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Canada, oh Canada, will your tar-sands oil help or hurt US fuel objectives?

Tar Pit #3I just finished a recent Forbes article by Jude Clemente, “Canada is North America’s Great Oil Security Blanket.” Gosh, it’s good to know that Canada can supply 10 million barrels a day for the next 675 years. Just think of the biblical proportions of Canada’s reserves. Methuselah lived only 969 years! I feel safer already.

I am (fairly) comfortable that the French won’t take over Quebec and act out residual imperial desires and that the British won’t try to recapture their former colonies. So, sleep easy and leave a note in the morning to your children, their children and their children’s children, ad nauseam. Future generations of U.S. residents won’t have to worry about the definitions of peak oil or real oil shortages, and we will always have fossil fuel in our future. Our very valued friend to the north can and will produce whatever oil the U.S. requires for centuries.

Aren’t we lucky?! Our decedents will be able to depend on what the author calls “ethical Canadian oil.” Why? He argues that “Canada is a democracy and a free market sought by investors that desire less risk.” Wow…freedom to choose and capitalism; John Rawls and Adam Smith. I am crying with joy. But my emotional high lasts for only a few minutes.

Do we need to substitute Middle East imports for Canadian imports, even though Canada is a trusted ally? Are Canadian oil reserves a real, long-term, strategic benefit to the U.S. and are they ethical (a funny term used in the context of big oil’s historical behavior, speculation with respect to investment in oil and the perils of surface mining)? According to many analysts, oil from tar sands is among the most polluting and GHG emission causing oil in the ground. Aren’t you happy? In light of reserves, we can tether ourselves to fossil fuels for hundreds of years and a range of environmental problems, including, but not limited to, air pollution, landscape destruction, toxic water resulting from tailing ponds and excessive water use. Many scientists warn of increased rates of cancer and other diseases. While the tar sand industry, to its credit, has tried to limit the problems, according to the Scientific American article by David Biello, “tar sands may be among the least climate- [and health-] friendly oil produced at present.” By the way, conversion to gasoline will likely result in higher prices for the least advantaged among us, not exactly Rawlsian ethics.

We are in a difficult position, policy wise. Sure, we can establish long-term institutional relationships with Canada and its provinces that will assure U.S. on-demand access for Canadian oil sands. To do this would be comforting to vested interests and some leaders who still believe that oil is the key to America’s economic future. But business, academic, nonprofit, community as well as government leaders are increasingly searching for alternatives that will be better for the economy, the environment and national security. Weaning the U.S. off of oil, as the president has sought, will require, at least for the transportation sector, substituting a “drill, baby, drill” mentality for a strategy that includes increased use of alternative fuels, open fuel markets and flex-fuel vehicles.

Alternative fuels are not perfect, but for the most part, they are much better than gasoline in light of national energy and fuel objectives. Many replacement fuels, like natural gas and natural gas-based ethanol, cannot compete easily because of government regulations (e.g., RFS, etc.) and oil company efforts, despite large subsidies to limit their purchase by consumers (e.g., lobbying against open competitive markets, franchise agreements, price setting, etc.). Most alternatives appear to have sufficient reserves to provide the consumer with cheaper and better fuel than gasoline for a long time. For example, natural gas seems to have more than a proven 100-year supply, and that’s without further exploration.

The policy framework is easier to define than implement given America’s interest group politics. It would go something like this: As soon as they are ready for prime time and reflect competitive prices, design and miles per tank, increasing numbers of electric and perhaps hydrogen-fueled cars will appeal to a much wider band of U.S. consumers than they do now. The nation should support initiatives to improve marketability of both thorough research and development. Until then, the good or the better should not be frustrated by the perfect or an unreal idealization of the perfect. Please remember that even electric cars spew greenhouse gas emissions when they are powered by utilities that are fired up by coal, and that the most immediately available source of hydrogen-based fuel is natural gas. Currently, there are no defined predictable supply chains for hydrogen fuel. Perhaps, more important, neither electricity nor hydrogen fuel cells can be used in the 300,000,000 existing cars and their internal combustion engines.

So what’s a country to do, particularly one like the U.S., which is assumedly interested in reducing GHG emissions, protecting the environment, growing the economy and decreasing dependence on foreign oil? Paraphrasing, the poet Robert Frost, let’s take the road less traveled. Let’s develop and implement a strategic, alternative-fuels approach that incorporates expanding consumer choices regarding corn and natural gas-based ethanol, a range of bio fuels and more electric and hydrogen fuel cars. Let’s match alternative fuels with initiatives to increase Detroit’s production of new FFVs and the capacity (through software adjustments and conversion kits) for consumers to convert their existing cars to FFVs. To succeed, we should take a collective Alka-Seltzer and build a diverse strong fuels coalition that will encourage the U.S. to develop a comprehensive, alternative fuel strategy. The coalition, once formed, should place its bet on faith in the public interest and good analysis to gain citizen and congressional support. I bet the nation is ready for success — just remember how Linus of the famous Peanuts comic strip ultimately gave up his security blanket.

 

Photo Credit: http://priceofoil.org/

Adam Smith is dead! Will moving his body help secure absent competition in fuel markets?

Former Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado and I once led a group of CEOs on a trip to London. It was focused on what Colorado could learn from the British healthcare system. During the trip we visited St. Elizabeth Hospital. There in the lobby was a stuffed, mummified body of Sir Jeremy Bentham, so I took a picture with him. He was not very talkative.

But the resulting photograph brings back memories, perhaps apropos to the oil industry. Seeing Bentham looking so well and remembering how much he meant to my life — both the pain and joy — I propose we bring back Adam Smith, and place him in the lobbies of the big oil companies. Why? Easy: they seem to have forgotten about the value of free markets, competition and capitalism. A little dose of recall and guilt every morning when they go to work and when they leave their offices every evening wouldn’t hurt. Over time, maybe there would be substance behind their luncheon or dinner speeches concerning free markets and capitalism. Maybe they would remember Smith’s warning that, “People of the same trade [in this case, the oil industry] seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Right on, Adam! You are not my favorite economist or ethicist, but your quotation appears to fit the behavior of the oil industry. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, during California’s increase in gas prices a couple of years ago, suggested that oil companies and investors might have tried to set prices and blur their actions by casting blame on the refinery fires for gas price spikes. Her view was that market variations alone did not explain the high prices consumers were paying at the pump. Her comments implied some sort of collusion or manipulation.

E85 and E10 PricesThe general behavior of the big five oil companies concerning competition from E85 lends credence to Feinstein’s suspicions. Listen, my reader, and you shall hear some examples of big oil’s apparent, sometimes seemingly coordinated, efforts to restrict the growth of E85 sales here (sorry, Longfellow), even though E85, at the time, posed no real immediate competitive threat to overall gasoline sales. Of the just over 150,000 retail fuel or gas stations in the nation, only 2.5 percent offer E85 and less than one half of one percent of the major brands provide E85 under their branded canopy. How nice of them! Read a franchise agreement from Exxon or Texaco, and see if you can find a provision for an E85 pump…maybe there are words suggesting a location in the back of the station, near the men’s or ladies’ room or in front of the station, clearly off center and not under the canopy.

Look hard at the language and the decisions of nationally branded retail stations. Franchisees are generally limited as to price, fuels, location of pumps and marketing strategies. Maybe these restrictions are legal and from a monetary and profit point of view, understandable. But from a consumer perspective, they limit choice and often frustrate competition.

Some have charged oil companies with price fixing or collaboration in setting prices (a nicer way to say fixing). “No, not in America,” you say? Adam Smith would turn over in his grave! According to a report by AJW company in 2014, “Since RIN prices began to rise in 2013, the nationwide average discount for E85 vs. E10 at independent stations has been 14 percent or greater for all but one month. During the same period, the nationwide average discount for E85 at major branded stations reached 14percent only once. This discount is only a price comparison and does not factor in relative energy content of the fuels. As long as there is limited availability and unattractive pricing at major branded stations, low E85 demand likely will persist among consumers using those stations.”

Generally, I am not a fan of special-interest group research or funded research. I prefer to rely on, at least, relatively independent think tanks, universities and scholars. Yet, recently gifts of money for research blurs the line between the interest of funders and the integrity of the word independent. Caveat emptor!

A 2014 case study by the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), an advocacy group funded, in part, by self-interested donors, tracked the per gallon fuel costs of all nine retail stations selling E85 in St. Louis during the summer of 2014. Each station had the brand names of one of the five largest oil companies.

The data indicated that there is some support for the notion that gasoline producers/suppliers and their franchised retailers in at least St. Louis purposely employed pricing strategies to discourage E85 consumption. They, apparently, wanted to negatively influence the consumer perceptions about the fuel.

Oil companies appeared to control key price behavior at the nine stations and, to some extent, worked together to set prices, either formally or informally. RFA argues that it’s hard to believe that the price similarities at stations in St. Louis happened by chance. For example, the average E10 retail prices were $3.45 dollars per gallon while the average E85 retail price was $3.47 dollars per gallon. Wholesale prices of E85 were an average of $2.58 per gallon, while E10 averaged $2.93 per gallon. “Based on prices for locally available ethanol, hydrocarbon blend stock, RFS RIN credits and a typical markup, E85 could have been offered at retail for $2.44-2.55 dollars per gallon.” There probably are many reasons why average E85 prices were more expensive than E10 and almost one dollar larger than their wholesale price….like someone from outer space tampered with the pumps or consumer demand for E85 overwhelmed supply and the stations responding to market pressures raised the E85 price to mute interest from buyers. Neither, of course, was true!

Oil companies and their retailers appeared to set the price of ethanol to steer E85 and fuel-agnostic buyers to gasoline. They also wanted to keep the loyalty of gasoline buyers. The similarity of prices could have occurred by chance. Sometimes, I wear a blue shirt in the morning and so does my colleague. We never discussed what we would wear. But our color schemes are coordinated. What the study doesn’t answer is why other St. Louis stations, independent from national brands, did not see an opportunity to come in below the prices of majors and sell E85. Personally, I would have liked the analysis better if other cities were included as cases for comparison and if the time period went beyond the summer. But it was an interesting provocative report and you can’t have everything.

Anecdotes and studies based on the relatively recent California methanol fuel experience and Colorado’s effort to build E85 sales seem to support the RFA study. They suggest that the fear of competition from alternative fuels among oil companies and or retailors led to, at best, begrudging support for both methanol and ethanol. They often located pumps (if they agreed to have them at all) in unfavorable positions in their or their franchisee’s retail stations. Marketing strategies were marginal at best, and non-existent at worst. Stories from some astute observers suggest that relatively high methanol and E85 prices were put in place to detour customers to gasoline. Among other factors leading to problems with each state’s initiatives, there was a lack of sustained interest by major oil companies in building and sustaining sales of both alternative fuels with competitive pricing.

Maybe things will change. The present downturn in oil and gasoline prices has led some oil company leaders to think more charitably about alternative fuels —natural gas, ethanol, methanol, biofuels — particularly in light of the development of more flex-fuel cars coming from Detroit, and from consumers who convert their older cars to be flex-fuel vehicles. They have begun to view alternative fuels more favorably as part of their future business and strategic plans. If they go further, they will have to face questions, which include: whether they integrate gasoline and alternative fuels under one organization and canopy or separate both, perhaps, as different brands. Real competition, probably, will require Congress to consider some variations on a theme of open fuels legislation. Success in building competition at the pump would make Adam Smith happy, were he alive, and be good for the environment, the economy and consumers.

Bryce (NY Times) and ethanol: The whole truth and nothing but the truth

E85 pumpWhat’s up with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research? While I often don’t agree with the scholars who write for it, I find its articles and books thoughtful and provocative.

My question concerning the Institute derives from a desire to build a now absent civil dialogue concerning policy issues affecting the U.S. The Institute, when a reasonably informed national dialogue on policy existed, was an important participant. Now, that it has been lost, the Institute’s agenda and body of work offers hope that it can be resurrected someday soon. In this context Robert Bryce’s article in today’s New York Times, “End the Ethanol Rip-Off” concerns me. His article is filled with factual and interpretative errors that skew his conclusions concerning the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Bryce asserts that corn ethanol is responsible for significant environmental problems particularly related to land use, harvesting and processing fuel. He also states that it generates higher food costs, and that it damages small engines. Finally, according to the author, ethanol’s price has been and is generally higher, much higher, than gasoline. The only thing he left out is that ethanol is the cause of global warming, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unemployment, the trial and tribulations of Miss America contests and bouffant hairstyles in Texas.

No fuel used now in America is perfect. Certainly, the DNA of gasoline, which Bryce seems to champion, is much more harmful to the environment, and the nation’s need to reduce GHG emissions. Gasoline use also reflects significantly more public health problems and continues the nation’s dependence on imported fuels.

Let me try to summarize some of the facts that Bryce overlooks or does not seem to know:

  1. Although a cleaner burning fuel, E10 (10 percent ethanol) blended with gasoline does result in a small energy content gap that requires a purchase of additional E10 gasoline to secure mileage equivalency. But, up until recently, the lower price of E10, compared to gasoline, has more than made up for mileage differentials and slowed down the upward trend of the price of gasoline and put downward pressure on prices.
  2. E85, which the author does not mention, has been approved by the EPA for certain vehicle classes. Like E10, its use does result in lower mileage per gallon when compared to gasoline and also results in more mileage per BTU. The mileage gap is lower than the gap that Bryce indicates in his article. Again, before the decline of gas prices , the gap was more than made up by the lower costs of ethanol and its’ increased efficiency.
  3. There is no real consensus on the food vs. fuel debate. The World Bank has changed its position on this globally over the years and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has suggested that if there is a negative effect on food, it is very minor. Indeed, while the food vs. fuel argument has not yet been settled, most experts agree that increased oil prices contribute to increased food prices. The food vs. fuel argument has reflected an “on the one hand, on the other hand” dialogue. Perhaps more relevant, particularly with respect to corn, there are land use and processing techniques now being introduced that would mitigate possible problems. Certainly, corn is not in short supply and the price of corn to the consumer has not spiraled up significantly.
  4. The author also neglects the fact that natural gas- and cellulosic-based ethanol (as well as other feedstocks) maybe on the horizon. Investors have delayed involvement, primarily because of uncertainty concerning the market and gasoline prices. Its advent will likely lessen food vs. fuel issues and help lesson environmental concerns.
  5. Bryce suggests that ethanol, (again, he refers to E10 in his article), has a negative effect on engines. Most of the independent analysis of the impact of ethanol on engines, E10 as well as E15 and E85, suggest differently. The EPA has approved the sale of each blend with certain vehicular limitations with respect to E 15 and E 85.

Bryce spends much time talking about the cost to the consumer of ethanol and the so-called ethanol tax. Curiously, given his location in the Manhattan Institute, he neglects to mention the significant cost to the consumer of the failure of oil companies to open up the gasoline market to alternative fuels like ethanol. Try going to a “gas” station to buy E85 or to charge your electric vehicle. Good luck finding one near your home or easily on a long trip. Through tough franchise agreements, oil companies eliminate competition around the nation. I suspect the imputed tax caused by the oil companies’ monopoly or almost-monopoly position is quite higher, much higher, than the tax that Bryce suggests results from ethanol use. The Institute should pay for a copy of Adam Smith and give it to the author.

Bryce’s article does not really contribute to a needed transparent debate over Renewable Fuel Standards or the wisdom of alternative fuels. It mixes up concepts and facts concerning energy content, car performance and efficiency. It sweeps over serious issues with respect to food vs. fuel and the environment with a broken brush or broom. Its conclusion concerning ethanol and implicitly other alternative fuels is inconsistent with his assumed anti-regulatory position and belief in the market place. We need such a debate, one that reflects a comparison between alternative fuels such as ethanol and gasoline as well as one that accommodates a needed transitional strategy between alternate and renewable fuels.

 

Photo Credit: East TN Clean Fuels Coalition

API and ethanol — A musical match made from memory

Every time I get depressed about the world — and there is plenty to get depressed about — API (American Petroleum Institute) issues a silly press release that, in its confusing presentation and content, brings back a romantic song from my past. Because of API, over the last few years I have been reunited with Berlin, Gershwin and Bernstein, etc.

API has done it again. Its press release accusing the EPA and the administration of playing politics with RFS guidelines concerning ethanol, a release published even before the EPA has released its amended proposals, is nothing short of clairvoyant. I knew API had strange powers and was funded by the oil industry that, itself, has often been accused of confusing magic with facts.

API’s most recent press release brought joy to my heart. Without recognizing that I was doing so, while trying to sleep, I started to remember, paraphrase and sing a memorable tune from a top-ten best song list, published in the early sixties, “What kind of fool am I” (Leslie Bricusse et al.) to hope for wisdom from API. It has often run counter to facts and analysis concerning the benefits and costs of alcohol fuels and instead reflected the organization’s support from its patron oil company, Medicis.

API now contends that EPA is about to increase the renewable fuel targets for ethanol. Wow, a revolution! Call out the National Guard! To API, EPA’s action, if it occurs, would defy market place experience. E15 and E85 is not selling well. Oh, E15 and assumedly E85 is harmful to car engines. EPA’s assumed new rules would result in wasted resources and skew the market away from their favorite American-made product, gasoline (over 30 percent of which is not made in the U.S., but is imported). Not only would America be ruined but Adam Smith would turn over in his grave. Previous API releases indicate, in rather shrill tones, that ethanol is harmful to marriages, causes cigarette smoking and sexual dysfunction (just kidding).

It’s hard to respond to API’s release (or releases). Yes, the market for E15 and E85 has been relatively slow to develop, but API’s funders — oil companies — have been a, if not the, key factor causing the gap between demand and expectations. Not only has the industry tried to kill the chicken, it has also tried to kill the egg. Let me count the ways (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning):

1. Oil company franchise agreements rarely allow the franchise to locate an E85 pump in their stations. If they do, many times, it must be situated apart from the other pumps in the side of the station. At the present time, there are only 3,354 E85 stations in the nation. So much for the supply side.

2. Oil companies have not been fans of open fuel legislation. They have used their lobbyists and their own political power to help kill it every time it comes up in the Congress. So much for their collective belief in consumer choice.

3. Until recently, the carmakers in Detroit — historically, the allies of the oil industry — have been slow to respond to consumer and policymaker interest in flex-fuel cars — cars that can use more than gasoline and the conversion of existing cars to FFV status. While Detroit is now producing more flex-fuel vehicles every year, the oil industry still remains a backbencher and a naysayer with respect to producing or supporting alternative fuels and conversion options, new or old. So much for competition.

4. API’s research concerning the impact of ethanol on vehicle engines, funded, again, mostly by the oil industry, has not qualified it for applause and extended readership regarding methodology or content. Its relatively recent analysis of E15 was panned, justifiably, by the EPA and other researchers because of insufficient sample numbers and lack of relevant sample characteristics. But it apparently did what it was supposed to do: put fear in the minds of drivers concerning ethanol use. So much for independent and thorough research.

5. API seems to suggest that the RINS subsidy built in to the RFS is anti-market and anti-God and country. Maybe we should look at all subsidies granted fuels by the U.S. government and complete something like zero-based budgeting process to see which ones fit the public interest and which ones primarily line the pockets of the receivers. Government help, whether direct or indirect, whether visible or imputed, should be premised on articulated and transparent public objectives and should not substitute for private sector resources which would be available without subsidy. In this context, the range of oil subsidies, now on the books, clearly needs review and justification. They far outweigh the dollars that assist newer ethanol companies. Given resource constraints, perhaps we should put oil and ethanol support on a transparent evaluation table, and, after a fair debate, allow the public to decide. Et tu, oil companies and API!

API is an easy target. They shouldn’t be. With uncertainty concerning demand and price of oil and its derivative gasoline, I would think its bosses from the oil industry would put them to work reviewing the nation’s future menu of fuels and possible partnerships with alternative fuel companies and advocates. Apart from possible pro-forma benefits, many Americans who view the oil industry and its representatives through negative filters might begin to change their mind and see the industry as increasingly pro-choice, better on the environment, pro-consumer and pro-security. Hope springs eternal. The oil industry, up to now, has been living in a fool’s paradise for a long time — cheap oil, high demand and income growth. It’s the American way. But, given a changing economy, tight oil and relatively slow and uneven U.S. and global growth, continued reliance on an old oil industry monopolistic model will cause nightmares for wise men and women. API, what’s my next song? How about “I Can Dream Can’t I” or “High Hopes!”?

A return to making love, not war – Iraq and replacement fuels

Early on I wrote a column about an unanticipated Thanksgiving dinner conversation with a special operations soldier who had served in Iraq. His comment, in response to a question I asked about whether he and his buddies knew why they were sent to Iraq, was brief and blunt: “oil and U.S. security.” He would have none of what he thought was b.s. about “freedom and democracy” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Before I asked the question I actually already knew what his answer would be, but a glass of wine, a wonderful piece of turkey and good company suggested that my inquiry would lead to an opening for a longer repartee on the Middle East and U.S. policy. It did, and again oil and oil politics were the dominant theme.

I suspect that many of the writers of today’s headlines and op-ed articles anticipated Republican Eric Cantor would win. They are now arguing, in sometimes misleading reference terms concerning democracy, inter-sectarian harmony and morality, for a more aggressive U.S. policy toward the invasion by Sunni radicals of parts of what once on a map called the nation of Iraq.

But the real issue for many “experts,” I again suspect, is oil — a fear, whether factual or not, that if Iraq collapses, the world oil supply (already close to equilibrium concerning demand and supply) will relatively quickly reflect shortages and much higher prices per barrel of oil ($150 a barrel) and oil’s product, gasoline ($5 and more).

Should we be sending kids to fight for our apparent God-given right to Middle Eastern oil? Although I think a lot about the ethics of public decision making, I am not an ethicist. But as long as there are alternatives to supply, my hard-nosed policy advice would be against war or the steps that might lead to war. Iraq has not been the noble state that welcomed America in to rescue it ostensibly from Saddam Hussein. Its form of democracy has been limited, corrupt and sectarian.

What should our calculations be, concerning alternative supplies of oil? First, we ought to really think through whether a full or partial shutdown of Iraqi oil wells will mean a damn. Iraq alone supplies a small share of U.S. oil imports. Most of the often-shrill economic coverage of the radical Sunni invasion and its potential impact on U.S. oil seems to relate more to perceptions, not empirical evidence, about shortages and prices. Commentators “perceive” what the oil markets might or will do — really what oil speculators and investors will or will not do — based on what is currently happening in Iraq, not on facts on the ground. Neil Cavuto of Fox Business said, “Oil is a commodity, a global commodity, and like any stock in almost any market, it often trades on issues having little to do with basic fundamentals, and more to do with simple fear.”

Assuming, however, there is a real worldwide shortage of oil as a result of a closure of Iraqi wells, or that fear drives the prices up so much that there is a strain to the economy, the Saudis, probably, among all the OPEC nations, are the only ones with sufficient oil in the ground to make an immediate difference concerning supply. But will they? They have shown some flexibility in the past to U.S. petitioning. They have also, at times, despite their security relationship to the U.S., turned us down. This time around the Saudis could well be more than a bit sensitive, particularly if it looks like the radical Sunnis might win. The Kingdom is vulnerable with respect to a radical brand of Sunniism. I bet they also fear a potential Shiite effort to push the radicals back, particularly one led by Iran. Life is never simple for the House of Saud.

Okay, where are we? Oil is sold in an international marketplace. No matter which side you are on regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved and completed, it will not have a major impact on U.S. gas supply or prices. Ask your friendly oil refinery or oil company executive where he or she believes Keystone-supplied oil will be going. Most of the assumed supply will be traded internationally for the highest global price. The predicted increased supply of U.S.-produced gasoline will probably help diminish price increases slightly, but don’t make a bet on how much. Today, a price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is well over $4 in California and U.S. production is at a very high level.

What would likely help keep gasoline prices from spiking significantly and, at the same time, lessen the amplitude of the cycles is a commitment to competition in the fuel marketplace. Let Adam Smith reign! Allow safe, cheaper, environmentally better replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol (and someday soon, methanol) to compete with gasoline. Encourage the conversion of older vehicles to flex-fuel vehicles! Push for renewable fuels and related vehicles that appeal to a larger market than at present, given costs and design constraints! Reduce our dependence on imported oil! Make love, not war! Drive (excuse the pun) for strategic solutions!