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)

emissions

U. of Minnesota’s ethanol study falls flat

Every so often, a new “study” is published that shows why many of oil’s competitors are “bad” in one form or another. Such “studies” are usually widely circulated in the media without much fact-checking. When other experts start looking into the “study,” they usually find that it is anything but scientific (remember all those “studies” that said that smoking is good for you.)

The question each American should ask is, Why are they trying to tell us which fuel we should use? All these studies basically don’t want Americans to be exposed to other fuels (in order to maintain the oil monopoly). Americans are smart enough to decide which fuel is best for them, but that’s what scares the oil monopoly. They don’t want competition at the pump. Take a look at the most recent “study.”

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have stirred up a hornet’s nest by supposedly proving that ethanol is no better than gasoline for air emissions, and electric cars don’t fare much better either, especially if they get their electricity from coal. The study compared the air pollution level of gasoline with 10 alternative fuels and came up with a winner – what they called “renewed methane” — methane captured from landfills, which have no link to fossil fuels.

Air-pollution groups and the ethanol industry pointed out that the study was deeply flawed and based on outdated assumptions.

“On a full lifecycle basis, the study’s results are contradictory to the results from the Department of Energy’s latest GREET model,” the Renewable Fuels Association wrote in a response published the next day. (GREET stands for “Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation,” a recent standard set by the Department of Energy that attempts to measure all energy use for the different fuels through the entire life cycle. GREET shows ethanol doing fairly well, while the Minnesota study used an older model that is not as favorable to ethanol.)

“There is a substantial body of evidence proving that ethanol reduces both exhaust hydrocarbons and CO emissions, and thus can help reduce the formation of ground-level ozone,” the RFA said. The study “… excludes NOx and SOx emissions associated with crude oil extraction, a decision that grossly under-represents the actual lifecycle emissions impacts of gasoline. Omitting key emissions sources from the lifecycle assessment of EVs and crude oil inappropriately skews the paper’s results for the overall emissions impacts of these fuels and vehicles.”

The study included the entire lifecycle components of ethanol but excluded the lifecycle components of gasoline (like tar sands extraction). This is not a minor omission. It essentially means that the entire report is materially incorrect.

The Urban Air Initiative was also highly critical of the Minnesota report. “The study utterly failed to consider a vast body of research by auto industry and health experts that conclusively show gasoline aromatic hydrocarbons are the primary source of the most dangerous urban pollutants,” said David VanderGriend, president of the Initiative. “The aromatics — which comprise 25–30 percent of U.S. gasoline — are responsible for a wide range of serious health effects, including autism, cancer and heart disease.”

“Urban air pollution, and specifically summertime smog or ozone, is a mix of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, particulates, NOx, and countless other factors. Gasoline itself is a toxic soup of chemicals, but as we add ethanol we clean up that gasoline and protect public health,” added VanderGriend, whose group keeps track of pollutants in cities.

VanderGriend pointed out that ethanol is a source of clean, low carbon octane that is used in federal reformulated gasoline in major U.S. cities. Although it is not required, refiners choose ethanol for its clean-burning properties and its ability to help them meet emission standards. “Excess carbon monoxide has essentially been eliminated in the U.S. due to the presence of ethanol, and ozone violations are at the lowest levels in the history of the automobile,” said the RFA response. According to the EPA, the amount of ozone in the air has decreased 18 percent from 2000 to 2013.

What the Minnesota study completely misses is the role that ethanol is playing in reducing our dependence on foreign oil. People have jumped to the conclusion that because our imports have fallen and because the price of oil has nosedived, we don’t have to rely on oil from countries that oppose our policies at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. We still import about 40 percent of our oil and spend $300 billion in the process. This figure is likely to remain high as oil bounces back from its recent lows. The major chunk of our trade deficit is made up of imported oil.

We still have a lot way to go in freeing ourselves from these responsibilities. All these strategies – ethanol, methanol, compressed natural gas, electric vehicles and others – can play a part. The important thing is to give consumers a choice – as Fuel Freedom Foundation has long recommended. The last thing we want to do is be influenced by studies that are heavily biased against ethanol or any of the other alternatives that threaten the monopoly of gasoline.

oil worker

Layoffs piling up as American oil drillers pull back

Communities around the country that drove the surge in U.S. oil production are becoming victims of falling global prices. Already this month, oil-and-gas servicing companies Baker Hughes and Schlumberger announced a combined 16,000 layoffs, owing to the steep drop in oil prices.

“They gave me 24 hours to leave my house,” John Roberts, a van driver for Schlumberger who was let go in Williston, N.D., told CNN Money.

In North Dakota, where work on the Bakken shale-oil formation had attracted thousands of workers amid an economic surge, Jim Arthaud, CEO of MBI Energy Services in Belfield, said up to 20,000 jobs could be lost in that area alone, and just among companies that service oil and gas drillers.

Prof. Bill Gilmer of the University of Houston told Forbes that 75,000 jobs could be lost in Houston alone in 2015. The city has added about 100,000 jobs a year since 2011.

The antidote to this boom-and-bust cycle of volatile oil prices is to provide a steady, dependable supply of cheap transportation fuel to American drivers for the long term. Increasing the use of alternative fuels will reduce our dependence on oil and protect the economy from the oil-market rollercoaster.

The United States has helped bring down the global price of oil by producing more oil – a lot more – here at home. But that oil, extracted from shale rock, mostly in North Dakota and Texas, is expensive to get out of the ground. As the global price of oil has plummeted, so too have the oil companies’ profit margins, and they’re starting to lay off workers on a mass scale.

To promote the use of more alternative fuels, as a counterweight to oil-price volatility, the U.S. should build up its infrastructure for producing and distributing fuels like ethanol and methanol. There are thousands of jobs that could potentially be created. In 2013, for instance, the U.S. produced 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol, which is blended into the gasoline we all use. The ethanol industry supported 86,504 direct jobs and 300,277 indirect jobs, according to the Renewable Fuels Association‘s most recent data. Those are domestic jobs that support American families, and which can’t be outsourced.

The sector added $44 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product and paid $8.3 billion in taxes, without government subsidies.

If we made such alternative fuels more widely available, we could not only reduce our dependence on oil, we’d create a whole new generation of U.S. jobs that would keep investment in the country and strengthen the overall economy.

gas pump

NYT columnist: Gas really isn’t all that cheap

It’s about time somebody pointed out that gas, while cheaper than it’s been in the past few years, isn’t all that cheap, really. If you look at history.

New York Times business columnist David Leonhardt did just that, pointing out that the national average for regular unleaded — $2.03 per gallon — is “still more expensive than nearly anytime in the 1990s, after adjusting for general inflation. Over a 17-year stretch from the start of 1986 to the end of 2002, the real price of gas averaged just $1.87.”

Leonhardt notes that the era of cheap gas coincides with the “great wage slowdown.”

One of the surest ways to end the great wage slowdown would be for the United States to make sure it’s entering a new era of cheap energy. “It’s the proverbial tax cut,” says Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of the research firm IHS and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of oil. If energy costs remain at current levels, it would put $180 billion into Americans’ pockets this year, according to Moody’s Analytics, equal to 1.2 percent of income and a higher share for lower-income households.

That’s why taking virtually every step to push oil costs even lower — “drill, baby, drill,” as the phrase goes — would make a lot of sense, so long as oil use did not have harmful side effects.

Ah, but it does have side effects. Leonhardt adds:

It leads to carbon emissions, which are altering the world’s climate. Last year was probably the planet’s hottest since modern records began in 1880, and the 15 hottest have all occurred since 1998. Oceans are rising, species are at risk and some types of severe storms, including blizzards, seem to be more common.

More oil production, then, involves enormous trade-offs: a healthier economy, at least in the short term, but a less healthy planet, with all of the political, ecological, health and economic downsides that come with it.

Leonhardt writes that it’s possible, in part, to retain the benefits of increased oil output without the drawbacks. Hydraulic fracturing is less carbon intensive than conventional oil drilling, although fracking comes with other issues. “Clean energy” offers a good solution, he says, “if it could become even cheaper.”

Proposed Keystone XL Extension map

Democrats block Keystone XL bill in Senate

As expected, Senate Democrats prevented a bill authorizing construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline from advancing in the Senate.

The fate of the pipeline still remains with the State Department, because the pipeline would cross from Canada through the United States.

President Obama already has made his feelings known, saying through a spokesman that he would veto any bill that emerged from Congress.

According to media reports, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to end debate on the bill, a version of which had already cleared the Republican-controlled House. But Republicans could only muster 53 votes for cloture, or an end to the debate, on two separate roll calls. Under parliamentary rules, 60 votes are needed for cloture.

The New York Times reported: “The move ensures that senators will continue to debate the bill — most likely for another week — before Republicans again try to bring the measure up for a final vote.”

The GOP had no doubt hoped for more Democrats. As Politico reported:

The legislation … on Monday lost a vote from one of its longtime backers, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — now a member of party leadership as chief of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — but picked up a vote from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), the former DSCC chairman who has not formally signed onto the pipeline bill.

Two other Democrats who have backed stripping Obama’s power to decide on a Keystone permit, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Mark Warner, missed the Monday vote.

“I’d like to see us decide Keystone and move on,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, one of the pro-Keystone Democrats who voted with the GOP to cut off debate, told reporters.

Keystone’s backers initially expected the pipeline votes would end this week. But Democratic anger over the majority leader’s move to close off the debate on their amendments last week has made the pipeline bill a power struggle, with Democrats pushing McConnell to continue the freewheeling energy debate on the floor that has delved into topics ranging from climate change to eminent domain.

 

dependence-foreign-oil

Oil prices dip as blizzard strikes the Northeast

OPEC’s secretary-general, Abdullah al-Badri, said Monday that the great oil price-drop could be over, and that it could start to climb again soon.

“Now the prices are around $45-$50, and I think maybe they reached the bottom and will see some rebound very soon,” he told Reuters in London.

Al-Badri also warned that oil might spike to $200.

That may well occur in the future. But for now, the floor hasn’t been reached. Prices rallied briefly after al-Badri’s comments, but they settled down in Monday’s trading session. Brent, the international benchmark, fell 1.3 percent to $48.16. U.S., or West Texas Intermediate, fell 1 percent to $45.15, but narrowed after the restart of a refinery in Whiting, Indiana.

Some experts had anticipated movement in the markets following the death of Saudi King Abdullah last week. But his successor, half-brother Salman, pledged “continuity in energy and foreign policies on Friday and was quick to retain veteran oil minister Ali al-Naimi, sending a message aimed at calming a jittery oil market,” Reuters reported.

The massive blizzard in the Northeast affected crude prices: The anticipated storm caused prices of heating oil to rise, but jet fuel dropped, in anticipation of canceled flights.

As Reuters reported:

The blizzard will result in canceled flights, less driving and increased use of heating oil, creating mixed indicators for crude oil, Matt Smith, an analyst at Schneider Electric, said.

“We saw this with Hurricane Sandy,” Smith said.

polar bear

GOP condemns White House proposal to add Alaska protections

Reaction is pouring in after President Obama over the weekend announced his administration was seeking to permanently protect the majority of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge — about 12 million of 19.8 million acres — from oil and gas exploration.

The coastal plain in the refuge, home to about 200 species, as well as an estimated 10.3 billion barrels of oil (enough to satisfy U.S. consumption for about 18 months), has been “off-limits to development for years,” The Los Angeles Times writes. But:

… the White House move marks a new front in the long-running political and environmental battle over whether to authorize oil production in the refuge.

Only Congress can designate the area as protected wilderness. But even if lawmakers don’t support the measure, officials said, the Interior Department intends to continue barring oil and gas development — along with road-building and almost every other form of development.

As The Washington Post put it:

The move marks the latest instance of Obama’s aggressive use of executive authority to advance his top policy priorities. While only Congress can create a wilderness area, once the federal government identifies a place for that designation, it receives the highest level of protection until Congress acts or a future administration adopts a different approach.

Obama, in a video released Sunday, said: “Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place — pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it’s very fragile.”

Environmentalists praised the announcement, but Republican lawmakers weren’t happy, particularly Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A statement on the senator’s website was titled “Obama, Jewell Declaring War on Alaska’s Future,” referring to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Murkowski said:

“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive. It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.”

The White House called her reaction overblown.

 

Saudi Arabia-money

The Atlantic: Why the U.S. still needs Saudi Arabia

The Atlantic’s Matt Schiavenza has some pointed commentary on the longtime U.S.-Saudi alliance, arguing that the United States needs the Middle East kingdom “more than ever.”

Following the death of King Abdullah last week at age 90, following a lung infection, President Obama cited his “enduring contribution to the search for peace” in the region. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was a “man of wisdom and vision.”

Schiavenza then lists the ways in which Saudi policy undermines the American praise, including the lack of rights of women, and the case of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for defending atheism.

Schiavenza writes:

Contrary to President Obama’s statement, Saudi Arabia’s role in brokering Middle Eastern peace has, at best, been unhelpful. King Abdullah bitterly opposed Washington’s support of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt and urged President Obama to use force to preserve Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed the country’s leadership in 2013, Riyadh has helped finance his brutal suppression of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia has also resisted the rise of Shia movements in the region out of fear that Iran, their main rival, will gain influence. When Shia protesters threatened the Sunni dictatorship in neighboring Bahrain, Saudi Arabia dispatched its military to suppress the uprising. Riyadh’s support of Syrian rebels, too, has backfired: Islamic State fighters have benefited from Saudi money and weapons.

The reason the United States continues to “put up with” Saudi Arabia, the writer contends, is oil. And despite ramped-up production in the U.S. shale-oil fields, the U.S. will continue to need Saudi oil. Currently there’s a glut that might worsen, since Abdullah’s successor, his half-brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz, appears unlikely to reduce oil production to stem the drop in price. Right now the U.S. produces about 9 million barrels of oil a day, comparable with Saudi output.

But the kingdom, which is the leading oil-producer in OPEC (which controls 40 percent of the world’s oil supply), is “well-positioned to survive a sustained drop in the price of oil,” Schiavenza writes, adding:

Riyadh generally needs oil to trade at $80 a barrel in order to balance its budget. But with $750 billion stashed away in reserve, the kingdom faces little pressure to reduce supply and raise the price. In addition, Saudi Arabia and fellow OPEC members Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have proved reserves of 460 billion barrels. The United States, by contrast, has proved reserves of just 10 billion—and the U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts that American shale oil production will plateau in 2020.

lab

Puncturing the myth of 14X improvement in biofuels

Jim Lane was demonstrating some of his usual skepticism when he took on the story of a 14X improvement in the production of biofuels last week.

The story began with an item in Renewable Energy World, Green Car Congress and several other publications. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a report on its website stating that a bacterium had been discovered that processed biofuel from cellulose material at 14 times the rate of previously used bacteria.

Lane starts with an apology as to why Biofuels Digest didn’t get too excited about this announcement.

You may have wondered why the discovery was not also hailed in The Digest this week, and on the topic there’s good and bad news, friends.

The good news is that such an enzyme exists, though it doesn’t quite perform at the 14X level and isn’t out of the lab yet. The bad news is that the research that inspired the article actually was published in Science in 2013. Sorry, folks, not a new breakthrough.

First, Lane takes these publications to school for a little elementary arithmetic. The articles said that the new microbe “revealed twice the total sugar conversion in two days” that the present microbe “usually produced in seven.” But as Lane points out, that means it’s 7X as effective, not 14X. But “What does it matter,” he says. “Two of the stubborn problems in converting cellulose to fuels have been the cost of enzymes and the capex [capital expenditures] associated with the technology.” Neither problem is really addressed by the new enzyme.

Actually, the new enzyme – caldicellulosedisruptor bescii, which was discovered in a region of hot springs and land on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula — does hold some promise. Because they are so tolerant of heat (up to 193 degrees F), they promise to eliminate the pretreatment of cellulosic material, which would mean a huge saving in processing. Almost half the cost of reducing cellulosic material to sugars comes in pre-treatment. The trick will be getting the process that has been demonstrated in the lab to be repeated on a commercial scale. “Let’s locate all of this where it is, which is in the lab. Which is about 10 years from appearing in an at-scale process somewhere, you average out the timelines for bringing processes based on other microbes to full commercial scale.”

Which is to say, no one has shown that these results can be achieved in a 500 liter fermenter, much less a million liter monster as we see in commercial scale operations. There’s going to be, lime, zero knowledge at this stage about the behavior of these microbes in a fermenter under the incomplete mixing conditions that almost invariably are found at scale.

So, let’s keep the risks in mind, and the timelines, too – even as we hail a genuinely promising and fascinating scientific advance.

Lane has some quiet optimism about the process itself. He isn’t as entirely cynical as he would let on.

There has indeed been some research showing that the CelA bacteria can handle large quantities of cellulosic material in a commercial setting. As BioDigest reported last year, “a group of researchers led by the University of Georgia’s Mike Adams demonstrated that caldicellolusiruptor could “without pretreatment, break down biomass, including lignin, and release sugars for biofuels and chemicals production.” The group wrote in Energy & Environmental Science that “the majority (85%) of insoluble switchgrass biomass that had not been previously chemically treated was degraded at 78 °C by the anaerobic bacterium Caldicellulosiruptor bescii.)”

Digesting switchgrass and other cellulosic material into sugars — which can easily be converted to ethanol — would be a huge advance, even if it took ten years to bring into play. Even if it’s not the miracle that some have touted, it’s a huge advance. The question of which publication broke the story first will fade, and we’ll soon know if the new bacteria really can help us turn seemingly intractable vegetable material into a useful fuel.

PUMP-pic_trolley3

Americans used to ride cheap trolleys. Then we burned them

One of the many fascinating storylines in the documentary PUMP (which is now available for download on iTunes) is the yarn about how several companies got together to take on a common enemy: popular, affordable electric trains and trolleys that criss-crossed the nation early in the 20th century. That’s a very different country than we live in today, when the automobile is as ingrained in our culture and economy as ever. As former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister puts it in the film:

“We live in a society in which we rely on personal mobility as the primary means of transportation. And there’s no public transportation system to rely upon in the United States of America as an alternative to high prices or shortages.”

Narrator Jason Bateman follows up:

“America wasn’t always without transportation choices. Once upon a time, we had the best and cheapest public transportation in the world.”

Bateman then gives way to an expert on this subject, Edwin Black, whose book Internal Combustion details the effort to target the trolleys. Black explains in PUMP:

“People loved the trolleys. They could hop off, they could hop on … all the trolleys ran on electricity. It was said that you could go from San Diego to New York City on a trolley just by transferring, transferring and transferring.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, five companies — Standard Oil, Mack Truck, Firestone, Phillips and General Motors — colluded to create a secret company that bought up all the trolley lines and passenger cars.

“… the rails were pulled up, the trolley cars themselves were burned in public bonfires [as seen in the photo above], and they replaced them with smelly, oil-consuming motor buses. Eventually, the federal government discovered that this was a conspiracy to subvert mass transit. All five corporations were indicted, they were tried, they were found guilty. A corporate conspiracy was responsible for destroying the trolleys in America.”

The reckoning was a little late, however. Back to Bateman:

“With cheap public electric transportation eliminated by oil and car companies, the vision of America’s future switched from rails to roads.”

That led to the interstate highway system, which only intensified our love affair with the automobile. A relationship that relies, essentially, on just one fuel type: gasoline. Of course, many of today’s municipal bus fleets run on compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). And rail projects are often on the minds of planners. But getting away from gas-burning transport has been a difficult road, as anyone following the fight over California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project knows. To get a sense of how the story of oil’s dominance came to, and to see what you can do to end our addiction to it, watch PUMP. (Photo credit: Submarine Deluxe)