Friday, April 10, 2015

An Energy Perspective on the Iran Nuclear Framework

  • With enormous natural gas reserves and renewables potential, Iran has little need for nuclear power, and even less for uranium enrichment.
  • If Iran's sacrifices in pursuit of its nuclear program cannot be explained by a gap in its energy mix, what will motivate its leaders to abide by the current nuclear deal?
The coverage of the recently agreed international nuclear framework for Iran's nuclear program has missed an important aspect of the story. Nearly all of the reporting and analysis I have read considered the deal from a security and geopolitical perspective, without examining the merits of civilian nuclear power within Iran's domestic energy mix. That goes to the heart of Iran's motivation for future adherence to the terms of the detailed agreement that must shortly follow the broad framework negotiated in Switzerland.

This line of analysis dates back to an article I wrote for Geopolitics of Energy, published by the Canadian Energy Research Institute exactly 10 years ago, in April 2005, and subsequently reprinted in my blog. Other than some outdated figures on energy consumption, reserves and cost, it has held up pretty well, particularly in terms of its main proposition:

"Iran makes an unusual candidate for civilian nuclear power, compared to other countries with nuclear power. Most of these fall into either of two categories: those that lack other energy resources to support their economies, such as France, Japan and South Korea, and resource-rich countries that developed nuclear power as a consequence of their pursuit of nuclear weapons, including the US, former USSR, UK, and arguably China. Blessed as it is with hydrocarbon reserves, Iran does not fall into the former category, and it claims not to fall into the latter. Does it represent a unique case?"

In the years since I wrote that, we've seen a growing interest in nuclear energy elsewhere in the Middle East, including a reported memorandum of understanding between Saudi Arabia and Korea for constructing civilian power reactors in the Kingdom. Such projects in energy-rich Gulf States beg the same questions as in Iran, although the "displacement of oil for export" rationale holds up better for Saudi Arabia and the UAE than for Iran under the current circumstances.

As in 2005, the key to understanding the fit of nuclear power within Iran's energy mix is natural gas. In the most recent country analysis by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) Iran's domestic energy consumption has grown by roughly two-thirds since the 2003 data on which I based my 2005 article. The EIA data indicate that around 75% of that growth has been fueled by gas. That's not surprising, since Iran now claims 18% of the world's proved reserves of natural gas, having leapfrogged Russia for the top spot a few years ago. At current production rates, Iran has over 200 years of proved gas reserves, compared to about 14 years for the US. (Higher US estimates are based on the less-restrictive category of resources, not reserves.)

Moreover, since 2005 the cost of building nuclear power plants has increased, in some cases significantly, while the cost of natural gas-fired combined cycle turbine power plants has generally declined, thanks to substantial efficiency improvements. For that matter, the cost of alternatives like solar power, which Iran's geography favors, has declined even more in the interim.

A decade after I first examined this question, it is still hard to find a compelling energy rationale for Iran to pursue civilian nuclear power with the persistence it has demonstrated. Developing more of its abundant natural gas would be more cost-effective, perhaps in combination with solar power, which presents natural synergies with gas relating to solar's intermittency. These options would not have triggered the kind of economic constraints to which Iran's choices have led.

Nor does the other rationale to which I alluded above withstand scrutiny in this case, involving the application of domestic nuclear power to free up for export oil and gas that would otherwise be consumed to generate electricity. The implied cost of Iranian gas displaced from power generation would likely be higher than the cost of new gas development, especially when the costs of the full nuclear fuel cycle that is the crux of international concerns are included. If anything, Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy in the last decade has functioned as a reverse fuel displacement mechanism, resulting in costly reductions in oil exports due to international sanctions.

As for the benefits of nuclear energy in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Iran did not include nuclear power in the list of mitigation measures it presented at the UN climate summit in Durban in 2011, nor did it commit to specific emissions reductions at the Cancun Climate Conference in 2012.

On balance, Iran's objective need for civilian nuclear power scarcely justifies the sacrifices it has endured, or the lengths to which it has gone to secure its nuclear program. Over the last 10 years, buying time through engagement and negotiations led to an opportunity for the "P5 +1" countries to impose the tough sanctions that brought Iran to the point of the current deal, once rising US shale oil production effectively defused Iran's "oil weapon." However, if the current agreement merely buys more time, it risks squandering the best chance to bell this cat. We cannot count on having more slack in energy markets 10 years hence than we do today.

Viewed from an energy perspective, the primary purpose of Iran's nuclear program seems unlikely to be an expanded energy supply, rather than a weapons capability. In that context, the concerns about this deal recently expressed by two former US Secretaries of State who negotiated Cold War arms control agreements with the Soviet Union should be sobering. They deserve serious consideration by both the White House and a Congress that seeks its own opportunity to weigh in.


Gary Scoggin said...

Geoff -- I just caught up with this. To one of the key matters of a Iran nuclear deal: If a deal is signed and the oil expert sanctions on Iran get lifted, to what extent do you think the additional million barrels or so per day of crude in the market will keep energy prices low?

Does this change the calculus on how long the trough in energy prices will last?

Geoffrey Styles said...

If it all came back at once, we could be right back where we were in Jan., or lower. However, without knowing the details of which fields have been backed down or shut in, or the technical capacity of the Iranian industry, it seems unlikely that all the missing barrels would reappear quickly. That might also be the straw that breaks the Saudis' resolve. It's one thing to wager that shale oil can be sweated out of the market with low prices, quite another to assume the same can be done with a fellow OPEC supplier on the Persian Gulf.