Our over-reliance on oil has dangerous consequences. When you pay at the pump, your hard-earned cash isn’t just going to oil companies — it also fills the pockets of terrorists and hostile regimes that harbor dangerous ideologies. Read more
The Middle East is a mess. ISIS continues to be a very real threat to its neighbors and to the West. Yet only the United States seems pressured both internally and externally to put boots on the ground. Iraq’s boots appear to be shredded, rendering its troops incapable of fighting the good fight. The country’s Shiite leadership is unable or unwilling to forge strong ties with its moderate Sunni population and create a stronger military force.
Turkey, once considered seriously for European Union membership and a member of NATO, threatens to invade northern Syria and Iraq to protect its border — not from ISIS, but from the most effective U.S. ally in the area, the Kurds. Indeed, the Kurds in northern Iraq, now being armed by the U.S., are the only boots on the ground that appear to be able to go head-to-head against ISIS.
It gets even more bizarre: The U.S. and five other world powers appear close to making a deal to slow down Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. Iran hints at the possibility that if sanctions are ended, it could become a trusted ally of the U.S. and join it with troops in fighting ISIS (perhaps even a commitment to help end the Syrian debacle). The U.S., fearing Iran’s real aim is to gain power (hegemony) in the area, likely will turn down Iran’s offer. That decision, while understandable, would in turn increase pressure on the U.S. to send in troops to contain ISIS.
Let’s keep going. Israel and Saudi Arabia, not exactly friends, likely will oppose any concord between the U.S. and Iran, based on the March framework document, fearing that the negotiated trade-offs will hurt their long-term security. In this context, Israel, probably and understandably, prefers to have President Assad in Syria near its border on the Golan Heights than ISIS, despite the fact that Assad is also supported by Iran and Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. While some in the White House apparently are ambivalent about the strategy, the U.S. has begun arming so-called moderate rebels in Syria, some of whom are aligned with al-Qaeda spin offs, to fight ISIS, knowing in advance that many of the groups will use the weapons to fight Assad. In this context, because Assad is against ISIS, the U.S. has seemed in recent months to have abandoned any meaningful effort to depose him.
Are you confused? Don’t go away yet! The U.S. alliance against ISIS includes countries that are not beacons of democracy, the rule of law, or freedom for all their people. But they do have oil, or the wealth to secure oil. Qatar, Bahrain, the Emirates, the Egyptians and the Saudis – our friends – have treated minorities and women as second-class citizens. All of them have archaic, sometimes cruel, justice systems. Charges have been made that some of them fund terrorism directly or through fundamentalist religious groups. They do not even meet the basic threshold of human rights standards.
Our Middle East allies also have illustrated unpredictable foreign policy commitments, sometimes inimical to U.S. interests and, in some, instability rests just below the surface.
U.S. policies at the present time are less than coherent. To begin to set a more strategic set of policies toward the Middle East, the nation needs to ask itself why it became so involved in the first place. Simplicity here is a virtue. Oil remains one common thread seeming to link most U.S. initiatives.
Let’s go back to early last century. History books will tell you that Britain and France, in 1916, secretly negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It carved up the Ottoman Empire into nation-states that purposely blunted the sectarian and nationalistic visions of the area’s residents. Britain’s and France’s efforts were driven to a large degree by a desire to capture and access oil reserves. Deals were cut with some pliant Arab leaders, and spheres of influence were established. Promises were made and soon forgotten. Tensions were always visible.
At the time, the U.S. was generally critical of Britain and France for drawing these boundaries. But the boundaries were agreed upon by the League of Nations.
Fast-forward to today: Historical, religious and nationalistic divisions within each nation, and between Middle Eastern nations, remain deep. They are often exacerbated by growing disappointment and anger, particularly among the young, concerning economic, social and civic opportunities that seem lost because of corruption and mismanagement. To the extent that oil is abundant, authoritarian regimes use oil money to buy peace among their populations and sometimes subsidize their neighbors to mute the possibilities of importing the Arab Spring.
Here, the U.S. is no stranger to Middle East skullduggery. Around the turn of the century, American oil companies began wheeling and dealing for desert land, presumed to be rich with oil. During and after World War II, the U.S. government made stability in the Middle East — and American need for Middle East oil and safe oil transit from Middle East nations to its allies and itself — a foreign policy priority, sometimes defined in terms of military action and government replacement. It wasn’t always pretty.
So what are we to do? I will leave the development of foreign policy to the White House and the U.S. State Department, except for one key element – dependency on oil. Oil is traded on a global market. Even if U.S. oil shale continues to expand and reduces our need for Middle East oil, U.S. oil will continue to be traded on the world markets. Oil producers and distributors are not eleemosynary. They are compelled by shareholders to make the largest dollar return possible. Even with oil now selling at a relatively low price, the U.S. still gets about 20 percent of its oil imports from the Middle East, and OPEC nations provide about one-third of our gross crude oil imports. If you add our total imports from the Middle East to the imports of our allies, imports from OPEC are much higher. I bet a red light goes off in the Pentagon whenever there are threats to oil shipping-areas like the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.
President Obama has said that we need to wean ourselves off oil and its derivative, gasoline. It’s time we develop a national strategy to wean, and wean in a big way. Borrowing some words from The New York Times on another issue, “It has been said that America is a country that does the right thing, after trying everything else first.” Well, we really haven’t tried much weaning, only rhetoric. Maybe we can make a great leap forward (sorry, Mao) and reach an agreement on an alternative fuel strategy. Let’s increase the use of existing fuels like ethanol now and move to open competitive markets at fuel stations.
When ready for prime market time, let’s foster the sale of natural gas-based ethanol, a range of biofuels, electricity and hydrogen-based fuels. Using alternative fuels will reduce the negative impact of Sykes-Picot on the United States. It will also lower, if not eliminate, the need to engage in conflicts to assure the flow of oil. Nothing is perfect, but increased use of alternative fuels will not only be good for our military budget and take U.S. soldiers out of harm’s way, it will be good for the environment. It will reduce GHG emissions, and likely help expand the job market. May Sykes-Picot rest in peace! Peace!
(Map credit: Stars & Stripes)
Everyone likes hidden conspiracies, either fact or fiction. Covert conspiracies are the stuff of great and not-so-great novels. Whether true or false, when believed, they often cause tectonic policy shifts, wars, terrorism and ugly behavior by groups and individuals. They are part of being human and sometimes reflect the inhumanity of men and women toward their fellow human beings.
I have been following the recent media attention on conspiracies concerning oil, gasoline and Saudi Arabia. They are all over the place. If foolish consistency is the “hobgoblin of little minds” (Ralph Waldo Emerson), then the reporters and editorial writers are supportive stringers for inconsistency. Let me briefly summarize the thoughts and counter thoughts of some of the reported conspiracy theorists and practitioners:
- The Saudis are refusing to limit production and raise the price of oil because they want to severely weaken the economy of Iran. The tension between the two nations has increased and, to some extent, is now being framed both by real politics (concerning who’s going to carry the big stick in the region) and by sectarianism. Iran’s oil remains under sanction and the Saudis hope (and may even be working with Israel, at least in a back-office way) to keep it that way.
- No, you’re wrong. The Saudis are now after market penetration and are lowering the price of oil to impede U.S. development and production of oil from shale. Right now, they are not worrying so much about oil from Iran-given sanctions…but they probably will, if there is a nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
- You both are nuts. The Saudis and the U.S. government are working together to blunt Russian oil sales and its economy. The U.S. and Saudis can withstand low oil prices, but the Russians are, and will be, significantly hurt economically. If it hurts Iran so much, the better! But the Cold War is back and the reset is a failure.
- Everyone is missing the boat. The Saudis don’t really control prices or production to the extent that they did in the past. Neither does OPEC. Don’t look for conspiracies, except perhaps within the Kingdom itself. The most powerful members of the Saudi royal family understand that if they limit production to raise prices per barrel, it probably wouldn’t work in a major way. The U.S. has become a behemoth concerning oil from shale. If a nuclear deal goes through, Iran will have sanctions lessoned or removed relatively soon. Should the Russian and West reach some sort of cold peace in Ukraine, Russia will become a player again. When you add Canada, Iraq, Libya and the Gulf States to the mix, lower global demand, and increase the value of the dollar, you get an uncertain oil future. The Saudis, led by their new king, are buying time and casing out their oil future.
To me, the Saudi decisions and the subsequent OPEC decisions were muddled through. Yet, they appear reasonably rational. Saudi leaders feared rising prices and less oil production. Their opportunity costing, likely, went something like this: “If we raise prices, and reduce production, we will lose global market share and maybe, in the current market, even dollar or riyal value. Our production costs are relatively low, compared to shale development in the U.S. While costs may go higher in the future, particularly once drilling on flat desert land becomes more difficult in light of geology, we can make a profit at the present time, even at $30-40 a barrel. Conversely, we believe that for the time being, U.S. shale developers cannot make a profit going below $40-50. Maybe we are wrong, but if we are, our cost/profit equation is not wrong by much. By doing what we are doing, we will undercut American production. Sure, other exporting countries, including our allies in the Gulf will be hurt temporarily, but, in the long run, they and we will be better off. Further, restricting production and assumedly securing higher prices is not a compelling approach. It could cause political and social tension in the country. We rely on oil sales, cash flow and profit as well as reserves to, in effect, buy at least short-term civic peace from our citizens. Oil revenue helps support social services and basic infrastructure. We’ve got to keep it coming.”
The Kingdom understands that it can no longer control prices through production — influence, yes, but, with the rise of U.S. oil development, it cannot control production. Conspiracy theories or assumed practices don’t add much to the analysis of Saudi behavior concerning their cherished oil resources. Like a steamy novel, they fill our reading time, and sometimes lead to a rise in personal adrenaline. Often, at different moments, they define the bad guys vs. the good guys, or Taylor Swift vs. Madonna.
No single nation will probably have the power once held by OPEC and the Saudis. While human and institutional frailties and desires for wealth and power suggest there always will be conspiratorial practices aimed at influencing international prices of oil and international power relationships, their relevance and impact will diminish significantly. Their net effect will become apparent, mostly with respect to regional and local environments, like Yemen and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Recently, I asked a Special Forces officer, “Why is the U.S. fighting in Iraq?” I expected him to recite the speeches of politicians — you know, the ones about democracy, freedom and a better life for the citizens of Iraq. But he articulated none of these. He said one word, “Oil”! All the rest is B.S. I think he was and remains mostly right. His answer might help us understand part of the reason for the strange alliance between the Saudis and U.S. military efforts in or near Yemen at the present time. Beyond religious hatred and regional power struggles, it might also help us comprehend at least part of the reasons for Iran’s support of the U.S.-led war against ISIS — a war that also involves other “democratic” friends of the U.S. such as the Saudis and the Gulf States.
The alliances involve bitter enemies. On the surface, they seem somewhat mystifying. Sure, complex sectarian and power issues are involved, and the enemies of my enemies can sometimes become, in these two cases, less than transparent friends. But you know, these two conflicts — Yemen and ISIS — I believe, also reflect the combatant’s interest in oil and keeping oil-shipping routes open.
President Obama has argued that we should use alternative energy sources to fuel America’s economy and he has stated that we need to wean the U.S. off of oil and gasoline. Doing both, if successful, would be good for the environment, and limit the need to send our military to protect oil lifelines. Similarly, opening up U.S. fuel markets to alternative fuels and competition would mute the U.S. military intervention gene, while curing us, to a large degree, of mistakenly granting conspiracy advocates much respectability. Oh, I forgot to indicate that the oil companies continue their secret meetings. Their agenda is to frustrate the evolution of open fuel markets and consumer choices concerning fuel at the pump. Back to the conspiracy drawing boards! Nothing is what it seems, is it?
Photo credit: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/
Nobel-Prize winning economist, Dr. Robert Shiller, is one of the top economists in the nation, actually, let’s make him an imperialist, in the world. He is best known, perhaps, as the co-creator of the S&P/Case Shiller Home Price Indices. His books on economic theory and issues populate many college classrooms and personal libraries, including mine. He is an impressive, smart and accomplished intellectual giant.
It’s tough, given Dr. Shiller’s pedigree, to even suggest a bit of criticism. But because I think it’s important to current policy debates concerning economic, energy and transportation fuel policies, I do want to take issue with his recent short piece in Project Syndicate (What Good Are Economists?). In it, he defends economists and their mistakes concerning economic forecasts.
Shiller seems oversensitive to the pervasive criticism of economists in the media and literature. Because of the esteem with which he deservedly is held, his somewhat-thin response may mute a needed dialogue concerning the weaknesses attributed by respected critics of the work of economists. Shiller admits they failed to warn the nation in advance of economic downturns as far back as 1920-1921. By implication, he also suggests that because of this fact economists did not have a major impact or may have even had a negative impact at the policy table and often gave up their places to business and political leaders. Certainly Dr. Lawrence Summers and Alan Greenspan have not escaped criticism for failing to predict both the recent recession and for instituting policies that may have exacerbated the recession itself.
Over the past several years, many Americans have been frustrated by the errors of omission and commission made by respected economists from America’s think tanks and its government institutions, like the EIA, concerning analyses, forecasts and predications of the price of oil and gas as well as, demand for and supply of fuel and the role alternative fuels have and will play in America’s future economy. Their numbers and analyses often seem like the “once a day” or maybe “once a month” variety. Many of you don’t remember the famous (now clearly seen as a sexist) joke by I believe Ilka Chase in the old Reader’s Digest that a “woman’s mind is cleaner than a man’s because she changes it so often.” The comment now fits many energy-related economists. Their minds may be cleaner than those of normal folks because, as seen in many of their energy and fuel forecasts, they change it so often. But by doing so, they present obstacles to government, congressional leaders, industry, academic and environmental officials anxious to develop sound energy and fuel policies and program initiatives.
Can you name — on more than one hand — the economists who predicted the recent significant decline of oil and gasoline prices? Can you find consensus among economists concerning oil and fuel prices in the future? Can you identify economists willing to go out on a limb and describe, other than in generalities, the causes of the current decline in prices? Put two economists in a room and you will get three or more different reasons, most resting on opinion and not on hard data. Paraphrasing, oh, yes, the reason(s) are (or is): the Saudi Kingdom and its unwillingness to limit production and desires to gain market share; another favorite: the American producer’s recent oil shale largess is too good to pass up by slowing down drilling significantly; and don’t forget: the rise of the value of the dollar and the fall off in travel mileages resulting from the global recession. For the politically susceptible and sometimes cynical economists, throw in the genius of American and Saudi foreign policy as a factor. They fail to sleep at night, believing the decline is the purposeful result of the State Department and/or their counterparts in the Kingdom. If you keep prices low, who does it hurt most…Russia, Iran and Venezuela, of course!
There are many theories concerning recent price declines but no real hard answers based on empirical evidence and factor analysis.
Energy and transportation fuel economists, at times, seem to practice art rather than science. Diverse methodologies used to forecast oil and gasoline prices; demand and supply are unable to easily manage or accommodate the likely involved complex economic, technical, geopolitical and behavioral factors. As a result, specific cause and effect relationships among and between independent and dependent variables concerning oil and gas trends are difficult to discern by expert and lay folks alike.
Understandably, American leaders often appear to value what they feel are the good artists among economists, particularly if they lend credence in their speeches and reports to their own views or ideological predilections. Shiller’s question about economists in his piece is not a difficult one to answer. He asks, “If they were unable to foresee something (the 2007-2009 financial crisis and recession) so important to people’s wellbeing, what good are they?”
The best in the profession have provided insights into the economy and what makes it tick or not tick. They, at times, have increased public understanding of corrective public and private-sector actions to right a weak economy. They, again at times, have helped lead to at least temporary consensus concerning options related to fiscal and monetary policy changes and the need for regulations of private sector activities. But Dr. Shiller goes too far when he offers a mea culpa for the profession by comparing its failure to predict economic trends to doctors who fail to predict disease. Doctors probably do suffer more than economists for their mistakes, particularly when their analyses result in increased rates of morbidity and mortality. At least economists can bury their errors in next week’s or next month’s studies or reports; many times doctors can escape their errors only by burying their patients. The article could have been a provocative and an important one, given Dr. Shiller’s justifiable stature. It might have stimulated self examination among some of the best and brightest if it had linked weaknesses in economic forecasts to proposals to strengthen the rigor of methodological approaches. Presently, the brief article regrettably reads as an excuse for professional deficiencies. Res ipsa loquitur.
The Washington Post has a good explanation why so many leaders — including Vladimir Putin — might believe that other players are conspiring to set oil prices low, putting pressure on nations like Russia that rely so much on the high price of oil to balance their budgets.
To understand this particular conspiracy theory, one must look at the nature of conspiracy theorists, and here WaPo cites some knowledgeable experts on the subject:
… the psychological research suggests that conspiracists don’t just believe one conspiracy theory. They often believe lots of them. And many of the conspiracies have similar structures — suggesting there are deeply powerful but unseen players working behind the scenes to shape world events.
“A lot of conspiracy theories take as their premise that there’s a small group of people who are plotting to control something, to control the government, the banking system, or the main energy source, and they are doing this to the disadvantage of everybody else,” says University of California-Davis historian Kathy Olmsted, author of “Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11.”
It might be natural for some people to believe in oil conspiracies, because oil itself is so vital a commodity around the world, and oil producers — notably OPEC — do, in fact, collude to keep their prices at a certain level. That’s the reason they formed the cartel in the first place.
But another motivator is that “struggling leaders need somebody to blame.”
In Putin’s case, finally, we must recognize that a conspiracy theory like the one above is politically expedient — especially in newly perilous economic times. “Governments use conspiracy theories in order to convince their people to support them,” says [University of Utah history professor Robert Alan] Goldberg. There’s no better way to rally support than to suggest to your people that outside forces — not supply and demand, but malicious schemers — are out to get them.
The big news in the international oil markets last week was that OPEC decided not to cut production, which would have propped up free-falling prices, at least temporarily.
OPEC’s non-action sent oil prices falling further Friday, with the Brent benchmark slipping below $70 for the first time in four years.
NPR reports that some experts say oil in the range of $70 a barrel could last through 2015:
Igor Sechin, the head of Russia’s Rosneft, says he thinks oil prices will average $70-75 per barrel through 2015. That prediction was in line with what Bill Hubard, chief economist at Markets.com, told Reuters: “I think $70 a barrel will be the new norm. We could see oil go considerably lower.”
Some OPEC member nations, including Iran and Venezuela, which need a higher oil price to pay for their generous public services, had been pushing for the cartel to ease back on production to halt the plunge in prices. A moderate pullback would have come amid a global oil glut, thanks in part to reduced demand in Asia and Europe, as well as soaring production in the U.S.
Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, said OPEC’s decision was no guarantee that the United States would scale back production in North Dakota and Texas, a surge aided by advances in hydraulic fracturing.
“High prices are a disadvantage to OPEC’s market share,” Zanganeh said, according to Bloomberg. “If you want to increase your share, you have to reduce prices, but you can’t do it through ‘shock therapy’ over the course of three months if you want to change everything.”
The United States has been in protracted negotiations with Iran over a settlement that would reduce or eliminate economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for that country delaying its nuclear program.
With oil prices falling — one expert notes that Iran needs a price of $140 per barrel to balance its national budget — the U.S. position could be strengthened. But as this excellent story by Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times shows, Iran isn’t likely to give away everything, even if it halts the nationwide economic pain.
“They will remain focused on getting a deal, but not any deal,” said Ali Khorram, a former Iranian ambassador to China who is close to the negotiating team.
Recently I wrote about how oil companies are flaring off $100 million worth of gas a month in the Bakken formation and what a huge waste or resources that represents.
Well, it didn’t take long for something to happen. A group of five law firms representing Bakken property owners sued 10 oil companies to end the practice. Their logic? It doesn’t involve environmental pollution or global warming. Instead, they’re arguing that the oil companies are depriving them of hundreds of millions in royalties by flaring off all that gas.
The case makes perfect sense. Gas is a valuable resource and the property owners are being deprived of huge amounts of money by wasting it. The case also avoids the complications that would come if the suit had been brought by the Sierra Club or Natural Resources Defense Council on environmental grounds. That would have involved all kinds of testimony about whether the flaring is really having an impact on the weather and what the level of damages might be. Instead, this is a straightforward case of dollars and cents. The property owners are being deprived of huge royalties. The oil companies have to compensate.
But beyond that, the lawsuit also offers a glittering opportunity to put methanol and its potential role in the transportation economy in the spotlight. So far, nobody’s talking about it much, but the conversion of natural gas into methanol could play a huge part in resolving this case.
The Bakken has developed so fast that the producers have not even been able to build oil pipelines into the area yet. Instead, the oil is being shipped by truck and rail. Burlington Northern has extended its lines into the region and most of the oil is now finding its way into major pipelines. As a result, Bakken production has leaped to 850,000 barrels a day, catapulting North Dakota into the number two position as an oil-producing state, behind Texas.
But the gas is a different thing. It can’t be stored in large quantities and pipelines are a long way from being extended and probably not worth it. Oil is now give times more valuable than gas at the wellhead, which gives drillers an enormous incentive to go after the oil and forget about the gas, hence the flaring. Thanks largely to North Dakota, we have moved into fifth place for flaring, behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq, and ahead of Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The amount of gas flared around the world equals 20% of U.S. consumption. When we’ve moved ahead of Hugo Chavez, it’s time to do something about it.
So far, the proposed solutions have involved compressing natural gas or synthesizing it into more complex liquids. “The industry is considering and adopting various plans to flare less gas, including using the gas as fuel for their rigs and compressing gas into tanks that can be transported by truck,” reports The New York Times. “A longer-range possibility would be the development of projects that could produce diesel out of gas at or near well sites.” Hess, which already has a network of pipelines in the area, is rushing to complete a processing plant at Tioga that will turn gas into diesel and other more complex fluids.
But a better solution would be portable, on-site processing plants that can convert methane to liquid methanol, a far simpler process. Gas Technologies, a Michigan company, has just developed a conversion device that sits on the back of a trailer and can be hauled from well to well. “We have a patented process that reduces capital costs up to 70%,” said CEO Walter Breidenstein. “If we’re using free flare gas, we can reduce the cost of producing methanol another 40-5%.” Other companies are working on similar technologies for converting natural gas to methanol on-site.
All this would help bring attention to the role that methanol could play in replacing oil in our transportation economy. California had 15,000 methanol cars on the road in 2000 and found drivers were extremely happy with them. Methanol also fits easily into our current infrastructure for gasoline. But California gave up on the project because gas supplies seemed to be dwindling and the price was too high. Now we are flaring off 25% of the nation’s consumption in one state and methanol could easily be produced for $1.50 a gallon. It’s time to re-evaluate.
Of course, Walter Breidenstein will probably find that flared gas will not be offered for free. Those Bakken property owners still want their royalties. But the North Dakota lawsuit proves a spur for on-site methanol conversion and great opportunity to highlight the role methanol could play in our transportation economy.
You can see them from outer space. The flames from natural gas flares in the Williston Basin of North Dakota now throw off a nighttime glow larger than Minneapolis and almost as big as Chicago. All that energy is going up in smoke.
Ceres, a Boston nonprofit organization, issued a report last week illustrating that the huge surge in oil production in the Bakken Shale has outrun the drilling industry’s ability to cope with the natural gas byproduct. “Almost 30% of North Dakota gas is currently being burned off,” the report said.
The report also states, “Absolute volumes of flared gas have more than doubled between May 2011 and May 2013. In 2012 alone, flaring resulted in the loss of approximately $1 billion in fuel and the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of adding one millions cars to the road.”
The loss rate has actually been reduced from 36% in 2011, but production has tripled in that time, meaning that an additional 266 billion cubic feet (BCF) a day is going up in smoke.
Moreover, according to the report, North Dakota gas contains other valuable products. “The natural gas from the Bakken formation contains high volumes of valuable natural gas liquids (NGLs), such as propane and natural gasoline, in addition to dry gas consisting mostly of methane. It is potential worth roughly four times that of the dry gas produced elsewhere in the United States.”
“There’s a lot of shareholder value going up in flames,” Ryan Salomon, author of the report, told Reuters.
So why can’t more be done to recover it? Well, unfortunately, according to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the spread between the value of gas and oil, which has stayed pretty close historically, has now increased to 30 times in favor of oil in the Bakken. Even nudging up gas prices to $4 per thousand cubic feet (MCF) in recent months hasn’t made much difference. Consequently, it isn’t worthwhile trying to collect gas across widely dispersed oil fields.
Encouraging this waste is a North Dakota statute that exempts flared gas from paying any severance taxes and royalties during the first year of production. Since most fracking wells have a short lifespan, gushing forth up to 60% of their output in the first year, this makes it much easier to write off the losses.
Nonetheless, all this adds up to a colossal waste. As of the end of 2011, the amount of gas being flared each year in North Dakota was the equivalent of 25% of annual consumption in the United States and 30% Europe’s. The high burn off has moved the country up to fifth place in the world for flaring, only behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq, and ahead of Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Although the World Bank says worldwide flaring has dropped by 20% since 2005, North Dakota is now pushing in the opposite direction. Altogether, 5% of the world’s gas is wasted in this way.
Efforts are being made to improve the situation: with big hitters are doing their part. Whiting Petroleum Corporation says its goal is zero emissions. Hess Corporation, which has a network of pipelines, is spending $325 million to double the capacity at its Tioga processing plant, due to open next year. Continental, the largest operator in the Bakken, says it has reduced flaring to 11% and plans to reduce it further. “Everybody makes money when the product is sold, not flared,” Jeff Hunt, vice chairman for strategic growth at Continental, told Reuters.
But it’s all those little independent companies and wildcatters that are the problem. Storage is impossible and investing in pipeline construction just too expensive. Entrepreneurs are doing their part. Mark Wald, a North Dakota native who had left for the West Coast, has returned to start Blaise Energy Inc., a company that is putting up small gas generators next to oil wells and putting the electricity on the grid. “You see the big flare up there and you say, `Something’s got to be done here,’” he told the Prairie Business.
But the long-term solution is finding new uses for natural gas and firming up the price so that its collection is worthwhile. What about our transport sector? We still import $290 billion worth of oil a year at a time when as much as half of that could be replaced with domestic gas resources. Liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas, conversion to methanol, conversion to ethanol – there are many different ways this could be promoted right now. Ford has just introduced an F-150 truck with a CNG tank and an engine that can run on either gas or gasoline. With natural gas selling at the equivalent of $2.11 a gallon (and even cheaper in some parts of the country), the new model can pay off the additional $9,000 price tag in two to three years. There are now an estimated 12,000 natural gas vehicles on the road and the number is growing rapidly. “This is an emerging technology in a mature industry,” Ford sustainability manager Jon Coleman told USA Today.
But an even better way to harvest this energy might be to design small, transportable methanol converters that could be attached to individual gas wells. Methane can be converted to methanol, the simplest alcohol, by oxidizing it with water at very high temperatures. There are 18 large methanol plants in the United States producing 2.6 billion gallons a year, most of it consumed by industry. But methanol could also substitute for gasoline in cars at lower cost with only a few adjustments to existing engines. The Indianapolis 500 racers have run on methanol for more than 40 years.
The opportunities in the Bakken are tremendous – and the need to end the waste urgent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that production in the Bakken is due to rise 40%, from 640,000 to 900,000 barrels per day by 2020. North Dakota has already passed Alaska as the second-biggest oil producing state and now stands behind only Texas, where pipeline infrastructure is already built out and less than 1% of gas is flared.
The increased production, matched with the expanding technology for using gas in cars, presents an enormous opportunity.