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Does the man doth protest too much? The impact of attacks on coal by oil and gas

BHP-Billiton-Middelburg-1Did you read about Andrew Mackenzie, CEO of BHP Billiton, and his plea to his colleagues in the oil and gas industry? He asked them to stop publicly asserting that natural gas and oil produce fewer carbon emissions than coal. Interpreting, liberally: You guys (a euphemism for men and women) are hurting BHP and its mining and resource development businesses, as well as the entire sector.

Mackenzie said it nicely. He suggested that they lay off the criticism. Because we live in a peaceful, collaborative, problem-solving era (you’re supposed to laugh at this point), his solution, sort of Isaiah-like, was, “Come, let us now reason together.” On behalf of BHP, a conglomerate and the biggest mining company (dollar capitalization) in the world — a company that also has big stakes in oil and gas — Mackenzie asked that fossil fuel companies break bread together and find mutually beneficial solutions to the carbon problem — assumedly consistent with their respective bottom lines. Put another more interpretive way, why should his colleagues in the industry undercut each other by demeaning each other’s products? Paraphrasing a common phrase today, Mackenzie seems to believe that we are all BHP; we are all Exxon; and we are all Texaco. We all have carbon issues and face government emission regulations.

Mackenzie called for the industry to develop carbon capture and storage solutions. His proposals can be construed as relatively company-friendly in that they start off seemingly focused on protecting the diverse resource production menu of each company, particularly, but not only, coal. They also may help each company avoid (at least initially) caps, taxes and fixed emission or production targets.

We shouldn’t be cynical. Carbon capture and storage have been, and continue to be, supported by some respected environmentalists and scientists. Both are endorsed in their many papers, speeches and media.

By his proposal, Mackenzie suggests that the resource-development industry is stronger when the companies that are in it work together. Accordingly, they should not be at each other’s throats and denigrate products of their competitors. We should have peace rather than war! The calls from oil and gas companies to switch from coal to gas, as a strategy to reduce GHG emissions, Mackenzie indicates, is a “very western, rich country solution.” People in many developing countries have easier access to coal than gas. To get out of poverty, they will need to “burn coal cleanly.” He said: “I think there is a marketing ploy, which is ‘give up coal and burn more gas.’ ” Very insightful! Wow! When did he discover this?

The transition to natural gas from coal among utilities has led to a visible reduction of GHG emissions. Natural-gas-based ethanol promises the same kind of reduction in transportation. Don’t knock competition or abort it unless his desired industry collaboration can result in something better and cheaper!

Whether Mackenzie’s thoughts generate from the public interest or the bottom line, from expiation of guilt or inner wisdom, it doesn’t really matter. The industry, as a whole, has been laggard in coming up with and carrying out proposals concerning GHG or criteria pollutants. Maybe we need an Australian-based firm to energize it to ultimately play or pay! But maybe not!

Mackenzie said: “I still accept the drift from coal to gas is a good thing, but these things happen gradually. We need the power of the whole oil and gas industry and the whole mining industry, together aligned on this agenda to move the needle.” What needle, and where is it being moved? Doing good while making money? Perhaps. But his language doesn’t quite go that far. Sounds more like making money by doing as much good as we have to do. From a business standpoint, both are consistent with the view of those that the business of business is business.

It’s hard to know, from a policy perspective, exactly what to do with Mackenzie’s industry-wide collaboration idea or his proposals. It’s not a case of like them or leave them. But caveat emptor!

Sequestration, the fancy name for what he opines as a solution to GHG emissions, is expensive, uses lots of energy, takes a lot of time to initiate, and is unsafe in some areas, depending on geology. Contrary to his words, it may not be relevant to poor nations or poor areas. Yet, on the other hand, it’s worthy of consideration by both the public and private sector because its strategic use can reduce emissions. We need to weigh relative benefits and costs of emissions-reduction strategies. Further, and most important, if public funds are sought, the opportunity costing analyses must be transparent and convincing before moving toward scale-up possibilities.

Elimination of competition within the industry could end up muting the value of alternative fuels and alternate power sources. It could be very costly to the public. Most experts indicate there is no such thing as “clean” coal. There is cleaner coal, but it’s still dirty, and oil remains a major GHG emitter and criteria pollutant. Reliance on both coal and oil, when we have access to cleaner alcohol-based transitional fuels for power, industrial plants and transportation is problematic, at best, and bad policy concerning GHG and other pollutants, at worst.

Lots of questions: Is Mackenzie an enlightened business leader or a leader mainly interested in preserving the value of his coal reserves? Is sequestration in its various forms a viable option that would allow the use of coal, and other portfolio resources, without major GHG impacts? Are there better alternatives? Since market segmentation is external and will likely result in increased sensitivity by CEOs to criticism concerning the public harm caused by multiple energy related products, will collaboration among them generate controlled energy markets and ultimately minimize efforts to reduce GHG emissions and provide a cleaner, healthier environment? Remember that the industry, particularly the companies in it that produce lots of oil, has been and remains against open fuel markets and increasing the number of flex-fuel vehicles. There are no easy answers.

Mark Twain, a great oil and gas man, once said, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.” Finally, borrowing and amending Shakespeare, maybe Mackenzie doth protest too much!

Photo Credit: africagreenmedia.co.za

The U.S. and China on methanol: Two roads converge

Nobel-Prize-winning chemist George Olah recently put methanol front and center again with a powerful Wall Street Journal editorial arguing for the conversion of carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants into methanol for use as a gasoline substitute in our car engines. Co-writing with University of Southern California trustee Chris Cox, Olah noted, “Thanks to recent developments in chemistry, a new way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol — a simple alcohol now used primarily by industry but increasingly attracting attention as transportation fuel — can now make it profitable for America and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.”

The authors argued that President Obama’s recently announced policy of mandating carbon sequestration for emissions from coal plants wastes a potentially valuable resource. “At laboratories such as the University of Southern California’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute [founded by Olah], researchers have discovered how to produce methanol at significantly lower cost than gasoline directly from carbon dioxide. So instead of capturing and “sequestering” carbon dioxide — the Obama administration’s current plan is to bury it — this environmental pariah can be recycled into fuel for autos, trucks and ships.”

Olah, of course, has been the principal advocates of methanol since his publication of “Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy,” in 2006.

To date, he has been recommending our growing natural gas supplies as the principal feedstock for a methanol economy. But the emissions from the nation’s coal plants offer another possibility.

This is particularly important since indications are that the Environmental Protection’s Agency’s assumption that a regulatory initiative will “force” the development of carbon-sequestering technology may be mistaken. A recent report from Australia’s Global CCS Institute said that, despite widespread anticipation that carbon capture will play a leading role in reducing carbon emission, experimental efforts have actually been declining.

The problem is the laborious task of storing endless amounts of carbon dioxide in huge underground repositories plus the potential dangers of accidental releases, which have aroused public opposition. Olah and Cox write, “By placing the burden of expensive new carbon capture and sequestration technology on the U.S. alone, and potentially requiring steep cuts in domestic energy to conform to carbon caps, the proposal could send the U.S. economy into shock without making a significant dent in global emissions… In place of expensive mandates and wasteful subsidies, what is needed are powerful economic incentives. These incentives should operate not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well.”

All this brings into stark relief the diverging paths that China and the United States have taken in trying to find some alcohol-based fuels to substitute in gas tanks. While Olah has been advocating a transformation to a methanol economy in this country, China is actually much further down the road to developing its own methanol economy. There are now more than a million methanol cars on the road in China and estimates show the fuel substitutes for 5-8% of gasoline consumption — about the same proportion that corn ethanol provides in this country.

In this country, the proposal has been that we derive methanol from our now-abundant supplies of natural gas. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2003 but curtailed its experiment because gas supplies appeared to be too scarce and expensive! Instead, the main emphasis has been on tax incentives and mandates to promote corn ethanol.

China has vast shale gas supplies and could benefit from America’s fracking technology. We could benefit strongly from China’s greater experience in developing methanol cars. The pieces of the puzzle are all there. Perhaps Olah’s proposal may be the catalyst that puts them all together.

Ironically, all this began with a Chinese-American collaboration in 1996. At the time, China had little knowledge or interest in methanol but was persuaded by American scientists to give it a try. Ford provided a methanol engine and China began ramping up its methanol industry and substituting it for gasoline. As a result, China is now the world’s largest producer of methanol, with about one-quarter of the market.

A year ago the Chinese national government was about to mandate a 15% percent methanol standard for gasoline when it ran into opposition from executives in its oil industry. Those leaders have since been deposed, however, and the 15% mandate may go ahead this year. In the meantime, provincial governments  have developed their own standards, with the Shanxi province west of Beijing in the lead.

Ironically, because methanol is only half the price of gasoline, many local gas stations are diluting their gasoline with methanol anyway in order to shave their costs. As a 2011 Energy Policy article by Chi-jen Yang and Robert B. Jackson of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment reported, Private gasoline stations often blend methanol in gasoline without consumers’ knowledge… In fact, its illegal status makes methanol blending more profitable than it would be with legal standards. Illegally blended methanol content is sold at the same price as gasoline. If legalized, standard methanol gasoline would be required to be properly labeled and sold at a lower price than regular gasoline because of its reduced energy content. Such unannounced blending is now common in China.”

So both countries are feeling their way toward a methanol economy. As Olah points out, the problem in the U.S. is that the various advantages given to ethanol have not been extended to methanol.One means of addressing this inequity would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Open Fuel Standard Act of 2013, which would put methanol, natural gas, and biodiesel on the same footing as ethanol (but without subsidies and without telling consumers which one to choose) for use in flex-fuel cars.

In China, the concern is about coal supplies but this could be alleviated with help from America’s fracking industry or by implementing Olah’s new technology for tapping coal exhausts.

Either way, the pieces are all there. It may be time to start putting them together.