Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Self-Fulfilling Bet on Biofuels?

An article in today's Financial Times (registration required) raises a worrying possibility concerning the plans of the US and other oil-consuming countries to rely on biofuels for an increasing fraction of future fuel needs. What if oil-producing countries took those plans seriously and reduced their investment in new oil capacity, on the assumption that it wouldn't be needed? In some respects, that's exactly what we have in mind. However, if biofuels then failed to materialize in sufficient quantities to fill the gap between oil supply and total fuel demand, or proved to be economically or environmentally unsustainable, then we might inadvertently create precisely the sort of crisis these efforts were intended to avert. It would be easy to dismiss this argument as OPEC-inspired propaganda, if global oil production didn't require enormous ongoing investments to counteract the natural decline rates of producing fields, and if producing-country governments weren't already under internal pressure to spend their oil profits on programs other than reinvesting in future production.

The good news here is that biofuels have reached a scale at which they actually matter in the global oil supply and demand balance. That wasn't the case during the oil crises of the 1970s, and they were still only a marginal factor when oil prices last peaked in 2008. The latest publicly-available issue of the International Energy Agency's Oil Market Report indicates that biofuels now contribute the equivalent of 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil, before including US and Brazilian ethanol volumes that together equate to another 650,000, bringing the global total to just over a million bpd. That might not sound like a large share of a total market of 85 million bpd, but it's enough to influence the global price of oil, which is set at the margin. Doubling or tripling biofuel output would certainly cost oil producers money, if they ignored this factor in their capacity planning.

So far, this is only a problem for oil producers. It becomes a problem for the rest of us when the biofuel plans and targets of consuming countries are based on unproven technology that may not be able to deliver in time, or possibly at all. Unfortunately, that's the position in which we find ourselves. Consider the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) enacted by the Congress in 2007 and refined in new regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Out of the 36 billion gallon per year target for 2022, only around 16 billion gallons is accounted for by corn-based ethanol and first-generation biodiesel--both of which have been amply proven, however much they depend on generous subsidies to remain competitive. 20 billion gallons per year must come from cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels, none of which are in truly commercial production today, in spite of the hype that has been generated by a handful of "demonstration facilities."

One indication of just how unrealistic these targets might be is that EPA was forced to reduce the cellulosic biofuel target it will enforce for 2010 from 100 million gallons to 6.5 million gal.--the equivalent of just over 400 barrels per day of oil--due to lack of supply. And while the agency attributes that shortfall to delays in starting up new facilities using a variety of new technologies, a careful reading of their analysis suggests the problem might be more serious than that. Two firms account for nearly a third of the 694 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel capacity they expect will be in operation by 2014, Cello Energy and Range Fuels. Unfortunately, last year Cello was ordered by a federal court to pay $10 million for defrauding investors concerning its technology claims. Meanwhile blogger Robert Rapier has documented the problems that Range Fuels has experienced in scaling up its process for producing ethanol from gasified biomass. Until both of these firms have demonstrated they can actually do what they claim, at full scale, it's not prudent to bet the ranch on their production forecasts.

Problems such as this are probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scaling up a myriad of new processes for producing motor fuels from non-food biomass, not because it's impossible or because the firms involved don't have sufficient smarts--though one or both of those factors will turn out to apply in at least a few cases--but because it is intrinsically hard. Scientists have been working on cellulosic biofuels and biomass-to-liquids processes for decades, yet the sum total of all that work, up until this point, has only yielded enough fuel production to cover the annual consumption of about 13,000 average American cars. That doesn't mean that companies and investors are foolish to pursue these technologies, or that ExxonMobil is wrong about the potential they apparently see in algae-based fuels, another hot biofuels sector. What it does mean, however, is that when dealing with technologies that can't be made to appear on command and are subject to a number of serious, unresolved technical and logistical challenges, neither consumers nor our governments should base their plans for the future on the assumption they will mostly succeed on schedule.

How realistic is it that the oil-producing countries that control access to the vast majority of the world's oil reserves would be so convinced by our rhetoric concerning biofuels replacing oil, that they will cut back their investments in new capacity? Part of the answer lies in the narrative of Peak Oil that generated headlines when oil prices were spiking a couple of years ago, involving the high decline rates of mature oil fields and the relatively low investment rates of many producing countries. When the government of Venezuela must borrow money from China despite $80 oil, that's one signpost that they might not have enough to reinvest in exploration and production. We can argue about the likely date of a peak in global oil output, but anything that provides governments an excuse to spend less sustaining their oil industries brings that date closer--and that's equally true for a US administration that appears so confident of the success of its biofuels and fuel economy programs that it can allow the timing of the next offshore oil leasing cycle to slip further and further.

Oil is still the lifeblood of our industrial civilization, but it's also a business requiring enormous investments premised on the likelihood of future demand. That doesn't mean we must remain helpless hostages to foreign oil suppliers; fuel efficiency and biofuels are both sensible--even necessary--strategies for us to pursue. But we have an even larger stake in ensuring that the biofuel goals and plans we communicate, not just among ourselves but simultaneously to our oil suppliers, are based on reality. If both we and they are betting on supplies of advanced biofuels that could well fall significantly short of our expectations, then it is we who will suffer the consequences at the gas pump.

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