Wednesday, October 31, 2012

US Natural Gas Prices and the Election

Every fall my natural gas utility asks if I'd like to lock in my gas price for the next 12 months.  In some respects the timing for this looks ideal.  Commodity natural gas prices haven't been lower than this year's average since 1999.  Gas is also historically cheap relative to other fuels.  Heating oil recently averaged above $4 per gallon, while the fixed price my natural gas provider is offering equates to $1.36 per gallon, including distribution charges.  However, overhanging this relatively simple choice are big uncertainties related to the economy and the potential impact of regulations on shale gas production.  To complicate matters further, both of these uncertainties are entangled with the outcome of the US presidential election, and my gas provider wants my answer by next Monday.

When I last looked at this question in detail, in 2010, I concluded that the utility's offer was attractive, after scrutinizing then-current gas futures prices and the historical relationship between the futures market and "city gate" prices for Virginia, where I live.  Using the same methodology, this year's offer of $0.62/therm ($6.20/MMBTU) looks reasonable.  Much has changed in the interim, though, in ways that undermine the rationale for locking in consumer gas prices.  The biggest benefit of a fixed price is avoiding nasty surprises during winter heating season.  More than four-fifths of my household's gas consumption occurs from November through March, a period when gas prices used to be alarmingly volatile.  

That's less of a concern, now, with US gas inventories high and supply ample. The same shale gas revolution that has increased domestic supply and backed out imports has also reduced volatility and promoted big shifts in demand. Since 2009 residential gas demand has been essentially flat, while demand from commercial and industrial users has grown by 6.5% and consumption in power generation is up by more than 10%, despite a lackluster economy.  (Gas for use in transportation grew even faster but still constitutes less than 0.2% of total gas demand.)  As a result of these shifts, peak monthly average natural gas prices since the winter of 2009-10 have occurred in summer, coinciding with air conditioning demand. With less winter price volatility, the decision to lock in prices now is mainly a bet on gas prices for the next 12 months.  The outcome of that bet hinges on future supply and demand.

On the supply side, will the surge of US shale gas production continue?  New regulations are among the biggest potential constraints on output.  The EPA has set new rules on emissions during well completion and production, with the most expensive aspect phasing in by 2015.  EPA will also issue new rules on wastewater disposal from fracking by 2014. There is growing pressure on the administration to impose federal regulation of most aspects of shale development, superseding management by the states.  Thus far, the White House has avoided a sweeping crackdown that would disrupt gas markets, and the EPA administrator is on record opposing comprehensive federal regulation of all wells.  However, it's not obvious whether such reticence stems from a basic belief in the national importance of this resource or the simple expedient of not killing the golden goose before the election.  Governor Romney has proposed streamlining regulations affecting gas production. Next Tuesday's outcome should resolve this uncertainty.

The other big uncertainty surrounding gas prices concerns demand.  High shale gas output isn't the only reason gas is cheap today.  Anemic GDP growth such as the 2% rate for the third quarter reported last Friday has helped keep gas prices low.  A stronger economy with higher full-time employment would put upward pressure on prices by soaking up much of the surplus production that has depressed them.  However, the consequences of failing to mitigate January's "fiscal cliff"--federal budget "sequestration" and the expiration of many tax cuts--would likely drive natural gas back toward the lows we saw this spring.  With the economy still the number one issue for most voters, its likely future impact on gas demand is linked with our perceptions of the candidates' economic programs and promises. 

My best bet is to convince my supplier to let me wait until after the election to reply.  There's nothing like additional information to improve the value of a decision. Failing that, I'm inclined to pass on this opportunity.  The possibility of cheaper natural gas next year acts as a modest hedge against the risk of another recession, while the benefits of a stronger economy would more than outweigh any natural gas price increases I might experience on the upside.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Solyndra's Second Chapter

The details of the reorganization plan approved Monday by the judge hearing the Solyndra bankruptcy case reminded me of the admonition of one of my mentors always to beware of unintended consequences.  I'm sure the Department of Energy officials who recommended the federal loan guarantee for Solyndra in March of 2009 envisioned that the solar start-up would succeed.  As a worst-case outcome, they probably anticipated the loss of the entire $535 million direct federal loan ultimately provided by the Treasury. However, in a remarkable turn of events, the actual extent of the downside for taxpayers has now expanded to nearly $900 million, due to a quirk in the tax code and a subsequent DOE decision in 2011.

This odd sequence of events starts in early 2011 when two venture investors agreed to infuse another $75 million into the already failing Solyndra.  In order to facilitate this injection--presumably in hopes of protecting the government's substantial investment in the firm--the DOE agreed to allow the investors' loan to take precedence over the government's if Solyndra went bankrupt. Perhaps they thought that even in that case, they'd still recover most of the government's investment, because Solyndra had a sexy technology and a big new factory in Fremont, CA that could be sold to a competitor for close to full value.  They apparently didn't appreciate that Solyndra's high-cost technology had already been bypassed by falling polysilicon prices, and that the factory and its custom equipment wouldn't be of much interest to other solar producers, who were in the process of creating a huge global overhang of solar manufacturing capacity.  The Solyndra plant will now apparently be sold to a hard-drive maker for just $90 million.

In the meantime, Solyndra was piling up substantial losses running its plant and selling solar modules below cost, in order to compete with conventional solar panels that had become much cheaper. By the time Solyndra entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, its cumulative losses apparently totaled $975 million.  To put that in perspective, the combined after tax profits of First Solar, the largest US solar producer, for the three years in which the DOE's loan to Solyndra was outstanding, were $1,265 million.

What makes Solyndra's losses relevant is that, contrary to intuition, they didn't disappear in bankruptcy.  Instead, via the investors' plan for emerging from bankruptcy, they became an asset.  And because the DOE ceded the first place in line to private investors, it is those investors who will control those "net operating losses" retained by Solyndra's reorganized parent company, 360 Degree Solar Holdings, Inc. That company apparently kept none of Solyndra's hardware, but when it acquires other companies--in any line of business--it will be able to offset future federal tax liabilities estimated by Bloomberg at $341 million.  Meanwhile, the federal government is likely to recover just 5 cents on the dollar on its "secured loan."  The Solyndra loan is a gift that keeps on giving. 

Hindsight is 20/20, but it seems pretty clear that the folks at DOE were outsmarted by private investors who had a much clearer picture of the stakes for which they were negotiating.  As we were reminded last week, Solyndra wasn't the only investment they made that went bad.  Let's hope that the others don't include similarly unpleasant surprises.  Meanwhile, I wish the IRS and Alameda County the best of luck in appealing the bankruptcy judge's ruling.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A123 Bankruptcy Casts Doubts on EV Goals

The theory was that the federal government could guide an entire US electric vehicle (EV) industry into existence by orchestrating a constellation of grants, loans and loan guarantees to manufacturers and infrastructure developers, along with generous tax credits for purchasers.  That vision was attractive, because EVs have the potential to be an important element of a long-term strategy to counter climate change and bolster energy security. However, yesterday's bankruptcy of battery-maker A123 Systems, Inc. provides a costly reality check. Along with the earlier bankruptcy of another advanced battery firm, Ener1, and disappointing battery-EV sales, it raises new doubts concerning both the government's model of industrial development and the achievability of President Obama's goal of putting one million EVs on the road by 2015

A123 was built around a novel lithium-ion battery technology developed at MIT.  For a time they were the darling of the advanced battery sector, with a market capitalization above $2 billion following its 2009 initial public offering. That IPO came on the heels of A123's receipt of a $249 million stimulus grant from the Department of Energy and $100 million of refundable tax credits from the state of Michigan. Subsequently, though, they experienced low sales and a costly battery recall that contributed to their signing a memorandum of understanding with China's Wanxiang Group to sell an 80% interest in the company for around $450 million.  Instead, it now appears that Johnson Controls, a diversified company that was the recipient of a $299 million DOE advanced battery grant of its own, will end up acquiring A123's assets for around $125 million.  Johnson is apparently providing "debtor-in-possession" financing for A123's Chapter 11 process.  It's not clear whether Johnson would be able to draw down the unused portion of A123's federal grant.

Because of the government's close involvement with A123, and in particular its structuring of aid to A123 in a manner that left taxpayers without any call on the firm's assets ahead of suitors like Johnson Controls or Wanxiang, this event is inherently political.  I was a little surprised it didn't come up in last night's presidential debate.  If it does become a "talking point" in the next two weeks, however, I'd prefer to see the conversation focus on the real issues it raises.  The reasons for A123's failure appear very different from those behind the much-discussed failure of loan-guarantee recipient Solyndra.  While the latter ultimately called into question the judgment of officials who loaned money to Solyndra when that company's business model was already doomed, A123 highlights the much deeper challenges involved in attempting to conjure an entire industry out of thin air.

The earlier failure of GM's electric vehicle effort in the 1990s, the EV-1, demonstrated the chicken-and-egg nature of EV sales: Vehicle sales depended on recharging infrastructure that in turn depended on robust vehicle sales to justify infrastructure investment.  But at least GM could begin then by relying on a mature lead-acid battery industry.  Those batteries turned out to be inadequate to meet consumers' expectations of range and recharging convenience, which led to the creation of another chicken-and-egg dependence for the new EV industry: carmakers needed a reliable supply of advanced batteries from producers who couldn't invest in the capacity to make them, without knowing that vehicle sales would consume enough batteries to turn a profit.  So in 2009 the administration set out to short-circuit all those inter-dependencies by simultaneously funding the key elements of these loops, including advanced battery makers.  It makes me wonder if anyone involved had any direct manufacturing experience--a natural doubt considering that the entire US auto industry was restructured in 2009 by a task force without a single member who had worked in any manufacturing business, let alone the auto industry. 

The main causes of A123's failure appear to have involved basic manufacturing issues of capacity utilization and quality control.  The company wasn't selling enough batteries to cover its costs, and too many of the batteries it sold came back in an expensive recall.  They weren't the first business to experience such growing pains, but their challenges were compounded by the burden of a manufacturing line that had been sized to meet the demand of an EV market that hasn't yet materialized. US EV sales through September amounted to just 31,000 vehicles, or less than 0.3% of total US car sales.  The picture looks even worse if you subtract out sales of GM's Volt and Toyota's plug-in version of its Prius, the gasoline engines of which provide essentially unlimited range, circumventing the limitations of today's batteries.  I think there's a strong argument that the government's assistance to A123 was actually a key factor in leading them to bankruptcy, by prompting A123 to grow much faster than could have been justified to its bankers or private investors.

Perhaps it's some consolation that A123's technology has apparently been snapped up by a competitor, rather than going the way of Solyndra's odd solar modules.  Yet that outcome hardly justifies the casual dismissal of A123's fate by a DOE spokesman as a common occurrence in an emerging industry.  That sort of talk merely perpetuates the perception of cluelessness fostered by Energy Secretary Chu's failure to hold anyone accountable for the Solyndra debacle.  Yes, companies in emerging industries fall by the wayside, but the preferred response would be to examine what happened and apply the lessons learned to the rest of the "venture capital portfolio" with which the administration's industrial policy has saddled the DOE.  With EV sales still low and several key EV makers experiencing delays and production problems, a thorough public review of the entire EV strategy is in order.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sacramento's Role in California's Gasoline Price Spike

How much higher were gasoline prices in California last week than elsewhere?  Enough to raise the national average price for unleaded regular by about $0.10 per gallon.  So while the rest of us were paying an average of $3.75/gal., down slightly from the previous week, gas prices in the Golden State went up by 48 cents, leaving Californians paying nearly a dollar a gallon more than other Americans.  In general the media have done a good job of explaining the direct causes for this spike: a pair of unexpected outages at large refineries in the Bay Area and L.A., combined with the difficulties of supplying the state's unique gasoline blend when local refiners fall short.  Robert Rapier does an even better job of explaining the intricacies of that blend.  But what's missing from all this commentary is an explanation for why the supply for the nation's largest gasoline market, with more than 11% of US sales, should be so tightly balanced that such disruptions would lead to economic hardship for consumers.

As I've indicated before, California is effectively a gasoline island. The product pipelines connecting it with neighboring Arizona and Nevada run out, not in, and the only routes between California and the other West Coast refining center north of Seattle travel over water.  So the principal refineries serving the California market are in California, and obtaining supply from elsewhere that hasn't been prearranged takes time for special batches of fuel to be blended up, tankers to be chartered, and for those vessels to complete their voyages from ports as far away as the Gulf Coast or Singapore.  That entails at least a couple of weeks.

In a posting I wrote in 2007 during a similar price spike in California, I referred to a 2003 study by the Energy Information Agency of the US Department of Energy, looking at an earlier California gasoline spike. (This is a recurring problem.) Among the major factors explaining the higher prices and volatility of the California gasoline market, they found,
"The California refinery system runs near its capacity limits, which means there is little excess capability in the region to respond to unexpected shortfalls."
That also means that there is typically no local surplus from which to rebuild inventories once refinery production returns to normal.  That's a crucial factor in the speed at which prices return to normal.

So much for the diagnosis, but what about the cause?  Tackling the local pollution from large, stationary sources like oil refineries, and from the tailpipes of the state's 31million cars and other vehicles has been a top priority for the state's Air Resources Board (CARB) since the 1970s, for good reason.  However, over the years, CARB's increasingly strict regulations made it harder and less attractive to operate refineries in the state, and more difficult to blend the fuel it allowed to be sold there.  As it happens, I saw much of this first-hand when I worked as an engineer in Texaco's Los Angeles refinery and later when I traded refined products, crude and feedstocks for the company's West Coast operations in the 1980s and early '90s.  I watched one small refinery after another go out of business, and the magnitude of periodic price spikes grow, as the market became more constrained and isolated. I also saw refining margins for the survivors improve relative to those on the Gulf Coast and other parts of the country.  These trends seemed related, since the state, by its actions, was turning California gasoline into a boutique product and effectively blocking competition from outside the state.

The normal response of companies operating in a market such as that, with growing demand and healthy margins, would have been to invest in more capacity--new refineries or major refinery expansions--and collectively to overshoot somewhat.  But by then the prospect of obtaining the permits necessary to build a new refinery in California had gone from difficult to impossible, and most refining investment was focused on the substantial upgrades required to keep up with the state's periodic tightening of product specifications.  And since those investments generally did little to increase output or improve product quality in ways a consumer might notice and pay a premium for, they had awful returns and dragged down the total return on investment for the entire facility. This contributed to refineries shutting down or being sold to independents with less capacity to make further such investments in the future. 

The net result of all these factors is a California refining system that today is 21% smaller than in 1982, at least in terms of crude processing capacity, but must meet gasoline demand that has grown by a third in the meantime, even after shrinking from its 2006 peak.  Now, when an unplanned refinery outage occurs, the result provides as classic and dramatic a demonstration as you'll ever see of the price response to a shift in the supply curve for a good with inelastic demand.

As an ex-Californian and ex-Angeleno there's no doubt in my mind that air quality, especially in Southern California, has improved as a result of many of the regulations imposed on industry and on fuels.  However, you'd have to ask the state's current residents whether that result is worth the high price they periodically pay at the gas pump, or whether some degree of compromise that would have allowed refineries to expand to keep pace with demand, while cleaning up the air almost as much, would have been preferable. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Election 2012: Romney on Energy

After last week's review of President Obama's energy record and campaign materials on energy, Governor Romney's energy plans present a sharp contrast. They are based on a fundamentally different view of energy and the economy, relying on markets to allocate capital to the most productive opportunities, rather than on government to guide a mix of public and private investments along specific paths towards designated ends. They also emphasize technologies that are already deployed at scale today, not those still under development or striving to attain scale. Implicitly, the Romney plan prioritizes supplying the energy for a robust economic recovery over programs designed to address long-term environmental challenges like climate change. These positions present voters with a serious and consequential choice on November 6th.

The Romney campaign's website on energy arrays the candidate's ideas mainly in words, rather than with the kind of images and interactive features that dominate the Obama campaign's sites. Energy is the first plank of Governor Romney's five-point "Plan for a Stronger Middle Class", though it requires a little work to explore the details of his energy program. A list of bullet points  is backed up by a lengthy policy paper with numerous references to external sources, but you have to look for it.

The Romney energy plan focuses mainly on oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy, which together meet 91% of current US primary energy demand and which the Department of Energy projects will still provide nearly 90% in 2020 under the policies in place today. You won't find much on his campaign's website about the new renewables that generated electricity equivalent to 2% of our energy use last year, beyond a critique of the administration's investment in Solyndra and a commitment to R&D on new energy technologies.

Among the details of his plan are support for expanded offshore drilling, including areas such as offshore Virginia that were originally in the Obama administration's early-2010 offshore development blueprint, along with a comprehensive assessment of US resources using current technology, rather than further extrapolations based on 1980s technology. Governor Romney proposes expanding energy cooperation with both Canada and Mexico and would approve the entire Keystone XL pipeline. His goal of attaining North American energy independence is aggressive, yet recent analysis by Citigroup puts it within the realm of possibility. It appears to be based on an assessment by Wood Mackenzie, a top-notch energy consultancy, indicating that US oil and natural gas liquids output could expand by 7.6 million barrels per day, with 6.7 million of that coming from federal lands and waters currently off-limits to development. That compares to US net petroleum imports of 8.5 million barrels per day in 2011.

Another aspect of the plan aimed at streamlining the permitting of energy projects could be just as useful for utility-scale renewable energy projects as for oil and gas exploration and production. Regulatory and permitting delays are among the key reasons it takes longer and costs more to develop crucial energy and infrastructure projects here than in many of the countries against which our competitive standing has been slipping. Governor Romney also proposes giving states greater control of permitting on their non-park federal lands. That could substantially increase energy access and output, especially in the west, where the federal government owns over 280 hundred million acres, or 37% of those 11 states, net of tribal lands.

There are also some missing elements. I would have liked to see more about how renewables fit into Governor Romney's vision. He apparently supports the Renewable Fuels Standard but is silent about the increasingly urgent need to reform it. He is on record against the extension of the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), a 20-year old subsidy roughly equivalent to the current price of natural gas, yet misses the opportunity to explain how all types of energy would be treated under his proposal to reduce corporate income tax rates while broadening the tax base--policy-speak for closing loopholes and eliminating incentives. In last night's debate he said, referring to the $2.8 billion in annual tax incentives for oil and gas identified by the Department of Energy, "... if we get that tax rate from 35 percent down to 25 percent, why that $2.8 billion is on the table. Of course it's on the table. That's probably not going to survive (if) you get that rate down to 25 percent." I'd also like to hear more about how Governor Romney would address greenhouse gas emissions once the economy returns to stronger growth.

Superficially, much of the Romney energy agenda evokes a return to the pre-2008 status quo: heavy on oil, gas and coal, light on renewables, and largely ignoring climate change. I see it from a different perspective: When Barack Obama began running for President in 2007, the US was considered by many to be tapped out on conventional energy, with domestic oil and natural gas production exhibiting signs of deep and permanent decline. In that context it made sense to look beyond those resources to the potential of renewable energy and vehicle electrification, even if the transition involved would be lengthy. That approach also appeared synergistic with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and a strategy was born. In the meantime, however, it turned out that US oil and gas were far from exhausted, and the most productive new energy technology of this decade wasn't wind, solar or biofuels, but the combination of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and horizontal drilling that has unlocked hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of shale gas and tens of billions of barrels of shale oil or "tight oil" resources. Since 2008 the expansion of shale gas drilling has added as much new US energy production as over 250,000 MW of wind turbines or solar panels--8x the wind and solar power added in the same interval. To the surprise of many, the big global energy opportunity of the 20-teens is US hydrocarbons. The Romney plan reflects the unexpected energy transformation we're experiencing.

As in 2008, this blog isn't in the business of endorsing candidates. Energy remains an issue that, like the Cold War, demands bi-partisan cooperation and some level of consistency from one administration or Congress to the next. However, that doesn't prevent me from observing that the energy agendas of the two campaigns are not equally well-suited for a period of serious US fiscal constraints and shrinking federal discretionary expenditures, in which our energy security and economic growth will still depend largely on fossil fuels. In that context, it's highly relevant that the "all of the above" credentials of one candidate depend on oil and gas outcomes that his policies did little to support. Of course, energy isn't the only issue that matters, but then you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't think it was important.