Thursday, September 27, 2012

Candidates & Energy 2012: Obama

It's curious that energy hasn't been as big an issue in this year's presidential campaign as it was in 2008, the year of "Drill, baby, drill."  The price of unleaded regular gasoline has averaged roughly a dime per gallon higher through September than either last year or the same period in 2008, when prices peaked at $4.11 per gallon in July.  Gas prices are higher this year because global oil prices are also higher, with UK Brent crude averaging $15 per barrel over its 2008 full-year average, though without a similar spike.  One explanation for the reduced focus on energy is that President Obama co-opted his opponents' "all of the above" prescription, while indicators such as US crude oil production and natural gas output and prices have been moving in favorable directions.  The Obama campaign and key administration officials routinely draw a strong causal connection between those two facts, forming the basis of their campaign on energy.  But is that claim true?  Like the Washington Post fact checker's assessment of another frequent presidential assertion about energy, a finding of "true but false" seems appropriate.

Although I had intended to provide a side-by-side comparison of President Obama's and Governor Romney's energy agendas, it quickly became obvious that that was impractical, due to length and complexity.  I'll take a look at the challenger's ideas next week.  Since any re-election bid is fundamentally a referendum on the incumbent, it made sense to start with the record of an administration that came into office with an unusually clear and clearly articulated vision on energy, experienced some notable victories and defeats along the way, and ended up embracing a pair of big, emerging trends that it had done virtually nothing to foster. 

That is readily apparent when it comes to oil production, which must be a core element of any "all of the above" approach, since that "all" implicitly includes fossil fuels along with renewables and efficiency.  Go to the Obama campaign web page on energy and you'll see this chart:

It's a rescaled version of the chart below, which appears on the site on gas prices:

Aside from the fact that changing the axis scale makes the trend look much more dramatic, what's entirely missing from both these charts and the websites where they appear is any cogent explanation of why oil production is rising.  That requires some context about the industry and oil markets that I've overlaid in the following graphs:

Most oil projects big enough to matter aren't accomplished overnight. The process typically involves acquiring onshore or offshore leases, obtaining the necessary permits, conducting exploration activities that only proceed to the next step based on success, planning the required production wells and processing facilities, competing for internal funding against other company projects, obtaining additional permits, constructing facilities and drilling the production wells. Every step takes time.  Depending on the complexity of the project, the overall timeline can span from three to seven years, and that's if no one sues to block the project.  To see why oil production has been rising since 2009, we need to ask what was happening in 2003-6.  The answer is that after many years of being stuck in a range of $20-30 per barrel--with an excursion down to single digits in the late 1990s--oil prices tripled during that period, mainly due to the combination of global economic growth, especially in Asia, and the lagged effect on oil project investments from that late-'90s price crash.  In other words, production went up mainly because five or six years earlier the financial rewards for drilling suddenly got much bigger.

So at a minimum it's a stretch--mere spin--to claim credit for higher production that is attributable to events and perhaps policies on your predecessor's watch.  However, the picture looks worse when we factor in the policies and attitudes that went into effect when this administration took office in early 2009.  Recall that one of the first energy decisions of the new administration was Interior Secretary Salazar's cancellation of previously awarded oil leases in Utah.  Later that year a senior Treasury official--currently chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers--testified before Congress that US policies were promoting the "overproduction of US oil and gas", just as the now-touted production surge was starting.  For at least its first several years, the rhetoric and actions of the Obama White House were generally consistent with that view and with Mr. Obama's portrayal of oil and gas as "yesterday's energy" in his 2011 State of the Union address.  The brief offshore drilling opening signaled in spring 2010 was quickly retracted following the Deepwater Horizon accident, with the imposition of a six-month offshore drilling moratorium and subsequent "permitorium". Those responses--justified or not--resulted in Gulf of Mexico production falling by 22% since mid-2010, a decline that has been masked by the tremendous success of "tight oil" exploration and production in Texas and North Dakota. (The time lag for the moratorium's effects was negligible, because the deepwater projects that were halted had already been planned and permitted.)

In fact, the President's adoption of "all of the above" is fairly recent, making headlines following his 2012 State of the Union. It represents quite an evolution from Senator Obama's 2008 emphasis on renewable energy and climate change mitigation. President Obama certainly pursued those agendas with vigor, incorporating billions of dollars of federal grants and loan guarantees for renewables in the 2009 stimulus, backing the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, and at both the Copenhagen and Cancun UN climate conferences committing the US to significant greenhouse gas reduction targets and further negotiations. 

It hasn't all worked out as planned, though.  Notwithstanding the high-profile bankruptcies of Solyndra--a colossal failure of due diligence by the administration--and other loan guarantee and grant beneficiaries, the output of wind, solar and other non-hydro renewable energy generation has indeed grown by 55% since 2008, increasing from 3.1% to 4.7% of total US electricity generation, equivalent to 1.9% of total energy consumption.  Yet sadly the wind and solar manufacturing sectors that were to have produced so many "green jobs" are caught up in parallel waves of excess global production capacity that could take years--or wrenching consolidation--to work off.  The overcapacity that has blighted the prospects of many of these companies is largely attributable to the generous incentives provided by the US and other governments from Europe to Asia.  Direct wind and solar jobs accounted for just 54,000 of the US "clean economy jobs" tallied by Brookings and Battelle in their study last year, and they look no more secure than non-green jobs.

Climate policy is another area featuring a big disconnect between effort and results. With control of both Houses of Congress, the President backed a climate bill that exhibited all the worst tendencies of that body: 1,092 pages of bloated regulations and carve-outs for favored constituencies.  Even to someone who had supported the idea of cap and trade for a decade, it was a dog's breakfast, configured mainly as a production-inhibiting tax on the US petroleum sector.  Waxman-Markey failed to pass the Senate, and a more bi-partisan bill died in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon and the recession. Whatever one's views on the science of climate change, costly climate legislation looked like a bad bet in a weak economy.  Actual emissions have fallen, however, as a result not of policy but of another trend that wasn't on the administration's radar screen until it grew too large to ignore: shale gas.  Emissions are at a 20-year low, mainly due to fuel switching from coal to cheap natural gas in the utility sector.

Another key trend cited as evidence of the effectiveness of the administration's energy policies is the reduction of oil imports that has occurred since 2008.  Yet like the facts on oil production, the causes are only tenuously connected to those policies.  From 2008-11, US net petroleum imports fell by 2.6 million bbl/day (MBD), including refined products.  That goes a long way toward achieving then-candidate Obama's goal of reducing imports by an amount equivalent to what the US imported from the Middle East and Venezuela.  However, the biggest contributor to this reduction was the 1.1 MBD increase in total US petroleum production (including natural gas liquids), followed by a 0.6 MBD drop in demand that had more to do with reduced driving and the weak economy than the early gains from tougher fuel economy rules. Increasing biofuel production associated with the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard contributed another 0.3 MBD, although that policy now stands in urgent need of reform.

I have watched many elections in my life, and I can't honestly say I'm surprised to see an administration running on something other than its actual energy record, which in this case includes positives such as funding ARPA-E's potentially transformational energy R&D and having enough sense to keep largely out of the way of the shale gas revolution--at least for now. Yet having focused 90% of its efforts on a set of technologies that look important for the future but will still meet less than 10% of our energy needs for some time to come, they have now hitched their electoral wagon to an oil production surge that they didn't help and partly hindered.  I can only imagine that this would be deeply disappointing to those who supported Mr. Obama in 2008 because of his vision for alternative energy and the environment.  Nor does it provide much comfort to those who found large portions of that agenda ill-considered or premature. The President's 11th-hour conversion to "all of the above" creates great uncertainty about the course he would pursue with regard to energy for the next four years, if reelected. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The "Four-Gallon Rule": Another Unintended Consequence of Ethanol Policy

The energy field is replete with unintended consequences, and US policy promoting ethanol fuels has had more than its share.  The growing competition  between food and fuel uses of corn, amplified by the current drought, is a prime example, along with the so-called "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico that has been exacerbated by the extra fertilizer used to boost corn yields enough to meet the rising demands of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).  Most of these effects occur out of the sight of average consumers, but here's a new one that could start showing up at a gas station near you, very soon: the EPA's "four-gallon" rule.  As a result of EPA's decision to allow gasoline blenders to sell fuel containing up to 15% ethanol, and in recognition of the adverse consequences of high-ethanol blends for small engines, gas stations will be required to post signs enforcing a minimum purchase of four gallons from certain pumps.  This is yet another indication that the EPA has put expediency above prudence in giving its approval to a fuel that is not ready for mass-market distribution. 

A little background is necessary to understand how we reached this point.  In 2007 the Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act that included the RFS, mandating dramatic increases in the quantity of ethanol blended into gasoline.  Unfortunately, its passage coincided with a sea change in the gasoline market. Prior to the financial crisis and recession, US gasoline demand had been growing by 1-2% per year for decades, and on that pace there should have been ample future gasoline demand growth to accommodate all the additional ethanol that Congress was instructing the EPA to require refiners and gasoline blenders to add, by means of the standard blend of 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol.  Instead, gasoline sales fell by more than 3% in 2008 and still haven't recovered their 2007 peak, running about on par with 2002 this year.  When you do the arithmetic, that means that instead of being able to absorb over 15 billion gallons of ethanol this year, the market can only handle around 13 billion gallons--barely enough to satisfy the 2012 mandate level and 2 billion short of the amount required in just three years.  (This ignores cellulosic ethanol requirements, which have been revised downward each year as commercial production fails to appear.)

With sales of 85% ethanol E85 trickling along at levels too low to stave off the approaching "blend wall", the ethanol industry applied in 2009 to be allowed to increase the ethanol dosage in gasoline from 10% to 15%, requiring an EPA waiver of existing regulations.  That waiver was granted in 2010 for cars made after model-year 2006 and later extended for cars made after model year 2000, in spite of continuing concerns about its impact on the engines and fuel systems of all cars not labeled as "flexible fuel vehicles", as well as testing by UL indicating that some existing gasoline dispensers failed in dangerous ways when ethanol blends above 10% were introduced. 

The four-gallon rule is part of the EPA's ongoing contortions, in the form of gas pump labeling and "misfueling mitigation plans", to make sure that E15 doesn't get into the wrong vehicles, or worse yet, into small engines--lawn mowers, string trimmers, boats, etc.--where it has been found to cause potentially serious problems.  So in addition to labels indicating that E15 is only approved for 2001 and later automobiles, the EPA is instituting a minimum sales quantity rule to prevent someone from filling a gas can for use in a small engine with E10 from a "blender pump"--one that can dispense either E10 or E15 on demand.  That's because even after the pump is switched to E10, enough higher-ethanol fuel could remain in the hose to skew the ethanol content of the first few gallons delivered. (I'd suggest that this ought to be of concern to motorists, as well.)

I'm sure the EPA sees its new four-gallon rule as a sensible measure to protect the owners of small consumer or industrial engines from damaging their equipment. Yet from my perspective outside the bureaucracy it looks like another symptom of an E15 policy that falls short of the prudence necessary when dealing with the retail distribution of motor fuels and borders on regulatory malpractice.  At some point in the process someone in EPA should have held up his or her hand and pointed out that the obvious solution was not layering increasingly impractical and downright weird regulations onto already overburdened gas station operators, but to call for a fundamental reexamination of a Renewable Fuel Standard that has been overtaken by unforeseen events.  And that's without even considering that the lower energy content of the extra ethanol equates to a new $0.07 per gallon tax on gasoline at current prices. The publicity surrounding this issue provides an ideal opportunity for one or both presidential candidates to commit to suspending the E15 program, pending a thorough review of the RFS and its implementation. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jet Fuel from Trees (or Almost Anything Else)

Out of the dozens of press releases that hit my email inbox in the last week, one that caught my eye was for a gathering of a group called the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) in Missoula, Montana this Thursday.  Their agenda is focused on "challenges to develop a residual woody biomass to jet fuel and valuable co-products industry in the Pacific Northwest."  Somewhat more snappily, their website calls this "from wood to wing."  With oil prices (UK Brent) persistently over $100 despite the weak global economy, the appeal of such an effort is not hard to understand.  Whether it's feasible at an acceptable price remains to be seen.

Making fuels from waste or non-food crops is an attractive idea, and aviation fuels look like an especially promising market for bio- and synthetic fuels, for several reasons.  Unlike the markets for motor fuels--gasoline and diesel--you wouldn't have to convince millions of customers of the efficacy of using a new fuel.  You'd only have to convince the fuel buyers and chief engineers of a handful of airlines and aircraft leasing companies, along with the even smaller universe of engine suppliers.  Certifying that your fuel meets all relevant specifications is a key step in that process, though in some respects that should also be easier than for gasoline and diesel engines. If you doubt that, just consider the current fuss over increasing the ethanol content of gasoline from 10 to 15%.  Of course, having your car engine fail on the interstate is a very different proposition than having both engines shut down at 40.000 ft--or during take-off.

Fortunately, turbine engines are very reliable and fairly flexible.  The best proof of the latter is that the turbine at the heart of a natural-gas-fired power plant is essentially just a bigger version of the ones hanging under the wings of a Boeing or Airbus aircraft, which burn a close cousin of kerosene, a simple distillate refined from a wide variety of crude oils. Turbines on ships burn a fuel similar to diesel. Many of the specifications that jet fuel must meet have more to do with the conditions under which aircraft operate than the specific sensitivities of jet engines.  One example of that is the temperature at which a jet fuel becomes difficult to flow, just before it freezes solid.  That's one reason that many oilseed-based biojet fuels require essentially oil-refinery levels of processing.  Stepping back from such details, however, I'm skeptical that crop-based biofuels are the long-term solution to the fuel-diversification needs of aviation, for many of the same reasons we see playing out with regard to corn ethanol during the current drought.

Supporters of various biojet efforts often focus on two main benefits of renewable jet fuel.  The first is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, since the principal alternative available to airlines or military aviation is further efficiency improvements, which face diminishing returns, or reduced operations.  The other benefit that I often see cited is potential cost savings versus petroleum, though I regard this as largely illusory, at least on the level of the fuel customer.  As I've described at length, the output of even a captive biojet facility is worth its price in the market--set by petroleum jet fuel--not its cost of production.  That argument should also hold true for airlines buying oil refineries.  However, to the extent that biojet could be scaled up enough to apply competitive pressure on the 6 million barrel per day global jet fuel market, or in  isolated regional markets, that would benefit both airlines and consumers. Production at that scale will require feedstocks that are readily available in large quantities.

Many companies and researchers are pursuing renewable jet fuel pathways that don't rely on food- or food-competitive crops.  The website of the Carbon War Room provides a portal into some of these efforts, including fuels based on factory waste gases, algae, and various other approaches.  Some of these have progressed to demonstration-stage production and fleet certification, though as we've seen with cellulosic motor fuels, scaling up to truly commercial production represents a much higher hurdle that could shake out many of these contenders.  For that reason, it's encouraging to see the NARA effort, nor should they worry about being too late to the party.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

What If Saudi Arabia Became an Oil Importer?

I've seen numerous references in the last several days to a Citgroup analysis suggesting that Saudi Arabia might become a net oil importer by 2030.  The premise behind this startling conclusion seems to be that economic growth and demographic trends would continue pushing up domestic Saudi demand for petroleum products and electricity--generated to a large extent from petroleum--until it consumed all of that country's oil export capacity within about 20 years.  Even if this trend didn't proceed to conclusion, its continued progression could significantly alter both global oil markets and the context for the current debate about the desirability of achieving North American energy independence.

I'd be a lot more comfortable discussing this news item if I had access to the report on which it's based.  Unfortunately, none of the dozens of references to it that I found on the web included a link to the source, which is probably on one of Citi's client-only sites.  The Bloomberg and Daily Telegraph articles seemed to be the most complete, with the latter including a couple of charts from the report.  As best I can tell, the analysis falls into the category of "If this goes on" scenarios--extrapolations of currently observable trends to some logical conclusion.  That doesn't make it simplistic, because I'm sure the author sifted through volumes of data to flesh it out.  The fact that many oil-producing countries have gone through a similar cycle lends it further credibility.  For that matter, the US was once an important oil-exporting country, until the growth of our economy overwhelmed the productivity of US oil fields early in the last century.  The gradual conversion of the remaining oil exporters to net oil consumers is a basic plank of the Peak Oil meme.

This presents a real conundrum, both for the Saudis and for us, because although many of the means by which this result could be averted are obvious, they aren't all feasible within the current political situation in Saudi Arabia, or indeed many other producing countries.  Start with per-capita energy consumption, which a chart in the Telegraph article shows to be higher than in the US. Consumption is also high relative to GDP. Energy efficiency opportunities should be ample, but it's hard to make those a priority when retail energy is heavily subsidized and thus cheap.  The Citigroup report apparently suggests reducing energy subsidy levels, but that might lead to the same kind of unrest that we've seen in other countries that have cut subsidies.  That seems to leave mainly investment-based options for substituting other energy sources for oil, to preserve oil for exports.  The Kingdom has already embarked on some of these, including nuclear and solar power.  When combined with additional natural gas development, the Saudis certainly have the means and the motivation to shift the current trend of rising internal oil consumption, along with the cash to fund the infrastructure investment involved.

This leaves us with important strategic questions: To what extent should our own energy policy rely on Saudi Arabia succeeding in preserving its oil export capacity by means of substitution or efficiency gains? And if internal Saudi consumption removed just another 2-3 million barrels per day of exports from the market, how would that affect oil prices and the functioning of the global oil market, in which Saudi Arabia has often acted as a moderating force within OPEC?  Considering that a narrowing between demand and available supply of about that magnitude was a key factor in the oil-price run-up of 2006-8, this should cause us serious concern.

That brings us to US energy independence, a tired mantra that has been proclaimed by a long succession of US Presidents, despite most experts for the last several decades having regarded it as unrealistic.  To be clear, when Americans speak of energy independence, we are referring to oil, because as a practical matter that's the only form of energy we import to any significant degree, if you don't count natural gas from Canada.  Yet suddenly energy independence no longer looks like a pipe dream, because of the combination of resurgent domestic oil production and improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency.  An earlier report from Citigroup sketched the outline of potential future North American energy independence based mainly on those elements.   It's hardly guaranteed, but it's not a fantasy, either. 

Despite the risks of a much more unsettled oil market in the future, I continue to see a great deal of misunderstanding about what energy independence could mean for the US.  Although it wouldn't cut us off from the global oil market--perish the thought--it would give us a much more flexible and influential role within it, while taking advantage of the benefits of continued trade.  No longer being a net oil importer wouldn't insulate us from future oil price movements--it's still a global commodity--but oil prices would be lower than otherwise as a direct result of the substantial additions to supply required to shrink US oil imports to near zero.  Prices would be weaker even if OPEC slashed output to compensate, because the resulting increase in spare production capacity would still reduce market volatility.  Moreover, while US energy independence would not preclude the possibility of future oil price spikes, the consequences of those would be very different.  For starters, they wouldn't entail weakening our economy by transferring tens or hundreds of billions of dollars offshore.  Most of the extra oil revenue would stay in the US, and a large slice of it would be captured by state and federal taxes and royalties.  Contrast that with what happened in 2008, and is still ongoing to a lesser degree.

The Saudi analysis from Citigroup proposed a fascinating scenario, with many interesting implications, although I'd argue that it's also subject to the simple advice of Herb Stein that "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." By coincidence, it's also relevant to the energy debate underway between the US presidential campaigns. Although it's highly uncertain that Saudi Arabia's oil exports will dry up by 2030, we shouldn't assume such an outcome to be impossible, any more than we should base US energy policy on the outdated assumption that it's impossible for us to come close to eliminating the need for oil imports from outside North America.  It might be uncertain whether we have sufficient resources accessible with the latest technology to reach that goal, but it is essentially certain that the growing but still tiny contribution of renewable energy and the eventual conversion of the US vehicle fleet to electricity couldn't get us there for multiple decades.