Brent crude off 48 percent for the year, worst drubbing since ’08

Hey, did you hear oil prices fell in 2014?

Now that the year in oil trading is officially over, traders are counting the damage, and it’s like monitoring the progress of a boulder rolling down a mountain:

Brent crude, the international benchmark, fell another 57 cents Wednesday to close the calendar at $57.33 a barrel. Brent, as well as gasoline futures, fell 48 percent during the course of the year, making them the worst-performing commodities among the 22 markets tracked by the Bloomberg Commodity Index.

U.S. oil futures were off 85 cents Wednesday, to $53.27, and were down 46 percent for the year.

Read more in The Wall Street Journal.

The report said the oil, gasoline and diesel markets posted their worst annual losses since 2008, the year markets plunged because of the financial crisis.

Oil, gasoline and diesel markets all posted their largest annual losses since the global recession in 2008.

Wednesday’s price drop marked a “poetic end to…what ended up being a difficult year for the oil and gas industry,” said Adam Wise, managing director at John Hancock Financial Services, who helps oversee about $7 billion in energy-related investments.

U.S. allows export of some oil, loosening four-decade ban

The U.S. Department of Commerce has relaxed, somewhat, the nation’s four-decade-long ban on oil exports, put in place after the 1973 oil crisis that caused widespread shortages around the United States.

The Obama administration’s move will allow the sale of up to 1 million barrels a day of ultra-light crude. The decision likely will please U.S. drillers and many politicians who have said the U.S. export ban is a relic of an outdated policy.

Reuters reported specifics:

The latest measures were wrapped in regulatory jargon and couched by some as a basic clarification of existing rules, but analysts said the message was unambiguous: a green light for any company willing and able to process their light condensate crude through a distillation tower, a simple piece of oilfield kit.

“In practice this long-awaited move can open up the floodgates to substantial increases in exports by end 2015,” Ed Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup in New York said in a research note.

Make a fuel choice resolution for 2015

Resolution time, people: Forget the gym, forget cleaning out the garage, forget writing that novel.

Resolve to start small in helping the economy and helping the environment in 2015: Sign the “fuel choice resolution” on the Fuel Freedom website today.

No. 1 on the list is: Watch PUMP the movie, of course. The documentary is coming to iTunes on Jan. 13, and is available now for pre-order. If you happen to be in Omaha, Nebraska, on Feb. 2, you can also catch a special screening put on by the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

No. 2 among the resolutions: Sign our petition asking that major independent fueling retailers like Costco and Walmart make ethanol available at their locations.

No. 3: Shopping for a new or used vehicle? Look for one that’s branded as flex-fuel. Then you’ll know it’s ready to rock with ethanol blends.

No. 4: Come up with your own idea about how you can promote fuel choice in the new year. Something that means a lot to you.

Go to the page on our website for the full list of resolutions, then share your pledge on social media.

Thanks, and Happy New Year! Let’s all work together in 2015 to make a diversified transportation fuel market one step closer to reality.

 

 

Not even a Libyan oil fire can stop price slide

Oil prices briefly spiked Monday, in apparent reaction to a fire at the Libyan oil port of Es Sider the past few days.

But prices settled down again, to their lowest levels since May 2009, after the blaze was put out in three of the six oil tanks, Bloomberg reported.

Libya was pumping about 352,000 barrels of crude a day until a rocket attack at the port on Christmas Day reduced production to 128,000 barrels a day. In 2010, Libya was pumping about 1.6 million barrels a day, but that was before the overthrow and killing of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, an event that unleashed a civil war.

The attack at Es Sider was enough to prompt an early rally in the commodity Monday, but by the end of the trading session Brent crude was down $1.57, to $57.88. The U.S. benchmark, WTI, fell $1.12, to $53.61. That’s the lowest level since May 1, 2009.

Reuters reported:

The rally followed by the steep drop showed the market’s fears about oversupply are not going away, said Gene McGillian, senior analyst at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Connecticut. “Every time the market tries to pick itself up, it’s just another wave of selling,” he said.

Tim Evans, an energy analyst at Citi Futures Perspective in New York, told Bloomberg that neither the violence in Libya, nor the reduction in the growth rate of U.S. drilling, was enough to make a dent in the worldwide glut of oil. “We’re looking at a significant supply-demand surplus through the first half of 2015,” Evans said.

Bloomberg added:

“The loss of a couple hundred thousand barrels from Libya will have a minimal impact on the global supply balance,” Bob Yawger, director of the futures division at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in New York, said by phone. “There’s about 2 million barrels a day of excess production right now, so this will just tighten things a little.”

Meet the PUMP players: Phil and Cheryl Near, selling ethanol as God’s work

One of the most compelling moments in the documentary PUMP comes when we’re introduced to Phil and Cheryl Near, who own two gas stations called Jump Start in Wichita, Kansas.

They’re not ordinary stations, however: They could be the fueling stations of the future, because they sell ethanol as well as traditional gasoline.

Phil Near, 51, has worked in the gasoline business virtually his entire adult life, and only a few years back discovered that there were alternatives, like ethanol. Now he and Cheryl offer it to customers, spreading the word about the benefits of fuel choice. “Once they try it, they usually come back and buy it again,” Phil says in the film.

More importantly, he says selling ethanol “is a moral obligation. We feel like we’re doing the Lord’s work.”

To learn more about the film, visit PumpTheMovie.com, and just in time for Christmas, you can give the gift of thought-provoking debate by pre-ordering your digital copy on iTunes prior to its Jan. 13 launch.

Until then, here’s a Q&A we did with Phil and Cheryl recently about their work and their passion:

Fuel Freedom: People who believe in alternatives to oil were caught off guard by the drop in oil prices. How do you handle it when people say: “Gas is so cheap, so why do we need to consider alternatives?”

Phil: People who have made the decision to use E85 are going to do that, as long as it doesn’t cost them more money. Some will use it no matter what. I think that having a lower price, where the economics are better for the consumer, will continue to drive new customers as they acquire cars that are flex vs. cars that are not. (The price) is inverted right now: It actually costs us more money than gasoline does now. So we’re losing margin today because we feel like we have to be competitive between the two products to maintain our customer base. That’s not necessarily a good place to be, but it’ just kind of a reality of the fuel business. … Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, and you don’t like it, but you’ve got to just fight the fight.

FF: How much do you pay for the ethanol you sell?

Phil: At one store we sell E85, and then we have the three grades of gasoline (87, 89 and 91). At the second store we have 87 and 91, then we have E15, E30 and E85. Our cost today on unleaded is a little over $2, retails $2.28, which is an abnormally large margin because the price is falling faster at the rack than the street, but it’s catching up. E85, we’re matching the unleaded price, $2.28. But it’s costing us about 15 cents a gallon more than that.

FF: What needs to happen to move the needle to create more flex-fuel vehicles, or create more stations?

Cheryl: One of the big things is education. My daughter had a car worked on at a dealership in town. I was talking to some of the service guys … and I talked about what we do, (that) we sell E85. And this guy goes, “Oh, I tell all my customers, ‘Don’t put E85 in your car. It’s bad for your car; it burns hotter.’ “ And I go, ‘Well, actually, it burns cooler, and higher octane is good for your car.’ “ But the oil companies have spent so much money with all this negative propaganda, and a lot of people have fallen into it. Car dealerships are the worst. They are telling their people not to use E85 in their flex-fuel vehicles, from the experiences that I’ve had.

FF: It’s amazing that a dealership would tell someone not to put E85 in a flex-fuel vehicle when it’s built to run on it.

Cheryl: And in the state of Kansas, there’s a $750 tax credit, if you use 500 gallons in a calendar year. And the dealerships aren’t telling people, they’re not promoting that. So people could be using E85 and getting that tax credit, and they’re just leaving it on the table, because the dealerships – whether they don’t know about it, or they just don’t want to tell people about it – it’s not being promoted.

FF: In the film you talk about selling ethanol being “the Lord’s work.” What does that mean to you?

Phil: At one time I had one of the largest fuel-distribution companies in the Midwest (Crescent Oil Co.). And it really wasn’t until I was out of that company that I understood how much control not only do the oil companies have on what happens here in the U.S., but how much control there is worldwide on energy. And I have a real passion for the fact that I feel like our great country is being stripped of its wealth for energy, and our jobs are going away. We’re right on the edge of Oklahoma, so during the oil heyday, we saw what that did economically for the communities and the people. And when the oil business went away, it really damaged a lot of towns in Oklahoma, and southern Kansas, and Texas. Back in 2006, I started learning a little bit about E85 and kind of the push, with a few ethanol plants being built in the Midwest. I saw what it does as far as creating opportunities. In small towns, these rural towns where these plants are being built, it’s a major impact on the communities.

But what most people don’t even think about every time they fill their car up with gas is, we’re sending the money we pay for energy out of our country. I call it “stripping the wealth.” Obviously, renewables is what I really feel like we’re supposed to be doing. Obviously it’s better for the economy, it’s better for the environment. We’re stewards of this Earth, and we need to be taking care of it. Oil is dirty energy; coal is dirty energy. These things that pollute the environment, as well as really hurt the financial position of our great country.

Cheryl: As a female and a mother, my biggest fear is that we’ll be a generation (or maybe the next generation) that completely depletes all of the fossil-fuel reserves, and then we’re leaving great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, in a mess. This generation, if we don’t start working on this, we’re leaving a really big mess for future generations. I really worry about that. In the Bible, it says we’re supposed to be stewards of the Earth. God left it for us to take care of. I say it in the documentary: “I think we’re messing up.” I don’t think we’re doing a very good job.

Phil: I was taught something that really hit home, and that was: You can’t create energy; you can only transfer energy. Only the Lord created energy. And whether you transfer it from oil, or from wind or solar, or ethanol, from corn or whatever you may, we’re all missing the boat. It’s all transfer, it’s not created.

Cheryl: That actually came from my father (Ray Jones), who’s an engineer. But he was teaching us that: He said, ‘You can’t make energy, you transfer energy. And you lose a little energy every time you transfer it.’ We’d never really heard that before. We were kind of fascinated by that.

Phil: He was one of the design engineers on the NASA moon buggy; he was a pretty smart cat. But he taught us that. And every source (of energy) was one the Lord gave us.

I spent my whole career in the industry, and most people don’t stop and think, and I didn’t for a long time, that our economic model for the world is all controlled by energy. Everything. You can’t get food without energy, you can’t move goods and services. Everything is driven off energy, and we’ve been sending soldiers to war for a long time to protect energy that we don’t even own.

Pope to publish rare encyclical on climate change

Pope Francis will issue an encyclical, a message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, urging them to take action on climate change, The Guardian reported.

The publication will follow the pontiff’s trip in March to the city of Tacloban, in the Philippines, which was devastated in 2012 by the super Typhoon Haiyan. Months later, the pope will address the UN General Assembly in New York.

The Guardian reports:

The reason for such frenetic activity, says Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, is the pope’s wish to directly influence next year’s crucial UN climate meeting in Paris, when countries will try to conclude 20 years of fraught negotiations with a universal commitment to reduce emissions.

Francis has addressed global inequality and environmental depredation in recent months, arguing that economies needn’t harm the ecosystem to provide opportunity for citizens. In October, he spoke at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Rome:

“An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. … The monopolizing of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness.”

Slate.com science writer Phil Plait said it’s “wise” for the pope to issue his statement on climate change after visiting Tacloban:

… people there are still recovering from the incredible power of super Typhoon Haiyan … and it’s known that cyclones like that one are becoming more powerful due to global warming. It will present a strong and clear message of the urgency of this issue.

I have no doubt that the deniers in Congress (and in the usual venues) will bloviate, creating sound and fury over this. But what they are doing is flailing, trying to delay the inevitable.

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.

Explaining all the nutty conspiracy theories about oil

The Washington Post has a good explanation why so many leaders — including Vladimir Putin — might believe that other players are conspiring to set oil prices low, putting pressure on nations like Russia that rely so much on the high price of oil to balance their budgets.

To understand this particular conspiracy theory, one must look at the nature of conspiracy theorists, and here WaPo cites some knowledgeable experts on the subject:

… the psychological research suggests that conspiracists don’t just believe one conspiracy theory. They often believe lots of them. And many of the conspiracies have similar structures — suggesting there are deeply powerful but unseen players working behind the scenes to shape world events.

“A lot of conspiracy theories take as their premise that there’s a small group of people who are plotting to control something, to control the government, the banking system, or the main energy source, and they are doing this to the disadvantage of everybody else,” says University of California-Davis historian Kathy Olmsted, author of “Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11.”

It might be natural for some people to believe in oil conspiracies, because oil itself is so vital a commodity around the world, and oil producers — notably OPEC — do, in fact, collude to keep their prices at a certain level. That’s the reason they formed the cartel in the first place.

But another motivator is that “struggling leaders need somebody to blame.”

In Putin’s case, finally, we must recognize that a conspiracy theory like the one above is politically expedient — especially in newly perilous economic times. “Governments use conspiracy theories in order to convince their people to support them,” says [University of Utah history professor Robert Alan] Goldberg. There’s no better way to rally support than to suggest to your people that outside forces — not supply and demand, but malicious schemers — are out to get them.