A return to making love, not war – Iraq and replacement fuels

Early on I wrote a column about an unanticipated Thanksgiving dinner conversation with a special operations soldier who had served in Iraq. His comment, in response to a question I asked about whether he and his buddies knew why they were sent to Iraq, was brief and blunt: “oil and U.S. security.” He would have none of what he thought was b.s. about “freedom and democracy” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Before I asked the question I actually already knew what his answer would be, but a glass of wine, a wonderful piece of turkey and good company suggested that my inquiry would lead to an opening for a longer repartee on the Middle East and U.S. policy. It did, and again oil and oil politics were the dominant theme.

I suspect that many of the writers of today’s headlines and op-ed articles anticipated Republican Eric Cantor would win. They are now arguing, in sometimes misleading reference terms concerning democracy, inter-sectarian harmony and morality, for a more aggressive U.S. policy toward the invasion by Sunni radicals of parts of what once on a map called the nation of Iraq.

But the real issue for many “experts,” I again suspect, is oil — a fear, whether factual or not, that if Iraq collapses, the world oil supply (already close to equilibrium concerning demand and supply) will relatively quickly reflect shortages and much higher prices per barrel of oil ($150 a barrel) and oil’s product, gasoline ($5 and more).

Should we be sending kids to fight for our apparent God-given right to Middle Eastern oil? Although I think a lot about the ethics of public decision making, I am not an ethicist. But as long as there are alternatives to supply, my hard-nosed policy advice would be against war or the steps that might lead to war. Iraq has not been the noble state that welcomed America in to rescue it ostensibly from Saddam Hussein. Its form of democracy has been limited, corrupt and sectarian.

What should our calculations be, concerning alternative supplies of oil? First, we ought to really think through whether a full or partial shutdown of Iraqi oil wells will mean a damn. Iraq alone supplies a small share of U.S. oil imports. Most of the often-shrill economic coverage of the radical Sunni invasion and its potential impact on U.S. oil seems to relate more to perceptions, not empirical evidence, about shortages and prices. Commentators “perceive” what the oil markets might or will do — really what oil speculators and investors will or will not do — based on what is currently happening in Iraq, not on facts on the ground. Neil Cavuto of Fox Business said, “Oil is a commodity, a global commodity, and like any stock in almost any market, it often trades on issues having little to do with basic fundamentals, and more to do with simple fear.”

Assuming, however, there is a real worldwide shortage of oil as a result of a closure of Iraqi wells, or that fear drives the prices up so much that there is a strain to the economy, the Saudis, probably, among all the OPEC nations, are the only ones with sufficient oil in the ground to make an immediate difference concerning supply. But will they? They have shown some flexibility in the past to U.S. petitioning. They have also, at times, despite their security relationship to the U.S., turned us down. This time around the Saudis could well be more than a bit sensitive, particularly if it looks like the radical Sunnis might win. The Kingdom is vulnerable with respect to a radical brand of Sunniism. I bet they also fear a potential Shiite effort to push the radicals back, particularly one led by Iran. Life is never simple for the House of Saud.

Okay, where are we? Oil is sold in an international marketplace. No matter which side you are on regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved and completed, it will not have a major impact on U.S. gas supply or prices. Ask your friendly oil refinery or oil company executive where he or she believes Keystone-supplied oil will be going. Most of the assumed supply will be traded internationally for the highest global price. The predicted increased supply of U.S.-produced gasoline will probably help diminish price increases slightly, but don’t make a bet on how much. Today, a price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is well over $4 in California and U.S. production is at a very high level.

What would likely help keep gasoline prices from spiking significantly and, at the same time, lessen the amplitude of the cycles is a commitment to competition in the fuel marketplace. Let Adam Smith reign! Allow safe, cheaper, environmentally better replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol (and someday soon, methanol) to compete with gasoline. Encourage the conversion of older vehicles to flex-fuel vehicles! Push for renewable fuels and related vehicles that appeal to a larger market than at present, given costs and design constraints! Reduce our dependence on imported oil! Make love, not war! Drive (excuse the pun) for strategic solutions!

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.