Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 in Energy: The Year of...

At the start of 2011, I thought the hallmark of the year's energy events and trends might involve regulation, with the White House seeking to implement measures that couldn't garner enough support in Congress to become laws. But for every major new regulation issued, such as last week's release of the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants, others were delayed or deferred, including the EPA's effort to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act and the agency's proposed ozone standard. Outside of the utilities and other industry groups directly affected by these rules, it seems likely that 2011 will instead be remembered for big, unpredictable events like the Fukushima nuclear accident and the Solyndra bankruptcy scandal, along with several major trends that reached critical mass this year. Anyone attempting to pick the energy story of the year is spoiled for choice.

In my search for a catchy title for this year's final posting, I toyed with "The Year of Solyndra", "The Year of Shale", "The Year of Fukushima", "The Year of Exports", and various other combinations of the energy buzzwords that percolated into our consciousness this year. In some ways, they'd all be apt choices. Here's a quick rundown on why they might merit that kind of recognition, with links to previous postings providing more details on each:
  • If 2011 is the year of Solyndra, it's not because of the possibility that the government's $535 million loan to the firm was the result of political influence (cue Major Renault), or even that the Department of Energy is unlikely to recover more than pennies on the dollar in the firm's bankruptcy. Instead, it's because Solyndra highlighted the much broader and deeper problems of a global solar industry that, despite continued demand growth that other industries would kill for, now faces overcapacity and the fallout from the winding down of unsustainable government support. Germany's Solar Millennium is just the latest victim of this trend. Along with BP's exit from the solar business after 40 years, it provides a further reminder that renewable energy firms must succeed not just as technology providers, but as businesses that can earn consistent profits and continue to attract investors.

  • Shale gas was hardly new to the scene in 2011; it has been expanding rapidly for several years and now accounts for up to a third of US natural gas production. However, the controversy surrounding drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing that make its exploitation possible became much more widespread this year, while some scientists raised questions about its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Shale gas has the potential to transform nearly every aspect of our energy economy, and probably sooner than renewable energy sources could. That has some folks nervous, while others are eager for shale gas to displace coal from electricity generation, compete with oil in transportation, and revive the domestic petrochemical industry. I suspect we'll see all of those to some extent, provided we don't regulate shale out of the running.

  • The aftermath of Fukushima could prove equally transformational, though it remains to be seen whether the ultimate result is safer nuclear power or a global retreat from one of our largest sources of low-emission energy. All but 8 of Japan's 54 nuclear power plants are currently idle, and that nation must shortly decide whether it will eventually restart those units that weren't critically damaged, or shut down the rest and attempt to run its manufacturing-intense economy on a combination of renewables and much larger imports of fossil fuels. The German government's post-Fukushima decision to phase out nuclear energy entirely could provide an even quicker test of the same proposition.

  • Another major shift that has been in the news recently involves exports. Although the US has long exported coal and various petroleum products, we could shortly become a bigger, more consistent exporter of many fuels, including liquefied natural gas (LNG), gasoline and diesel. As the reaction in a CBS news segment last week demonstrated, the US public doesn't know quite what to make of this, yet. Becoming a major energy exporter while still importing a net 9 million barrels per day of crude oil is very different than the picture of isolated self-sufficiency that four decades of "energy independence"rhetoric has evoked. We shouldn't be surprised that energy can provide a boost, and not just a drain on our trade balance. This topic requires more public discussion and education, before we see serious proposals to ban such exports--proposals that would make no more sense than banning exports of corn, tractors, or aircraft in an attempt to keep their US prices low.

  • It's also tempting to call this the Year of Oil Price Confusion. The news media gradually woke up to the huge gap that had developed between global oil prices and the oil price that Americans tend to watch most closely, the one for West Texas Intermediate crude. Yet despite numerous stories on the storage and pipeline crunch and supply glut at Cushing, Oklahoma, few reporters and networks seemed able to follow through by breaking their old habit of treating the NYMEX WTI price and its gyrations as if it were still the best indicator of the overall oil market. Fortunately, the problem is in the process of being resolved, as pipelines are reversed and more tankage built.

  • Finally, there was the administration's non-decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. Observers can read much into this, including the growing influence of citizen activists mobilized via social media. However, if it does nothing else, the Keystone controversy should put to rest the superficial fallacy that anything that improves greenhouse gas emissions is automatically good for energy security, instead of requiring difficult trade-offs. In that context, the prospect that the administration might ultimately turn down the permit for Keystone would be easier to stomach if the net greenhouse gas savings involved amounted to more than a paltry 0.3% of annual US emissions, based on the emissions from incremental oil sands production the pipeline might facilitate, compared to those from the conventional imported oil it would displace.

It was a busy year for energy, and if my short list of top stories missed something crucial, please let me know. 2012 promises to be just as interesting, with a Presidential election, in which energy issues could feature prominently, added to the mix. In the meantime, I'd like to wish my readers in the UK and Commonwealth a happy Boxing Day, and to all a Happy New Year.

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