Monday, October 31, 2005

Trouble Closer to Home

While it has become fashionable to worry about the future reliability of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves (see Friday's posting) we might do well to focus our concerns a little closer to home. Venezuela supplies as much oil to the US as Saudi Arabia does, and its government is becoming increasingly hostile to American interests. As described in this article in yesterday's New York Times, the facade of the country's "Bolivarian Revolution" has slipped recently, giving way to a new take on socialism. The implications for our energy security are troubling.

Because of its proximity to the US Gulf Coast, resulting in very short transit times for oil shipments, Venezuelan crude oil has been an anchor of our post-1970s oil supply diversification. Even if only incremental Venezuelan production were lost to the US, this would be a significant blow to our supply strategy. The diversion of all our present imports from Venezuela to other countries would represent a disaster on a magnitude comparable to the recent hurricanes, with similar long recovery times, as global supply patterns rebalanced. As volatile as the Middle East may be, I find this scenario at least as credible and concerning.

As Sr. Chavez comes more and more to resemble a Castro with deep pockets, the political risk of doing business in Venezuela, particularly for American firms, increases. While the oil projects developed by international companies have become a mainstay of Venezuelan production, as the state oil firm PdVSA struggles to rebuild from the catastrophic strike of a few years ago, this privileged position has not protected these firms from threats of contract renegotiation or sudden claims for back taxes.

If the companies involved, including the entire top tier of the international oil industry, have not begun seriously to plan for the possibility of nationalization, they would be remiss in their risk management. Sr. Chavez cannot be pleased to rely on foreign capital and foreign companies for the maintenance of the engine of Venezuelan economy and of his new, expansive foreign policies. I would be surprised if, in his mind, the question were not if, but when to take control of these key assets. While Venezuela may lack the wherewithal to operate these facilities today, might other countries supply the needed expertise, until a local capability could be nurtured?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Saudi Oil Conspiracy!

My regular readers may be surprised by the tabloid-style title of today's posting. They ought to be equally surprised and dismayed by a tabloid-toned article in yesterday's New York Times, entitled "Doubts Raised on Saudi Vow for More Oil." On one level, it contains good information on the uncertainties about the size of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves and the prospect for substantial production increases in the Kingdom. What I find alarming is its approach to this information, with references to a "secret intelligence report" and comments from "a senior intelligence official, who insisted on remaining anonymous," as if questions about Saudi Arabia's oil reserves were in the same category as those about Iraq's WMD.

Contrary to the view you might reasonably form after reading the Times article, the debate about Saudi Arabia's reserves and production capabilities has been quite public. It includes a bestselling book by Matthew Simmons, "Twilight in the Desert," on which I've commented extensively. It has also included detailed presentations by various Saudi Aramco officials, who substantially increased their disclosure of technical information and production plans, even if this still fell short of what you'd get from a publicly traded oil company or a state oil company such as Norway's Statoil. In my view, the Kingdom's own long-term interests--and ours--require greater transparency on their part, as well as a willingness to allow access for foreign companies and foreign capital. However, that doesn't make the situation a scandal.

It's also worth noting that while Saudi Arabia has been the world's largest oil supplier over the last couple of decades, Russia currently produces about the same quantity of oil, and new volumes are coming on line from a number of other countries, many of them outside the Middle East. Nor would ramping up Saudi Arabia's oil production necessarily provide instant cheap-gasoline Nirvana here, because global capacity to refine the heavy, high-sulfur crude that constitutes most of Saudi Arabia's incremental capacity is limited and will not expand until new refineries are built and existing plants upgraded all over the world.

Whatever the realities behind Saudi Arabia's reticence to disclose more information about its oil industry, portraying the situation as yet another US intelligence failure borders on the irresponsible. If we are casting about to assess blame for our dependence on reclusive Middle Eastern kingdoms, we need to start with the fact that we now consume 1/3 more oil than at the end of the last energy crisis, while producing 1/3 less oil here in the US.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Storm Signals

2005 has been an extraordinary year for natural disasters and unusual weather, and there are still two months remaining. People of many persuasions are looking at these events for signs, whether of millenarian portents or signposts of the accelerating impact of human activities on the earth's climate. We've already set a new record for the number of named Atlantic basin cyclonic storms, following a year that was no slouch, either. Are all these hurricanes telling us something about the climate, or are they just bad weather?

Several months ago, I cited a scientific paper correlating warmer ocean temperatures with more intense hurricanes, suggesting that further climate change will deliver more hurricane seasons like the one that's now nearing its official end. Nevertheless, the author of that paper is adamant that Katrina and Rita should not be claimed as evidence in support of climate change. If you find that distinction confusing, you aren't alone.

Part of the difficulty in filtering out the noise from any signal here lies in the distinction between climate and weather. Weather is what we experience day to day and year to year, while climate is a long-term picture at the local, regional, or global level, over time spans that are long relative to human perception. "Climate change" isn't just a bureaucratic euphemism for global warming; it's an accurate description of the territory that scientists must examine when they look for evidence of global warming. A single year's weather, however bizarre, may or may not represent a statistically significant departure from the previous norm.

The other problem is a human one. Because we're only alive for "threescore and ten", give or take, there's a natural tendency to assign extra significance to events that occur during our lifetimes. Hurricane Katrina affected people we know, or at least could see on TV, while the comparably destructive hurricane of 1900 is now just a historical footnote, even though it permanently altered the course of development of east Texas. (Without it, "Galveston", not "Houston" might have been the first word spoken from the Moon.)

I have to agree with Dr. Emanuel that it's probably premature to assign extra significance to the hurricanes of the last two years. At the same time, though, these storms--along with recent pictures of a summertime ice-free path around the north pole--provide worrying glimpses of a future in which climate change could alter the planet in ways that we may not find conducive to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." So while they may not serve as evidence, these hurricanes are still important signposts.

Future Cars 2005

I love car shows. That's partly because I fell in love with cars as a teenager, but also because car shows give you more hints than you'll get anywhere else about the models that might be in showrooms in a few years. That has become a much more interesting question than it used to be, as automobile powerplants have morphed to run on different fuels, or hybrids of gas and electricity, and in some cased to eschew internal combustion altogether. Even though most of the cars at auto shows are simply early versions of next year's models, or experiments in letting styling departments run wild, every now and again you get to see something truly novel and future-changing. This year's Tokyo Motor Show has at least one car that might fit the latter category.

While it's fun to see rakish new designs, and encouraging to see a true sports car that would get 70 miles per gallon (of diesel), it's truly cool to glimpse a car that fundamentally redefines what automobiles can do. Look at the Nissan Pivo. Not only is it all-electric, running on Lithium-ion batteries like your laptop, but the passenger compartment can swivel through 360 degrees of motion, altering entirely the dynamics of parking or "backing out" of a space. Other nice touches include drive-by-wire and tv screens on the pillars, linked to tiny external cameras, eliminating those pesky blind spots that complicate passing.

I concede that we may never see a Pivo in a showroom. It will likely go the way of the four-wheel-steering feature that a couple of manufacturers tried to introduce a few years ago. But it exemplifies what I have in mind when I suggest that a real breakthrough in performance--by which I mean the vehicle attributes on which consumers place a premium--could throw our glacial estimates of the rate of market penetration for hybrids and fuel cell cars into a cocked hat. Give people something truly new, exciting and useful, and they might line up in droves to trade in their old cars at a clip matching the turnover rates of the 1950s and 1960s, when people bought new cars every 2 or 3 years, instead of every 6 or 7. That would have major implications for our future energy consumption.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Balanced Tax?

As gas prices retreat from the highs triggered by the two hurricanes, I expect to hear more suggestions along the lines of yesterday's New York Times editorial. It proposed a new gasoline tax that would keep prices at close to current levels, even after the underlying commodity price drops sufficiently to return gas to $2 or less, whenever that might be. While I give the Times credit for recognizing the regressive nature of gas taxes, even at the modest current level of 18 cents per gallon (Federal,) their reasoning includes two very shaky bits of economics, as well as a practical impediment that appears insurmountable, today.

First, consider the potential for this kind of tax to distort the economy. You can't tax gasoline without taxing diesel fuel, unless you want to promote a dramatic shift towards diesel cars, such as Europe is experiencing. And once you tax diesel, affecting short- and long-haul trucking costs, you're tweaking the entire supply chain for just about everything used in our homes, offices and factories. However, unless you were to tax jet fuel at a comparable level--thereby kicking the nearly-dead dog of US airlines even harder--you will also induce some odd shifts from trucking to air freight, and stretch our creaky passenger air transport system even further.

Ultimately, it makes little sense to tax one kind of energy and not all kinds, in proportion to their import sensitivity, impact on the environment, or some other consistent, logical basis. That, by the way, is precisely what a carbon tax does, and it would make more sense than a simple gas tax, though there are even better alternatives available, including emissions trading systems.

The Times also asserts that gas taxes create incentives for companies to invest in alternative energy. In fact, the opposite is true, because a high gas tax would reduce gasoline demand, putting downward pressure on its wholesale (pre-tax) price, and thereby on the price of crude oil. Thus, higher gas taxes would drive crude oil prices lower, reducing the attractiveness of any form of alternative energy that competes with oil on any level.

The final implausibility is that a tax like this could be approved without a revolutionary change in US politics. Despite growing concern among conservative members of Congress about energy security and the connection between energy and the War on Terror, it's hard to imagine the present Congress or administration passing a brand new tax. On a more basic level, the American public doesn't like expensive gasoline. One would have to be truly oblivious to have missed the vivid display of that dislike over the last several months. Our complex energy problems are not amenable to simple solutions, particularly ones lacking a wide base of public support.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Looking East

BP made news recently with a set of announcements concerning some big investments in India and China. They will apparently invest several billion dollars building a new refinery in India and refining and marketing assets in China, both in conjunction with large local partners. While this seems to answer those who have criticized the major oil companies for reinvesting too little in the business and returning too much of their profits to shareholders, the profit mechanisms for these new ventures are by no means certain, if past experience in the region is any indication.

Most of the large oil companies began to look for opportunities in China and India in the early 1990s, after a decade of highly profitable growth in the smaller, but rapidly growing countries of Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Exxon and Shell were early leaders in this race, forging substantial relationships with large state companies such as Sinopec and the Indian Oil Company (IOC). Turning these beachheads into thriving businesses has proved harder, however, and a decade has passed with only gradual evolution in the areas most critical for the creation of profitable, free-market based businesses. A handful of local companies still enjoy quasi-monopolies, and governance and partner relations still cause serious concern among investors.

Clearly, both of these countries will need significant foreign investment to develop their petroleum sectors to support both economic growth and increasing mobility. But it would be a mistake to assume that means they will develop along Western lines, or in ways that will contribute meaningfully to the bottom line of those companies investing there. This is particularly true in China, where the oil sector is still viewed as a "pillar industry."

In effect, the majors are in a quandary. They must reinvest the tremendous cash flows they are throwing off currently, or else risk being marginalized in the decade ahead by the state oil companies that control most of the world's oil and gas reserves. As many analysts have observed, the best upstream oil opportunities are off-limits, locked up either by resource nationalism or environmental restrictions. The majors also need to show the markets that they can extend their record of profitable growth, in order to keep share prices advancing and thus total return to shareholders high, and where better to do this than the most populous, fastest growing countries on earth?

But having operated in this area for so long, they can't be under any illusions about the risks they are taking on, and that one of the likeliest outcomes is a wave of new refinery construction that will alleviate current global tightness in refining capacity, destroying refining margins in the process and undermining the profitability of the entire global downstream sector. That might sound good from a consumer perspective, but it could leave the big oil companies strapped for cash at just the point they'd need to be spending big money bringing alternative energy projects on line, if conventional oil supplies can't keep up with demand.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Are We Ready?

For more than 20 years, it's been nearly an article of faith that no new nuclear power plant would be built in this country. Last year, a consortium of US power generators banded together as NuStart, to resurrect the US nuclear power industry from its post-Three Mile Island, post-Chernobyl purgatory. The group recently announced the selection of two sites for which to pursue approvals for constructing a new reactor, one in Alabama and the other in Mississippi. Whether these plants will actually be built depends on a lot more than the incentives and protections included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Has the cumulative impact of the Northeast Blackout of 2003, high energy prices, and the two hurricanes changed the socio-political landscape sufficiently for this to be more than a pipe dream?

Clearly, the justification for nuclear power has been altered by circumstances and events. Importantly, there's a real case to be made for nuclear as a response to climate change, including its possible use to generate hydrogen for fuel cell cars. Looking beyond the US, a couple dozen new plants are either under construction or in prospect around the world. Step back from the logic, though, and you have to wonder why Entergy and its NuStart partners think that the US public's mood has changed enough to give nuclear its second wind. Favorable poll results might help, though other recent polls suggest nuclear is still less popular than other energy options. When you consider the experience of other energy mega-projects, it's hard not to be skeptical.

Now, a nuclear power plant and a Liquefied Natural Gas terminal are different propositions in almost every way, except for the issue of perceived risk. If anything, our need for imported natural gas is more critical than for the CO2-free electricity nuclear plants generate. Gas prices have quadrupled, entire domestic industries are being offshored due to a lack of affordable gas, and we face a winter that might just see gas curtailed--cut off--for some commercial and industrial users. And yet, where is the groundswell of support for LNG? It's entirely possible that Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will end up having to cram LNG down the throats of some coastal towns, for the good of the nation. That won't be pretty, but can you imagine the politics of that if the facilities involved were nuclear power plants, instead of ports for bringing in our cleanest, fastest-growing fuel?

So even though I believe nuclear power should be part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future, I'll be a lot less skeptical on the day when the leaders of the communities that have been fighting LNG tooth and nail stand up and say, "We really don't like this stuff, because a whole lot of folks have scared us about its dangers, but we know we need it to keep our houses warm, our employers competitive, and the country strong. Go ahead and build your LNG terminal."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Tackling Demand

With the US energy industry beginning what promises to be a long recovery from the Katrina/Rita double-whammy, it's worth reminding ourselves that, although supply problems have been a persistent feature of the oil market for the last couple years, it's largely the growth in demand that has landed us with $60 oil and a stretched global refining system. As Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates has pointed out in recent op-eds, the current energy crisis is primarily a demand shock, not a supply shock such as we experienced in the 1970s. So while it's to important to address our overall supply of energy, the demand side of the equation is equally crucial.

There are lots of ways to reduce demand, most having to do with improving efficiency, but an increasing number of advocates are focusing on gasoline taxes. As I discovered last May, the decline in fuel economy attributable to the popularity of SUVs only explains part of the growth in US gasoline consumption. The steady increase in annual vehicle miles driven contributes significantly, as well. Shifting the way we use our cars turns out to be just as important as the kind of cars we drive, and the current diplomatic flap over the non-payment of the "congestion tax" by US embassy employees in London highlights a more focused alternative to higher gas taxes.

Many European cities have been plagued by terrible traffic for years. When I lived in London in the early 90s, a 10 mile commute could take 90 minutes, and things have gotten worse since then. Several cities in the EU have introduced congestion taxes, with drivers paying an extra charge for entering the downtown. Though hardly popular, these fees have helped improved traffic conditions in the City of London (the "square mile") and elsewhere. And while not primarily intended to reduce fuel consumption, congestion charges generate fuel savings not just for those who switch to mass transit, but also for those who spend less time stuck in gridlock. New technology may help with this, as well.

Before we hike the gasoline tax in this country (even if it's to fund Social Security private accounts, as recently proposed in the NY Times,) I'd like to know we've given more targeted measures such as tolls and congestion fees a fair try. This kind of approach also provides a useful perspective, in which our current fuel problems are revealed as only one aspect of the larger problem of overburdened infrastructure.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Energy Policy vs. Energy Plans

Some interesting comments on yesterday's posting got me thinking about what optimism and pessimism mean in the context of increasing the contribution of renewables and other alternative energy in a reasonable amount of time. More to the point, what kind of energy mix could we expect to fall back on, if we should find ourselves missing a significant chunk of our oil imports, either as a result of a geopolitical event, or due to the impact of depletion on global supply?

Answering that question requires wading through a host of big uncertainties, and it really calls for a scenario approach, rather than straight-line reasoning. That's more than I can take on in one day's posting, but I feel safe suggesting that we will need a much more aggressive energy plan than the one implicit in the current forecasts from the Energy Information Agency of the Department of Energy. Their 2005-25 reference case would have us using 1/3 more oil by 2025, while importing 60% more of it. At the same time, they don't see the energy contribution of renewables growing by enough even to cover what will be lost in the decline of domestic oil production, or to prevent renewable energy falling as a share of total consumption by 2025. This is not a slam on the DOE, because that's probably a reasonable status quo forecast. However, it doesn't constitute an acceptable national plan for energy. I'd also argue that it's out of synch with worldwide trends driven by climate change and two globalizing "billionaires."

If the DOE's view represents a floor for alternative energy, where is the ceiling? While there might not be any laws of physics preventing wind and solar power from ultimately providing most of our energy, several issues will limit their contribution over the next 20 years. The cost of energy storage is a big factor in this calculation, and we must assess how long it would take a breakthrough in this area to go from laboratory to low-cost, mass production. I'm not an expert on technology development cycles, but 10-15 years doesn't sound too long. If that's the case, then even with a continuation of the steady cost reduction trends for both wind and solar, their intermittent nature will impede their penetratation of the power market. Nor does that address our need for non-oil transportation fuels, which by 2025 might include a modest component of hydrogen. Despite this "pessimism", I expect both wind and solar to grow dramatically in the next decade, with results that should be noticeable at the scale of our national energy statistics.

The divergence betweeen the status quo future and what's realistically possible highlights an important distinction between the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and a true national energy plan. Plans include goals, as well as the means for achieving them. What we need are explicit, quantified national goals, and these would have to include things like the following:

  • To reduce our use of oil as a fraction of the total energy we consume, e.g. from 40% down to 35% by 2025.
  • To increase the contribution of non-hydroelectric renewable energy from less than 1% today to 5% by 2015 and 15% by 2025.
  • To shift our energy imports from being 85% oil-based to 50% gas-based, including LNG and synthetic liquid fuels produced from gas.
Now, these still might not seem like aggressive goals to a real optimist, but achieving them in the real world would be an enormous stretch, even with ample R&D funding, government incentives, and an increase in the gasoline tax. Whether or not we'd hit these targets on time, this is what it would take for "alternatives to be in place," as I suggested yesterday. I'm also reminded of the portion of JFK's quote about going to the moon that we rarely include,
"...and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Contrarian View

One of the consultants I used to work with liked to remind workshop attendees of a psychological phenomenon called "availability bias." As he described it, this explained the difficulty most of us face in trying to imagine a world much different from the one we observe today. When the price of oil had dropped into single digits in the late 1990s, few industry leaders could envision it returning to $25/barrel, even though it had been there only eighteen months previously. Now, with oil at $60+, who sees it reverting to $25? Apparently, at least a few people do, and here's a good example, from a blog that takes a view diametrically opposed to the adherents of Peak Oil and other scarcity scenarios.

The argument it makes is sound economics: higher prices should spur innovation and more production, while dampening demand, thus eventually restoring prices to pre-crisis levels. This proposition has history on its side, as the author notes. Things might just turn out that way again this time. However, I think it's important to understand why this argument won't always be true, because of a close relative of our old friend, compound interest. The demand for oil grows the same way that interest compounds in a passbook savings account. The rate of growth may change from year to year, but each year it is applied to the entire previous year's quantity, which includes an increment over the year before, and so on.

That's how oil demand grew from 63 million barrels per day (MBD) in 1980 to 84 MBD today. If consumption continued to grow at 2% per year, then we'd be at 93 MBD in 2010, 113 in 2020, and 138 MBD in 2030. Considering the potential of China and India, it's not hard to imagine this kind of growth for the next 25 years, at least in the abstract. But the result, compared with holding demand steady at current levels, would be incremental consumption over this period of 235 billion barrels. In effect, we'd burn an extra Saudi Arabia. By 2050, growth alone would have consumed almost a trillion additional barrels, which is roughly equal to current global proved oil reserves.

As long the quantity of recoverable oil in the earth's crust is finite, whether it's one trillion barrels or 17 trillion, we can't play this compound growth game forever. At some point, higher prices won't yield more oil, anywhere. If we don't have our alternatives in place at that point--not on the drawing board, but tested, built and ready to go--the dislocations are going to be severe. The only question left is when this will happen, and the reality is that no one can tell you until we are there, not M. King Hubbert, not Matt Simmons, and certainly not me.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Two Double-A Cells at a Time

I received several comments on last week's post relating to energy density, mostly disputing my suggestion that low-density sources such as wind and solar could ever cover more than a fifth or so of our energy needs. That's really an argument for another day, though. The focus now, particularly for solar power, should be on how to provide 2% of our primary energy supply, not 10 times that. Company strategists should still be looking for applications that are less price sensitive, not trying to penetrate the mainstream market with a technology that's not ready. This article from Technology Review gives some useful hints.

When you evaluate the hierarchy of energy costs, grid-based power--even at the retail end--is pretty low, at least on average. Backup power is more expensive, but with an iron focus on high reliability, that's hardly the place for intermittent energy sources to attack. Battery power is further up the pyramid, and disposable batteries are close to the top, in terms of cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered. Flexible solar cells, such as the ones described in the article, could be incorporated in device design in such a way as to reduce the required capacity of rechargeable batteries or eliminate disposable batteries entirely in some applications. In fact, the cost of solar is not the obstacle here, as it is in the residential market, since it is already at or below the cost of power from disposable batteries. The real issue is incorporating it into devices in a seamless way, without adding too much bulk or funky attachments.

If you want a picture of how alternative energy is likely to develop, don't watch the heart of the market, where petroleum products and large, central power plants have had a century to hone their competitiveness. Watch the margins, and watch trendsetters. A solar iPod, anyone?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Petroleum Bomb

I'm at a conference, so today's posting will be brief. Former Secretary of State George Schultz and former CIA Director James Woolsey have put out a clearly-articulated op-ed on the need to reduce our dependence on oil from the Middle East. It's worth reading, particularly since it anchors one end of the Geo-Green alliance that I've mentioned in a number of previous postings. Unfortunately, the crucial element missing from this article is the time required for the strategies these gentlemen propose to have a meaningful impact on world oil markets. There are no quick fixes to these problems.

Relying on the penetration of efficient cars into the vehicle fleet, and the development of new technology for producing biofuels more efficiently than crop-based processes can deliver, the proposed transition would take more than a decade to put a real dent in our oil demand, particularly if it did not include measures to reverse the existing trend in increasing vehicle miles driven. Europe's shift to diesel, discussed here last week, provides a baseline for comparison; it took more than a decade for diesel cars to reach 50% of new car sales, and with the slow fleet turnover rate, it will be some time before they account for half of all cars in the EU.

I am not saying that Messrs. Shultz and Woolsey's idea shouldn't be tried, but in practice this strategy would not achieve its desired geopolitical impact until well into the next decade or beyond.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Hurricane Scenario

A train ride to D.C. provided an opportunity to catch up on my large backlog of articles, including this one from the New York Times (which alas is now in their paid archives) on the impact of hurricanes on offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. As it happens, the article was written a few weeks before Katrina and Rita swept through the oil patch. The hurricane damage it described was from last year’s Ivan, which caused disruption to oil and gas operations that had not been entirely repaired a year later, but the comments apply to the current storms, as well. After several months, it’s possible to consider the long-term effects of all these storms, including the influence of what I’d call “the hurricane scenario” on future global oil production.

Once a hydrocarbon reservoir has been discovered and its size estimated, the economics of producing the oil or gas it contains must be carefully evaluated. This process has become much more sophisticated over the years, incorporating market and expert assessments of future energy prices and all the risks that could affect a project's economic viability. This kind of detailed analysis is crucial when a billion dollars or more of investment and many hundreds of millions of Net Present Value are at stake.

The Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, and the prospect of a pattern of such storms for years to come, will explicitly shift the risk assessment for the large platforms required to exploit oil and gas in the deep waters of the Gulf. Developers will have to consider scenarios in which each platform would experience a Class 4 or 5 hurricane every couple of years for the next 10-20 years. This will change the economics of oil platforms in important ways, by increasing the cost and complexity of these projects, as well as elevating the risk of substantial delays in project startup--one of the top influences on project NPV.

Now, this all sounds pretty esoteric, and you might think it’s only important from the perspective of higher insurance rates for oil companies. But it would also shift the economic breakeven point of deepwater oil and gas projects toward the larger end of the size distribution of fields. In other words, some fields that today are just big enough to support development under last year’s criteria would become too small to be economical, even at high energy prices. That would truncate the long-term production potential of the deepwater Gulf, which is the most promising and prolific area in the US oil & gas industry and may contain up to 70 billion barrels of oil equivalent. That means lower future US oil production, higher imports, and more pressure for both conservation and the exploitation of non-conventional resources (see yesterday’s posting.) Not good news for energy consumers.

It’s going to take months to sort out all of the impacts of these storms. In the hierarchy of consequences, the fallout I’ve described above will probably be much less noticeable than the cost of heating our homes this winter. Despite this, it will subtly reshape our options for solving our energy and environmental challenges, in ways we can't predict today.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Where the Lunch Bill Gets Paid

One of the repeated themes of this blog is the tradeoffs inherent in our decisions about energy consumption and supply policies--tradeoffs we have all too often ignored, until events such as the recent hurricanes bring these truths home. The global energy system is extraordinarily complex, with direct and indirect inter-connections that are often subtle enough to elude the most experienced analysts. Another article from Sunday's New York Times nicely illustrates the "no free lunch" aspect of these connections, in this case with regard to the environmental impact of oil sands production in Canada.

In the years ahead, resources such as these unconventional oil deposits in northern Alberta Province will become increasingly important in meeting North American and global oil demand. It's worth spending a few moments considering how oil sands recovery, which had previously been regarded as a marginal or uneconomical proposition, moved up the ladder of the energy industry's corporate capital allocation processes. This story has deep connections in US environmental and land use policy, in energy efficiency policy, and in the personal responsibility of individual consumers of energy.

When you look at where oil companies are currently producing oil, and where they expect to produce it in the future, some trends are clear. There has been a marked shift away from drilling in the US--other than the deepwater Gulf of Mexico--and toward opening up "frontier" areas such as the Caspian Sea region and parts of West Africa. At the same time, companies have had to go after more technically challenging opportunities such as deposits in ever deeper ocean depths, and oils that require significant processing and upgrading before they can be marketed. These include Venezuela's Orinoco Belt and Canada's oil sands, a.k.a. "tar sands."

Much of this shift would have happened in any case, because some of these opportunities were highly attractive, but part of the shift has occurred because domestic opportunities with lower technical and political risks (at least in the sense that one thinks of that term in the developing world) were foreclosed. I believe it is valid to draw a direct linkage between our decision to sequester vast oil and gas resources in Alaska and the offshore lower-48 and the increased attractiveness of mining oil sands in Canada, with everything that entails for the environment there. We have, in fact, made a value judgment trading the Canadian wilderness for our own, and for our coastal viewscapes and property values.

At the same time, consumer preferences for larger vehicles--facilitated by the well-known "SUV Loophole" in the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards--have increased global demand for oil at a higher rate than would have otherwise been the case, accelerating the industry's push into the frontiers described above. Again, we've made an implicit tradeoff between our own personal consumption habits and the environmental and developmental impacts of drilling in more remote, less developed places.

All of these tradeoffs might be defensible, but they've been made blindly, without the debate that should have accompanied them. My purpose in bringing this up isn't to assess blame. Rather, as we consider the legislation that is bound to come up as a result of high energy prices and the deficiencies highlighted by the recent hurricanes, these tradeoffs should be explicitly considered. If we choose to continue the offshore drilling bans in Florida, California and elsewhere without taking concrete steps to reduce demand--by an amount proportional to the production these areas could contribute--then we must ask from where the difference will be made up. Alaska? Saudi Arabia? The North Pole? Or will we just continue to shrug our shoulders and assume that the fuel we need will materialize from somewhere far away, out of sight and out of mind?

This isn't just about responsibility, either. If you believe, as I do, that we are at the beginning of a lengthy transition to an energy world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels, then there are real decisions to be made about which areas should and should not be drilled--ever. But those choices need to made in a way that recognizes the vast quantities of hydrocarbons that will be consumed before we reach that destination, and our own role in determining the magnitude of that demand.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Highly Focused Wind

Wind power is one of the most competitive alternative energy technologies, but it suffers from two important drawbacks: The air currents powering wind turbines are much less reliable than the rivers tapped by hydroelectric dams. They are also sufficiently diffuse to require a large number of turbines, dispersed across a wide area, to generate as much electricity as a coal- or gas-fired power plant. Cyclones and hurricanes clearly pack a lot of power, but they are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Now someone has come up with a novel way of overcoming both of these limitations at once: artificial tornadoes.

Tell me this doesn't sound like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie: you use solar power and steam to spin up your own storm, contained within a high circular wall and driving a set of turbines hard enough to generate 200 megawatts of power. An extension of the solar chimney concept, the whole thing sounds a bit nutty, but not nutty enough to keep it from being picked up by a prestigious international journal like The Economist.

Granted, this idea is a long way from becoming a practical reality. It's got at least as many public relations problems as the flying windmills I mentioned earlier this year. Despite that, though, it represents precisely the kind of thinking we need more of just now. Meeting our long-term future energy needs while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels leads us inexorably down one of two broad avenues: creating our own highly concentrated energy sources using nuclear fission or fusion, and finding ways to tap the densest energy flows in our environment, including ocean currents, high-velocity winds, dry-rock geothermal energy, or sunlight above the earth's atmosphere. We are swimming in energy; tapping it effectively is the trick.

That doesn't mean that low-density sources such as photovoltaics and conventional wind turbines won't be important contributors along the way, but they simply can't displace the 86% of global primary energy supplied by coal, oil and natural gas, without some serious help from something a lot more concentrated. Are pocket storms the answer? Unlikely. But could something come out of this initiative that, when combined with other concepts, unlocks a new, practical high-energy-density source? I wouldn't discount the possibility.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Bubble, Bubble?

I must lead a sheltered life, since the first suggestion I've seen that anyone thinks oil prices and the stock prices of oil companies might be in a speculative bubble is this commentary from yesterday's New York Times thoroughly refuting the notion. Perhaps the experience of the late 1990s, combined with the current real estate boom, has us looking for bubbles everywhere, but I can think of few sectors in which this idea has less grounding in reality.

Mr. Stein hits most of the key issues, including the large cash flows and earnings of oil companies, their modest price/earnings ratios relative to the rest of the S&P 500, and the fundamental supply/demand issues facing the global industry. Anyone expecting an oil price collapse on the order of the mid-1980s will to have to be very patient, particularly since it would likely rely on a slowing global economy that would damage the entire stock market, not just the oil and gas stocks. Another point worth raising is the valuation mechanisms employed by equity analysts, who are so influential with the large funds and investors that drive much of the movement in these stocks.

Most analysts use models of oil & gas companies that are heavily weighted to assumptions about the future value of the commodities. These often differ from the market assessments reflected in the futures exchange. For example, the current analyst consensus is apparently for oil to fall below $60/barrel after 2007, reverting to something like $40. That's not unreasonable. However, Friday's closing price for crude in 2011 on the NYMEX was over $57. The disconnect on natural gas is also large. The consensus for 2007 seems to be around $7.50 per million BTUs, while the 2007 contracts traded on the exchange averaged $9.36.

Now, I've often argued that futures prices are poor predictors of future reality. But when you depart from them, you need to have a pretty good rationale for why you think things will turn out differently than the market expects. A market value for an equity that ignores the market-traded price of the commodity underlying that equity has a technical name: an arbitrage opportunity (though not a riskless one.)

When you put all this together, I believe you can make at least as strong an argument that the prices of oil and gas equities are undervalued, as that they are overvalued. That says they are probably about right, and in no way "bubbled up." I should mention that I still have a significant portion of my portfolio in oil stocks, including that of my former employer. That means I might be biased in my view of this. But neither am I liquidating those positions out of fear of an imminent collapse in value. My money and my mouth are in tune, here.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Shooting the Messenger

Congress is rushing to respond to some of the energy shortcomings exposed by the hurricanes. Here's a good article at Econbrowser on HR 3893, which attempts to address the refining capacity shortfall by promoting new refinery construction. It also proposes to harmonize gasoline standards to a much smaller set of options for states. That alone would go a long way to streamlining our inventory problems and restoring some of the industry's flexibility of response. Unfortunately, this bill also acquired a scorpion's tail: a provision that narrowly defines "gouging" in the retail fuel context, and does so in a way that defies both common sense and basic economics. The bill may be voted on in the House today.

I wrote about gouging recently, but I want to get down to specifics as they pertain to this legislation. House Bill 3893 defines "gouging" under the slightly Orwellian rubric of "Gasoline Price Reform", based on the following:

...any finding that the price of gasoline available for sale to the public in September, 2005, or thereafter in a market area located in an area designated as a State or National disaster area because of Hurricane Katrina, or in any other area where price-gouging complaints have been filed because of Hurricane Katrina...exceeded the average price of such gasoline in that area of the month of August, 2005, unless the Commission finds substantial evidence that the increase is substantially attributable to additional costs in connection with the production, transportation, delivery, and sale of gasoline in that area or to national or international market trends.
It goes on to set penalties of "not more than $11,000 per person per day in which a violation occurs."

This economic mischief will be visited largely upon a group of independent businesspeople, many of whom did the right and responsible thing by raising prices to avoid running through their entire supply of fuel in a day, when no replacement was in sight for an unknown number of days. In effect, if you are a retailer in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida, and you hiked your prices before the distributor or major oil company that supplies you raised its rack price, then you could easily be found guilty of gouging and fined $11,000/day, under the provisions of this legislation.

Let's put that in perspective. The average gas station in this country pumps a bit under 100,000 gallons per month. (Less than that if you exclude the big company-operated stations from the average.) That works out to about 3300 gallons per day, on which the typical station operator would normally make a couple hundred bucks, after paying rent, wages, and other costs. $11,000 is a lot of money to someone running a gas station. A week's worth of this kind of penalty could put many of them out of business, or at least into debt.

Before you say, "It serves them right," consider what this means going forward. This provision is obviously intended to frighten gas station owners into holding prices flat in future disasters. That's a problem, because raising gas prices after this kind of disaster is the economy's way of saying, "Something big has just happened, and you need to think twice about how badly you need this fuel." How will ambulance services, fire companies, and other responders such as doctors keep their vehicles fueled, if all the inventory in the area has disappeared in a brief spasm of hoarding? That's precisely why prices need to be allowed to go up, to ration fuel to those who need it most.

The dearth of gas lines and serious supply disruptions in the wake of Katrina and Rita--despite the temporary loss of a large part of our refining and distribution infrastructure--is clear evidence that this system works better than state controls, including the pernicious retroactive price controls included in this bill.

Addendum: HR 3893 passed the House of Representatives today on a vote of 212-210, with no Democrats voting in favor. It goes on to the Senate.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Europe's Shift to Diesel Fuel

As we ponder how to improve our fuel economy in light of $3.00 gasoline, the first thing that comes to mind for many is the hybrid, with a powertrain combining electrical and gasoline-driven components. I'm a big fan of this technology, even though I don't own a hybrid car myself. But I think it's worth thinking about the very different choice that Europeans have made, going back more than a decade, and how that decision is changing the global supply and distribution of petroleum products. The technology in question is the diesel engine, running on either petroleum diesel, biodiesel, or increasingly a blend of the two.

The US experimented with diesels during the oil crisis of the 1970s, and by most accounts the result was a failure. Not only were the diesel cars of that era noisy, smelly and balky, but they were also unreliable. Since then, and unbeknownst to most of us on this side of the Atlantic, terrific diesel cars began arriving in Europe, equipped with smooth and responsive turbocharging and other innovations, and almost indistinguishable from gasoline cars in their driving performance. I've driven a couple, and I loved them. These vehicles get much better fuel economy than their gasoline cousins, up to 35% better in models such as the Ford Mondeo or GM's Opel Vectra.

Europe's shift toward diesel began more than a decade ago, helped along by government policies that taxed diesel fuel at a lower rate than gasoline. That provided a double benefit for consumers, on a cost/kilometer basis. Diesels were also helped indirectly by the taxes on engine capacity that took effect in the UK and elsewhere. Today, this transition is in full swing, with diesels accounting for more than half of all new car sales in the EU.

The less well-publicized aspect of this change is its impact on the refining industry and international trade. As early as the late 1980s/early 90s, when I traded gasoline, diesel and jet fuel out of Texaco's London office, the reduction in the growth of European gasoline demand was starting to hurt refining margins. That's because the choice between making gasoline or diesel fuel is built into the design of a refinery's very expensive hardware.

All refineries do essentially two things. First, they separate crude oil into its component fractions of propane, butane, gasoline, kerosene, diesel, various "gasoils", and heavy fuel oil or asphalt. Then, after separation, some of these fractions are processed further to convert them into other products or improve their quality. The workhorse for much of this in most refineries, particularly in the US, Europe and Japan, is the fluid catalytic cracking unit, or "cat cracker", an expensive piece of hardware using updated versions of a 60-year old technology to turn diesel and gasoil into gasoline. These devices make a lot of high-octane gasoline, but their flexibility to shift operations between gasoline and diesel is somewhat limited.

The competing "conversion" technology is hydrocracking. It's more expensive--both in capital and operating costs--and requires a reliable supply of hydrogen, but it provides a lot more flexibility between gasoline and diesel output. Unfortunately, all but the largest refineries had to choose between one technology or the other. In the market of the 1960s and 70s, when many of these facilities were built or expanded, and with demand for gasoline going through the roof, cat cracking was the obvious way to go.

Today, many of Europe's refineries sit there with big cat crackers in a market that's increasingly demanding more diesel, of a higher quality, than this process can easily produce. They can't all build hydrocrackers at once, though some are suggesting they will have to do this eventually. One of the things they can do is run a bit more crude oil, of types that makes more diesel out of the front-end separation process, and sell their excess gasoline into another market that needs it. Where might such a market be found? Right here on the other side of the Atlantic, where environmental and permitting restrictions have limited the ability of refiners to expand to meet US demand.

The problem for both sides of the pond is that this game can't go on this way forever. At some point, if the trend towards diesel in the EU continues, European refineries will need to reconfigure to make a lot more of it and a lot less gasoline from the same quantity of crude oil. That looks likely, because "dieselization" is one of the EU's main strategies for meeting its greenhouse gas targets under the Kyoto treaty. Diesel's greater fuel economy translates directly into lower CO2 emissons. Changing the manufacturing base is going to be expensive and largely irreversible, and it will have a ripple effect in the US, as a reliable source of gasoline imports becomes less reliable over time. That might be another justification for building more refineries here.

What would happen, though, if the US followed the same path as Europe? It hasn't happened so far, because most European diesel cars couldn't meet the US regulations on car exhaust, especially for particulate matter. But technology will likely close that gap, and consumers will then have a non-hybrid option for getting 40 miles per gallon in a mid-size car. It wouldn't even bother US refiners for a long time, because we have all those gasoline imports to back out before they'd have to change their operations very much.

This might be a pretty good thing for US carmakers, too. While they may lag Toyota on hybrid technology, their European branches sell loads of nifty diesel cars. In fact, they may be betting on this technology as a way of getting the profitable SUV segment up to a respectable fuel economy standard before it is forced out of existence.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Nuclear Waste, Or Is It?

Late last year I commented on the delays affecting approval of the proposed nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. After originally ascribing the problem to politics, I came around to the idea that waiting wasn't the worst thing we could do. Now I've read this article by a regular reader and commenter on this blog who has an even better idea than indefinitely prolonged temporary storage: recycling the nuclear waste back into fuel. With nuclear power looking more attractive than it has for decades, due to its energy security and greenhouse gas benefits, viewing this "mountain of waste" as a useful resource rather than a disposal problem seems like a timely shift of perspective.

Based on nuclear industry expertise, Mr. Somsel's article speaks for itself. There isn't much I'd add, other than in two specific areas. First, a change like this would require significant public relations and public education. How many Americans remember enough high school chemistry to understand that the elements (isotopes) with the shortest half-lives are the most radioactive and thus most hazardous? At the same time, long half-life elements such as uranium and plutonium present both the biggest long-term storage challenge, and the greatest potential for recycling into valuable fuel.

The other issue relates to nuclear weapons proliferation. Mr. Somsel rightly identifies this as a primary reason that the long-term storage strategy was chosen over recycling in the past. As much as anything, this has been a gesture of consistency in our approach to nascent civilian nuclear programs around the world. But as the current diplomatic wrangling with Iran and North Korea suggests, the global non-proliferation model is in flux. Denying ourselves the ability to reuse spent fuel won't be sufficient to keep bomb-quality material out of the wrong hands. Making smart use of this material, on the other hand, could be part of the solution to taming our insatiable appetite for imported energy and contribute to global stability.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Market Imperfections

This post started out as a response to a comment, but after I'd written several paragraphs, I realized it should stand on its own. A reader indicated some concern about a statement I made in yesterday's posting, relating to government incentives for promoting greater energy efficiency. He responded, "There's a Libertarian hiding in my Republican body who cannot accept managed economics." I can appreciate that sentiment. However, I think we have to draw a distinction between managing markets and managing economics. After all, more than half our laws and tax policies, whether introduced by Republican administrations or lawmakers or Democratic ones, are aimed squarely at the latter.

You can't spend 10 years trading commodities without becoming a believer in the power of markets. But you also get a sense for their limitations, for when and where markets don't work well enough or with enough foresight. That's not socialism; it's pragmatism. Now, I think there's tremendous scope for applying market solutions to problems that would have previously been attacked with purely policy measures. Greenhouse gas emissions trading is a great example of that. But without some kind of policy fix, be it higher fuel taxes, stronger CAFE standards, or incentives for efficiency investments, the US energy market will simply deliver more SUVs, higher consumption, and higher imports.

That, after all, is the world we've lived in for the last 25 years, since Reagan deregulated energy prices. Free markets did a great job of bringing down oil prices in the 1980s, and creating a much more diverse base of supply for our growing oil imports. But markets can't insulate us from the consequences of a global supply shortfall, or a localized weather catastrophe, any more than they can pre-price (or preempt) the effects of a truly discontinuous event, such as a peak in global oil production or a permanent gap between actual supply and theoretical demand. There are just some areas in which markets need a bit of a nudge from time to time; that's a classic role of government, going back to the Founders.

Having said that, I've also written about the importance of those nudges focusing on the results we want, and not on the means to achieve them. That means providing incentives for better fuel economy, not for hybrid cars (or some other specific technology.) I don't see this as a replay of the 1980s debate over industrial policy, focused on picking winners or losers. Rather, it's a question of embedding a bias for efficiency into our economy--not at the expense of everything else, but more than our short-term-focused markets would provide. There are a lot of us who think that this will pay financial and geopolitical dividends in the long run, too.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Prioritizing Environmental Concerns

It's looking increasingly likely that the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on our energy infrastructure will persist long enough to force us to address some of the inherent inconsistencies in our approaches to energy and the environment. As yesterday's New York Times suggests, this will put drilling in Alaska's wilderness areas back into play. Until now, the interests favoring exploitation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) have been blocked by those advocating preservation. An honest assessment of our future energy needs will likely eliminate that veto. What will remain at issue is the framework under which exploration and production should eventually proceed.

While the Times article focused primarily on the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR), rather than ANWR, both regions have the potential to arrest the decline of Alaskan oil production, which accounts for roughly a fifth of total US production today, having contributed as much as a quarter in its prime. As the impact of lost production from damaged Gulf Coast facilities shows, even one million barrels per day out of a total US consumption of 20 million is truly material and consequential. ANWR and the NPR would support overall Alaskan output for decades, rather than constituting--as some have spuriously argued--a "few months of supply" for the US. Their contribution could be a critical factor in world oil pricing, if global supplies remain tight or actually begin to decline.

For years, opponents of drilling have argued that conservation could easily save quantities of energy comparable to what ANWR or the NPR would contribute. Given the available technology and companies whose entire businesses revolve around providing, installing, and managing such efficiency measures, this is a powerful argument. However, it sets up a false dichotomy. With US oil production declining steadily, and our demand for oil (and other forms of energy) rising, the need for both new sources of supply and serious improvements in energy efficiency has become acute.

The hurricanes have made efficiency fashionable again, across the political spectrum. But while high gasoline prices today and the promise of exceptionally high winter heating costs ahead create a short-term incentive for efficiency, the kind of investments necessary to change our energy usage significantly require longer payouts. Markets alone may not be sufficient to drive such investments, without some kind of government assistance. Linking efficiency incentives with new production in a comprehensive approach to our energy problems is not only logical but necessary, if we are to have an impact in both the short and long term. New oil supplies from Alaska and elsewhere will take years to reach the market, while efficiency measures can contribute much sooner, as well as reducing the magnitude of future demand that must be supplied--and reducing emissions of all kinds in the bargain.

Opening up these pristine areas without some kind of quid pro quo would be a shame, but that's the likely outcome if environmentalists don't become more pragmatic about their priorities. The choice is not between drilling in Alaska or not; rather, it is between the gradual erosion of the support base for opposing drilling--as a result of an emerging energy crisis--versus seizing the opportunity for a historic compromise that would benefit the entire country. It's up to the environmental community to craft the shape of such a compromise, but time is running out, as the value of the hand they hold shrinks with every upward move of crude prices.