Tuesday, January 31, 2012

D.C. Auto Show Focused on Efficiency

Last week I attended the media preview of the Washington Auto Show. With its dual focus on cars and energy policy, this is always a high point of the winter for me, even if this year's display lacked a draw of the magnitude of the pre-production Chevrolet Volt I drove at the 2010 show. Instead, I was pleased to find that the emphasis on fuel economy and technology in carmaker presentations was matched by a broad array of efficient and attractive new products. They still don't quite constitute the new car fleet needed for the 54 mile-per-gallon target the federal government requires them to meet by 2025, but in my opinion they're off to a very good start.

No one listening to the presentations I sat through last Thursday could have missed the shift in focus from previous years. Performance and drivability were still mentioned prominently, but in most cases the innovations allowing those attributes to be delivered along with improved fuel economy, instead of at its expense, received top billing. I heard about Ford's nine models that achieve at least 40 mpg, including the new C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid that received Green Car Journal's Vision Award for 2012. GM touted a number of efficient new models, including the upcoming Chevrolet Spark subcompact, which will later be available as a full EV. In some respects I found the 2013 Malibu Eco with "e-Assist" even more impressive: With the new Malibu and this year's Buick LaCrosse, GM is building family-sized gasoline-powered sedans that achieve 36 or 37 mpg on the highway. And thanks to Fiat's MultiAir technology, Chrysler had its new 40 mpg Dodge Dart on display.

I was particularly interested in the VW press conference, where they debuted the 45 mpg 2013 Jetta turbo hybrid. The head of VW's US division introduced the car as part of his company's Think Blue sustainability drive, which with this latest model encompasses hybrids, clean diesels, efficient non-hybrid gasoline engines, and soon EVs. With all this technology to talk about, including the new, larger Passat sedan--where's the wagon?--built in VW's new Chattanooga, TN plant and sporting a diesel engine delivering 43 highway mpg (31 city), the biggest surprise was the amount of time he devoted to VW's partnership with Bikes Belong, a cycling safety group aimed at getting people out of their cars. That certainly reflects a bigger-picture view of vehicle sustainability.

My visit to the car show also included a meeting with Lars Ullrich, marketing director of Bosch Diesel Systems North America, and Jeff Breneman of the US Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars. They updated me on the progress that diesels have been making in the US market, particularly in light of the greater cost-consciousness of consumers, post-recession. In the last five years, the willingness of consumers to consider diesels has nearly tripled to around one-third, while diesel sales passed the 100,000 mark for 2011--still less than 1%, but about where hybrids were just a few years ago. Clean diesel models are expected to double by 2014. Models with announced future diesel versions include the Chevrolet Cruze, Jeep Cherokee, Dodge Dakota, and a Mazda crossover. Will diesels ever reach the level of popularity here that they've attained in Europe, where half of all new cars are diesel-powered? They must wage an uphill battle against fuel economy regulations that are anything but fuel-neutral, legacy perceptions formed by the dirty diesels of 20 years ago, and federal and state fuel taxes that still assume that all diesel fuel is used by heavy-duty trucks that wear out our highways. That's a shame, because this is a terrific technology that could be every bit as attractive to many consumers as more expensive hybrids.

Another noteworthy item I gleaned from the manufacturers' presentations was that several of them are forecasting a return to annual US car sales of 16 million within a couple years. That would be good for the industry and employment, but it's crucial for shifting the fuel economy of the entire light-duty vehicle fleet. One of the unnoticed consequences of the low car sales of the last several years is that the US fleet has been aging faster, notwithstanding the small blip from the Cash-for-Clunkers program of 2009. The difference between sales of 16 million a yar versus 12 million is an average turnover of 15 years, instead of more than 20, and faster turnover should translate to quicker improvements in average mpg.

For years we heard that the biggest obstacle to improving the fuel economy of the US car fleet was the auto industry, which only wanted to sell us big SUVs that carried higher profit margins. That excuse was always overly simplistic, and it has been relegated to the ash heap by a new generation of cars and light trucks featuring innovations delivering steadily improving efficiency, even in mainstream sedans and SUVs. Getting the entire fleet to 54 mpg won't be easy, but if what I saw at the D.C. auto show is any indication, the attainment of that goal now depends at least as much on sales mix as on the availability of efficient models. Within a few years, virtually every segment of the market will include hybrid, diesel and EV options that will put a big dent in both fuel bills and emissions, albeit at the expense of higher sticker prices. That means that future fleet mpg will likely be determined mainly by the decisions of consumers, rather than carmakers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

State of the Union: "All-Out, All-of-the-Above Energy"

Anyone expecting the announcement of big new energy initiatives in this year's State of the Union address was disappointed last night. What was new, however, was a welcome shift in the President's emphasis on conventional energy--the fuels he referred to as "yesterday's energy" in last year's speech. Never mind that the resurgent oil production for which Mr. Obama took credit is demonstrably the result of events and policies that preceded his inauguration, or that his administration has pursued policies that have held back faster development. If his remarks signal a return to federal energy policy that expends more than 10% of its effort on the sources that account for more than 80% of the energy we use, we should applaud him. The other new ingredient last night was an effort to ground the rationale for greater support for renewable energy in the argument that it took federally sponsored R&D to make the shale gas revolution possible--R&D that ironically wouldn't have occurred under the research priorities this President has set for the Department of Energy. I hope President Obama is serious about an "all-out, all-of-the-above strategy" for energy, because that's precisely what we need.

The best way to put that in perspective is with the figures in the 2012 Early Release of the Annual Energy Outlook from the Energy Information Agency of the DOE. It was released just in time for the President's speech, and there are few coincidences in today's Washington. The reference case of their forecast for 2035 shows the US consuming 10% more energy within 24 years--an improvement from the 16% predicted in last year's Outlook. It also shows the contribution of renewable energy in the mix increasing from 6.7% today to 8.3%, including mature hydropower. So even after two more decades of strong emphasis on clean energy, oil, gas and coal would continue to provide 80% of our energy. It's clear that there's a disconnect between the lofty rhetoric of last night's speech and the analysis of the government's energy experts. I'll leave it to you to assess whether the discrepancy is due to unrealistic expectations, inadequately ambitious forecasting, or some combination of the two.

A couple of other points from the State of the Union are worth noting. The President called for Congress to "Pass clean energy tax credits," presumably a reference to the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and other renewables that expires at the end of this year. Yet he didn't devote a word to whether the PTC should be restructured and gradually phased out in light of the steadily narrowing competitive gap between renewable and conventional power, let alone the kind of major tax reform he alluded to later in the speech. Mr. Obama also called for a Clean Energy Standard in lieu of a comprehensive climate bill. This is small beer when most of the states with attractive renewable energy resources already have fairly aggressive state-level Renewable Portfolio Standards. Meanwhile, the development of 3 million homes' worth of clean energy sources on public lands that he is directing his administration to allow equates to less than 1% of US electricity demand--helpful, though hardly transformational.

With little likelihood of a divided Congress enacting much that is new on energy this year, the President's remarks last night are mainly interesting for what they suggest about the energy platform on which he will run for reelection this fall. In terms of clean energy, that seems to mean more of the same from 2008 and the last three years, but with much less emphasis on climate change than we heard in his last campaign. The new element is his pivot to embrace rising oil production and the possibilities created by shale gas, even as he cautiously distances himself from the technologies (hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling) that make these two trends possible. Although this might appeal to independent voters, it's also vulnerable to deflation by fact-checking and stands in tension with his rejection--for now--of the Keystone XL pipeline. And if tensions in the Persian Gulf or some other oil hot spot were to increase, so would the scrutiny applied to the administration's energy policies. I'll take a much closer look at those policies when the campaign heats up.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Applying Innovation to Oil & Gas

This Friday at noon Eastern Time I'll be participating in a webinar on The Energy Collective covering the application of innovation to the emissions from oil and natural gas. The topic is timely, not just because of the current debate over the fate of the Keystone Pipeline, but because despite the growing importance of renewable energy, oil and gas will constitute a major part of our energy diet for decades to come. As I was thinking about my remarks, it occurred to me that the best starting point might be a refresher on how the industry's current emissions are distributed along the value chain. For all the heavily-publicized concerns about higher emissions from the extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons such as oil sands crude and shale gas, combustion by end-use applications accounts for the biggest slice, to the tune of 80-84% of the average lifecycle emissions from gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Even for fuels refined from oil sands, our tailpipes still put out more than two-thirds of the total emissions attributable to oil. The proportions are similar for natural gas.

The data I'm using come from a presentation of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is part of the US Department of Energy, and the NETL reports on which it was based. I could have chosen other sources, but they all reach pretty much the same conclusions, and I liked the way this one displayed the differences among various source crudes. It also goes beyond dividing the total "well-to-wheels" lifecycle (WTW) into well-to-tank (WTT) and tank-to-wheels (TTW) sources, those that happen before the fuel gets to your car and those that happen in your car, respectively. The former category was further broken down into segments of extraction, crude oil transport, refining, and finished fuels transport. All of these are amenable to improvements through innovation, and I plan to focus on the four WTT categories on Friday.

However, as helpful as it would be from an emissions perspective to get oil out of the ground with less expenditure of energy and less leakage of methane and other gases, and then to transport and refine it as efficiently as possible, the most effective emission-reduction strategies by far are those that address vehicle emissions from transport. That includes all the ways we normally think of to improve fuel economy, including hybridization and dieselization, which reduce CO2 emissions in direct proportion to fuel savings. Yet it also includes a whole gamut of strategies for reducing vehicle miles traveled, which are currently below the record set in 2007 but remain about 10% above year-2000 levels. Trip consolidation, telecommuting, carpooling, and using public transport can all make an important dent in emissions, and in the long run they eliminate upstream WTT emissions, too, as less oil is required for the same economic activity.

I'm sure that most of this is old hat to those who are well-informed on energy issues, but it's important periodically to remind ourselves of the basics, before we get overly enamored with all the exotic technology we could apply to other portions of the value chain. Deploying wind and solar generation in oil fields, generating geothermal energy from the hot fluids brought to the surface with oil and gas, and making the liquids shipped through pipelines slipperier can all contribute to reducing greenhouse gases, but we should understand clearly that these techniques can only tackle the 20% of emissions that happen before the fuel gets to the local gas station.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Playing Games with US Energy Security

Well, that didn't take long. The administration issued its decision denying the Keystone XL Pipeline application today, rather than using the remaining 34 days in the Congressionally mandated timeline to attempt to find a better solution. This is a prime example of what frustrates so many Americans of all political affiliations about how the nation is being governed. If you read the carefully drafted press release from the State Department, which had been given responsibility for determining whether the pipeline was in the national interest, it explicitly states that today's decision was neither final nor on the merits of the project. Implicit in this document is that today's move is exactly that, the latest move in the game that the President and Congress have been playing with a project large enough to affect the energy security of this country for decades to come. It is unseemly, and it didn't have to be played this way, despite the White House's protests that the 60-day timeline was unrealistic--after three years of study.

Here's a different statement the President could have issued, which might not have satisfied either side of the argument but would have left his administration looking like one with a bias for action and answers, instead of delays and obstacles:

"Today I have instructed the State Department to issue a pro forma finding against the application for the Keystone XL Pipeline project, with the clear understanding that this decision is a temporary expedient to provide the time necessary to resolve the remaining outstanding issues, as quickly as humanly possible. I hereby commit that my administration will do everything in its power to work with the government of Canadian Prime Minister Harper and with Governor Heineman of Nebraska to reach a mutually satisfactory solution that will allow this critical project strengthening the energy bonds between our two nations to proceed, while finding meaningful ways to address the concerns that many Americans have about the project's potential local and global environmental impacts. With renewed tensions in the Persian Gulf and with millions of Americans still out of work, we can do nothing less, even as we remain committed to protecting the environment that benefits us all. I have directed Secretary Clinton to work closely with Energy Secretary Chu and EPA Administrator Jackson and with their counterparts in Canada to develop a solution that addresses these needs, and to report back to me within 90 days with its outline ."

I don't diminish the political challenges of issuing such a statement when key parts of the President's support base have been so vocal in opposing this project. All you have to do is look at the latest set of talking points against the project from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). As disappointingly illogical a mishmash as they may be, based on misinterpreted data and a bizarre defense of cheap oil for the Midwest, they still reflect heartfelt, even visceral, reactions to the Keystone project--or more accurately to the oil sands development that it was expected to enable. Fair enough. I respect their right to an opportunity to provide input and guidance toward an eventual compromise, but not to a veto over US energy policy.

Nor should the opponents of the Keystone XL project fool themselves. Today's decision was guided by expediency, just as the future, possibly quite different decision for which the door was left open would be, perhaps at a point in time when the political calculus has shifted in favor of the project due to some external event. A decision based on principle would have looked quite different. "The Department’s denial of the permit application does not preclude any subsequent permit application or applications for similar projects." Whose move is it now?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More Long-Term Pressure on Oil Prices

A pair of items in today's Financial Times could signal a longer run of high oil prices, even if Europe were to slip into recession and economic growth elsewhere slow. The first article (registration required) reported that Saudi Arabia has raised its target oil price to $100 per barrel, up from the $75 level that King Abdullah had previously endorsed as "fair." Meanwhile, Venezuela has announced that it would withdraw from a World Bank body for arbitrating contractual disputes, preferring them to be resolved within its own judicial system. That can't be welcome news for companies that had been considering new investments in the country's oil and gas sector. Taken together, these stories suggest both less future supply and a greater likelihood that OPEC would respond to any significant weakness in oil prices by restricting output.

With markets currently tense over the prospect that Iran might make good on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the prospect of Saudi Arabia boosting output if necessary to keep prices from going much beyond $100/bbl must seem welcome, at least in the short term. But as the FT explains, the choice of that figure, rather than a lower one, reflects the fiscal realities of a broad group of Middle East producers. The Saudis, Iran, Iraq, and the UAE all require oil prices north of $80/bbl in order to balance national budgetary requirements. Considering that the cost of producing much of this oil is likely still in either the single digits or low double-digits, that is an extraordinary commentary on just how much these countries depend on oil revenues to fund the social expenditures that maintain their respective domestic status quos. So while Saudi oil minister al-Naimi may have intended his comment to convey a comforting price ceiling, it probably said as much about his government's view of where the floor should be. With UK Brent crude currently trading at roughly the same $111/bbl level that set a full-year price record last year, I'm not sure how many of us would find that reassuring.

The decision by Venezuela's dictator to exit the World Bank arbitration mechanism shouldn't have come as a surprise, with an estimated $40 billion in international claims outstanding for his past actions in nationalizing assets and arbitrarily altering contractual terms in a variety of industries. The recent ruling by the International Chamber of Commerce in favor of an ExxonMobil claim might just have been the final trigger. Yet despite the obvious expediency of such an exit, it seems grossly counterproductive in the context of a producing country that depends increasingly on foreign investment to stem a long-term decline in output. Since President Chavez punished his nation's oil industry by firing its most capable managers and engineers following a strike in 2002-3, Venezuelan oil production has fallen by at least 15%, and it only avoided a larger drop due to the contribution of the big Orinoco production and upgrading projects built by foreign firms such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Total--some of which are now seeking compensation for expropriation of assets and other grievances.

Requiring disputes to be resolved within a court system that has been stacked with Chavez loyalists hardly seems like the recipe for reducing political risk and reassuring companies that have already seen past investments turn sour. While companies that have too much at stake to leave will try to make the best of this, others would be well-advised to steer clear. However this turns out for the industry, the likely outcome for Venezuela is lower production in the future and even greater support for hawkish price policies within OPEC, to prop up the oil revenues upon which Chavez's redistribution policies depend.

Of course none of this guarantees high oil prices in perpetuity. After all, OPEC was unable to prevent prices collapsing to below $40/bbl in late 2008, though it did restrain output enough to get them back to around $80 within a year. However, both stories should remind us that in a world in which oil prices are set to suit producers better than consumers, our primary focus should be on actions and policies that enhance our energy security. That means substituting plentiful natural gas for oil and its products where we can, promoting conservation and efficiency, pursuing cost-effective renewables, and ensuring that we have access to as much oil from domestic and trusted international sources as possible. Rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, instead of committing to find a way to make it work while addressing reasonable concerns about it, would be nothing less than a gift to OPEC.

Disclosure: My portfolio includes investment in Chevron, which is mentioned above and owns projects and facilities that could be affected by these events.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Because That's Where the Emissions Are

Yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency released its tabulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from large facilities in the US. In perusing the data I couldn't help thinking of the quote attributed to Willie Sutton concerning why he robbed banks. Even if he never actually said, "Because that's where the money is," the simple logic of that analysis transfers neatly to the question of why we might be interested in assessing and ultimately managing GHG emissions from such installations. While there are other important sources, notably including motor vehicles and aircraft, the more than 6,000 sites reported in the agency's online registry account for roughly half of all US GHG emissions. Furthermore, just a quarter of these sites--power plants--contribute nearly three-fourths of US emissions from large facilities. That's where the emissions are and where US climate policy should focus.

Although that doesn't dictate that we should entirely ignore all the other facilities, it certainly raises serious questions about the threshold of reporting for the hundreds of installations emitting less than 10,000 tons of CO2-equivalent gases per year, compared to the top-100 facilities, the smallest of which emitted nearly twice that much every day.

It should also challenge the belief systems of some members of Congress concerning the relative importance of different sectors. The highest-emitting oil refinery in the country is also one of the biggest in the world by throughput capacity, at 573,000 barrels per day. Yet it comes in at #45 on the list, with only one other refinery appearing in the top 100. The entire refining sector, comprising 145 plants, emitted around 5.7% of the total GHGs represented in the registry, and thus less than 3% of the US total. Why does that matter as more than an industry talking-point? Because reducing emissions from refineries by 10%--no easy task when they are already roughly 90% efficient in terms of their total energy output vs. inputs--would be lost in the rounding in our national emissions statistics. We won't get very far chasing expensive diminishing returns.

By comparison, reducing emissions from the 1,555 power plants on the list by an average of 10% would reduce US emissions by more than 3%. And because we are blessed with many more processes for generating electricity than for refining oil, this could be achieved in a variety of ways, nor does 10% represent any kind of ceiling for what might be possible. One option would be to retire the least-efficient coal-fired plants and take up the slack at existing gas-turbine power plants, plus some additional renewables. That may happen anyway, as a consequence of other EPA regulations. We could also replace the worst coal plants with near-zero-emission nuclear power plants of advanced design, such as the AP-1000 reactor that won NRC approval late last year, or the various modular nuclear reactors now under development. Capturing and sequestering the CO2 from coal-fired power plants would be another option, if it can be perfected at a reasonable cost.

I would never suggest that climate policy could be truly simple, but the numbers the EPA just reported, combined with what we know about the lifecycle emissions from the petroleum value chain, indicate that the scope of the US climate policy debate could usefully be narrowed to focus on just two main emissions sources: power plants and the end-use combustion of hydrocarbon fuels. On the scale of overall US emissions, almost everything else is noise. Of course that leaves plenty of room for discussion and disagreement on the most effective ways to address these emissions at the lowest cost and least disruption to an already-fragile economy. We can still argue endlessly about the relative merits of putting a price on emissions, providing incentives for emission-reducing technologies, and setting command-and-control regulations. Yet when we contrast the potential effectiveness of such a limited approach with the intricacy and distortions entailed in "comprehensive" efforts like the failed Waxman-Markey climate bill of 2009, it looks like a very helpful simplification to pursue.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Petroleum Prices Set Records in 2011

Without much fanfare, the Energy Information Agency of the US Department of Energy released a report on 2011 energy commodity prices yesterday. It confirmed that crude oil and key petroleum products set annually averaged price records last year. This largely snuck up on us, because it occurred without the kind of dramatic price spike we experienced in 2008 or in the oil crises of the 1970s. Prices rose early in the year, during the Libyan revolution, and they didn't fall much, subsequently. The situation was also masked by the ongoing crude oil bottleneck in the US mid-continent, which depressed prices of the grade of US oil that for decades had been regarded as the best indicator of global oil prices, a role in which it has recently fallen short. These record prices for oil and its products are of more than just statistical interest; they help to explain the persistent weakness of the economy, representing an incremental drain of roughly $100 billion, compared to 2010, based on our net petroleum imports. That's roughly half the impact of the social security payroll tax holiday over which Congress and the administration have been sparring.

The EIA reported that UK Brent Crude, probably the best gauge of global oil prices at the moment, averaged over $111 per barrel last year. That's 40% higher than in 2010, and $14/bbl over 2008, the year in which West Texas Intermediate came very close to $150/bbl before ending the year at $45. Of even greater interest to most Americans, the pump price for unleaded regular gasoline in 2011 averaged $3.52 per gallon. Although in contrast to 2008 it only broke the $4 mark in a few regional markets like California, New England and Chicago, and even there only for a month or two, it beat the 2008 national average by more than $0.25/gal. through sheer persistence. And for the most part that didn't happen because the US is now a net exporter of gasoline and other petroleum products. It happened mainly because the global crude oil market was influenced more by the instability in North Africa and the Middle East than by worries about the US economy and the fate of the European Union and its currency, the Euro.

Of course all of the above prices are in nominal dollars, so I thought it was worth taking a quick look at real prices. After adjusting for consumer price inflation, that $3.52 mark for gasoline ties 2008's real-dollar all-time annual record, and it exceeds the average for the peak oil-crisis-year of 1981 by about 28 2011 cents. It's a little harder to gauge whether last year's Brent price set a record for crude oil in real dollars, but it seems likely. Either way, what's remarkable about these price levels is that they occurred despite weak economic growth in the developed world and slowing growth in key developing countries like China. That raises ample questions about what we should expect this year.

I've seen a wide range of estimates for where oil prices will settle out this year. The fundamentals of oil itself seem on the bearish side, with US production growing, thanks to unconventional plays like the Bakken and the Eagle Ford shale, and Libyan output gradually returning. Demand growth could also ease, especially if Europe falls into recession. Arrayed against those factors are a fairly cohesive OPEC, which benefits when oil prices are as high as possible without actually throttling the economy, and the standoff brewing between tougher Western sanctions on Iran and Iran's threats to close down the Strait of Hormuz, through which something like 40% of global oil exports flow. Election-year politics might have an influence, too, recalling the administration's willingness last year to release oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve for reasons that were rather less than compelling at the time. All in all, when we've spent the last several years lurching from one crisis to the next, it's not hard to imagine another crisis just around the corner. Let's hope that 2012 surprises us with stability.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

"Energy Reality"

Earlier today I attended a luncheon and press conference rolling out the annual "State of American Energy" report from the American Petroleum Institute. API's President and CEO, Jack Gerard, also used the occasion to launch a new "Vote 4 Energy" campaign, which he described as a non-partisan effort intended to start a conversation about energy during a key election year. He also touched on a number of issues that are very familiar to readers of this blog, including the Keystone XL Pipeline decision, the need for greater access to US energy resources, along with energy security and jobs. A phrase that Mr. Gerard used in his remarks, and that recurred several times during the press conference, was "energy reality." This struck me as an apt encapsulation for the energy policies that should be addressed by President Obama and whomever his Republican challenger turns out to be, from the shrinking pool of candidates.

I was pleased to hear Mr. Gerard cite the need for a full range of energy solutions, with renewables, nuclear energy and energy efficiency prominently mentioned along with the expected references to oil and gas. That is precisely the energy reality we should be pursuing: tapping the hydrocarbon riches with which the US is endowed, in order to reduce our dependence on unstable foreign suppliers, even as we ramp up the wind, solar, biofuel and other renewable energy sources that must take over the energy burden in the long run, and with all of it used more efficiently than today. Yet energy reality should also take account of the tremendous disparities of scale that still exist between conventional energy and renewables, and that are likely to persist for some time. After a decade of rapid growth, wind power accounted for less than 3% of the electricity generated here last year, and solar for much, much less than that--with neither displacing any meaningful amount of imported oil, since less than 1% of our electricity is generated from oil.

Energy reality came up again in the context of a question about the EPA's Renewable Fuel Standard, which was recently finalized for 2012 to require the use of 8.65 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel--a reduction of 98% from the 500 million gallons previously specified for this year in the RFS enacted by the Congress in 2007. Biofuel from corn, soy and animal fat has expanded to contribute nearly 10% of the US gasoline supply and a smaller fraction of diesel fuel. However, a law requiring the use of advanced fuels that don't yet exist in commercial quantities--and may not for many years--and forcing refiners to purchase credits in place of these non-existent gallons is certainly out of touch with objective energy reality and ultimately constitutes another tax on consumers.

I would argue that the decision that the President now has less than 60 days to make on whether to allow the Keystone XL Pipeline to go ahead also hinges on his understanding of energy reality. He must choose between the urgent concerns of employment and energy security articulated repeatedly in Mr. Gerard's answers to numerous questions on the subject, and an objective assessment of the environmental impact it might cause. Stripping away the various red herrings that sprang up in the course of the debates and protests over the pipeline, the latter boils down to the incremental greenhouse gas emissions from the extra oil sands production that the pipeline would facilitate, compared to the emissions from the conventional crude we would otherwise have to import from the Middle East or elsewhere. I've seen some wild exaggerations about that, including the doozy I ran across over the holidays from former Vice President Gore, to the effect that a Toyota Prius running on fuel refined from oil sands crude would have emissions equivalent to a Hummer. (When you do the math, it actually works out to the equivalent of a Ford Fusion hybrid.) In fact, the incremental emissions at stake in the Keystone decision amount to around 0.3% of total 2009 US emissions. That's the basis of the trade-off Mr. Obama must make, and no matter which side he chooses he will infuriate those supporting the other side.

As the 2012 presidential election approaches, I expect to find many opportunities for comparing campaign rhetoric to this kind of energy reality barometer. Elections tend to focus on the differences between candidates, and I have little doubt that the differences on energy will be significant. However, when the dust settles on November 7th it will be high time to start work on a new bi-partisan consensus on energy policy that might actually survive the next change in administrations, unlike the disruptive pattern we've been in for the last five cycles or so. Not reality? Perhaps, but certainly worth aspiring to. Happy New Year!