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Of myths, oil companies and a competitive fuel market

I do not wish to join the intense dialogue concerning whether or not the government should allow exports of crude oil. Others are already doing a good job of confusing and obscuring the pros and cons of selling increased amounts of America’s growing oil resources overseas.

What I do want to do is just focus on the logic of one of the oil industry’s major arguments for extending the permitting of exports — again, not on the wisdom of exporting policy. Permit me to do so in the context of the industry’s long-standing argument concerning the pricing of gasoline to U.S. consumers. The argument is that more oil drilling in the U.S. will lower the price of gas and put America on the path to oil “independence.”

In somewhat of circuitous manner, oil companies are using the opposite of their domestic advocacy for “drill, baby, drill” policy as a way to keep prices lower at the pump. Their yin is that producing more oil in the U.S. and sending significant amounts overseas, combined with declining vehicular fuel demand, will lower gas prices. Economist Adam Smith would applaud the simplicity if he were alive and well. Their yang presents a bit more complicated set of “ifs.” That is, the industry presumes that fulfillment of the yen (excuse another pun) to export will result in more U.S. oil being drilled because of increased world demand generated by the assumed ability of the U.S. to produce oil at less costs than the world price for oil. It will also help foster infrastructure development in the U.S. to break up current log jams concerning oil transportation. Finally, it will facilitate more efficient refineries, allowing them to specialize in different types of oil. The yin and yang will result in (marginally) lower prices of gasoline — so goes the rhetoric and oil-industry-paid-for studies.

Paraphrasing Dr. Pangloss in “Candide,” the oil companies hope for the “best of all possible worlds.” But, before Americans run out and buy stock, note the price of gasoline does not directly reflect oil production volume. Indeed, gas prices, despite increased supplies, have gyrated significantly and now hover nationally over $4 a gallon. Generally, oil and gas prices relate to international prices, tension in the Middle East and investor and banker speculation — not always or directly domestic costs. Stockholders and executives of oil companies function not on patriotism but on profit and to the extent that the law permits, they will sell overseas to get the best price — in effect, the best dollar over payment for a barrel of oil. Consumers, I suspect, are rarely a significant part of their opportunity costing.

Unfortunately, lack of strong empirical evidence tempers the company’s argument that increased world demand will stimulate good things like refinery efficiency and log-jam-ending infrastructure. Maybe if the price per barrel is right (clearly, higher than it is now) and seems predictable for more than a small period of time, refinery and infrastructure developments will be positive. But, the costs to the consumer, in this context, will be higher. It will also be higher because shale oil is tight oil and more risky and costly to drill.

Oil independence is a myth suggested by oil industry and a non-analytical media. Certainly, the oil boom and less vehicular demand have generated less imports and less dependency. But we still buy nearly 300 billion dollars’ worth of oil every year to respond to need and we still produce far less than demand.

Somewhere in the dark labyrinth of each major oil company is a pumped-up (another pun), never-used, secret justification for franchise agreements impeding the sale of alternative fuels in their retail outlets. To alleviate guilt, it may go something like this: “Monopolies at the pump will allow us to make larger profits. You know we will someday soon want to give back some of the profits to consumers by lowering the price of gasoline.” If you believe this still-secret beneficence, let me sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is another way to steady the gasoline market and lower consumer costs. Inexpensive conversions to allow older vehicles to use safe, cheaper and environmentally better alternative fuels (as opposed to gasoline), combined with expanded use by flex-fuel owners of alternative fuels, would add competition to the fuel market and likely reduce prices for consumers. Natural-gas-based ethanol is on the horizon and methanol, once the EPA approves, will follow, hopefully shortly thereafter. Electric cars, once costs are lower and distance on single charges is higher, will be a welcome addition to the competitive mix.

Tesla Takes It to the Next Level

This will be a week for watching Tesla, not only because the company’s stock had soared to new heights but because Elon Musk seems poised to take it to the next level – manufacturing batteries.

Musk has scheduled a conference call this week and gives every indication is he will be announcing plans for a new “Giga factory” where the Silicon Valley auto company will manufacture its own batteries. “Very shortly, we will be ready to share more information about the Tesla Giga-factory,” Musk told shareholders in his 4th quarter letter last week. This will allow us to achieve a major reduction in the cost of our battery packs and accelerate the pace of battery innovation.”

In a way the company has little choice. If Tesla is to move down-market from its current luxury niche – which has always been the plan – it is will need to buy the equivalent of the world’s entire current output of lithium-ion. The easiest thing to do is to go into manufacturing itself.

As usual, Musk will be doing things with a flair. Rumor is that he will be combining with SolarCity, which is run by his cousin Lyndon Rive, to produce a facility running largely on solar power. This will take us way beyond fossil fuels into the kind of world environmentalists imagine, where intermittent solar and wind power are stored to provide the kind of “high-9’s” reliability required by an industrial, digital society. And the key to that will be the same thing that Musk is working on now – batteries.

This kind of convergence is the reason for the number-two rumor of the week – that Tesla and Apple have engaged for a possible collaboration, even a merger. Last week San Francisco Chronicle reporters Thomas Lee and David Baker revealed that Apple’s M&A specialist Adrian Perica met with Musk last spring. What did they talk about?  Obviously a joint venture is in the air. Remarkably, only last October German stock analyst Adnaan Ahmad wrote an open letter to Apple saying it should consider entering the auto business by buying Tesla. The reasoning is as follows:

  • Despite its reputation for cutting-edge products, Apple’s traditional market for personalized devices seems to be reaching its limits. Sales of smart phones and tablets are maturing. Apple’s Next Big Thing is supposed to be a smart watch. A watch?  Is that an appropriate ambition for the world’s most innovative company?  As Steve Jobs did so many times, Apple need to enter an entirely new business and turn it upside down.
  • Apple is sitting on $160 billion in cash. It could literally buy almost any company in the world. Even with a market capitalization that is inflated by high expectations, Tesla is only worth $24 billion. The whole thing is doable.
  • Tesla needs an infusion of cash if it is to break out of its luxury niche and provide a car for the masses. The company’s proposed Gen III would sell for $35,000 and compete with the Chevy Volt and the Ford Focus. But more than half of that cost is in the battery. If Tesla can achieve vertical integration and come up with some new innovations, it may be able to turn a profit. But Apple is in the battery business as well, since most of what’s under the hood in an iPad or iPhone is lithium-ion. There is a convergence taking shape.

Of course there are many things working against this vision. Both Tesla and Apple may deal in lithium-ion batteries but designs aren’t the same and the chemistry is different. Also, when it comes to storing huge amounts of electricity at the factory, lead-acid remains the preferred technology. It’s cheaper in a way that lithium-ion will find if very difficult to duplicate.

Still, there seem to be breakthroughs coming in battery research almost every week. Only two weeks ago, researchers at Harvard announced the invention of a “flow battery” that stores a charge in organic liquids rather than metals. At the University of Limerick, researchers announced the development of a new germanium nanowire-based anode that greatly expands the capacity and lifetime of lithium-ion batteries. And researchers at Stanford said they had developed a silicon anode based on the design of a pomegranate seed that improves lithium-ion storage capacity by a factor of 10. All this is within the space of the last two weeks.

Batteries are hot and Elon Musk will be walking right into the middle of it. He has proved Tesla’s charging system has legs. The first Model S just made the 3,464-mile journey from Los Angeles to New York in 76 hours using Tesla’s new network of supercharger stations. Recharging has been reduced to just over an hour. Model S sales hit 22,500 for 2013, exceeding expectations. With all this success under its belt, the company is preparing to move down-market, where it can really have an impact on our fossil fuel dependence.

Like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Musk is obsessed with space travel. He says he wants to be buried on Mars – “and not on impact.” With Steve Jobs gone, Musk may be the man to take Silicon Valley’s venture into alternative automobile propulsion to the next level.

 

No Sex-Just Smirking; No Lies-Just No Strategic Thinking; No Videotapes- Just Lots Of words And Ideology

According to several well-known writers of blogs and columns, based on a recent study by North Carolina State University, EDV’s (electric cars, hybrids and plug ins) are not all they are cracked up to be. Because they may be powered by a coal or natural gas utilities, they spew pollutants, because hybrids may use gasoline, they emit ghg and other pollutants, because their production processes are “dirty,” they generate more pollutants than gasoline.

Electric cars in China have an overall impact on pollution that could be more harmful to health than gasoline vehicles…  EDVs ghg reduction will not make a big difference because the total number of vehicles in the U.S. only produces about 20 percent of all carbon emissions.”

I have seen higher numbers than stated by the writers concerning carbon emissions by cars and trucks fueled by gasoline. It is not clear whether the North Carolina study compared general supply chains to supply chain specifics. For example, EV engines use a proportionately large share of aluminum. Its mining probably emits more ghg than materials used in non evs. Yet, its use in cars, given its lighter weight, produces less emissions.

More relevant, perhaps, while recently there has been some retreat because of rising natural gas costs compared to coal costs, in the long term future, (perhaps aided by government regulations of carbon emissions,) conversion of coal based power generation to natural gas will  again trend upward and lower the total ghg allocated to EDVs.

The bloggers and columnists as well as the North Carolina scholars seem to believe in the theory that if you build it they will come.  Indeed, the most frequent comments on the models used in the study relate to one model, that is, a 42 percent EDV market share by 2050. It presumes a government cap on emissions.   Apparently, according to this model, any ghg reductions caused by EDVs will soon be filled up by other emitters. According to the study’s author, Joseph DeCarolis, ( interviewed by Will Oremus, a critic of the paper in his article in Future Tense, Jan. 27),   “It’s that there all this other stuff going on in this larger energy system that effects overall emissions.” I would add based on the study, DeCarolis presumes ghg emissions are fungible and equilibrium will result in 2050.

Diminishing the ghg importance of  EDVs ,  more than three decades out,  shifts  issues and initiates arguments over whether or not government should have a tougher cap; whether or not other sectors of the economy will illustrate more or less ghg emissions; whether or not technological advancements focused on ghg reduction across the economy will remain almost static; whether or not businesses will accept ghg reduction as a must or as part of  “conscientious capitalism” both to sustain profits and quality of life.

The continued development and increased sales of edvs are important to the nation’s long term effort to reduce ghg and other pollutants. But, until evs among edvs increase mileage per charge to remove owner fear of stalling out in either remote or congested places like freeways and until the price comes down and size increases for families with children, they will at best constitute a relatively small share of the new market for cars in the  near future. Even if the total numbers of edvs significantly increase their proportion of new car sales, many years will pass before they, will collectively, play a major role in lessening the nation’s carbon footprint.

Perfectibility not perfection should be a legitimate goal for all of us concerned with the environment. Individuals and groups concerned with the economic and social health of the nation should drop their ideological bundling boards. (Some of us are old enough to remember the real origins of the bundling board. Because of a shortage of space in many homes, it was used to separate males and females who often slept together before they were married in revolutionary days. I am not sure it was abandoned because mores changed, houses got bigger or people got splinters. I have no videotapes!)

2014 should witness the development of a non-partisan,non- ideological coalition of environmental, business, non-profit, academic  and government leaders to embrace  the need for an effective transitional alternative fuel strategy for new and existing cars and EDVs.  The embrace should respond to national and local objectives concerning the environment, the economy, and security and consumer well-being.   A good place to start would be to extend the use of natural gas based fuels, including ethanol and methanol.

Simultaneously, the coalition should encourage Detroit to expand production of flex fuel cars and the nation to implement a large scale flex fuel conversion program for existing cars.  Added to the coalition’s agenda should be development of a more open fuels market and support for intense research and development of EDV’s, particularly EVs.  Hopefully, evs will soon be   ready for prime time in the marketplace. Succinctly, we need both alternative fuels and evs.

Robert Rapier loves methanol

Robert Rapier – “R2” as he calls himself in good scientific notation – is one of the smartest people out there when it comes to energy. A master’s graduate in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University, Rapier is chief technology officer and executive vice president for Merica International, a renewable energy company. He also writes a regular column at EnergyTrendsInsider.com.

And he is a big enthusiast of methanol.

In a series of recent columns, Rapier has made a strong case that methanol is our best option for replacing foreign oil. He believes it can be done cleanly and in a way that also reduces carbon emissions. Unfortunately, one of the biggest impediments, according to Rapier, is the huge political momentum behind corn ethanol, which he regards as an inferior fuel. He is also highly critical of the biofuels effort, which has attracted so much attention in the form of venture capital from Silicon Valley.

“You can buy methanol today for around $1 per gallon,” he said. “This is a big, well-established business that does not receive heavy subsidies and government support as ethanol does. On a per BTU basis, unsubsidized methanol costs $17.61 per million BTUs. You can buy ethanol today – ethanol that has received billions in taxpayer subsidies – for $1.60 per gallon. On a per BTU basis, heavily subsidized and mandated ethanol sells for $21.03 per million BTUs.”

Yes, you read that correctly. We are paying 20% more for ethanol, enabled via highly paid lobbyists, heavy government intervention, taxpayer funds and protectionist tariffs than we are for methanol that has long been produced subsidy-free.

Unfortunately, the decision to mandate ethanol consumption while ignoring methanol has been based much more on politics than on the two fuels comparative advantages. “The fact is, methanol simply has not had the same sort of political favoritism, but is in [Rapier’s] opinion a far superior option to ethanol as a viable, long-term energy option for the world.”

Where biofuels are concerned, Rapier states that the effort has always been predicated on the assumption that we will eventually switch from corn ethanol to much more abundant, non-food cellulosic feedstocks such as switch grass. We just have to wait until somebody comes up with a way to break down cellulose. What investors do not seem to realize is that techniques for breaking down cellulose have been around since the 19th century. They just have proved to be too expensive.

But “high costs have never been a deterrent for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who wielded Moore’s Law as the solution to every problem. In their minds, the advanced biofuel industry would mimic the process by which computer chips continually became faster and cheaper over time. But advanced biofuels amounted to a fundamentally different industrial process that was already over 100 years old. A decade into this experiment it is clear that Moore’s Law isn’t solving the cost problem.”

(Actually, if you read George Gilder’s latest book, “Knowledge and Power,” you would realize that mathematicians such as Claude Elwood Shannon and John von Neumann have determined that information as an entirely separate entity from energy and matter. Moore’s Law applies only to information, not matter and energy.)

Rapier says biofuels will never succeed until the effort at developing them is redirected into producing methanol rather than ethanol once again:

For methanol, we can produce it from biomass via a similar process to how it is produced for $1 per gallon today. There are numerous biomass gasifiers out there. Some are even portable. They do not require high fossil fuel inputs and they utilize a much larger fraction of the biomass. They aren’t limited to cellulose. They gasify everything – cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, sugars and proteins – all organic components. And if there is also a heating application, the combined heat and fuel or power efficiency of a biomass to methanol via gasification route is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame. In any case, the efficiency of biomass gasification to methanol is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame, because it doesn’t have to deal with all of that water present in the ethanol process.

Altogether, Rapier argues that methanol has a much broader potential feedstock, is easier and cheaper to produce and could be manufactured in much larger quantities than corn ethanol. And this doesn’t even consider the possibility of synthesizing it from our superabundant supplies of natural gas. The problem is that “methanol doesn’t have a big lobby and 42 senators from farm states it can count on for perpetual support.”

At Fuel Freedom Foundation, we believe we should pursue all these options – ethanol, biofuels, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and electric cars. They all offer the possibility of reducing the $350 billion we shell out each year for imported oil. But we can’t help but admire Rapier’s observation that the methanol option is greatly underappreciated. The reasons are: 1) the EPA restrictions that make it illegal to use in car engines and 2) the lack of any large constituency such as the farm lobby that stands to gain from it. For that reason alone we’re very encouraged by Rapier’s writings and look forward to more in the future.

Matching ethics and policy: Free markets, subsidies and fuel

There is probably a reason that ethicists rarely sit at the public policy table with respect to transportation fuel. Let’s think about it for a few minutes in the context of a diverse group of econo-ethicists. Let’s match the ethics of presently monopolistic gasoline markets, the huge oil subsidies granted to oil companies and, yes (for environmental folks), the gift of HOV lanes and tax subsidies for those with the “right” cars, with:

  • John Rawls’ ethical guideline that we should respond to the least among us as we would want to be responded to ourselves,
  • Jeremy Bentham’s ground rule that we should seek the greatest good for the greatest number),
  • Karl Hayek’s admonition that the least government is, generally, the best government,
  • Michael Douglas’ statement in “Wall Street” that “greed is good.”

Currently, oil company policy and behavior with respect to gas stations they own, franchise or influence is very restrictive. Even when they allow alternative fuels to be sold in gas stations, companies play the role of Cinderella’s ugly stepmother. Alternative fuel pumps, often, are placed apart from the gas pumps, sometimes out of sight. If they were human, the alternative fuel pumps, legitimately, would have a discrimination case, need psychiatrists and would probably cry a lot because of loneliness. Lacking choices, consumers must pay an extra tariff for gasoline. Prices for gas reflecting little or no competition are arbitrarily high.

Congress supports the oil monopoly at the pump. It has failed to allow methanol as a transportation fuel and has not passed open fuels legislation.

Certainly, an ethical judgment of the current fuel market and those who establish its limited boundaries should be easy to make. You would get an “A” from both Rawls and Bentham as well as from Hayek if you said, “It is rough on the poor who pay upwards of 15-17% of their income for gasoline and it forces extra costs for all of us at the pump.” Finally, it illustrates Hayek’s warning that too much government restrictions limit freedom. Gosh, who ever thought I would agree with Hayek, even in a limited way? Perhaps, however, Mike Douglas wins this one. Greed has been good for the oil companies.

Douglas also wins big on tax subsidies to oil companies. Yet, despite diverse ethical principles, everyone scores well on the granting of tax subsidies to the oil industry. Both liberal and conservative groups, as well as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) agree that many of the tax subsidies are not needed to secure production and distribution. Why, then, does the industry benefit from such beneficence? History granted them favored status; politics and money give them influence at budget-making time.

I was in favor of (and probably deep down still tilt toward) HOV lanes. But, I do have some real doubts about tax subsidies, particularly subsidies not tied to income.

I am worried about the ethics of both. Most of the benefits of HOV lanes and tax subsidies to secure buyers of cars that use them go to relatively affluent income folks. Both are paid for by general taxpayers, including income-deprived tax payers.

Further, most low and moderate-income households face severe budget constraints if they try to buy new so called clean vehicles that are now allowed in the HOV lanes and secure tax benefits. No preference is granted to other alternative fuels like ethanol, and the federal government does not readily allow the relatively inexpensive conversion of existing cars to alternative fuels — methanol, ethanol. States generally do not permit the small number of converted cars in HOV lanes. Lastly, in terms of debits, HOV lanes do increase congestion, when they are not utilized to the fullest, increasing driving costs for every one of us who are not so lucky to own the “right” vehicles.

So HOV lanes and tax subsidies for favored cars do raise ethical questions. They don’t treat the least among us fairly, they are not good yet for the greatest number of us, and they reflect government behavior that reflects a bit of shooting from the hip before tough analysis concerning efficiency, and effectiveness. Let me see, Rawls, Bentham and Hayek would at least be sensitive to the involved ethical issues.

Alright, are you happy, indifferent or sad that ethicists are not at the policy table? Let me know.