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Natural Gas Demand Causes the EU to Invite Russia to Join…

Hold the presses, stop the cable and network news shows, break away from Twitter, and forget for a moment about Facebook… Why? Read the latest wire from The Associated Press! Many European nations, including Great Britain, have signed a multibillion dollar long term contract for Russian natural gas. The signing was accompanied by a decision by the European Community to integrate Russia into the community’s governance– NATO officials expressed anger and disappointment. Great Britain’s ambassador to America gently, but affirmatively, responded to the New York Time’s question concerning “what does this do to America and Great Britain’s special relationship? Well, it isn’t so special anymore.” She went on, “the world is evolving and Europe, as well as Great Britain, is evolving also. . . The alliance, and indeed NATO, is a relic of the past. I am sorry but that’s just how it is!”

Please don’t respond like many in America did to the late 1930s broadcast of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, narrated by Orson Wells. Don’t fear! don’t run out to the street! No deal with Russia for natural gas has yet been signed, NATO is still intact. The European Commission and European Union are still alive, if not well, given the economic problems plaguing many of its members and the continent as well as Great Britain.

While not factual, my flight into hyperbole and negative fantasy could become a reality sometime in the future. What got me thinking about the possibilities was an interesting article in the Oct. 31 Financial Times (coincidentally, on Halloween) by Paolo Scaroni, Chief Executive of Eni, Europe’s largest natural gas dealer.

Scaroni’s thoughts were not offered to trick or treat us. They were meant to make us think seriously about opportunity costing and risk analysis sure to be undertaken by European countries because of their increased need for natural gas and other energy sources.

Scaroni suggests that Europe’s present energy policies and related energy costs impede economic growth, and do not reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Of note, he indicates that “the problem is that we have so far failed to grasp the implications of the U.S. shale revolution for Europe. Thanks to the rapid increase in efficient non-conventional gas production, U.S. companies pay about $3.50 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs) for their natural gas…That is about a third of what Europeans pay. “

Apart from high gas feedstock costs, Europeans also pay a hefty set of charges to sustain incentives to invest in renewables. As a result, Europe’s electricity is “twice as expensive as America’s” and gives the U.S. a clear competitive advantage with investors around the world, including investors from Europe. Why invest, build or expand in Europe if your company is energy intensive?  The U.S. has the Red Sox, Lady Gaga, Madonna and, most importantly, relatively cheap natural gas fuel.

Because natural gas in the U.S. now crowds out coal, Europe gets a lot of its surplus coal for power plants. So while natural gas use has declined, it is increasingly hostage to dirty U.S. coal- sort of a negative equilibrium for our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. Rising carbon emissions from coal have come close to netting out the carbon benefits from investment in renewables, natural gas and the economic downturn.

What are Europe’s generally intelligent public and private sector leaders to do?  Sounds obvious!  Increase imports of shale gas from the U.S.!  No, says Scaroni. By the time transport costs are added and subject to liquefaction in the U.S. for shipping and regasification for use in Europe, shale gas exported from the U.S. is twice as expensive as gas in the U.S. While likely a bit exaggerated, the author indicates that buying U.S. natural gas would be economically disastrous.

It is also not a good political move. Besides the costs for U.S. natural gas, many Europeans still view the U.S. as “that” upstart nation, once defined by old Europe as the “colonies.” Heck, it was only near 325 years ago; it’s too early to pay reparations.

Scaroni thinks the answer is to explore home grown shale oil assets and nuclear energy, as well as increasing the efficiency of conventional fuels. To secure the first two, however, will be tough given the opposition of environmentalists and people who would like to keep Europe just as it is. Further, high density wall to wall development throughout Europe and Great Britain creates even more fear concerning despoiling the remaining open space and breeds an intense “not in my neighborhood” attitude in many areas. Efficiency is praised by most, because it is often used devoid of real meaning in political rhetoric. Who can be against it, until specifics and likely mandates, costs, and its impact are put on the table?

Scaroni, realizing the obstacles to lowering the costs of gas to U.S. benchmark prices, suggests strengthening commercial and political ties with Russia and perhaps other traditional non U.S. energy partners.  Reading between the lines of the author’s words, he seems to be saying, “let’s milk Russia for all the comparably inexpensive gas we can get.”  WOW!  Communist! Reprobate!  Misanthrope!  No.  Probably just a good analyst and business person.

Without access to NSA data or James Bond, I still almost can hear the buzz at the Pentagon and State Department.  I can see the dour faces at NATO offices in Brussels. I can visualize the depression in the EC and EU. Sure, Russia may soon find a welcome mat in Europe. Its entrance price will be relatively cheap natural gas. New alliances, new travel patterns for diplomats, better food in Russia in the future, new political fun and games as well as new problems for the U.S.

Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe are likely to increase, but Russia’s natural gas dominance is probably not around the corner. The West can take a deep breath.  Use of fracking, governed by strong environmental regulations, likely will increase and result in expanded natural gas supplies in Europe and Great Britain.  While exports from Russia will increase, they will reflect a measured increase at least in the short term.

Russian exports to Europe and Great Britain will not have a major impact on the U.S. We can manage any uncertain political changes and the European price of natural gas will not have a major effect on the U.S. price of the same.

What’s the U.S. going to do with its natural gas? While LNG exports from the U.S. may increase to Great Britain and Europe (as well as Asia), the increase will be moderate, given the continued absence of sufficient port capacity, the cost and the slow pace of government approvals. Pressure, in light of predicted surpluses and the advocacy of alternative fuel supporters, may help open up the almost monopolistic U.S. vehicular fuel markets and increase natural gas demand.

Natural gas prices in the U.S. will remain subject by and large to U.S. production and related costs, as well as regional market behavior and investor speculation. Contrary to oil, natural gas produced in the U.S. likely will not play a major role for at least the next several years in global markets

Is this good for U.S. and U.S. consumers?  On balance, yes. The gap between demand and production as well as production potential will remain visible. ROI in natural gas wells and rigs will probably be sufficient to secure modest production increases. Natural gas prices will likely go up over time but remain well under the price of oil when both are converted to vehicular fuels. Assuming positive government rule-making and the increased use of natural gas derivatives, ethanol and methanol as alternative transitional vehicular fuels, consumers at the pump will benefit from the continued differential and the U.S. will benefit security-wise as well as environmentally and economically.

It’s not the oil we import that makes us vulnerable, it’s the price

The United States Energy Security Council has written a brilliant report explaining why neither increased production nor improved conservation will solve our oil problems or free us from dependence on world events.

The Council numbers 32 luminaries from across the political spectrum, including such diverse figures as former National Security Advisors Hon. Robert McFarlane and Hon. William P. Clark, former Secretary of State Hon. George P. Shultz, Gen. Wesley Clark, T. Boone Pickens and former Sen. Gary Hart. The study, “Fuel Choice for American Prosperity,” was published this month.

The report wades right in, pointing out that even though our domestic production has increased and imports are declining, we are still paying as much or more for imported oil than we did in the past. The report states, “Since 2003 United States domestic oil production has risen sharply to the point the International Energy Agency projects that the United States is well on the way to surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top oil producer by 2017. Additionally fuel efficiency of cars and truck is at an all-time high. As a result of these efforts, U.S. imports of petroleum and its products declined to under 36% of America’s consumption down from some 60% in 2005.”

Good news, right? Well, unfortunately not so fast. The report adds, “None of this has had any noticeable downward pressure on global oil prices. Over the past decade the price of crude quadrupled; the value of America’s foreign oil expenditures doubled and the share of oil imports in the overall trade deficit grew from one third to about 5%. Most importantly, the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has doubled. Despite the slowdown in demand, in 2012 American motorists paid more for fuel than in any other year before.”

How can it be that all this wonderful effort at improving production still has not made a dent in what Americans pay to fill up their cars? The problem, the study says, is that OPEC still has enough monopolistic market leverage to keep the price of oil where it wants. “While non-OPEC supply has been increasing and while the world economy is growing by leaps and bounds, OPEC, which holds some three quarters of the world’s economically recoverable oil reserves and has the lowest per barrel discovery and lifting costs in the world, has failed to increase its production capacity on par with the rise in global demand. Over the past four decades, world GDP grew fourteen-fold; the number of cars quadrupled,; global crude consumption doubled. Yet OPEC today produces about 30 million barrels of oil a day (MBD) – the same as it produced forty years ago.”

This means that even though we’re doing very well in ramping up supply and reducing demand, the overall distribution of reserves around the world still weighs so heavily against us that we’re basically spinning our wheels as far as what we pay for oil is concerned. The Council sums it up succinctly: “What the U.S. imports from the Persian Gulf is the price of oil much more so than the black liquid itself.”

So, what can we do? The Council says we have to change our thinking and come up with an altogether new approach: “If we are to achieve true energy security and insulate ourselves from countries that whether by design or by inertia effectively use oil as a economic weapon against us and our allies, America must adopt a new paradigm – one that places oil in competition with other energy commodities in the sector from which its strategic importance stems: the transportation fuel market.”

In other words, quite simply, we have to find something else to run our cars. “Although this may appear to be a daunting task, our country — and the globe — is abundant in energy resources that are cost-competitive with petroleum.”

In fact, there are numerous alternatives available. We have natural gas that can be used in a variety of ways, we have biofuels and we have electricity; all of which exist in abundant supply. What prevents us from using many of these alternatives is a regulatory regime and political inertia that prevents them from being employed. “Cutting into oil’s transportation fuel dominance has only been a peripheral political objective over the past forty years with inconsistent support or anemic funding from one Administration to the next. Competing technologies and fuels to the internal combustion engine and to gasoline and diesel have often been viewed as political pet projects by the opposing party. . . . What we must do is relatively simple: level the playing field and end the decades-old regulatory advantage that petroleum fuels have enjoyed in the transportation fuel market. By pursuing a free market-oriented policy that has as its primary objective a competitive market in which fuels made from various energy commodities can be arbitraged against petroleum fuels, the United States can lead the world in placing the best price damper of them all – competition – on oil.”

The Council is particularly critical of the “multiplier” system that has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to become the arbiter of which alternative vehicles win favorable regulatory approval. The Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards have now been set so high — 54.5 mpg by 2025 — that no one realistically expects them to be achieved. But automakers can win “multipliers” by manufacturing alternative-fuel vehicles that are counted as more than one car, thus lowering the fleet average. The value of this multiplier, however, is determined solely by the EPA.

But as the study points out, the EPA has a conflicting mandate. On the one hand, it is supposed to be cutting gasoline consumption but on the other it is concerned with cutting pollution and carbon emissions. (Just why the EPA and not the Department of Energy is administering the CAFE program is a question worth asking.) So the EPA tends to favor cars that do not necessarily improve energy consumption, but cut emissions. Thus, it awards a two times multiplier to electric vehicles and fuel cell cars by only 1.3 times for plug-in hybrids and compressed natural gas. Meanwhile, flex-fuel vehicles, which could do most for reducing oil consumption, get no multiplier at all.

The Energy Security Council has many other good recommendations to make as well. I’ll deal with them at length in a later column. But for now, the takeaway is this: Greater production and improved efficiency will only get us so far. The real key to lowering gas prices and freeing ourselves from foreign dependence is to develop alternatives to the gasoline-powered engine.

A big flaring opportunity in North Dakota

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.

Flaring gas in North Dakota – what a waste!

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.