Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009: Energy Year in Review

As I was considering this year-end summary, it struck me that 2009 seemed to span more than a single year. It began with the economy plummeting with no obvious bottom in sight and energy demand falling with it. Later, as the financial system stabilized and the psychological impact of stimulus efforts in the US, China and the EU took hold, markets began to recover and the nascent depression became a nasty recession that apparently ended in the 3rd quarter. However, in a reversal of last year's dynamic, energy was mostly driven by the economy, instead of the former driving the latter. And unlike 2008, when oil grabbed the most headlines, the big energy stories of this year concerned natural gas and renewables, along with efforts to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that accompany most energy use.

For oil prices, 2009 was certainly two years in one: A weak first half in which the price of West Texas Intermediate Crude averaged just under $52 per barrel, and a much more stable second half averaging around $72. Nor did prices exhibit anything like their volatility of 2008, which started in the $90s, peaked near $150, and ended in the $40s after a dip to the low $30s. By comparison, 2009 looked more like a continuation of 2006 or 2007, as if 2008 never happened, but with the primary focus inverted from concerns about supply to worries about demand. It'll be a few months before the final figures are in, but it appears that global oil demand was down by 2% vs. 2007, with demand in the US off by a whopping 10% through September.

The impact of weaker demand on the refining sector was particularly severe, compressing margins and forcing the permanent closure of at least one major US refinery. The average US gasoline price for the year was nearly $0.90 per gallon lower than in '08, saving the average driver around $35 per month. The even larger savings in the first half probably constituted the most meaningful stimulus that most consumers were seeing at that point.

If the oil news centered on weak demand and OPEC's efforts to restrain supply, for natural gas it mainly highlighted the remarkable resurgence of US gas production, thanks to the shale gas revolution. If this trend can be sustained it has significant implications for the entire economy and for the emissions we produce. It also poses a serious dilemma for environmentalists, because the shale gas bubble and its benefits for climate change would evaporate if the drilling practice called hydraulic fracturing were to be banned or severely restricted. Also at stake is the potential revival of the US petrochemical industry, which relies much more heavily than its foreign competitors on natural gas as a feedstock, instead of oil. The jobs involved might not be exactly "green", but they are certainly desirable ones, in the sense of providing above-average wages. Government regulation of gas drilling and other aspects of the energy industry will be the trend to watch next year.

Speaking of government influence, it was crucial to the survival of the renewable energy industry in 2009. Aside from the strong vote of confidence and hefty financial commitment to renewables embodied in the stimulus bill, government grants to renewable energy developers stood in for the frozen "tax equity" market on which developers had previously relied to help finance wind farms and other facilities. US wind power capacity is on track to grow by around 28% this year to roughly 33,000 MW, though even at this impressive level it will still contribute just 2% of net electricity generation, for which the bigger story this year was the more than 10% drop in coal consumption, mainly at the expense of lower demand and higher gas-fired generation. Solar power is growing by leaps and bounds, though it still has a ways to go to catch up with wind and has already started to attract a similarly mixed reception as it moves beyond rooftops into utility-scale installations.

Meanwhile, another big renewable energy sector was kept on life support by the steadily-expanding US Renewable Fuel Standard and a 30-year-old subsidy that has outlived its usefulness. Despite this support and an import tariff designed to confine that subsidy to US producers, 2009 continued the previous year's trend of ethanol suppliers going bust. It also saw the largest of the previous year's ethanol bankruptcies progress to liquidation, as most of VeraSun's facilities were ultimately absorbed by independent refining giant Valero, which also became an active investor in next-generation biofuel technology. Yet in spite of its continued growth and the unwavering support of federal and state governments, corn-based ethanol is hurtling toward a collision with the 10% limit on blending it into a shrinking gasoline pool--a limit that ethanol supporters want to have raised to 15%, regardless of the consequences for consumers. An even bigger problem lurks for corn ethanol, which has lately been promoted for its contributions to reducing emissions. The evidence is mounting that on a global basis its emissions might even be worse than from the petroleum products it displaces. The greater our commitment to addressing climate change and sustainability, the larger the contradictions of corn ethanol will loom.

And that brings us to Copenhagen, which served as the year's great energy anti-climax. While the outcome is being touted as a "Big Step Forward," the session in Denmark failed spectacularly to deliver the expected culmination of the two-year timeline set at Bali and built upon in a series of interim meetings. Instead of a binding global treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord looks like a joint promise to make a list of independent targets--a promise that was only purchased with commitments for future aid that may never materialize, or that may only come at the expense of existing forms of aid to the developing world. With action on climate legislation in the US Congress stalled for now--for good reasons, in my view--that was probably all that could realistically be accomplished. Yet it still falls short of any objective metrics for judging the session, and indeed the entire Conference of the Parties (COP) process. I wouldn't be surprised to see the COP marginalized by the Major Economies Forum, an initiative that adds the EU central government to the group of large emitters first convened by the previous administration. When the COP manifests the dysfunctionality of the UN General Assembly, then climate change needs its own version of the Security Council to get things done.

Neither Copenhagen nor Climategate spells the end of action on climate change, but they might just mark a turning point toward a more pragmatic and less dogmatic set of responses, perhaps along the lines of a compromise being floated in the US Senate that would consider the contributions of all forms of energy to a more secure energy future with lower emissions. That aligns with the gradual replacement of a narrative of oil scarcity by one of natural gas abundance and the deft use of renewables, with a much stronger emphasis on efficiency and conservation, which still look like the low-hanging fruit for both energy security and climate change.

Barring major events, this will be my last posting for the year. Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

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