Natural Gas, Corn Stover And The Restricted Ethanol Market

The nation is lucky to have Gina McCarthy as the head of the EPA. Her background is exquisite, her intellect is superior and her sensitivity to and understanding of the environmental issues facing America is second to none. She has been a fine EPA Administrator.

Then why am I worried when we have such a surfeit of riches in one individual leader? Long before McCarthy became Administrator, the EPA began working on a new set of guidelines governing the amount and use of ethanol in gasoline sold at the pump. The guidelines, more than likely, were ready in draft form simultaneously with Gina McCarthy’s appointment and the pressure to release them was intense, given earlier promises.

Because the positives and negatives of an increase or decrease in the RFS concerning ethanol use are imprecise, no real precise judgment can be made as to the final numbers, except the admonition, similar to the Hippocratic Oath: they do no harm and, do what the EPA suggests they probably will do, improve the economy, the environment and open fuel choices to the consumer. Sounds simple, but it isn’t! The EPA is considering modification of relatively recently determined RFS.

I understand the position of the oil companies to reduce what are effectively ethanol set asides. They have a financial stake in selling less corn-based ethanol with each gallon of gas, particularly when the content of ethanol rises to E85. Declining gas sales and prices make them eager to secure lower total annual ethanol requirements. Although the data is mixed, I also commiserate with the cattle growers who indicate they have had to pay, at times, higher prices for corn because of ethanol’s reliance on corn. Similarly, I am sensitive to environmentalists who worry that the acreage for corn-based ethanol is eating (excuse the pun) into conservation land and that total greenhouse gas emissions from production to use in vehicles of corn-based ethanol is not, generally, a good deal for the environment. I am not trying to be all things to all groups, but I am trying to weave my way through an intellectual and practical thicket.

The corn farmer’s advocacy of ethanol appears rational from an opportunity-cost standpoint. Corn-based ethanol seems, to them, to support higher prices for corn. They have done well in most recent years. While the facts remain unclear (credible researchers, such as those in the World Bank, have wavered over time on their position), the arguments made by groups and individuals concerned with what they believe is the relationship between corn-based ethanol and food supply should be debated fully. I, also, am inclined to believe those in the security business who feel that increased use of ethanol will reduce our dependency on important oil and lessen the nation’s need to fight wars in part to assure the world and the U.S. a share of global oil supply. Weaning ourselves from oil dependency is national need and priority.

It is tough to judge the efficacy of projections of ethanol sales, because of uncertain economic factors and the constraints put on consumer fuel choices by the oil industry’s almost-monopolistic restrictions at gas stations (just try buying safe, less costly alternative fuels at most gas stations) and federal regulations governing alternative fuel use as well as the sale of conversion kits. There is no free market for fuel.

Responding clearly to the conflicts over the value of corn-based ethanol and the annual total requirements for ethanol is not easy and should suggest the complexity of the involved issues and their presumed relationship to one another. Maybe increased use of corn stover and certainly natural gas-based ethanol for E85 would reduce food for fuel conflicts and lessen possible environmental problems. Nothing is perfect, but the production of ethanol using alternative feedstocks, such as stover and, hopefully soon, natural gas, could make a difference in providing better replacement fuels than just the use of corn based ethanol. Like a Talmudic scholar, I frequently, instead of counting sheep, find myself saying “on one hand, on the other hand” while trying to fall sleep. (I haven’t slept more than three full hours a night since Eisenhower was president.) I end up agreeing with the King in the King and I — “It’s a puzzlement!”

The EPA’s job is a tough one. Its lowering of the total amount of ethanol required to be used with gasoline may or may not have been the right decision. I know the EPA is considering modifying its initial estimates upward. We will have to wait and see what the Agency produces and then take part in a reasonable dialogue as to benefits and costs.

I am a somewhat more concerned about the basis used by the EPA to decide to lower ethanol requirements, at this point in time, than the new rules themselves. The rationale for the amended guidelines will become embedded in rulemaking and decisions could well generate unnecessary policy and constituent conflicts.

The Agency explained its recent decisions, in part, in terms of the absence of infrastructure and the possible harm that higher ethanol blends can do to vehicle engines. “EPA is proposing to adjust the applicable volumes of advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel to address projected availability of qualifying renewable fuels and limitations on the volume of ethanol that can be consumed in gasoline given practical constraints on the supply of higher ethanol blends to the vehicles that can use them and other limits on ethanol blend levels in gasoline (the ethanol blend wall).” Note that for the most part, the EPA does not dwell on environmental, economic or security issues in its basic rationale.

The EPA seems to mix supply and demand in a rather imprecise way. Ethanol is ethanol. Traditional infrastructure (e.g., pipelines) is not readily available now to transport ethanol from corn-based ethanol producers to blenders of gasoline and ethanol. But trains and heavy-duty vehicles are accessible and have provided reasonably efficient pipeline alternatives. Indeed, their availability, assuming modifications for safety concerns, particularly concerning trains, extends strategic options regarding the location of refineries/blenders and storage capacity to lessen leakage of environmentally harmful emissions.

The EPA’s argument for lowering ethanol requirements appears to rest, to a large degree, on a somewhat unconventional definition of supply. As one observer put it, the EPA’s regulations “muddle” the definition of supply with demand. There is an ample supply of ethanol now, indeed, a surplus. The EPA’s decision will likely increase the surplus or reduce the suppliers.

Demand for higher ethanol blends really has not been fairly tested in the analytical prelude to the recently changed regulations. Detroit and its dealers seem unwilling to clearly inform consumers of the government-approved use of blends higher than E15 in the flex-fuel cars that they are now producing and or are committed to producing in the future. Oil company franchise agreements limit replacement fuel pumps at their stations, often to off-center locations…somewhere near the men or women’s bathrooms, if at all. Correspondingly, the EPA’s regulations appear to mute the Agency’s own (and others) positive engine testing on E15 and its approval of E15 and E85 blends, within certain restrictions. Earlier, EPA studies were a bulwark against recent sustained attacks by the oil and, sometimes, the auto industry, as well as their friends on ethanol and its supposed negative affect on engines.

The EPA’s analysis of demand seems further blurred by the fact that if the Agency increased the supply of approved conversion kits, increased numbers of owners of existing vehicles would likely convert from gasoline to less-expensive ethanol-based fuels.

The EPA’s background rationale for the new RFS regulations understandably does not reflect the ability to produce ethanol from natural gas, a fuel in plentiful supply, and a natural gas to ethanol conversion process that may relatively soon be available. To do so would likely require an amendment to the RFS because natural gas is not a renewable fuel. The benefits include lower costs to the consumer, reduced import dependency and likely a decrease in pollutants and emissions. It appears a reasonable approach and provides a reasonable replacement fuel until renewable fuels are ready to compete for prime market time. Natural gas-based ethanol, as well as, as noted earlier, possible use of corn stover, would lessen the intensity of the food vs. fuel debate and the environmentalist concerns.

The EPA has tried hard to develop regulations that secure the public interest and appeal to varied constituencies. I respect its efforts. It’s a complicated task. I remember being asked by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop a report on simplifying its regulations for diverse programs. If I remember correctly, my report was over 600 pages long. Sufficiently said!

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.