Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Path of Least Resistance, Revisited

Three years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I posted some remarks concerning the concentration of our energy infrastructure in the Gulf Coast. As we head into the Labor Day weekend with Tropical Storm Gustav bearing in a similarly threatening direction, and with the nation embroiled in a debate about expanded offshore drilling and refineries, many of these points still seem timely, with a few updated comments in italics below:

There are natural reasons why the Gulf Coast should be home to a large concentration of the country's energy infrastructure. Nature has provided a bounty of hydrocarbon reserves in this area, with sizable fractions of our oil and natural gas production coming from the coastline between Brownsville, TX and Mobile, AL. It was natural that so much of our refining system and crude and product pipelines would be concentrated in the same area, given their access to domestic, and later imported crude oil. But we need to talk about the additional concentration that is due, not to the natural incidence of resources, but to the difficulties entailed in building energy facilities elsewhere in the country.

When a company looks to add refinery capacity to its network, it is logical to add on to an existing facility, rather than build a new one from scratch, incurring extra investment in basic infrastructure, including water and power. But for the last two decades, there has been little choice available to oil companies, even if it made more economic and logistical sense to start a new refinery elsewhere. Environmental regulations and permitting bureaucracy simply foreclosed this option. Refiners were forced to take the path of least resistance.

The result is that 10% of the country's refinery capacity was sitting in the path of Hurricane Katrina, and even this was a stroke of luck. Had the storm tracked further west and barreled down the Houston Ship Channel, instead of the Mississippi basin, the damage to our refined products infrastructure might have been worse. Houston and the nearby Texas coast are home to nearly 4 million barrels per day of refining capacity, in contrast to the 1.8 MBD or so that Katrina shut down in Louisiana. That was still enough to boost the US average regular gasoline price by 45 ¢ per gallon in one week, giving most of us our first taste of $3 gasoline.

Katrina knocked out nearly 20% of the country's natural gas production, due to the high proportion of supply coming from shallow and deep water gas platforms in the Gulf. It also took 900,000 barrels per day of oil production offline. Most of that came back, gradually, but for the year after Katrina, Gulf Coast output averaged 300,000 bbl/day less than the previous year. A number of new projects were also delayed, including BP's giant Thunder Horse platform. This is nature's part of the equation, and we can't change where the oil and gas reserves are found. However, we can rethink the default option for natural gas imports in the form of liquefied natural gas, along with the offshore drilling bans that have contributed to the concentration of our supply.

We've made some progress since 2005. The Gulf's share of US natural gas production has dropped to about 12% today, partly due to the decline of offshore gas fields, but also to the rapidly-increasing output of unconventional gas from sources such as the Barnett Shale. Biofuels and other dispersed forms of alternative energy also contribute to diversification, although it will be some time before they scale up to a magnitude comparable to oil and gas. Unfortunately, our tendency to follow the path of least resistance remains largely intact. Even the Congressional "Gang of 10" energy compromise exhibits this trait: expanded offshore drilling, yes, but mainly in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. And despite years of talk about new refineries outside the hurricane belt, when the expansion of Motiva's Port Arthur, TX refinery and Marathon's Garyville, LA facility are completed, the Gulf Coast will account for a larger share of US refining capacity than when hurricanes Katrina and Rita came though.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Back Door on CO2

When the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide was a pollutant, the implications were clear. Rather than waiting for the Congress and President to agree on federal climate change policy, presumably built around an economy-wide cap & trade system or a carbon tax, the Court told the EPA that it had all the authority it needed under the Clean Air Act to order emitters of greenhouse gases to cut back--regardless of the wider repercussions. Now a lawsuit filed by the Attorneys General of New York and eleven other states seeks to force the EPA to implement this ruling on emissions from US oil refineries. But unlike a comprehensive approach, such a selective effort would greatly worsen the nation's energy security, while having very little impact on overall US greenhouse gas emissions.

The US emitted a net 6.2 billion tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases (GHG) last year. Reducing those emissions has become a high priority, and pending a federal response along the lines of the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner cap & trade legislation that failed to pass the Congress earlier this year, the states have largely taken the lead. New York's suit to force the EPA to implement the High Court's ruling on CO2 as a pollutant is just one example of this trend. But in singling out oil refining, the states have chosen a target with enormous negative leverage on US imports of petroleum products--and thus on US energy security. Moreover, oil refining contributes a very small share of total US GHG emissions. California, which joined New York in filing this suit, is home to nearly 12% of US refining capacity, but its refineries account for only about 3% of the state's emissions, despite processing some of the nation's most challenging crude oil. 3% is small beer, compared to the 39% of US emissions attributable to electricity generation, or the 30% associated with our use of all transportation fuels. (Input from a chemist at the Air Resources Board suggests that refinery emissions may be closer to 7% of the state's total, although that includes co-generated electricity, some of which is sold.)

To appreciate why the cost/benefit ratio of this effort is so poor, you have to understand where GHG emissions occur along the petroleum value chain. End use, not processing, is the biggest source by a long shot. With their raw material priced over $100/bbl, and their other main energy input, natural gas, costing about half that on a barrel-equivalent basis, refiners have ample incentives to be efficient. Every BTU they burn in the course of making gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other products is a BTU they can't sell. The latest analysis by Argonne National Laboratory found that the average oil refinery operates at 88% efficiency. Since emissions follow energy use, that means that while burning a gallon of gasoline in your car releases 19.4 lb. of CO2, only 2.6 lb. were emitted refining it. Reducing refinery CO2 emissions by 20% would have no more impact on climate than improving the fuel efficiency of the average car by 0.5 miles per gallon--less, in fact, because the US already imports a million barrels per day of gasoline and gasoline blending components. And there's the rub.

Because CO2 emissions from refineries are tied directly to their energy consumption, the only way refiners have to reduce those emissions is to process less oil, or to process it less intensively. Either option reduces their output of the high-quality transportation fuels the US demands--think reformulated gasoline and ultra-low-sulfur diesel--and forces us to import more of them from overseas, from refineries that won't be subject to the EPA's regulations on emissions. Sure, refiners can buy some renewable electricity, but that won't produce any net GHG reductions for the economy. With most US electricity still generated from fossil fuels, they would just compete with whoever is buying that output today, and drive up the premium on green electrons. And with the economics of wind and solar power still depending more on incentives than on the price of electricity, it would be hard to argue this would lead to additional renewable electricity capacity being built.

No one expects the refining industry to be handed a Get Out of Jail Free card on its greenhouse gas emissions. However, singling out refineries for enforcement of air-pollution-style regulations on their emissions will yield minimal net CO2 reductions and merely shift its emissions offshore, while further eroding the employment and profits of this strategic manufacturing sector. In addition, increasing US imports of refined product would worsen our trade deficit by their margin over crude oil. In the case of diesel fuel, which is in short supply globally, that has averaged $22 per barrel so far this year. The suit by New York, California, and the other states thus reflects a poor grasp of both energy economics and environmental priorities. If we want to reduce the GHG emissions from our use of petroleum, we must focus on squeezing demand for it, not the US companies that process it into fuels.

By the way, The Economist is hosting an interesting debate on whether existing technologies are sufficient to solve our energy problems.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pay-Go for Renewable Energy Credits

While Congress and the Presidential candidates are busily debating far-reaching energy proposals, the existing tax credits for wind and solar power and other renewable energy are still slated to expire at the end of the year. The uncertainty about their continuation is apparently beginning to slow down new installations and may be putting some of those vaunted "green collar" jobs at risk, at least temporarily. Although a broad consensus supports their renewal, the hang-up is over funding. I'd like to offer an alternative that at least makes policy sense, if not political sense. Its appeal will be limited by the reticence of both sides of this debate to be seen explicitly raising the price Americans pay for energy.

I've lost count of the number of times the Senate has missed extending the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC) and the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) this year. Six? Seven? One of the latest such efforts was S.3335, the "Jobs, Energy, Families, and Disaster Relief Act of 2008". Voting against something with that title must have felt like voting against motherhood and apple pie, although the bill should more accurately have been designated the "Renewable Energy and Comprehensive Pork Act of 2008," including as it did such diverse provisions as a "Seven Year Cost Recovery Period for Motorsports Racing Track Facility," "Provisions Related to Film and Television Productions," and my favorite, the "Modification of Rate of Excise Tax on Certain Wooden Arrows Designed for Use by Children." I wish I were making this up. Having previously failed to satisfy the requirement for revenue neutrality, also known as "Pay-Go", by singling out the oil & gas industry for loss of a manufacturing tax credit--an idea resurrected in the proposed "Gang of 10 Compromise"--the revenue provisions of this bill focused on tax changes on deferred income and securities transactions.

All of this seems unnecessarily convoluted. If the Congress wishes to adhere to the principal of revenue neutrality with regard to incentives for renewable energy, the most sensible place to seek funding is one that also encourages energy demand reduction, to complement the PTC's and ITC's supply and efficiency contributions: a tax on the forms of energy these renewables are intended to displace. Contrary to a widely-held misunderstanding, oil accounts for less than 2% of the US electricity supply, so wind , solar, and other forms of renewable electricity displace virtually no petroleum. But even as Americans are driving less and consuming less gasoline, thanks to high fuel prices, electricity demand continues to grow steadily. From April 2007 through March 2008, US electricity demand was running 2% ahead of the previous 12 month period, on a par with its five-year average growth rate of 1.6%. Considering that last year 72% of our power was generated from the combustion of fossil fuels, taxing electricity consumption to pay for the extension of the PTC and ITC would reduce both demand and emissions, while hastening our widely-desired conversion to renewable energy sources.

I've seen a wide range of estimates of the cost of renewing the PTC and ITC. At last year's installation rate for wind power alone, extending the PTC indefinitely would add roughly $300 million each year to the federal deficit, compounded. That aggregates to about $17 billion in lost federal tax revenue over 10 years. A tax of 0.1 ¢/kWh on sales of fossil-fuel-generated electricity would raise more than $25 billion over that period, while increasing the average consumer's monthly bill by only about $1 per month. If we're looking for "Pay-Go" that aligns policy with purpose, that seems like a much better candidate than taxing other forms of energy production and potentially leaving us even less energy-secure than we were.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Defining Speculation

Oil market speculation is back in the news, because Vitol S.A., one of the world's largest oil-trading firms, has apparently been re-classified as a "non-commercial" market participant by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). That marks them as a speculator, this year's scarlet letter. Before we pass judgment on the influence of such firms on the price of oil, and thus on the petroleum products consumers buy, it's worth considering what we really mean by speculation, and how this might be distinct from the activities of the participants that the CFTC deems "commercial", i.e. those conducting futures, options and swap transactions in conjunction with their physical production or consumption of various forms of energy. More importantly, we should evaluate whether speculation is an important enough factor in the oil market to merit distracting us from the urgent pursuit of solutions that would expand energy supplies and shrink demand.

As big as they are, Vitol hardly fits the profile of the kind of speculators that stand accused of driving up the price of oil and everything connected to it to unprecedented levels. Vitol has been trading oil since the 1960s, and I did my first deal with them in the 1980s, when I traded petroleum products for Texaco's West Coast refining and marketing subsidiary. I got a much better sense for just how large a player they were in the physical markets for oil, feedstocks and refined products when I traded international products in London in 1989-91. There were few markets in which Vitol didn't participate, and a few niches that they dominated. Although I haven't had any contact with them in at least 14 years, their growth during that interval has been impressive. So I was hardly shocked to learn that they had apparently accounted for a significant fraction of the open interest in crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) earlier this year. Any non-producer transacting the volumes of physical oil and products deals they do could not manage their business properly without extensive use of futures, options and over-the-counter swaps, little of which could fairly be called speculation.

Texaco's trading division had very firm rules about speculation on futures or options, which it defined as long or short positions that weren't directly linked to a like quantity of physical oil or products we were buying, selling, or holding in inventory, contemporaneously. Even for a group focused on "wet" cargoes--actual liquids on ships, barges, or in pipelines--that was sometimes limiting, because it meant we had to do the physical transaction first, and then scramble to hedge it. But while we couldn't take "naked" long or short positions in the market, we could transact "spreads" that were basically bets on some aspect of the market, such as a widening or narrowing of the price difference between futures contract months, or between different products, or different locations. While we weren't speculating on the absolute price, risking large swings in profit and loss, we were certainly risking smaller amounts on these other market attributes. I think most people would consider that speculation, since we didn't have to do it to support our physical trading or the company's much larger producing and refining businesses. But aside from some modest, inconsistent profits it gave us insights into market trends that passive observers don't usually gain: if you really want to understand a market, you have to be in the market.

Now consider Vitol, buying and selling oil and product cargoes all over the world and owning interests in oil terminals on three continents, a few oil fields, and a small refinery in the Persian Gulf. That doesn't put them in the same league as ExxonMobil--which, unless things have changed a great deal since the Exxon-Mobil merger in 1999, doesn't trade on the NYMEX at all--or legitimize every position they take as non-speculative. However, it's a far cry from the stereotypical view of asset-class commodity speculation by pension funds and hedge funds, executed by twenty-somethings who wouldn't know an octane from an antelope. That's important, because long-established oil trading firms like Vitol have institutional memories that span many up and down cycles of the oil market and know that a trend can turn when you least expect it. It doesn't mean they wouldn't risk a big loss to make a big profit, but in my estimation it makes them poor candidates to be the driving force behind a wave of speculation perceived to have pushed the price of oil beyond the level that could be explained by the fundamentals alone.

The roughly 20% drop in oil prices since the beginning of July should calibrate our estimates of the influence of such speculation. It was clearly not sufficient to maintain momentum in the face of weakening fundamentals of demand, supply and risk. At the same time, our response ought to distinguish between the kind of speculation represented by oil market neophytes hoping to cash in on an attractive investment trend, and the speculation that is an absolute requirement of a smoothly-functioning commodities market. Anyone who thinks the oil market would work just fine with only producers, refiners and end-users has never spent a day trading, or seen liquidity vanish just when a specific transaction was most desirable or necessary, because there was no middleman willing to take it on as a bet. But regardless of whether one variety of speculation should concern us more than another, the market's dramatic response to sliding demand serves notice to policy makers that their best and most productive avenue for addressing the impact of high oil prices is surely prompt and meaningful action on supply and demand, rather than rounding up today's version of the usual suspects.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Persistence of Change

Weakening demand appears to be the main oil market driver these days, with the US having just tallied its 12th consecutive monthly decline in gasoline demand, year-on-year. For the moment, at least, good old supply and demand have displaced imminent Peak Oil and a perceived commodity bubble as the dominant narrative. If we needed further evidence of that, the market's collective yawn at Russia's threat to the Caspian pipelines passing through Georgia ought to serve nicely. But how much of the recent decline in consumption is attributable to the price elasticity of demand, and how much to the weakening US economy? The answer is of more than passing interest, signifying whether we're likely to see a bounce in demand once the pump price catches up with the 20% decline in the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil since the 4th of July.

The US average retail gasoline price has fallen for six weeks and currently stands at $3.74 per gallon. Barring an unexpected oil-price rally or a major refining problem, unleaded regular prices beginning with a "4" should soon disappear at all but the most expensive stations, even in California. Perhaps this is just a case of the August doldrums, but the price of oil is currently stuck in a range that defies the principal explanations for its behavior earlier this year. With the market clearly responding to fundamentals, its path from here will depend heavily on whether consumers continue to drive less, and that depends on the relative importance of the psychological impact of $4 gasoline, compared to a broad range of economic factors including falling home prices, tightening credit and surging inflation--some of which is attributable to high fuel prices.

The last stretch in which US gasoline demand declined for 12 consecutive months occurred in 1990-91, a period that also coincided with a spike in fuel prices--thanks to Saddam Hussein--and a recession. The Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005, which gave the country its first taste of $3 gasoline, caused only a brief drop in demand. Within 3 months of Katrina's landfall monthly US gasoline demand had resumed its year-on-year growth, consistent with the robust economic growth (helped by the housing bubble) that we were experiencing at the time. Nor did the recession of 2000-2001 prevent gasoline demand from growing by 1.6%, with only a few months exhibiting declines versus the same month of the previous year. Of course, gasoline was well under $2 at the time.

It seems to require an unusual combination of low growth and high prices to overcome the inherent gasoline demand trend of the US economy and shock consumers into conservation mode. Since the economy seems unlikely to recover soon, the persistence of the recent changes in consumer behavior concerning fuel consumption and new car selection thus hinges on just how cheap $3.50 gas will seem to America's drivers after a couple of months over $4.00 per gallon. In the absence of more dramatic events, this could also determine the price of oil on Election Day, a parameter that could influence that contest's outcome.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Drilling vs. Alternatives Contradiction

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." By that measure, the present debate over energy policy in the Congress looks truly impressive, incorporating a number of such "opposed ideas." A prime example is the arguments against expanded domestic oil and gas drilling, many of which look equally applicable to increasing our production of ethanol from grain. In particular, if expanded drilling can be dismissed as not worth the effort or associated trade-offs, based on a curiously-low DOE projection of future production from US oil resources currently off-limits to drilling, then the US grain ethanol program should be subject to the same criterion. However, in the absence of any single, all-encompassing solution to our energy problems, can we afford to reject any of these options, or worse yet, to pit them against each other as though they were somehow mutually exclusive? We need fewer such contradictions, if we are to make real progress in reducing our geostrategic and financial exposure to oil imports.

Start with the energy contribution of that off-limits oil. I find it extraordinary that the DOE's estimate of 200,000 barrels per day from this resource has been so widely accepted without question--mainly by those, the extent of whose expertise concerning oil generally begins and ends with the business end of a gasoline dispenser. But set aside for a moment the apparent disconnect with the government's own estimate of 18 billion barrels of oil resource in the off-limits portions of the US offshore, a quantity a dozen times larger than the DOE's forecasted cumulative yield from these resources over 20 years. Let's stipulate that paltry-sounding 200,000 bbl/day and convert it into BTUs. It works out to roughly 0.4 quadrillion BTUs/year (quads), or 0.4% of our annual energy consumption, coincidentally about the same quantity of energy we currently get from wind power, based on the natural gas it displaces. Now translate that energy content into its equivalent in ethanol, and you get a figure of 5.2 billion gallons per year, equal to the entire increase in ethanol output mandated between 2007 and 2010--a mandate that was just upheld by the EPA against an appeal from the Governor of Texas. But if it is not worth increasing domestic oil production by the equivalent of 5 billion gallons per year of ethanol, creating US employment and providing the federal government with significant royalty and tax revenues, while displacing $8 billion per year in energy imports at current prices, then what possible rationale can there be for mandating and subsidizing an increase in our ethanol output by a like amount and risking its uncertain impact on the price of grains and other foods?

But wait, you say, ethanol is renewable and good for the environment, while oil is a depleting resource and bad for the environment. The grain of truth in this argument is more than offset by the significant environmental costs associated with corn ethanol production, including high water consumption, fertilizer runoff that contributes to a growing Dead Zone in the Gulf Coast, and greenhouse gas emissions that may actually exceed those of oil, when the global impact on land use for agriculture is considered. Nor is the depletion argument very compelling. After all, it's not as though the opponents of drilling intend to save our untapped offshore oil for future generations, who they probably hope will be even more averse to drilling, and who may lack a domestic oil industry capable of undertaking such a project, in any case.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am not exactly enamored with our current policy towards biofuels produced from foodstuffs, and particularly with the manner in which subsidies for them are handed out. Ethanol is no panacea, and it consumes vast quantities of natural gas, pushing up the latter's imports and price in the process, but at least it displaces much more oil than it consumes and makes a useful contribution to reducing our oil imports. The severity of this energy crisis requires that we pursue every such source we can, including new supplies of conventional and alternative energy, along with the savings from improved efficiency. If it is necessary to hold our noses to the extent of accepting that we need conventional ethanol in our energy mix, at least for now, and that we must have tens of thousands of wind turbines--which some consider a blot on the landscape--then the same logic ought to apply to exploiting the domestic oil resources to which we have restricted access for reasons that have been superseded by events. Loving renewables and hating domestic oil is a contradiction that only benefits OPEC and America's economic competitors.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Oil in the Crosshairs

For the last several years, the oil market has focused on the risk of a new conflict in the Persian Gulf, evolving from earlier fears of a direct US/Iranian confrontation to recent worries that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear program. I suspect that little of that oft-cited "risk premium" was devoted to the chances of a shooting war breaking out in the Caucasus, virtually on top of a key oil export route from the Caspian Sea. Yet here we are, with Russia intervening Friday on behalf of one of Georgia's breakaway regions, South Ossetia, and bombs apparently falling near the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan Pipeline (BTC) that carries oil to the Mediterranean from the giant "ACG" oilfields of Azerbaijan. If the pipeline, which suffered an unrelated fire last week, were forced to shut down for an extended period, about 1% of the world's oil production could go off line, at least until some portion of it could be re-routed. The market shrugged off this prospect initially, with WTI falling $5 to end last week at $115. I would be surprised if the reaction this week proved quite so blasé.

Georgia was occupied by Russia for nearly 200 years prior to the collapse of the USSR, and the Caucasus is at least as strategic today as it was in the time of the czars, considering its role in the transit of the hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian Sea region. Prime Minister Putin, who appears to be calling the shots in this matter, likely regards Georgia as a rightful part of Russia's sphere of influence, but that doesn't give us many clues about the true extent of Russia's war aims. Given the preparations apparent in the current offensive, these could extend to annexation of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, regime change in Tblisi, or merely putting a good scare into any former Soviet territories flirting with the idea of NATO membership. Although Russia was hardly pleased with the selection of an export route for Caspian oil that deliberately avoided its territory and control, and has gone to great lengths to regain state control over its own oil industry, oil isn't necessary to explain the events in Georgia.

Unfortunately, the implications for oil supplies go beyond the immediate disruption of the roughly 800,000 bbl/day the BTC line was carrying prior to last week's accident. In its latest Oil Market Report, the International Energy Agency cited expected additions to Azeri production of 200,000 bbl/day this year and a like quantity in 2009. As tightly balanced as the oil market remains, with demand destruction largely responsible for the current slump in prices, it would be bad news if those extra supplies could not be accommodated via the BTC or other export routes. Even if the Caspian hasn't quite delivered the oil gusher some expected a decade ago, it is one of a small number of regions in which production trends have been going the right way.

Whoever threw the first punch--and so far neither side seems terribly credible concerning this--the timing of the conflict favors Russia's attaining its goals in this affair. The combination of high energy prices and a highly-distracted America shrinks the odds that either the US or EU will take on Russia in defense of a former Soviet republic, beyond issuing statements asking Mr. Putin to respect Georgia's territorial integrity. Even if the BTC pipeline survives unscathed and quickly resumes deliveries, political risk in the entire region has increased, and future development from this crucial non-OPEC source could slow. That would keep oil prices higher, for longer than otherwise. With roughly $300 billion per year in oil export revenues at current prices, Russia sits near the top of the list of beneficiaries from such an outcome.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Alternative Energy for Shipping

Last Sunday's New York Times carried an interesting article on the implications of high energy prices for the sustained globalization of supply chains. The reporter described how rising shipping costs were forcing manufacturers and retailers to rethink fundamental aspects of their business models, ultimately threatening the continuing expansion of world trade. Higher oil prices are responsible for much of the rise in freight rates, particularly for products carried by sea and air. Marine and aviation fuels are taxed very lightly, so they are more sensitive to changes in oil prices than motor fuels. But while airlines are hoping--perhaps in vain--for long-term fuel price relief from biofuels, cargo ship operators are likely to experience more competition from other uses for bunker fuel, and may need to seek solutions involving more exotic energy sources.

Earlier this year, I mentioned an idea for deploying small, high-tech sails to reduce the fuel consumption of cargo ships. But if world oil supplies fall seriously short of meeting potential demand in the years ahead--an easy prospect to imagine, given the rate at which Chinese and Indian consumers are buying automobiles--ocean freight lines may need to look elsewhere for their primary energy source, not just for ways to supplement it. In 2004, the residual fuel burned by ships and power plants accounted for 1 out of every 8 barrels of global oil demand. If competition for crude oil increases, refiners may be more interested in turning the long, complex molecules in fuel oil into higher-value products such as diesel and jet fuel, rather than selling them as-is. Thanks to heavy investment in upgrading hardware, US refineries produce less than a quarter of the "resid" volumes they did in the late 1970s, and their scope for further "resid destruction" is limited. Globally, however, upgrading 10 million barrels per day of resid output could ultimately prove more attractive than producing the same quantity of hydrocarbons from oil sands, shale, or coal-to-liquids. Where would that leave the shipping industry?

Two large-scale alternatives come to mind, assuming that biofuels will remain focused on the highest-value fuels segments, substituting for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Between the late 1970s and early 1990s, nuclear power and coal displaced most petroleum liquids from the US power generation sector. Either could provide a long-term substitute for residual fuel in ocean-going vessels. Nuclear power has obvious advantages in terms of its low emissions and extensive experience in naval fleets, plus a few civilian icebreakers. Unfortunately, the disadvantages will appear equally obvious to nuclear critics, in terms of the risks of proliferation and terrorism, which at sea may be less manageable than onshore. However, if it proved cost-effective, this is one way that nuclear power could directly displace more oil, and it might be achieved faster than we could build a new generation of land-based nuclear power plants.

A return to coal for ships' fuel might seem an odd and untimely suggestion, in light of concerns about greenhouse gases and the other emissions from burning coal. However, if this were done using small onboard gasification units fueling efficient gas turbines, rather than coal-fired boilers, the CO2 output from such a system might be no worse than from today's ships. And with the right equipment, sulfate and nitrate emissions that contribute significantly to urban air pollution in busy ports could also be scrubbed, at least for limited durations. The practicality of such an approach would have to be demonstrated, but the underlying driving force is clear. Despite the recent spike in coal prices, the BTUs in thermal coal still cost less than half as much as those in bunker fuel, at current prices.

A global retrenchment in trade due to the impact of high energy costs on freight rates would affect shipowners as much as their customers. A generation ago, the world's cargo fleets converted from steam turbines burning the lowest-quality bunker fuel available to the powerful, reliable marine diesel engines that dominate today's commercial shipping. The cost of operating these engines--and thus global shipping rates--depends on the price of the heavy fuel oils they consume. Although shipping firms lack a practical alternative fuel today, there's no reason the next generation of ships couldn't be built around entirely different energy sources. That would be on a par with the shift from coal to oil early last century, and far less dramatic than the switch from sail to steam.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Loophole Whiplash

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard is back in the news. One of the main results of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) was to increase the overall US new car fleet CAFE target to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers the CAFE program, must establish the milestones for stimulating and measuring progress toward that goal. Today's Wall St. Journal reports that auto manufacturers that had previously embraced last year's CAFE compromise are now objecting to a 2015 interim standard of 31.6 mpg. As obtuse as this may seem, in light of consumers' recent and dramatic shift toward more efficient cars, it is a consequence of two past regulatory failures associated with CAFE: the well-known "SUV Loophole" and the much more obscure rules promoting the manufacture of "Flexible Fuel Vehicles" (FFVs.) Carmakers haven't just been slammed by high fuel prices; they also have a bad case of loophole whiplash.

To the surprise of many observers, last year's energy legislation finally closed the much-debated SUV Loophole, which had subjected "light trucks" to a different, lower fuel economy standard, compared to "passenger cars." This was a classic case of good regulatory intentions gone wrong. When the CAFE standard was originally established in 1975, Congress and the Ford administration recognized that the pickup trucks and delivery vans used by businesses could not attain the same fuel economy as personal cars using the technology of the day. Forcing them to do so would have made a bad US economy worse. Without rehashing how this sensible policy morphed into the SUV fad, the result is that 33 years later, the 2008 model (scroll down to March 2008 report) passenger car fleet came within 0.2 mpg of meeting the proposed 2015 target, while new SUVs and pickups still averaged only 23.4 mpg. So not only have SUVs become albatrosses on cardealers' lots, thanks to $4 gasoline, but the same federal program that promoted them in the first place has now turned them into a huge regulatory liability.

A less-publicized aspect of the 2007 energy bill has a bearing on this problem, as well. Previously, FFVs were treated as an even more privileged category under CAFE, and an FFV SUV was a precious commodity. As NHTSA's CAFE FAQ page explains, a model getting 13 mpg on E85 and 16 mpg on gasoline would be counted towards a carmaker's CAFE quota as though it were a sort of 50 mpg hybrid on paper. An automaker could meet up to 1.2 mpg of its overall fleet target this way, in another example of US alternative fuel policy gone awry. Under EISA 2007, this benefit will be phased out between 2014 and 2019. The result only amplifies the SUV pain for US carmakers.

Although the timing of all this could not have been worse for Detroit, it was never going to be otherwise. Only another energy crisis could produce the political coalition necessary to close these loopholes, guaranteeing that this would coincide with market conditions that would punish US carmakers for the past success they enjoyed by taking advantage of them in the first place. There is no doubt that GM and Ford, at least, can field entire new car fleets capable of meeting the 35 mpg standard. The technology exists today, and their 2006 European models already delivered the equivalent of the ultimate US target. In the EU they will be required to beat 40 mpg by 2012. The question is whether they can retool quickly enough to pull off the same trick, here, with a sales mix reflecting the expectations of US car-buyers--expectations that are currently in flux but still differ markedly from those of consumers in the UK or Germany.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Rate of Change

For how much longer will the US depend on petroleum as our primary source of the energy we use for transportation? Conflicting beliefs about the answer to that question lie at the heart of the current debates about offshore drilling and additional support for alternative energy programs. If it is only a few more years, as some assert, then indeed, the production from oil fields in tracts currently off-limits would likely arrive after the greatest need for them has passed. If, on the other hand, we will still be importing oil 20 years from now, then we need to keep our oil project pipeline full, to ensure that we don’t open an even larger window of import vulnerability, on our way to greater energy self-reliance.

Answering this question involves a number of large uncertainties, including the persistence of Americans’ current conservation efforts, particularly if energy prices stabilize or fall farther; whether and how soon non-food-based biofuels can be produced on an industrial, rather than boutique scale; how rapidly plug-in hybrids and other electric vehicles can capture significant market share; and how our response to climate change will re-prioritize our use of other energy resources, and in particular whether we preferentially back out oil or coal first. The future availability of oil itself will also play a role, depending on how close we really are to a permanent peak in global production.

It’s good to have a vision of the end result we desire, presumably a world that is much less reliant on fossil fuels and in which renewable energy sources power electrified cars via a modernized power grid, augmented by nuclear power and liquid biofuels. But planning our journey to that outcome requires a clear understanding of the incremental changes that must occur along the way. In order to make progress toward such a goal, every year the output of that year’s additions to our renewable energy sources must exceed the net result of the growth of demand, moderated by efficiency and conservation, and any changes in the output of other energy sources. If, for example, domestic oil production declines by more than the net new contribution from biofuels, conservation and vehicle electrification, we will lose ground and import more foreign oil.

Last year we did pretty well on the liquid fuels front. In 2007, US ethanol production increased by 1.65 billion gallons per year, the energy equivalent of 71,000 bbl/day of gasoline, about 0.8% of demand, while gasoline consumption grew by less than 0.4%. This year, with gasoline consumption down and ethanol likely to add over 2 billion gallons of additional production, ethanol should capture more market share from petroleum-based gasoline. But in light of concerns about competition between food and fuel, and new questions about the environmental benefits of grain ethanol, that kind of growth cannot be sustained for much longer, without a large contribution from cellulosic biofuels that are still in the demonstration phase.

Progress was less impressive last year with regard to electricity, despite sustained high growth rates for both wind and solar power. The US added a record 5,244 MW of wind capacity, contributing approximately 14 billion kWh of generation, or 0.3% of electricity demand. That backed out the equivalent of 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas, equating to about 50,000 bbl/day of oil. Solar power grew by approximately 270 MW, covering another 0.01% or so of demand, or the equivalent of an extra 2,000 bbl/day of oil. However, US electricity demand grew by 2.3%, while hydropower, our largest renewable energy source, declined in output. As a result, the market shares of coal and nuclear power were stable, while natural gas actually gained ground at the expense of all renewables.

Based on these figures, renewable energy must expand by about a factor of ten before its annual growth will be large enough to make a significant dent in our reliance on fossil fuels in the electricity sector, even without considering the growth in electricity demand that would follow from the addition of millions of plug-in hybrids and EVs to our car fleet. Nor are biofuels likely to eliminate our oil imports in the meantime. At the Congressionally-mandated rate of 36 billion gallons per year in 2022, they will displace the equivalent of 1.5 million bbl/day of gasoline, while the US today imports between 11 and 12 million bbl/day of crude oil and petroleum products, net of exports.

The bottom line is that renewable energy is not yet in a position to make fossil fuels obsolete, and anyone suggesting otherwise is engaging in as much wishful thinking as someone who asserts we can “drill our way to energy independence”—a proposition I have only ever heard as a straw man offered up by opponents of drilling. Renewables have ample scope for further growth, but they also face important obstacles. Even with an increased focus on conservation and efficiency, the chances that we will not still need to import significant quantities of oil ten years from now look very slim, particularly if US oil production continues to decline at the 2-3% per year rate we have experienced over the last decade. Against that backdrop, the current energy compromise suggested by the “Gang of 10” senators looks pragmatic and prudent.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Petro Profits

This energy crisis has given rise to a new American ritual: every quarter, after ExxonMobil's earnings are announced, the media breaks them down into dollars per hour, minute and second, and then cues to reaction shots of consumers expressing outrage that any company should benefit so much from their pain at the gas pump. Although I'm not suggesting we should all feel warm and cozy about oil company profits, we might be better served to focus our fulminating on the dog that doesn't bark. If the largest US oil company produces only 3% of the world's oil and still made nearly $12 billion last quarter, what did the national oil companies that own most of the world's oil make, and who paid for that?

Considering the average price of oil in the 2nd quarter, no one should be surprised that Exxon had stellar results, in spite of earning 54% less on refining and marketing and a third less on chemicals than they did last year at the same time. Allocated over the 26 billion gallons of petroleum products they sold around the world in the quarter, these profits equate to an average of 45¢ per gallon, with 87% coming from finding and producing the oil that went into making those products. It's not unreasonable for consumers paying roughly $4 per gallon to grouse about that, though it does say something about our current national mood that the media chooses to highlight that reaction, rather than someone seeing the results enjoyed by Exxon's shareholders and wanting a piece of the action, no matter how small. But whatever the US oil companies, including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Marathon, and numerous others make, at least most of their profits get recycled into the US economy, in the form of new investments and the savings and spending of the millions of us who collect their dividends, directly or indirectly. The same can't be said for the profits of Saudi Aramco, the National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC), Kuwait Petroleum Co., PdVSA, Rosneft, and so on.

Consider NIOC, the second-largest producer among national oil companies, at 4.15 million barrels per day, about 60% of which is exported. Iran is a relatively low-cost producer, though probably not as low as Saudi Arabia. If their total costs per barrel averaged more than $15 per barrel, I'd be surprised. So at an average price for Iranian Heavy for 2Q08 of $113.85/bbl., that works out to a quarterly gross profit just on exports in the neighborhood of $22 billion, excluding NIOC's earnings from domestic sales, refining and its substantial production of natural gas. Those might add another $10 billion to the total. Lop off a billion or so for overhead, and NIOC is probably reporting to its sole shareholder second-quarter results north of $30 billion. That'll buy a few centrifuges.

So go ahead and grumble about big US oil companies making record profits, while we pay near-record prices at the pump. But don't forget that we import 12 million barrels per day of oil and petroleum products, for which each and every quarter we must send roughly $135 billion outside the country, at current prices. Mr. Pickens is right to bemoan this enormous and unsustainable transfer of wealth. In that context, a smart national energy policy would not bog down in trying to choose among expanded drilling, conservation, and renewable energy, as though these were mutually exclusive options; it would pursue all of them, vigorously, and without vilifying companies for wanting to produce more energy here in the US.