Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Is OPEC Washed Up?

  • OPEC's unwillingness or inability to reduce output to defend high oil prices raises doubts about the cartel's effectiveness and future.
  • Absent cuts by OPEC, it is not yet clear whether the burden of rebalancing oil markets will fall on shale production or larger, more traditional oil projects.
As oil prices continued their slide following OPEC's meeting on Thanksgiving Day, speculation has grown concerning whether the cartel might have run its course. Is OPEC now at the mercy of forces beyond its control? Will its apparent strategy, as widely supposed, mainly affect US shale oil producers, or could more conventional, but still relatively high-cost oil projects elsewhere bear the brunt--or OPEC itself?

A quick review of OPEC's history of reining in production to prop up oil prices reflects a mixed record. At least three distinct episodes come to mind:

  • Following the oil crises of the 1970s the cartel was unable to keep prices above $30 per barrel ($70 in today's money) in the face of surging output from the North Sea and North Slope, and a 10% decline in global oil demand from 1979-83. By summer 1986 oil had fallen to just over $10, despite Saudi Arabia's having cut production by up to 6.7 million bbl/day from 1981-85, along with the loss of another couple million bbl/day  of supply due to the Iran/Iraq War. Aside from a spike prior to the Gulf War, oil was rarely much above $20 for the next two decades.
  • OPEC's response to the Asian Economic Crisis of the late 1990s was more successful. When the growth of such "Asian Tigers" as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand stalled amid contagious currency crises, oil inventories swelled and prices collapsed from the mid-$20s to low teens and less. In March 1999 OPEC agreed to reduce output by around 2 million bbl/day, including voluntary cuts by Mexico, Norway and Russia. Although historical data raises doubts that the latter countries ever followed through on these commitments, this move stabilized prices and restored them to pre-crisis levels by year-end.
  • After oil prices went into free fall during the financial crisis of 2008, OPEC's members agreed in late 2008 to cut over 4 million bbl/day. They apparently achieved around 75% of that figure. Together with the measures taken by central banks and governments to restore confidence, that was enough to boost oil prices from the low $40s to mid-$70s by late 2009, still well short of the $145 peak in June 2008.
If today's situation were simply the result of slowing economic growth in Europe and Asia, a temporary cut similar to that of 1999 might have received wider support in Vienna. However, the analogy to the 1980s must have resonated strongly, especially with OPEC's longtime-but-not-this-time "swing producer", Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom bore most of the pain then, for little gain. It appears able to weather the current storm, at least financially.

The roughly 4 million bbl/day of "light tight oil" production (LTO) added from US shale deposits since 2008 has certainly depressed oil prices. It's hard to tell by exactly how much, because the growth of shale coincided with high geopolitical risk in oil markets and a volatile global economy. Superficially, it resembles the supply surge of the 1980s. LTO is also generally understood to be high-cost production. Estimates of full-cycle costs vary widely, from the $60s to $90s per barrel.

These factors support the narrative that OPEC, and the Saudis in particular, might be trying to "sweat" shale producers. It's even bolstered by forecasts from the US Energy Information Administration, predating the price drop, suggesting LTO production could plateau within a couple of years and decline not long thereafter.

I see two problems with this scenario. First, shale producers have various options for reducing costs, including some that a more receptive Congress might be inclined to facilitate next year. Then there's the recent history of shale gas pricing. I recall industry conferences in the late 2000s in which speaker after speaker presented curves indicating that the true cost of many US shale gas plays was likely over $6 per million BTUs, and certainly above $5. If that had been accurate, shale gas output should have started to shrink shortly after the spot price of natural gas fell below $4 in 2011. Instead, it has grown by around 13%. This suggests that estimates from outside the shale sector have generally exaggerated production costs that at least one analyst suggests might be as low as $25/bbl on a short-term basis.

If you take a long view, as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf producers arguably must, it's questionable whether the bigger threat to OPEC comes from shale wells that cost a few million dollars each and decline rapidly, or from large-scale projects that can produce for 30 years. An example of the latter is Chevron's new Jack/St. Malo platform, which just began production in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. (Disclosure: My portfolio includes Chevron stock.) This $7.5 billion facility is expected to recover at least 500 million barrels over its long lifetime. Sub-$70 oil surely means fewer such developments will proceed in the next few years, including offshore opportunities arising from Mexico's sweeping oil reforms. That will have implications for production stretching decades into the future.

The impact of low oil prices could be even more significant for conventional non-OPEC oil production  in more mature regions. Oil investments are expected to fall by 14% next  year in Norway, threatening that country's energy-focused economy. Prospects in the UK North Sea look no better, with a leading expert warning of long-term damage to the regional oil industry. An announced 2% cut in tax rates on extraction profits hardly seems adequate to offset a 38% price decline since June. As things stand now, voters in Scotland dodged a bullet when they  rejected independence, the economics of which depended in part on a sustained recovery in North Sea oil revenues.

Whether shale producers or large investment projects are squeezed more by OPEC's decision to stand pat, it could take months or perhaps years for lower production to appear. As Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations noted, we shouldn't discount OPEC's willingness to act on the basis of its initial reaction to a crisis. However, history also suggests that even if OPEC ultimately acts decisively to defend its desired price level, the outcome may diverge significantly from what they intend. Energy consumers have more choices every day, and that could be the biggest constraint on OPEC's market power going forward.

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

Friday, December 05, 2014

The IEA's Stressful Outlook

  • The latest long-term forecast from the International Energy Agency suggests that the benefits of today's low oil prices might be temporary, with more volatility ahead.
  • The report focuses on a number of risks, including the adequacy of investment in both new oil capacity and low-emission energy, and the scale of nuclear plant retirements.
For an organization established by energy-importing countries in the aftermath of an oil crisis, the recent launch of the International Energy Agency's annual World Energy Outlook (WEO) took surprisingly little satisfaction in the current dip in oil prices, and none in the difficulties it is causing for OPEC.  Instead, the presentation  was peppered with terms  like "stress", "risk" and  "doubts",  and references to a "false sense of security" and a "stormy energy future." I see that as an indication of how much the global energy agenda has changed and broadened in the last decade or so.

For oil in particular, the IEA sees today's growth in North American production masking the consequences of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. In Iraq and other countries in the region, uncertainty is delaying investments that should be made now, if future supplies are to meet demand growth after US "tight oil" and other non-OPEC  expansion has plateaued. And that point could come sooner than expected if drillers reduce US shale investments by 10% next year, as IEA anticipates, or if the significant governance problems of Brazil's oil sector, which were only hinted at, are not resolved soon.

The launch covered several other areas, as well, none of which escaped suggested stresses of their own. Start with natural gas. IEA sees gas on its way eventually to become the "first fuel", consistent with the view of their "Golden Age of Gas" scenario of 2011. This would be driven in part by a large increase in LNG production from new sources such as East Africa, Russia and North America, along with growth from traditional LNG suppliers in North Africa and Australia. IEA expects increased competition from LNG with pipeline gas to improve energy security, especially in Europe, but not necessarily gas prices for end users. In fact, the high relative cost of LNG could impede the displacement of coal by gas in Asia. 

The presentation also highlighted the significant challenges IEA expects in the electricity sector in the period to 2040, a longer interval for which this year's WEO provides the first glimpse. A net expansion of global power generation by around 75% is more challenging than even that figure suggests, because it must incorporate the replacement of more than a third of today's generating capacity. As a result, only oil-fired generation will experience a net decline.  IEA forecasts up to half of new capacity through 2040 coming from renewables, on a scale posing significant risks for power system reliability, especially in Europe.

Nuclear power, a major source of baseload low-carbon electricity, is an area of special focus in this year's report, along with Africa. The expected growth of nuclear energy over the next several decades occurs mainly in the developing world, while 38% of today's nuclear capacity--nearly 200 reactors--will be retired by 2040. Many of those retirements will occur in Europe, and the Chief Economist of the IEA, Fatih Birol, expressed concern about the policies and budgets supporting such decommissioning on an unprecedented scale.

By 2040 the balance of nuclear power capacity would have shifted from around 80% in OECD countries and 20% in today's developing countries, to roughly 50/50. While the report also draws attention to the growing policy problem of nuclear waste disposal, it identifies nuclear as "one of a limited number of options available at scale to reduce CO2 emissions."

The largest source of stress in the report appears to be the disconnect between the narrowing window for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level that climate models indicate would limit global warming to 2°C, and the higher emissions inherent in the IEA's central "New Policies" scenario. Meeting the 2° target would require increasing average annual investments in low-carbon energy, including energy efficiency, by a factor of four compared to 2013. At last month's G20 summit in Australia we heard that "red warning lights are once again flashing on the dashboard of the global economy."  Could even the IEA's middle view of energy investments proceed if much of the world slid back into recession?

The presentation wasn't all gloomy, of course. Dr. Birol pointed out the competitive advantage that low energy costs confer on the US, and both he and IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoevan highlighted the recent China/US emissions deal as a very positive development. (My own analysis concluded that it would still allow China's emissions to grow dramatically before peaking.) They also conceded that lower oil prices would provide oil-importing countries with some timely "breathing space."  And for the first time I heard that three out of four cars sold in the world are now covered by fuel economy regulations, suggesting increases in energy efficiency to come.

It also struck me that some of the negatives in the presentation might tend to cancel each other out. If the global oil industry, especially in the Middle East, fails to invest sufficiently in the next few years to ensure that supplies continue to grow in the 2020s, then the resulting higher oil prices could accelerate the transition to natural gas and renewables, while providing greater incentives for energy efficiency. That combination might reduce emissions sooner than IEA's main forecast indicates.

Last year the IEA's World Energy Outlook failed to anticipate the drop in oil prices; how many other forecasters likewise missed it? It featured some of the same big themes repeated this year, including the ongoing shift of the energy world's center of gravity toward Asia and the scale of the global emissions challenge. On a more basic level, however, a comparison of the two documents suggests that the agency is still trying to understand the transformation of global energy markets by the parallel shale and renewable energy revolutions. They aren't alone in that, either.

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Energy and the New Congress: Beyond Keystone

  • The Keystone XL pipeline is likely to get another opportunity for approval once the new Congress is sworn in next January.
  • However, it will not be the most important part of a new Congressional energy agenda, and it might not even be the most urgent.
Voters in the US mid-term election earlier this month might be forgiven for assuming that its result assures quick approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL), notwithstanding the drama over a Keystone bill in the "lame duck "session last week. The pipeline has been under review by the Executive Branch for six years, yet despite its symbolic importance to both sides of the debate, and an apparent majority in both houses of the newly elected Congress favoring its construction, its future remains uncertain. Nor is KXL necessarily the most urgent or important energy issue that the new Congress is expected to take up.

It's worth recalling that the Senators who just lost their seats  were elected in the aftermath of the oil-price shock of 2007-8, amid great concern about increasing US dependence on imported oil and natural gas. They took office in 2009 with a President whose main energy policies focused on addressing global warming, with energy security inescapably linked to climate change. Largely as a result of the shale revolution, the new class of Senators will begin their jobs in an entirely different energy environment. That will have a bearing on both the priorities and approach of the new Congressional leadership.

The energy agenda for the two years of the 114th Congress will most likely include not just the status of KXL, but also restrictions on US crude oil exports, reform or repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the extension of renewable energy tax credits for solar power (expiring at the end of 2016) and wind power (already expired),  regulation of greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act of 1990, expanded oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters, and a stalled piece of energy efficiency legislation that might be the least controversial energy bill, on its merits, that either chamber has considered in years. Support for nuclear power and the disposition of nuclear waste could get another look, too.

Tax incentives for both renewable and conventional energy may also be swept up in efforts to reform the US corporate and individual tax systems, a high priority for some incoming committee chairmen. The least likely measures to be considered, however, are comprehensive energy legislation along the lines of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 or climate legislation similar to the Waxman-Markey bill of 2009 that subsequently died in the Senate.

It is also possible that the 113th Congress could clear some of its backlog of energy measures before handing off to the new Congress in January. The dynamics of the lame duck session will be different from the pre-election period, and the outgoing leadership could be motivated to strike deals on measures such as the restoration of the wind power tax credit (PTC) within a larger package of expiring tax measures called the "extenders bill."

Aside from KXL, perhaps the most pressing energy matter for the new Congress is to address is the question of US oil exports, which are restricted under 1970s-era laws and regulations. The urgency of debating oil exports is twofold: One company has already indicated its intention to export condensate, which is treated as crude oil under current regulations, without government approval. And with oil prices having fallen by 20-25% since summer, oil exports and related shipping regulations could provide a crucial relief valve as US producers of light tight oil (LTO) from shale deposits seek to reduce their costs and find higher-priced markets.  Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is slated to chair the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, and this is one of her big issues.

However, the cooperation Sen. Murkowski will receive from the other party in getting export legislation to the Senate floor could depend on the result of December's runoff in Louisiana.  If Mary Landrieu, current chair of Energy & Natural Resources, falls to Representative Bill Cassidy (R-LA), her replacement as ranking member for the minority on that committee is expected to be Maria Cantwell (D-WA). Senator Cantwell appears to be more skeptical about oil exports, as well as on other issues the oil and gas industry might hope would advance next year. 

For that matter, while gaining approval of KXL and reining in the EPA are clearly part of the incoming Republican agenda for energy, other issues cut across party lines in ways that make their outcomes less easily predictable. For example, proponents of reforming or repealing the RFS may have as much difficulty getting traction in the 114th Congress as in the 113th. Geography, rather than party affiliation, seems like a better predictor of whether new Senators like Joni Ernst (R-IA) or Mike Rounds (R-SD) would support or oppose changing the rules for biofuels. That could apply to the wind tax credit, too.  Even an oil export bill might similarly split both parties.

That brings us back to Keystone XL. The election result put both chambers of Congress on the same page on this issue for the first time and has apparently increased support for KXL to the crucial 60-vote threshold. That would be sufficient to obtain "cloture" and prevent a filibuster, though not to overturn a presidential veto.

Before Senator Landrieu's bill came up short last week, the President's real position on KXL began to emerge from the opacity he maintained through two elections. Nor does the fallout from his recent actions on other issues bode well for striking a deal with the new Congress on Keystone, short of it being attached to some essential piece of legislation like the budget or defense authorizations. Other parts of the likely Congressional energy agenda could fall into the same gap, and I'm less optimistic than I was after November 4th about opportunities for cooperation on energy between the White House and a unified Congress. 

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Keystone XL Loses Another Round

The image that will stick with me from yesterday's failed attempt by Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to avoid a filibuster on her bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is that of her Senate colleague, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) standing next to a blown-up photo of choking smog, presumably in China. Inconveniently, the greenhouse gases at the heart of this debate are invisible and global in effect, rather than local like the pollution from unscrubbed coal plants half a world away. Senator Boxer's smog ploy epitomizes the confusion and misinformation surrounding this project.

That extends to the White House, where the President's recent arguments against the pipeline reflect beliefs, rather than facts, and stand in contrast to the findings of his own administration on the economic and environmental impact of the pipeline, or of oil exports, should some of Keystone's oil be sold into the global market from the Gulf Coast.

Yesterday's defeat is likely to be more final for Senator Landrieu than for the pipeline. She goes into next month's runoff election as a distinct underdog, based on recent polling. The pipeline, however, will likely get another opportunity in the new Congress early next year, when supporters are expected to have an easier time coming up with the 60 votes necessary to bring a bill to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote. The project may even benefit from having avoided a Presidential veto now, since the fig-leaf of letting the review process run its course would have been more transparent this time than when the President rejected the pipeline in 2012.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How Good Is The New Emissions Deal with China?

  • President Obama's emissions deal with China sets an ambitious target for US CO2 cuts while leaving substantial headroom for emissions growth in China. 
  • It will likely compound his problems, domestically, but could have significant influence on upcoming international climate negotiations.
Only an event like Tuesday's agreement between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the two countries could top the unexpected scramble in the US Senate to pass a Keystone XL pipeline bill as the big energy story of the week. The significance of the climate deal is open to interpretation, from both international and US political perspectives. Before exploring those, we should examine its consequences.

The White House announced that in exchange for the US agreeing to reduce "net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025", China would undertake to cap its GHG emissions by "around 2030." It also announced plans to step up a number of cooperative efforts with China in this area, including joint R&D and a jointly funded public/private carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project in China. What does all this mean in terms of US emissions?

We need to start with the 2012 baseline in which net US emissions were already nearly 11% below 2005 levels. The current Annual Energy Outlook of the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), assuming the laws and regulations in force at the time it was produced, projects that US energy-related CO2 emissions will increase by 236 million metric tons (MT) by 2025, compared to 2012, leaving us at roughly 7% under 2005. Emissions from transportation would shrink, while those from industry would rise as the US economy grows by an expected 2.4% per year.

As I understand it that EIA forecast doesn't include the emissions that the EPA's "Clean Power Plan" for existing power plants would be expected to save if fully implemented. EPA targets reducing CO2 emissions from the US electricity sector--accounting for 39% of net emissions in 2005--by 25% by 2020 and 30% by 2030, compared to 2005. That would shave around 460 million MT from the EIA figure for 2025, getting us to nearly 15% below 2005. The additional savings to reach 26% below 2005 are thus in the neighborhood of 700 million MT per year by 2025. To put that in perspective, it's equivalent to the 2012 CO2 emissions from combustion in the entire US industrial sector, and exceeds total emissions of methane from all sectors, including agriculture, oil & gas, and landfills.

So unless I've done my sums wrong, or misinterpreted the government's data, the US/China deal commits to reducing US emissions by as much again as we've cut since 2005--largely as a result of a weaker economy and the shale gas revolution--after banking the expected savings from the 2011 fuel economy regulations, energy efficiency programs and renewable energy incentives, and an EPA plan for the power sector that is certain to run into strong opposition in the new Congress. That seems pretty ambitious to me, although it falls short of the 40% reduction recently agreed by the EU for 2030.

It's harder to assess what China's side of the deal means in practical terms. Its 2012 emissions were estimated at nearly 10 billion MT/yr, having grown by 8%/yr since 2004 and by 6%/yr since 2009. At that rate, even if its emissions peaked in 2030, they could double before starting to decline. If China's emissions growth declined to just 2% per year, consistent with the lower rates of growth in coal consumption observed recently, by 2030 it could still add nearly 4 billion MT/yr--equivalent to the current emissions of the entire EU, and 5 times the incremental US cuts to which President Obama just agreed. The most recent projection of China's emissions from the EIA had them growing by 5 billion MT by 2030 but essentially plateauing thereafter.

This falls substantially short of what would be required to keep global emissions within the range that climate models predict would limit average global temperature increases to 2°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. However, it goes well beyond China's previous commitment on emissions intensity at Copenhagen in 2009.

Now consider how this deal looks from the standpoint of US politics. Voters just resoundingly handed undivided control of the legislative branch of government to the President's opposition. Republican office-holders and those who just voted for them are likely to regard it as an unwelcome commitment of the US by a lame-duck President to a promise that only his successors could fulfill. In the process, it hands China and other countries a point with which to prod future US administrations should they fall short of its goals. In exchange, he got President Xi Jinping to admit that China can't emit CO2 limitlessly, but can still do more or less what it may have been planning, anyway. It's hard to see this making things easier in Congress for the President's existing environmental agenda.

The deal looks better from the perspective of international environmental and climate policy circles in the lead-up to the Paris climate conference, "COP21", at the end of 2015. One lesson from the Kyoto Protocol is that to be meaningful a global climate agreement must have a strong commitment from the world's largest emitters of CO2 and other GHGs. China and the US are the two biggest emitters, and the EU at #3 is effectively pre-committed. Together these three blocs account for over half of all emissions today. Having them on-side at the start raises the chances of reaching a  big agreement.

As others have observed, this deal makes it harder to argue against a global CO2 agreement based on China's relative inaction, while increasing pressure on other developing countries to agree to limit their own emissions. It also signals that despite political weakness at home, the White House will likely push for aggressive targets at COP21, setting up further conflict with Congress in the next election year. Finally, its timing is early enough to influence the negotiations but not so early as to permit close scrutiny of Chinese or US follow-through on its goals before the Paris talks begin.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Will Falling Prices Shift Oil Industry's Focus to Cost Reduction?

  • Lower oil prices may have less impact on US oil production from shale than competitors in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere appear to assume.
  • The cost of  producing tight oil is not static, and US producers have various options for cost reduction, including optimizing their logistics. The newly elected Congress can help.
Oil prices have dropped by more than 20% since July, based on futures contracts for UK Brent crude. Some expect prices to rebound relatively quickly, apparently including at least one large oil services company. However, indications that the official policy of Saudi Arabia may have shifted away from its customary role of "swing producer" raise the possibility of an extended period of lower prices. This is new territory for the relatively young US shale industry.

From the end of 2010 to the first half of this year, as the rapid development of light tight oil (LTO) from shale deposits was adding more than 2.9 million barrels per day (bpd) to US output, the benchmark price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil (WTI) averaged $96/bbl. The global oil price, represented by UK Brent, averaged $110/bbl for the same period. Having now fallen to the $80s, if prices were to stay here or lower for long, we should expect to learn a great deal about the actual cost structure of new and existing LTO production in the Bakken, Eagle Ford, Permian Basin and other shale plays.

Based on my experience of several oil-price declines from the inside during my time at Texaco, Inc., I'm skeptical that many LTO producers would be inclined to trim output from currently producing wells, other than as a last resort. From late 1997 to the end of '98, WTI prices fell by almost half, from around $20/bbl to under $11--equivalent to roughly $15 today.  Prices for heavier grades of oil fell to single digits. After months of that, revenues from some oil fields no longer covered variable costs, and upstream management took the decision to shut in high-cost production. Once prices revived, they discovered that some of that capacity had been lost essentially permanently.

I suspect there would be even greater uncertainty and hesitation today about shutting in producing shale wells for any significant period, especially in light of the limited experience with such wells. The bigger question is whether the drilling of new wells would slow or stop, resulting in a gradual slide in output as existing wells decline.

Then and presumably now, however, the first option in a situation like this is generally to cut costs, rather than output. I saw this in the mid-1980s, when oil prices fell by nearly 60% and took more than a decade to recover fully, then again in the late '90s, and during periodic, smaller market corrections. Suppliers were squeezed, big projects deferred, and employees saw travel, raises and benefits curtailed. Similar actions now could make a difference in keeping new shale drilling going.

Even for relatively efficient operators, it can be surprising how much expense can be reduced without affecting near-term productivity, and many of those savings would persist if prices recovered. LTO producers might ultimately become more profitable after weathering a period of weak prices.

A heightened focus on costs would also likely extend beyond producing company budgets and supplier agreements. One of the biggest non-production costs for LTO is transportation, whether paid directly by the producer or deducted by the purchaser from the market price.  Because of its rapid growth and the constraints of existing infrastructure, a high proportion of LTO output must currently be shipped by rail--up to one million bpd in the second quarter of 2014.

Rail offers flexibility and can reach many destinations, but it is expensive.  For example, if it costs over $10/bbl to ship Bakken crude to the Gulf Coast by rail, that means that with WTI at $78/bbl the producer might realize less than $70/bbl at the wellhead.  Pipelines are often cheaper to use, though not in all cases. The current tariff on the existing Keystone Pipeline for taking oil from the Canadian border to Cushing, OK, the storage hub for WTI, works out to around $4/bbl. If oil prices stayed low for a while, that might increase interest in the proposed Bakken Marketlink Project. It would connect the Bakken shale operations to the Keystone XL pipeline, the prospects for which look decidedly better after the outcome of Tuesday's mid-term election.

Another aspect of transportation costs that could come under a different kind of pressure relates to federal restrictions on shipping oil and petroleum products by vessel between US ports. Under the "Jones Act", only US-flagged, -owned and -crewed ships can perform such deliveries, even though the rates for such shipments are normally significantly higher than on foreign-flag tankers in comparable service. This is a significant factor in current petroleum trade patterns, in which refined products from Gulf Coast refineries are often shipped halfway around the world, while blenders and marketers on the east and west coasts must import gasoline and other products from outside North America.

And as long as US crude oil exports are prohibited, with a few exceptions, the combination of the Jones Act and the export ban effectively keep LTO bottled up on the Gulf Coast--depressing its price--or force it onto rail. Amending the Jones Act to exempt LTO, or the issuance of a waiver to that effect from the Executive Branch, could increase producers' margins while expanding the supply options for US refineries on the other coasts. I wouldn't be surprised to see this taken up by the new Congress early next year.

 Based on the current behavior of oil markets, the global impact of the US shale oil boom has been greater than many expected and seems very much in the national interest of the US--and of US consumers--to keep it going. It remains to be seen whether measures such as new pipeline infrastructure and reform of shipping regulations, together with more traditional forms of expense reduction, could boost producers' returns on LTO sufficiently to sustain drilling at roughly current rates while oil prices are weak. 

Even if both drilling and tight oil production slowed for a while, this price correction won't spell the end of the shale boom. As the Heard on the Street column in the Wall Street Journal put it recently, "Once someone has cracked it, it can't be unlearned. Barring a prolonged period of very low prices, the US oil industry isn't about to disintegrate." Rather than an existential crisis, the current weakness in oil markets looks like a test of adaptability for this new but important energy sector.

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

China Seizes Opportunity to Fill Its Petroleum Reserve. Should Others?

  • China is apparently snapping up cheap oil cargoes to fill its strategic petroleum reserve.
  • That might make sense for the US, too, if earmarked for new regional SPRs, rather than refilling the existing one on the Gulf.
The Wall St. Journal has reported that state-owned oil companies in China are capitalizing on lower prices to fill that country's strategic petroleum reserve (SPR). The obvious question is whether the US should do the same, particularly since surging oil output from shale deposits is a major factor in the recent rebalancing of the oil market. If that means putting more oil into caverns on the Gulf Coast, the answer should be no. However, this could be an opportunity to begin creating strategic reserves for parts of the country like the West Coast that are poorly served by our 1970s-vintage SPR.

Superficially, $80 oil provides a tempting chance to turn a profit while replacing the 30 million barrels of oil the US government sold as part of a "coordinated release" with other International Energy Agency members during the Libyan revolution. Comparing the average WTI price in June 2011 to today's, the Department of Energy could pocket around $15 per barrel on the overall sale and repurchase. However, much has changed in the last three years.

When I examined this subject a year ago, the dramatic reduction in US oil imports resulting from the combination of resurgent production and lower consumption had roughly doubled the effective capacity of the SPR, in terms of the number of days of lost imports it could cover in a crisis. Since then, US crude oil imports have fallen by another 5% or so, increasing SPR coverage correspondingly--at least for the parts of the country to which it can easily deliver.

Yet as I noted in another post earlier this year, US oil imports aren't just falling; they are shifting in location. The West Coast, where domestic production has been declining, not growing, now accounts for about 15% of US crude oil imports. It has essentially no dedicated petroleum reserve, other than commercial inventories that are roughly 50% lower than when I traded oil for Texaco's refining and marketing subsidiary in the early 1990s. If oil prices fell much further, it might even make sense for west coast refiners to stock up, regardless of what official action the US government took.

With US oil production still increasing, demand stable or falling, oil imports shrinking, and imports from Canada growing in both absolute and relative terms, it is high time to reconsider holding nearly 700 million barrels of oil--$55 billion worth even at today's depressed prices--in a part of the country where production could soon surpass its 1972 peak. This seems like exactly the kind of overdue reform opportunity that a new Congress might be interested in taking up next year.

Monday, October 27, 2014

How Would We Provide Enough Energy For 11 Billion People?

  • Reconciling energy and environmental concerns was challenging enough when global population seemed headed for a plateau around 9 billion.
  • A new forecast of up to 12 billion people by 2100 raises large questions about the capacity of current energy technologies to meet future global needs.
The combination of forecasted global economic weakness and growing non-OPEC production continues to weigh on oil prices.  Brent crude has fallen below $90 per barrel, and the US benchmark has been flirting with $80. But just when the rapid growth of energy supplies has undermined the mood of energy scarcity that prevailed for the last four decades, a group of demographers has thrown us a curve ball, though admittedly a very long one. 

In the 1970s many people were concerned about a "population explosion." Dystopian fiction--already a well-established sub-genre--featured visions of a grossly overcrowded future earth, along the lines of "Soylent Green." However, something happened on the way to such nightmares: birth rates in developed countries as well as large developing ones like China slowed in tandem with rising incomes. Instead of a world of 12 billion by 2100 or sooner, long-term population estimates in the last decade, including from the United Nations, began to focus on an eventual plateau around 9 billion.

Now it appears those lower forecasts might have been too optimistic, particularly with regard to birth rates in sub-Saharan Africa. The analysis in a paper published in Science last month suggests that growth will continue beyond the end of the current century. The authors expect global population in 2100 to reach 9.6 to 12.3 billion. That could have significant implications for energy demand and climate change, among other environmental and development issues, while in turn being influenced by them.  Nick Butler, who writes on energy for the Financial Times, looked at this from the perspective of oil and other energy sources and concluded, "None of the current technologies...offer an adequate answer."

I would take Mr. Butler's observation a step farther.  It's extremely challenging to say anything confidently concerning how much energy the world of 2100 might need, or where it will come from. Forecasts are rarely accurate beyond a few years, and even scenario methods struggle to cope with the unknown-unknowns involved in such time frames.

Recall that in 1928--as far removed from today as 2100-- world oil production was less than 5 million barrels per day, and the first chain reaction making nuclear power possible was still 14 years in the future. Natural gas was mainly viewed as a low-value byproduct of oil production, while wind power was considered quaint. And with a global population of just over 2 billion at the time, meeting the energy needs of today's 7 billion might have seemed even more daunting than supplying 11 or 12 billion does to us.

It's also worth keeping in mind that more than three-fourths of today's oil is consumed by countries with just 60% of the world's population.  The curve drops off steeply from there, leaving roughly 2 billion without modern energy services. So the energy implications of an extra two billion people by the turn of the century depend heavily on whether their energy demand looks more like today's top 4 billion or bottom 2 billion energy consumers. The recent "Africa Energy Outlook" from  the International Energy Agency (IEA) examined how energy supply on that continent might develop, along with the necessity of shifting investment from exports to domestic consumption to bridge that gap.

For that matter, even if an expansion of global fossil fuel production on the scale required to meet the needs of billions of additional consumers were possible, due to the technology that is currently unlocking oil and gas from source rock rather than conventional reservoirs--a.k.a. the shale revolution--it would bypass any notions of a "carbon budget" that might constrain the projected global temperature increase to a manageable level. It's a reasonable bet that however many people are alive in 2100, they will use less fossil fuels per capita than we do.

Consider what some of today's mainstream forecasts indicate about the future energy mix. The main "New Policies" scenario of the IEA's 2013 World Energy Outlook sees renewable energy growing from 11% to 18% of total primary energy by 2035, while its more aggressive "450" scenario has these sources supplying 26%, with commensurate reductions in fossil fuels. Shell's current long-range scenarios envision divergent futures in which fossil fuels still supply 50-60% of nearly doubled energy demand by 2060, but shrink to around 20% or less by 2100.

One big trend that could help facilitate that kind of change is electrification, which will increasingly displace liquid fuels from illumination, cooking, and even transportation. That's important because while we have few practical large-scale alternatives to petroleum for liquid fuels, we have many ways to generate electricity and could accommodate more, including the long-awaited arrival of practical nuclear fusion--perhaps along the lines announced by Lockheed Martin earlier this month--or some other, currently unanticipated energy source. Eight decades would be more than sufficient for an entirely new generating technology to become significant. 

Reconciling the energy needs of a large, growing population with preventing dangerous global warming--referred to by some as the "energy dilemma"--thus appears to require a sustained, protracted transformation of the entire energy economy. That shouldn't be a surprising insight. The bigger question is whether such a transformation can be achieved through the gradual evolution of the energy technologies available today, or whether it will require revolutionary developments. That remains a matter of considerable debate in energy circles. 

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Impact of the Global "Sweet" Crude Bulge

  • The recent slide in global oil prices has been compounded by the pressure that rising US shale oil production is putting on the price of sweet crude benchmarks like Brent.
  • OPEC's producers may suffer as much as those in the US, while consumers benefit from significantly lower fuel prices than last year.
When the US went to war in Iraq in 2003, the price of oil embarked on a trend that took it from around $30 per barrel to nearly $150 before collapsing in the recession in 2008. This time, as a new US-led coalition takes on ISIS with a bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, the price of oil is falling, down 20% in the last two months. It's not just that global economic growth has weakened recently, or that soaring shale oil output in the US has averted another oil crisis. Oil's current downturn also reflects the fact that new production from the Bakken, Eagle Ford and other shale deposits is particularly well-suited to undermine oil's global benchmark prices, for Brent and West Texas Intermediate, both of which are made up of light sweet crude oil streams.

The numbers for US shale, or "light tight oil" (LTO) as it's often called, are impressive, especially to those accustomed to watching the gradual ebb and flow of different oil sources over long periods. In the 12 months ending in June 2014, US oil production grew by 1.3 million barrels per day (MBD), not far short of Libya's pre-revolution exports. Since January 2011, the US added 3 MBD, or about what the UK produced at its peak in 1999. In fact, since 2010 incremental US LTO production has exceeded the net decline of the entire North Sea (Denmark, Norway and UK) by around 2 MBD, contributing to a significant expansion of Atlantic Basin light sweet crude supply.

The New York Mercantile Exchange defines light sweet crude as having sulfur content below 0.42% and an API gravity between 37 and 42 degrees. That's less dense than light olive oil. The specification for Brent is similar. Much of the LTO produced from US shale formations fits those specifications, and what doesn't is typically even lighter and lower in sulfur.

The current "contango" in Brent pricing, in which contracts for later delivery sell for more than those for delivery in the next month or two, is another sign of a market that is physically over-supplied: more oil than refineries want to process, with the excess going into storage. However we also see indications that the historical premium assigned to lighter, sweeter crude versus heavier, higher-sulfur crude is under pressure.

One example of this is the gap or "differential" between Louisiana Light Sweet, which wasn't caught up in the delivery problems that plagued West Texas Intermediate for the last several years, and Mars blend, a sour crude mix from platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. From 2007-13 LLS averaged around $4.50 per barrel higher than Mars, while for the first half of this year it was only $2.75 higher and today stands at around $3.40 over Mars.

And while OPEC's reported Reference Basket price has been falling in tandem with Brent, its discount to Brent had also narrowed by about $1 per barrel, prior to the price plunge of the last couple of weeks, compared with the average for 2007-13. Considering that OPEC's basket includes light sweet crudes from Algeria, Libya and Nigeria that sell into some of the same Atlantic Basin markets as Brent, that looks significant.

By itself a narrowing of the sweet/sour "spread" of only a dollar or so per barrel isn't earth-shattering. However, because the surge of US oil production is effectively focused on the oil market segment represented by the price of Brent, it compounds the pressure on OPEC, many of whose members link the price of their output to Brent. This might help explain why the response of OPEC's leading producer, Saudi Arabia, has been to cut prices rather than output, in an apparent effort to maintain market share rather than price level.

The Saudis know better than anyone how that movie could end. The Kingdom's1986 decision to implement "netback pricing", linking the price of its oil to the value of its customers' refined petroleum products, helped precipitate a price collapse so deep that it took oil prices 18 years to reach $30/bbl again, by which time the dollar had lost a third of its value.

Whether aimed at US shale producers or as a reminder to the rest of OPEC, which appears to be unprepared to make the output cuts necessary to defend higher oil prices, the Saudi action increases the chances that oil prices will over-correct to the downside, rather than rebounding quickly. If so, the impact of the sweet crude bulge in the Atlantic Basin--only a little more than 3% of global oil supplies--could play a disproportionate role in prolonging the pain producers will experience until oil markets eventually reach a new equilibrium.

In the meantime, US consumers are benefiting from gasoline prices that are already $0.15 per gallon lower than this week last year. Today's wholesale gasoline futures price for November equates to an average retail price well below $3.00 per gallon, after factoring in fuel taxes and dealer margins, compared to last year's average retail price for November of $3.24. After factoring in lower diesel and heating oil prices, the fall in oil prices could put an extra $10 billion in shoppers' pockets for this year's holiday season.

A substantially different version of this post was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Calibrating Solar's Growth Potential

  • A new report from the International Energy Agency suggests the possibility of solar power becoming the world's largest electricity source by 2050.
  • It is noteworthy that IEA thinks this could happen, but the growth rates required, let alone the policies necessary to support them, will be challenging to sustain.
In the wake of last month's UN Climate Summit in New York City, Monday's report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) on "How solar energy could be the largest source of electricity by mid-century" ought to be welcome news. At the same time, it conflicts with perceptions that some countries are already farther along than that. So IEA's indication of the feasibility of generating 26% of global electricity from solar energy by 2050 either looks quite ambitious or quite conservative, depending on your current perspective.

For me it always comes down to the numbers, without which it's impossible to grasp systems on the scale and complexity of global energy. IEA's high-solar roadmap--it's not a forecast--includes significant contributions from both solar photovoltaic power (PV) and solar thermal electricity (STE)--often referred to as concentrating solar power, or CSP--with the former making up 16% of global electricity at mid-century and the latter around 10%. As the detailed report from IEA indicates, achieving the headline result would require global installed PV capacity to grow 35-fold between 2013 and 2050, equivalent to an average of 124 Gigawatts (GW) per year of additions, peaking at "200 GW/yr between 2025 and 2040." That's a 6x increase in installations over last year.

To put that in a US electricity generation perspective, IEA projects that the US would have to hit one million GW-hours per year from PV--roughly what we currently get from natural gas power plants--by around 2035 to meet its share of the anticipated global solar buildup. US solar installations are on a record-setting pace of nearly 7 GW this year, but matching natural gas would require 120x growth in solar generation, or a sustained compound average growth rate over 25% for the next 20-plus years. That's not impossible, as recent PV growth has been even higher, but it won't be easy to continue indefinitely, especially without further improvements in the technology, and in energy storage.

The solar thermal portion of IEA's technology roadmap looks like a much tougher challenge. STE has been losing ground to PV lately, as the costs of the latter have fallen much faster than the former, for reasons that aren't hard to understand. Making PV modules cheaper and more efficient is analogous to improving computer chip manufacturing, while making STE cheaper and more efficient is more similar to manufacturing cheaper, more efficient cars or appliances.

One of the main reasons IEA appears to have concluded that STE could suddenly start competing with PV again is its inherent thermal energy storage capability, which enables STE to supply electricity after the sun has set. While I wouldn't discount that, it looked like a bigger benefit a few years ago, before electricity storage technology started to improve. Storage of all types is still expensive, which helps explain why fast-reacting natural gas power plants offer important synergies for integrating intermittent renewables like wind and solar power. However, it looks like a reasonable bet today that batteries and other non-mechanical energy storage technologies will improve faster than thermal storage in the decades ahead.

The upshot of all this is that getting to 16% of global electricity from PV by 2050 is a stretch, and the 10% contribution from STE looks like even more than a stretch. So how does that square with recent reports that Germany--hardly a sun-worshipper's paradise--got "half its energy from solar" for a few weeks this summer? A recent post on The Energy Collective does a better job of clarifying the significance of that than I could, providing links to German government data indicating that solar's average contribution in 2013 was just 4.5% of electricity--hence less than half that in terms of total energy consumption. The author extrapolates that at current rates of annual installations, it would take Germany nearly a century to get to 50% of its electricity from the sun.

Much can happen in 35 years that we wouldn't anticipate today. For now, solar PV looks like the energy technology to beat, in terms of low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and long-run cost trends. But whether it reaches the levels of market penetration the IEA's report suggests are possible, or tops out at less than 5% of global electricity supply, as their baseline scenario assumes, it must function within an energy mix that includes other technologies, such as fossil fuels, nuclear power and non-solar renewables. And that's true whether or not electric vehicles take off in a big way, which would significantly increase electricity demand and make the IEA's high-end solar targets even more difficult to reach.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Two Energy Revolutions Are Progressing in Tandem

Last year I wrote about the two major energy revolutions happening globally, the shale revolution--mainly in the US--and the renewable energy revolution, focused more on technologies than geography but with big concentrations in Europe and increasingly Asia and the Americas. Two stories in the Financial Times (registration/subscription required), which has lately been doing an excellent job covering energy, illustrate that we are still in the early days of both. Bigger changes lie ahead.

One story covers the development of the "South Central Oklahoma Oil Play", or SCOOP, an acronym that's new to me and, I suspect, many of my readers. Continental Oil, a major player in the Bakken and other shale oil resource areas, has apparently reported that SCOOP may contain up to 3.6 billion barrels (oil equivalent) of recoverable oil and gas. That's more oil than was produced in Alaska in the last 15 years, based on the graphic accompanying the article.

Along with the unconventional portions of the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico and Ohio's Utica shale, and with the reviving liquids production from Wyoming's Powder River Basin and elsewhere, the upside for US oil output still looks significant. Its economics may become challenging if oil prices remain weak for more than the next year or two, but our picture of oil and gas as mature resources may need to be revised.

The title of the other article, "US Solar and Wind Start to Outshine Gas" seized my attention. Its key quote is from the head of power, energy & infrastructure at investment bank Lazard: "We used to say some day solar and wind power would be competitive with conventional generation. Well, now it is some day"--at least for some technologies, in some locations, at larger scales.  The firm's latest analysis shows continued cost declines for wind and solar.

It also raises a very interesting and pertinent question about whether subsidies for residential-scale solar (i.e., rooftop PV, which remains much costlier than at utility scale) are "distorting the long-term energy planning process." That's a question we are likely to hear a lot more about when the current US 30% investment tax credit for solar equipment, which benefits higher-cost installations more than cheap ones, comes up for renewal. Nevertheless, solar power, particularly in combination with emerging energy storage solutions, looks increasingly likely to transform the utility landscape in the years ahead.

You may have noticed a decrease in my blogging frequency, recently. I've been preoccupied with project work and personal matters for the last couple months, but I should be back to my normal pace by October. There's certainly no shortage of topics worth discussing here.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Exporting US Oil to Mexico

  • Mexico could become a major export destination for surplus US light crude oil, despite being one of the largest oil suppliers to the US, mainly of heavy oil.
  • If structured as an exchange for other barrels, such exports might not require re-writing US oil export regulations, unlike sales to non-neighboring countries.
Two of the biggest energy stories of the last twelve months have been the reform of Mexico's oil sector after 75 years of state monopoly and the US oil industry's drive to gain approval to export a growing surplus of domestic light crude oil. The prospect of exporting US oil to Mexico connects these developments in a surprising way. It should make sense geographically and economically, though regulatory hurdles remain. Yet it could also increase tension between US oil producers and refiners over the merits of exporting crude versus refined products.

At first glance, the idea seems counterintuitive. Our southern neighbor was the third-largest exporter of oil to the US last year, consistently ranking above Venezuela. However, most of Mexico's oil is heavy and sour, in contrast to the light, low-sulfur "tight oil" (LTO) produced from US shale formations like the Eagle Ford of Texas.

Mexico has experienced supply and demand trends similar to what the US saw prior to our shale revolution. Total oil and gas liquids production has fallen by 25% since 2004, largely due to the declining output of Maya crude from the supergiant Cantarell field, while demand for refined products grew by around 20% in the same period. Lightening the crude oil slate of Pemex's oil refineries with LTO imported from the US could augment efforts to increase throughput and yields of transportation fuels.

The Commerce Department's recent approval for two US companies to export lightly-processed condensate, which despite its similarities is technically not crude oil, was followed by a hold on similar applications. These events have fueled both enthusiasm and confusion concerning US oil exports, which are still politically controversial, after decades of declining US production and periodic price spikes.

An easier sell might involve the exchange or "swap" of surplus LTO for imported heavy oil, and Mexico makes an ideal partner for this kind of transaction. Existing law at least recognizes the potential for such swaps with "adjacent countries", though it remains to be seen whether such a deal could be made to fit language specifying that the oil received be of "equal or better quality".

As a former oil trader, it strikes me that the best ways to close that gap might be to structure an LTO vs. Maya swap as a barrel-for-barrel exchange in which the US party would collect a financial premium in recognition of the quality difference--money being another measure of quality--or a "ratio exchange" in which every barrel of LTO delivered would be matched by a larger quantity of Maya, at a proportion determined by the refining values of the two oils. Either option would still require some regulatory finesse, but of a much different type than approving the outright, net export of US oil production.

The biggest stumbling block to an exchange of LTO for Mexican crude would probably be one of the same ones impeding the general lifting of a US oil export ban that the Washington Post has called "an economically incoherent policy." While US oil producers argue that allowing exports would enable their product to be sold for its global value and incentivize even higher future production, US oil refiners see exports as a threat to their margins and to the growth of their own exports of refined products. These have been crucial in sustaining arguably the world's best refining industry in the face of a weak economy and declining demand at home. 

Mexico is at the heart of this trend. Its imports of LPG, gasoline, diesel and other fuels from the US have increased to over 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) in recent years. Mexico accounted for 44% of all US gasoline and gasoline blending components exported last year, along with 10% of diesel fuel exports and 15% of LPG. I don't think it's controversial to suggest that exporting light crude oil to Mexico would come at least partly at the expense of our refined product exports to the country.

This boils down to the familiar economic dilemma of exporting raw materials versus capturing the value added from selling manufactured goods. I'm sympathetic to the refining industry's concerns, and not just as a former refinery engineer. However, those concerns would carry more weight if US refineries had the capacity to process all of the LTO the US is likely to produce in the years ahead, and to pay a world-market price for it. Refiners might benefit from access to lower-priced crude, but if driving down the value of LTO in a confined market choked production, net US oil imports would be higher than otherwise and the economy would be worse off.

Stepping back from the details of that debate, exporting US light crude oil in exchange for Mexican heavy crude looks attractive within a broader and increasingly credible vision of North American energy self-sufficiency. That wouldn't mean cutting North America off from the global oil market, but it would put us and our neighbors in the enviable position of being able to select imports based on opportunity rather than necessity. A reformed and revitalized Mexican oil industry, importing and exporting oil with its neighbors as it makes sense, could be a cornerstone of that vision.

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