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.

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!

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Three ways that oil matters for the crisis in Iraq

For months now, Sunni militants from the Islamic State (better known as ISIS) have been seizing control of large swathes of Iraq. ISIS is now threatening a major oil-producing region of Iraq. But it wasn’t until they encroached into semi-autonomous Kurdish territory and near the Kurdish capital of Erbil — an oil boomtown full of Western companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil — that the Obama administration decided to authorize airstrikes against ISIS

Innovation in oil & gas — it ain’t over yet

To read the newspapers these days, you’d think that all the innovation in energy is involved in bringing down the cost of solar panels or building even bigger blades for windmills. But innovation still continues apace in oil and gas, both in pulling them out of the ground and in finding new ways to use them.

“We haven’t been giving the big oil companies enough credit,” said Dominic Basulto in The Washington Post. “ Sure, we may see their print ads or watch as they tout their accomplishments on TV, but deep down, many of us believe that the brightest minds have moved on to something new in energy innovation. But that’s not true.”

That’s important because if we’re going to use our abundant natural gas supplies to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, we’re going to have to be sure the current superabundance of natural gas isn’t just a flash in the pan. Moreover, we’re going to need innovation in making the transition to methane-based liquid alcohol fuels easier as well.

As most people have heard by now, even our best technologies can’t extract more than about 10-20% out of an oil or gas reservoir from the earth. Simply doubling that rate would give us access to huge, new quantities of domestic fuels.

There’s also a concern that fracking wells will have a much shorter lifespan than traditional gas and oil wells. Then there’s all that natural gas being flared off in the Bakken. Ending that conspicuous form of waste will require some new technology.

All these problems are being tackled through innovation, however, and that’s what Basulto is talking about.

Although everybody knows about fracking — the technology of forcing sand and water into the rock to break it up — few realize that the real novelty that makes up the current upturn in production possible is horizontal drilling, which allows access to entire geological strata without making the territory look like a pincushion.

“Today, drilling rigs are so good that they can punch holes in the earth that are two miles deep, turn the drill bit 90 degrees, drill another two miles horizontally, and arrive within a few inches of the target,” said Robert Bryce, author of “Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper,” a book about innovation in the energy industry. But horizontal drilling hasn’t stood still. ExxonMobil has developed an “extended reach” technology that can push outward several miles further deep in the earth. “Extended reach reduces our environmental footprint and in offshore applications will limit our presence in the marine environment,” says the company’s website. It may have been developments like this that prompted President Obama to give a green light to exploration off the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida last month.

The same innovations are occurring with natural gas fracking. Innovators have made an improvement called “sleeve technology” that surrounds the drill bit and allows highly accurate placement of stimulation treatments. The result is that wells can be drilled twice as fast as a few years ago, at a lower cost. With increased precision in both drilling and fracturing, wells are being made more productive as well. Erika Johnsen on Hot Air said, “Data from the Energy Information Administration’s Drilling and Production Report shows that a Marcellus Shale well completed by a rig in April 2014 can be expected to yield over 6 million cubic feet of natural gas per day (Mcf/d) more than a well completed by that rig in that formation in 2007.” That’s a huge improvement in the space of seven short years.

All this is good news for the effort of substituting natural gas-based ethanol or methanol for foreign oil in our cars. After all, one of the fundamental considerations is that there will be enough natural gas around to keep the price reasonable. With so many competing proposals for employing natural gas — electrical generation, the industrial revival, LNG exports, etc. — it’s crucial that we keep expanding production.

So it’s encouraging to hear the news from Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ baby, which has been building a “CNG Highway” across the country to service long-haul tractor-trailers. CEF has just completed the first leg of this nationwide network, connecting Los Angeles and Houston.

But much of the nation still lies outside the reach of natural gas pipelines and CEF is figuring out a way to serve them, as well. Last month the company opened a filling station in Pembroke, New Hampshire that will be served by a “virtual pipeline” of high-tech tractor-trailers making round-the-clock deliveries. This will allow the station to pump 10 million gasoline-gallon-equivalents (GGE), twice the volume of CEF’s largest existing station. More important, it will open up large areas of the country that have not had access to CNG. This natural gas-based substitute will sell for 30% less than gasoline.

Technology never stands still. Sometimes it forces us to give up things that have become familiar or even seemingly permanent. But as Robert Bryce said, the new technology is usually “faster, smaller, lighter, denser and cheaper.” And in the case of methane-based liquid fuels, it will mean freeing ourselves from foreign oil as well.

Can algae become the new biodiesel?

Supporters call it “clean diesel” to differentiate it from “biodiesel,” and indeed, there is a difference. Soybeans, the main feedstock for biodiesel, have only a 2-3 percent oil content. Some species of algae can have up to 60 percent oil content. This reduces the land requirements for growing a crop by a factor of 30.

So is algae biodiesel one of those great ideas that is always just over the horizon? Or has it germinated long enough that it may finally about to become a reality? The outcome still appears to be up for grabs.

The term “algae” actually cover a whole spectrum of organisms, from the 20-foot ribbon-like “seaweed” that grows in ponds and along littoral shores to the mid-ocean, microscopic “plankton” that is the diet of whales. All have one thing in common – they use carbon and sunlight to photosynthesize organic material. And they are good at it. Some species can double their mass within 24 hours. Thousands of species thrive in varying environments. Last summer, a red algae “tide” that feeds on farm runoff at the mouth of the Mississippi River “bloomed” to cover 5,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, killing all manner of birds, fish and marine life, including hundreds of manatees. “If we can figure out how to make energy out of that,” President Obama told an audience at the University of Miami, “we’ll be doing alright.”

The idea of harvesting algae for energy was first suggested by Richard Harder and Hans von Witsch, two European scientists at the outbreak of World War II. Nothing much developed, however, and interest didn’t revive until the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, when the Department of Energy set up an Aquatic Species Program to pursue research.

Funded with $25 million over the next 18 years, the Aquatic Program investigated thousands of species, finding the Chlorella genus the most promising. It also made an important discovery. When Chlorella is deprived of nitrogen, it can increase its lipid (fat and oil) content to a remarkable 70 percent of mass! Remember, soybeans are only 2-3 percent lipids. But this created a conundrum. While depriving algae of nitrogen might may increase lipid content, it also severely inhibited growth. The Aquatic Program had not yet resolved this dilemma when it was disbanded in 1996.

Private companies picked up the research, however, and have tried to overcome it with genetic engineering. While pursuing this, they have developed two methods of cultivation. The easiest is to grow algae in open pools or “raceways” that devour large areas of land, since sunlight can only penetrate a few centimeters into the algal mat. The problem here is that most species are highly sensitive to variations in acidify, temperature and humidity. Their high lipid content also means they synthesize fewer proteins, which makes them extremely vulnerable to invasive species. This makes it very difficult to bring them up to commercial scale.

The more advanced technology is “photobioreactors,” conducted in large networks of glass or plastic tubes. The system overcomes environmental difficulties but is very expensive. In 2009 Exxon combined with J. Craig Venter, the decoder of the human genome, to try to develop a commercial method for developing algae-based fuels. After investing $600 million, however, Exxon pulled out of the enterprise in 2013, saying commercialization was 25 years away.

Nevertheless, several small companies say they are now making progress. Algenol, a Fort Myers, Fla. company, says it has developed a revolutionary “3rd generation” technology that can produce ethanol, jet and diesel fuel 8,000 gallons per acre, 18 times the output of corn-based ethanol, at $1.25 per gallon. Sapphire, a San Francisco company, has opened a 100-acre Green Crude Farm in New Mexico and hopes to be producing 100 barrels a day next year with full-scale commercialization by 2018. And Aurora Algae, a Hayward, Calif. firm which has operated a test facility in Western Australia for the last three years, has just announced an open-pond operation in Harlingen, Texas that it hopes to expand to 100 acres.

There is one great irony to all this. A full-blown algae industry already exists, providing feedstock for food additives, cattle silage and nutritional and pharmaceutical products. Some highly specialized fatty acids derived from exotic species can fetch $10,000 per gallon. In fact, the current industry sees algae-for-fuel as a rather low-grade use. “Until more federal funding is available, my members are going to continue growing for the higher-value products,” Barry Cohen, executive director of the National Algae Association, told Slate’s John Upton. “We have algae companies that are growing for the ingredients industry, the food industry and the nutraceutical industries. If they can grow the right species, those companies will buy every drop they can make.”

What makes these operations viable, of course, is their high-value end products, which cover the costs of growing algae in commercial quantities. An algae-for-fuel industry will either have to: a) develop new species that are much more efficient or b) perfect mass-production techniques that can bring prices down to an acceptable range. Only then will “clean diesel” become a competitor. For now, the industry seems headed in the right direction.

Let freedom ring: Oil companies, capitalism and fuel choice

It’s a free county, ain’t it? Americans have many choices that are denied to citizens of other less-fortunate nations. But we forget how many decisions are made for us, sometimes out of necessity, such as paying taxes; sometimes out of greed, such as the monopolistic actions of oil companies in denying many Americans the ability to purchase alcohol-based fuels at their corner gas station. Try it someday! On your way home from work, on your shopping trip to your friendly supermarket or on your way to see a movie at your favorite theater, make a stop for fuel at a gas station. Make sure to have some gasoline in your tank, because it likely will take you a lot of time to find a gas station that sells E85 or even E15.

Now, I went to Harvard Law School for four days, before I decided that there were too many lawyers around and memorizing case studies was not my forte. But Harvard provides significant value added, apart from being near Harvard Square and Boston. I was exposed to terms and content related to antitrust, restraint of trade, collusion and monopolies. Now, I didn’t stay long enough to know whether those concepts applied to oil companies that restrict consumer choices of alternative fuel. Probably not, because I am sure, by now, one of my Harvard colleagues would have filed a well-reimbursed case to break open the fuel market to options like ethanol, methanol and more. But whether legal or not, oil companies deserve their comeuppance for limiting many of us who, too often, are required to use more expensive, environmentally harmful gasoline, instead of existing, safe, alternative fuels.

How do they do this? Well, if you are a gas station owned or franchised by an oil company, your contract and rules related to behavior often prevent you from adding a pump or adding to an existing pump to sell E15 or E85. As relevant, since oil companies generally require the stations they own to buy fuel from them, and since they don’t sell E15 or E85, adding a pump would be akin to waiting for the hereafter (and acting on faith that you will get there).

Wait, there is more! Every now and then an oil company wants to publicly show it is a bit beneficent (for image purposes), but don’t hold your breath with respect to proof that image and reality are the same. Sure, you might find an alternative-fuel pump near the rear side of the garage proximate to the men’s room, or, if you are lucky, on the side of the station near the air pump. Most oil-company-owned stations and franchisees are generally precluded from putting an alternative-fuel pump under the covered island or space out front. They also face restrictions on advertising alternative fuels as an available product and oil-company pricing limits competition from alternative fuels.

Congress has refused to enact open fuels legislation, which would require oil companies to open up their gas stations to other fuels. Ongoing efforts by public and private sector advocates, as well as nonprofit groups, to encourage policies that would convert older cars to flex-fuel vehicles and to encourage Detroit to build more FFVs could well lead to a large consumer market for alternative fuels and generate a positive market reaction among independent gas companies and, perhaps, even some smart oil companies. While I have been wading through the pros and cons of allowing oil companies to increase exports to other nations, I do believe that if increased exports are in the nation’s future, they should be approved only if the oil companies agree to require their stations and franchises to offer alternative fuels in a primary space alongside gasoline. A bit of tat for tat is in the public interest. Let freedom ring for consumer! Let capitalism mean competition for gasoline and alternative fuels at your nearby gas station! Oh, I forgot, alternative fuel station!