Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bakken Shale Gas Flaring Highlights Global Problem

  • High rates of natural gas flaring in the Bakken shale formation are symptomatic of infrastructure limitations that prevent this gas from reaching a market.
  • Although various technical options could reduce flaring from high-output well sites, none matches the benefits of developing large-scale outlets for the gas.
The Wall St. Journal recently reported on the high rate at which excess natural gas from wells in North Dakota's Bakken shale formation is burned off, or "flared."  The Journal cited state data indicating 10.3 billion cubic feet (BCF) of gas were flared there during April 2014. That represented 30% of total gas production in the state for the month.

North Dakota's governor attributed the high volume of gas flared in his state to the great speed at which the Bakken shale has been developed, outpacing gas recovery efforts. Oil output ramped up from 200,000 barrels per day five years ago to just over a million today, in a region lacking the dense oil and gas infrastructure of Texas and other states with a legacy of high production.

Nor is this situation unique to the Bakken. The World Bank has estimated that around 14 BCF of gas is flared every day, globally. Such flaring is a problem for more than governments and other mineral-rights owners that worry about missing potential royalties.  Aside from our natural aversion to waste, flaring natural gas has environmental consequences.

The tight oil produced from the Bakken shale is quite low in sulfur, and so is most of the associated gas, but some of it contains relatively high percentages of hydrogen sulfide (H2S). When that gas is flared, rather than processed, the resulting SOx emissions can affect local or even regional air quality.

Gas flaring also contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions implicated in global warming, although it must be noted that flaring is 28-84 times less climate-altering, pound for pound, than venting the same quantity of methane to the atmosphere.  When annualized, and assuming complete combustion of the gas, North Dakota's recent level of flaring equates to around 6.7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, or nearly a fifth of total estimated US CO2 emissions from natural gas systems in 2012. That means this one source accounts for around 0.1% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, or somewhat less than US ammonia production.

Why would anyone flare gas in the first place? As the Journal pointed out, the oil produced from Bakken wells is worth significantly more than the gas, although the energy-equivalent price ratio favors oil by more like 4:1 than the 20:1 cited in the article. Still, the economics of Bakken drilling are mainly driven by oil that can be sold at the lease and delivered by pipeline or rail, and not by the associated gas, particularly after tallying the cost of capturing and processing it, and then hoping capacity will be available to deliver it to a market that in the case of the Bakken might be hundreds or thousands of miles away. The characteristics of shale wells, with their steep decline curves, raise this hurdle even higher: Shale gas infrastructure at the well must pay for itself quickly, before output tails off.

There is no shortage of technical options for putting this gas to use, instead of flaring it. An industry conference in Bismarck, ND this spring featured an excellent presentation on this subject from the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) of the University of North Dakota. Among the options listed by the presenter were onsite removal of gas liquids (NGLs), using gas to displace diesel fuel in drilling operations, and compressing it for use by local trucking or delivery to fleet fueling locations. However,  contrary to the intuition of the rancher interviewed by the Journal, none of these options would reduce high-volume flaring by more than a fraction, despite investment costs in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per site.

Even in the case of the most technically interesting option, small-scale gas-to-liquids conversion to produce synthetic diesel or high-quality synthetic crude, EERC estimated this would divert only 8% of the output from a multi-well site flaring 300 million cubic feet per day, while requiring an investment of $250 million. And to make this option yet more challenging to implement, of the 200-plus such locations EERC identified in the state, fewer than two dozen flared consistently at that level over a six-month period. The problem moves around as older wells tail off and new ones are drilled.

Significantly reducing or eliminating natural gas flaring ultimately requires a large-scale market for the hydrocarbons being burned off. That's as true in North Dakota as in Nigeria. While various technical options could incrementally reduce gas flaring from Bakken wells, the highest-impact solutions would be those that promote market creation. That would include fast-tracking long-distance gas pipeline projects or building gas-fired power plants nearby. Absent large new customers for Bakken gas, additional regulations on flaring will either be ineffective or impede the region's strategically important oil output.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Condensate Pries Open the Oil Export Lid

  •  A US ruling to allow limited exports of condensate, a light hydrocarbon mix similar to light crude oil, has implications for both producers and refiners, though not consumers.

  • Whether or not it leads to wider US exports of condensate and crude, it signals just how much the US energy situation has changed since the oil export ban was first imposed.

Last month we learned that the US Commerce Department gave two US companies permission to export condensate that would otherwise be trapped here under a 1970s-vintage ban on US oil exports. This validates the view, as described in a white paper from the office of Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) earlier this year, that the administration has the statutory authority necessary to allow such exports. An entire session at this week's annual EIA Energy Conference was devoted to the details of this ruling, and whether it paves the way for broader exports of a growing US surplus of condensate and light sweet crude oil.

Over the past several decades US refineries invested an estimated $100 billion to enable them to process the increasingly heavy and sour crude oil types available for import. As a result, most US refineries, particularly on the Gulf and west coasts, are no longer equipped to run large volumes of the extremely light condensates and oils now coming from onshore shale deposits. Allowing producers to achieve world-market prices for their output should boost the economy and raise tax receipts, yet is unlikely to harm consumers.

Condensates are a class of hydrocarbons distinct from crude oil, though they share enough oil-like characteristics frequently to be lumped in with the latter, as in US export regulations. The technical definition of condensates encompasses both the “natural gasoline” extracted during the processing of natural gas produced from oil fields (“associated gas”,) as well as the heaviest liquids separated from “non-associated” gas, i.e. from gas fields, rather than oil fields.

The condensate being exported in this case comes mainly from liquids-rich shale deposits like the Eagle Ford in Texas, which produces varying proportions of dry gas, “wet” gas containing NGLs and condensate, and crude oil, depending on well location. Condensate apparently accounts for around 20-40% of Eagle Ford “tight oil” output.

Condensate mainly consists of natural gas liquids like ethane, propane and butane, along with substantial quantities of naphtha, a low-octane mix of hydrocarbons that boils in the gasoline range, plus much smaller proportions of diesel and heavier “gas oils” than would be typical of crude oil. The naphtha in condensate can sometimes be blended into gasoline, depending on its specific qualities, or processed in a refinery to yield higher-quality gasoline components.

Subsequent to the phase-out of tetraethyl lead, most gasoline from US refineries has been a blend of higher-octane naphtha produced by catalytic cracking units and the “reformate” from catalytic reforming units, with provision for further blending during distribution with up to 10% ethanol. Last month US refineries set an all-time record for gasoline production, at over 10 million barrels per day. They are unlikely to miss the naphtha exported in condensate.

Historically, the global market for condensate has had important distinctions from the broader crude oil market, based on the inherent characteristics of these liquids and the end-users seeking them. Refiners running mainly heavy oils sometimes buy condensate for blending, to lighten their average inputs and fill gaps in their processing capacities.

With the Gulf Coast now drowning in light “tight oil” from shale, this is becoming too much of a good thing, as refiners increasingly have more light material in their feedstock than their facilities can easily handle. One presenter at the EIA conference described the situation as building toward a "day of reckoning", when the discounts required to induce US refiners to process excess light crude instead of imported heavier crude would reach the level at which producers must throttle back oil production. Another expert with whom I spoke was adamant that that day of reckoning has already arrived. One result is investment in new facilities to provide minimal processing–really just distillation–for condensate.

By contrast, petrochemical producers, particularly in Asia, are expected to import growing volumes of condensate for use in the production of olefins like ethylene and propylene, and aromatics like toluene and benzene, from which to make plastics, solvents and other petrochemicals. In that market, US condensate will compete with condensate from other gas producing nations, and with exports of refinery naphtha from Europe and elsewhere. This looks like a good opportunity for US producers.

Some advocates of lifting the ban on crude oil exports see the Commerce Department’s ruling as a precedent for allowing exports of all types of oil, or at least a good first step. However, other reports have focused on this ruling as an end-run around the export rules by redefining minimally processed condensates as a petroleum product, and thus exempt from the ban. In that view, the resulting precedent from condensates for exports of true crude oil may be weaker than that from ongoing, permitted oil exports to Canada.

Either way, allowing condensate exports is a smart move that, if continued, should ease crude congestion on the Gulf Coast and reduce the discounts that could make domestic oil less economical to produce, to the benefit of foreign suppliers. It might even push the problem beyond the current election year and enable Congress to consider normalizing all oil exports without the inhibiting effect of populist pressures at the polls. In the meantime, you can bet these condensate exports will be closely scrutinized for any noticeable effects, good or bad.

A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

ISIS Threatens Iraq's Oil Upside

  • Even if its threat to Iraq's oil exports can be contained, the newly asserted "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" has altered the political risk of projects there.
  • That could hamper future production that was expected to be a major factor in meeting growing oil demand later this decade.
Last month's blitzkrieg advance of Al Qaeda spinoff ISIS in northwestern Iraq rattled global oil markets and politicians. Oil prices have risen by only a few dollars, reflecting the remoteness of the current threat from Iraq's main producing region and validating OPEC's recent characterization of the global oil market as "adequately supplied." Yet even as the rebel offensive appears to stall, the escalation of risk in Iraq and its neighbors could affect geopolitics, oil supplies and fuel prices for the rest of the decade.

Iraq currently exports around 2.7 million barrels per day (MBD) of oil, or 7% of global oil exports. It is effectively the number two producer in OPEC. Having recovered beyond pre-war levels, Iraq's oil industry has been growing, while Iran's exports are constrained by international sanctions and Libya's output has become highly erratic following that country's revolution.

In the International Energy Agency's latest Medium-Term Oil Market Report Iraq accounts for 60% of OPEC's incremental production capacity through 2019 (see chart below) and nearly a fifth of all new barrels expected to come to market in that period. This is a more conservative view of Iraq's growth potential than in previous scenarios, but it still leaves Iraqi oil, together with " tight oil" in the US and elsewhere, as the bright spots of the IEA's supply forecast.

Following ISIS's capture of Mosul in northern Iraq, the Heard on the Street column in the Wall St. Journal painted a stark picture of how the destabilization of Iraq could limit investment in the country's oil industry, truncating its expansion. That would increase longer-term oil price volatility and make investments elsewhere more attractive, not just in North American tight oil but also in energy efficiency and alternatives to oil.

Warning signs seem ample. The "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" might never capture Baghdad or directly threaten the giant oil fields of southern Iraq that are reviving with help from international firms like BP, ExxonMobil and Shell. However, ISIS's actions in the territory they now control, and the fears they incite across a much larger swath of Iraq, are sparking renewed sectarian violence and prompting foreign companies to evacuate personnel. This undermines the IEA's medium-term forecast, which despite being "laden with downside risk" will apparently not be revised in light of recent events. It also raises the potential for jumps in nearer-term oil and petroleum product prices.

It is noteworthy that oil prices haven't gone up significantly, as they did when Libya's revolution began. From February 15 to April 15, 2011 the price of UK Brent Crude jumped 22%.  Iraq's troubles added about 5% to the Brent price, some of which has already dissipated. However, average US gasoline prices are $0.21 per gallon ahead of their level for the same week last year, in part because tensions in Iraq and elsewhere have forestalled the typical post-Memorial Day price drop.

The market's relatively muted response could change abruptly if the Iraqi military suffered further setbacks at the hands of ISIS and its allies, or if ISIS turned its attention to the oil infrastructure of central and southern Iraq. They attacked the country's largest refinery at Baiji, north of Baghdad, and I have seen conflicting reports of its current status.

As several analysts have noted, anything that threatened the country's oil exports, most of which pass through the Gulf port of Basra, could send oil prices substantially higher. That's because other supply outages have reduced usable spare production capacity elsewhere--oil that isn't now being produced but could ramp up quickly--to less than 4 MBD, a narrower margin than in several years. Even if lost Iraqi output were made up by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the further contraction of spare capacity would drastically increase price volatility and boost oil prices from today's level, until Iraq's exports--or Iran's--were restored.

Nor would booming domestic oil and gas-liquids production, which is surely helping to hold down global oil prices, insulate US consumers from increases at the gas pump. The oil that US refineries process and the products they sell are still priced based on the global market. If Brent crude spikes, so will US gasoline and diesel. That would have less impact on the US economy than in the past, when imports made up a much higher share of supply, but shifting money from the pockets of consumers to those of oil company shareholders is rarely popular.

An Iraq-driven oil price spike would affect politics and geopolitics, too. An unstable Iraq makes it more difficult to maintain the sanctions pressure on Iran, particularly if the US and Iran ended up coordinating their responses  in Iraq. It's even harder to envision a consensus on keeping  more than 1 MBD of Iran's oil bottled up if oil prices returned to $150/bbl.

That could also complicate the debate over exporting US crude oil, already a tough sell for politicians who came up during the era of energy scarcity. As a practical matter, if exports began while prices were rising sharply for other reasons, convincing US voters that the two factors were unrelated would be challenging. A full-blown oil crisis in Iraq or the wider Middle East would likely result in the idea being tabled for an extended period.

It's tempting to view the success of ISIS in seizing territory on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border as a temporary outgrowth of Syria's civil war. If that were the case, the situation might revert to the status quo ante, once the Iraqi army--with some outside help--mopped up ISIS.

Even if this genie could be rebottled, however, the aftermath of the Iraq War and the "Arab Spring" revolutions is exerting  great stresses on the post-World War I regional order, overlaid on 13 centuries of animosity between Sunnis and Shi'ites.  An accident of history and geology has made this area home to much of the world's undeveloped conventional onshore oil reserves. Can its stability be restored with a few deft military and diplomatic moves, or might that require a complete rethinking of boundaries and nations, as recently suggested by the foreign affairs columnist of the Washington Post?

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.