Friday, February 04, 2011

Renewable Energy and Egyptian Unrest

It's hard to watch the current turmoil in Egypt and not wonder what it means for us, particularly with regard to energy. Although Egypt's oil production roughly balances its consumption, the Suez Canal and the Sumed pipeline, with its Mediterranean terminus west of Alexandria, represent important transit routes for Eastern Hemisphere oil going to Europe--though not as important as in the past. And while some politicians have already cited this situation as a "wake-up call" and indication of our energy insecurity, the risk of a serious supply disruption appears low, unless the protests spread to the major oil producing countries of the Middle East. Yet even short of that extreme, renewable energy stands to benefit from the uncertainty these events create, as reflected in higher crude oil prices.

I don't claim any unique perspective on the events in Egypt or their likely outcome, although some of the scenarios I can envision are extremely worrying. I've read heaps of articles and op-eds on the subject and listened to a media conference call from the Council on Foreign Relations, but if there's a consensus view I haven't found it yet. What I do see, however, is that since the protests started on January 25, and without any actual disruption in oil deliveries, the price of UK Brent crude--currently a better indicator of global oil prices than West Texas Intermediate--has climbed by around $5 per barrel and now trades solidly above $100. And while that might reflect other factors in addition to an Egypt risk premium, currency exchange rates don't seem to be one of them.

If the present instability persists or spreads, oil prices are likely to go even higher. Renewables such as ethanol and other biofuels could benefit from that in a way that they haven't from the general increase in oil prices since the middle of last year. That trend was mainly attributable to resurgent global economic growth, particularly from developing Asia. China's GDP grew by more than 10% last year. Along the way, the prices of renewable energy products that compete directly with oil went up, but so did the cost of inputs such as grains and oilseeds, as part of a general surge in global commodity prices. As a result the "crush spread", the margin for turning corn into ethanol, has contracted since mid-2010 and currently stands at essentially zero on the basis of prompt ethanol and corn futures. Biodiesel margins should have experienced something similar, if soybean oil prices are any indication. These products stand to gain if oil prices are driven up by factors that don't also push up the prices of the commodities from which they're made.

Of course that's not the only possible outcome. This week's Economist even notes the potential for a scenario yielding the opposite result. They see other Middle Eastern countries stockpiling grain to avert protests of the kind that have spread from Tunisia to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, and driving up its cost in the process. However, that element of the scenario is more credible than the accompanying suggestion that the region's oil producers might boost production to pay for that extra grain, thereby sinking oil prices. At current levels, the region's oil exporters are already earning on the order of $1.5 billion a day, and even a small producer like Oman should be taking in around $20 billion a year. Even at $9 per bushel the entire 2009/10 wheat imports of Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen barely top $6 billion.

It's worth recalling that if the recent rise in oil prices is reminiscent of 2007 and 2008, OPEC has far more spare capacity in reserve this time. It has done a remarkable job of avoiding the temptation to pump more to gain market share. Even with some cheating around the quotas, they've kept the market tight. If OPEC changes that policy, it seems likelier they'd do so to avoid stalling the global recovery than to cover some additional grain imports for which they already have ample cash on hand. Stay tuned.

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