshold for the amount of ethanol blended into America’s gasoline supply was already 10 months overdue. So officials have gone ahead and delayed the decision further, into 2015.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday that it would defer an announcement on the renewable fuel standard (RFS), which stipulates that ethanol should make up 10 percent of gasoline.

(The Des Moines Register has some of the day’s best reporting on this issue. Agriculture.com also has a good explanation of the granular details.)

The standard, first established under a 2005 law, calls for the amount of renewable fuels in gasoline to progressively increase each year. But the law was written at a time when demand for gasoline was expected to keep going up. Slackened demand around the world, combined with stepped-up U.S. production, has dropped domestic prices below $3 a gallon.

Based on that reality, the EPA recommended, in November 2013, that the amount of corn ethanol in the should be reduced, from 14.4 billion gallons a year to 13.01 billion gallons.

This upset the corn growers and ethanol producers, most of them clustered in the Midwest and Great Plains. They said the delays deterred investment in biofuels, and even the oil companies complained that the regulatory vacuum created too much uncertainty in the fuels market.

The EPA’s recommendations had not been finalized. They had been sent to the White House Office of Budget and Management for review, but that office “ran out the 90-day clock to review the agency’s proposed standards, which for the first time signaled a retreat by the EPA on the percentage of biofuels that must be blended,” The Hill reported.

Since the EPA was already so late in setting the 2014 guidelines, the agency “intends to get back on track next year, though details on how it would do that weren’t available Friday,” The Wall Street Journal wrote. The EPA statement said: “Looking forward, one of EPA’s objectives is to get back on the annual statutory timeline by addressing 2014, 2015, and 2016 standards in the next calendar year.”

The reaction among the affected parties was mixed Friday. The WSJ tries to untangle the various interests:

The debate over the biofuels mandate triggers strange bedfellows, with trade groups representing the oil and refining companies, car manufacturers, livestock and even some environmental interests all opposed to the policy for different reasons. Proponents of the standard include the corn industry, which is the most common way ethanol is produced, and producers of ethanol.

The EPA’s announcement gave cautious hope to ethanol-industry leaders that the agency will fundamentally rethink how it proposes the annual biofuels levels. The draft 2014 biofuels levels, which the agency proposed almost a year ago, were much lower than the ethanol industry lobbied for.

“I am truly pleased that they’re pulling away from a rule that was so bad,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group representing biofuels companies. “But I recognize as well we have to work with the agency to try to figure out a path forward that everybody can live with.”

Executives in the oil-refining industry criticized the delay, and said it was evidence the renewable-fuel standard was itself inherently flawed and should be repealed.

“Each year is dependent upon the previous year, and to some extent dependent upon the following year,” said Charlie Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade association representing the nation’s refining industry. “The problem is, every year EPA is late in getting this out, it exacerbates it. They’re never going to be able to catch up.”

 

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

Are the United States and Saudi Arabia conspiring to keep oil prices down?

As my colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote Tuesday, there are a number of factors behind the continuing global slide in oil prices, including North American production, increased energy efficiency, Europe’s economic stagnation, and China’s slowing growth. But a big one is Saudi Arabia, which, to the dismay of fellow oil -producing nations, has resisted pressure to cut production in order to stabilize prices.

Ahead of an OPEC meeting in Vienna next week, there are some contradictory theories about why Saudi Arabia is content to keep oil cheap for the time being. One is that the Saudis want to nip the U.S. oil boom in the bud. American shale oil is more expensive to produce and needs high prices to remain competitive. As one analyst put it when the kingdom cut prices for U.S. customers earlier this month, “the Saudis have basically declared war on the U.S. oil producers.”

Read more at: Slate