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

Oil, ethanol groups say EPA delay hurting their industries

U.S. ethanol producers and the oil industry responsible for mixing the renewable fuel into the gasoline supply rarely agree on anything.

But the two foes say the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize how much ethanol should be mixed into the country’s motor fuel supply in 2014, more than a year after the regulator first issued its proposal, has created uncertainty and hindered the ability of the free market to work.

“The market is kind of frozen right now because the EPA hasn’t responded,” said Bob Greco, downstream director with the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing more than 550 oil and natural gas companies. “The EPA, because of the way (the Renewable Fuel Standard) is structured, moves markets by making these decisions. You’ve got billions of dollars of investments threatened.”

In November 2013, the EPA proposed reducing ethanol produced from corn in 2014 to 13.01 billion gallons from 14.4 billion gallons initially required by Congress in the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, a law that requires refiners to buy alternative fuels made from corn, soybeans and other products to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy.

Read more at: Des Moines Register

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!

NYT: Keystone vote solved nothing, provided no new insights

The U.S. Senate failed, by one vote (as some observers predicted), to advance legislation demanding that President Obama approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

New York Times opinion-page writer David Firestone says the debate surrounding the vote — 59 senators approved, including 14 Democrats, leaving the measure shy of the 60 “yeas” needed to avoid a filibuster threat — was a “pointless” one that played into Republican hands:

The bill to approve the pipeline failed by one vote, and even if had passed, it would almost certainly have been vetoed by President Obama. The debate provided no new insights into the value of the pipeline, or its liabilities, and it changed no one’s mind.

As for why Democrats sought to push their own pro-Keystone bill during a lame-duck session before Republicans take over as the majority in the Senate in January, The Times opines that it amounted to a last-ditch and probably futile effort to save Sen. Mary Landrieu’s job. The Louisiana Democrat is competing against Congressman Bill Cassidy, who got his own pro-Keystone bill approved in the House, for Landrieu’s seat in a runoff election next month.

The Times’ coverage of Tuesday’s approval of the Senate measure includes a section on the lengths Landrieu went to convince colleagues to pass the measure:

At the lunch, Ms. Landrieu made an “impassioned plea” that at moments verged on tears, according to a Democrat. Ms. Landrieu, according to the Democrat, focused part of her pitch on how the legislation would help her back home, though at one point she argued that Democrats should send the bill to Mr. Obama’s desk because it would help him politically by giving him something to veto.

So what happens next? The president has the final say on whether the 1,179-mile pipeline extension gets built, regardless of what happens in Congress. But the next Congress could force him to either approve the bill (possibly after trading for something from Republican leadership) or veto it.

A Q&A in Wednesday’s NYT hints that the new, more heavily Republican Senate that convenes in January “may be able to muster a nearly veto-proof majority,” considering their ranks will swell from 45 to 54 (assuming Landrieu loses). But they need 67 votes to override a presidential veto.

Redlands to offer CNG /LNG fueling stations in town

Residents and businesses in need of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) for their vehicles will have an increased ability to fill up in town.

The city has added new Compressed Natural Gas fuel dispensers at its corporate yard to allow up to four alternative fuel vehicles to fill up at the same time.

“There’s not a whole lot of stations around that you can get that fuel source,” said Councilwoman Pat Gilbreath, adding that the availability of the fuel stations give residents more options for the types of vehicles they can purchase.

Compressed Natural Gas is a clean burning alternative fuel that helps reduce carbon emissions and costs less than fossil fuels, according to a city news release.

Read more at: Redlands Daily Facts

‘Pump’ No More: Taking America off Oil

Rebecca Harrell Tickell joins us to discuss ‘Pump,’ the critically acclaimed new documentary film she produced with her husband, Josh Tickell. Made with consumers in mind, the film shows Americans how many other alternatives to oil exist. Kicking the American addiction, Tickell says, is possible. She’ll tell us about meeting Tesla’s Founder, Elon Musk and Actor Jason Bateman’s role in narrating her film.

Listen to the Radio Interview at: TLV1

Can algae be the next biofuel?

The lure of the oceans has always had a special appeal for advocates of biofuel. The vast reaches of the deep speak of a promise that unlimited amounts of space will be able to bring forth completely sustainable forms of energy.

“Two-thirds of the globe is covered with water,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, a Norwegian researcher who has published papers on the possibility of growing algae as a biofuel on an industrial basis. “If we used only a tiny portion of that space, we’d have enough to supply ourselves with all the fuel we needed.”

Of particular interest to researchers is one species, laminaria sacceyarina (“sugar kelp”), which grows along the coast of many countries, including Scandinavia. It is the “seaweed” that seems to be a flower but is actually all one undifferentiated cellular structure that takes on various forms in competing for sunlight. As the name implies, it contains lots of sugar – three times as much as the sugar beet. Scandinavian scientists have been especially intent on harvesting this plant for food and fuel use.

“It’s actually regarded as a nuisance, since it grows everywhere and clogs the beaches,” says Fredrik Grondahl, a researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden who heads the Seafarm project. “But it absorbs nitrogen out of the water, effectively as a wastewater treatment plant. It’s regarded as an environmental problem, but it’s actually a valuable resource.”

The big question will be this: Can a weed that grows so prolifically in the sea be domesticated so that it can grow in large quantities under controlled conditions?

Sweden and Norway seem to have taken the lead on this project, mainly because of their long coastlines, where the algae grows intensely in a cold climate. The Seafarm project involves  growing underwater algae farms on ropes. The team collects excess algae from the Baltic Sea and cultivates it as food and fuel. One technique is called the “sporophyte factory farm.” The algae spores are sown onto ropes. They sink and grow in the sea. In about six months, they have grown onto the ropes and are harvested and processed on land covering two hectares. From there it can be converted to eco-friendly food, medicine, plastics and energy fuels such as methanol. The city of Trelleborg, where the farm is located, estimates that 2.8 million liters of fuel can be extracted from its algae resources.

Kahnh-Quang Tran of Norway has been following another line of research. He mixes a slurry of kelp biomass and water and heats it rapidly to 350 degrees Centigrade. Tran says the fast hydrothermal liquefaction gives him a product that is 79 percent bio-oil. A similar experiment on the U.K. was only able to produce 19 percent oil, but Tran claims that the rapid heating improves the process tremendously. “What we are trying to do it mimic the natural process that produces oil,” he said. “Whereas it takes geological time in nature to produce oil, we can do it in a matter of minutes.”

Tran is now looking for partners who can help him move up to an industrial scale.

Another plan developed in France and the Netherlands is to line highways with algae pools in the hope that they will immediately absorb the carbon exhaust that comes from automobiles. This will remove CO2 from the atmosphere and recycle the fuel as well. An experimental installation was demonstrated at the summer garden festival at Genève Villes et Champs this year.

Another country that is experimenting with algae is Australia. This October, the Muradel Corporation opened a $101. 7 million demonstration plant in Whyalla designed to produce 30,000 liters of green crude every year. The company is employing its Greeen2Black technology, designed to produce a continuous stream of environmentally sustainable crude equivalent.

Muradel CEO and University of Adelaide Associate Professor David Lewis said if the demonstration plant were successfully scaled to a commercial plant, it would produce 500,000 barrels of refinable green crude a year by 2019 – enough petrol and diesel to fuel 30,000 vehicles for a year. The planned 1,000-hectare commercial plant would create at least 100 new skilled jobs in the Whyalla region.

“This is world-leading technology which can be scaled up exponentially to help steer our fossil fuel-dependent economy toward a more sustainable future,” Lewis said.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about algae. “It will take anywhere from 5 to 15 years to produce on a scale that would be meaningful to the nation’s every needs,” says Jim Rekoske, general manager of Honeywell’s UOP division. He likened it to trying to maintain the water balance in a fish tank.

“You have to have just the right temperature and the right amount of carbon dioxide to get these growth spurts,” he said. Algae farms are also very susceptible to invasive species and have to be monitored constantly. Still, an acre of algae can ideally produce 15,000 gallons of biofuel per year, as opposed to only 420 gallons per acre from corn ethanol. “We could replace all the diesel we consume now on half of 1 percent of our current farmland,” says Douglas Henston, CEO of Solix Biosystems of Fort Collins, Colo. Solix is supplying the military with biofuels at a whopping $33 per gallon.

So, will algae make the same progress in the United State that it seems to be making in Sweden and Norway? American researchers may take up the challenge as well. The long coastal lines are not there to tempt us, but research breakthroughs may finally make algae biofuels more practical and economically viable everywhere.

New Yorkers, brave the rain and check out PUMP

It’s Monday night, and it’s cold and raining. But if you live in Queens, how about some enlightened discussion about oil addiction to warm your soul?

The Sierra Club’s New York City group is screening the Fuel Foundation-produced documentary PUMP tonight at 7 p.m. at the Alley Pond Environmental Center, 228-06 Northern Boulevard in Douglaston. Check the center’s site for driving and public-transportation directions.

The club is asking for donations: $3 for members of Sierra Club or Ashley Pond, $5 for non-members. Refreshments will be served.

Thelma Fellows, who chairs the outreach committee for NYC Sierra Club, says she saw PUMP when it was playing in Times Square in September. Its core message — that allowing replacement fuels like ethanol and methanol to compete with gasoline at the pump would save consumers money, create jobs, strengthen the nation and improve health and the environment — resonated.

“This opens people up to the idea that we don’t have to be so beholden to OPEC,” she said.

She added that she hopes to show the film elsewhere in New York, including Manhattan and outer boroughs like Staten Island.

PUMP also is playing in Boulder, Colo., and St. Johnsbury, Vt., this week. For theaters and showtimes, visit PUMPTheMovie.com.

To see what critics thought of PUMP, directed by Josh and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, check out this post. Read viewer-contributed reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.

If you’d like to show the film at your home, college or group, contact Fuel Freedom’s Gina Schumann at [email protected]