Wednesday, October 21, 2015

VW Scandal Puts Diesel's Future at Risk

  • If the VW scandal sours consumers on diesel cars, the potential winners and losers extend well beyond the auto industry.
  • European refineries look especially vulnerable to such a shift, while US refiners, along with manufacturers of electric vehicles, stand to gain.
Whether or not Volkswagen's diesel deception proves to be "worse than Enron," as a Yale business school dean commented, it is more than just the business scandal du jour. Its repercussions could affect other carmakers, especially those headquartered in Europe. And if it triggered a large-scale shift by consumers away from diesel passenger cars, that would have major consequences for the global oil refining industry, oil and gas producers, and sales of electric and other low-emission cars.

The scale of the problem ensures that it will not blow over quickly. Nearly 500,000 VW diesel cars in the US were equipped with software to circumvent federal and state emissions testing, and the company has indicated that 11 million vehicles are affected, worldwide. Even if Volkswagen's retrofit plan passes muster with regulators in the US, Europe and Asia, the resulting recall could take years to complete.

It's also still unclear whether VW's diesel models are unique in polluting significantly more under real-world conditions than in laboratory testing. Regulators in Europe appear to suspect the problem is more widespread. Other companies use similar emission-control technologies--from the same vendors--to control the NOx and particulates from smaller cars equipped with diesel engines. The French government announced plans to subject 100 diesel cars chosen at random from consumers and rental fleets to more realistic testing.

VW faces investigations and lawsuits in multiple countries. While those are underway, the claims of every carmaker selling "clean diesels" and the reputation of a technology that European governments have bet on as a crucial tool for reducing CO2 emissions and oil imports are likely to be under a cloud. How consumers react to all this will determine the future, not only of diesel cars, but of the future global mix of transportation fuels and vehicle types.

Start with oil refining. As long ago as the early 1990s, when I traded petroleum products in London, the European shift to diesel was creating a regional surplus of motor gasoline and a growing deficit of diesel fuel, or "gasoil" as it is often called outside North America. Initially, trade was the solution: The US was importing increasing volumes of gasoline to meet growing demand and had diesel to spare. The fuel imbalances of the US and EU were well-matched, in the short-to-medium term.

As this shift continued, the wholesale prices of diesel and gasoline in the global market adjusted, affecting refinery margins on both sides of the Atlantic. Marginal facilities in Europe shut down, while others invested in the hardware to increase their yield of diesel and reduce gasoline production. US refiners also invested in diesel-making equipment.

The aftermath of the financial crisis and recession increased the pressure on Europe's refiners, as did the rapid growth of "light tight oil" production in the US. Europe's biggest export market for gasoline dried up as fuels demand slowed and US refineries reinvented themselves as major exporters of gasoline.

Diesel cars still make up less than 1% of US new car sales but have accounted for around 50% of European sales for some time. If governments and consumers were now to lose their confidence in diesels and shift back toward gasoline, it would wrong-foot Europe's refineries and leave them with some big, underperforming investments in diesel hardware.  A persistent slowdown in diesel demand would alter corporate plans and strategies as refinery profits shifted. In the meantime, US refineries stand to benefit from a bigger outlet for their steadily rising gasoline output.   

If consumers did retreat from diesel passenger cars--trucks are unlikely to be affected--the shift back to gasoline is likely to be less than gallon-for-gallon, because competing technology hasn't stood still since 2007, when the US Congress enacted stricter fuel economy standards and the Environmental Protection Agency's tougher tailpipe NOx standard went into effect. New gasoline cars are closing the efficiency gap with diesels, thanks to direct injection, hybridization and other strategies. At the same time, the number of new electric vehicle (EV) models is growing rapidly, their cost is coming down, and infrastructure for EV charging is sprouting all over.

EVs still accounted for less than 1% of the US car market last year, but the combined sales of the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S and over a dozen other plug-in hybrid and battery-electric models nearly matched those of the standard Prius hybrid "liftback". EVs are still not cheap, despite generous government incentives that mainly benefit high-income taxpayers. Most still come with a dose of "range anxiety", but they are greatly improved and getting better with each new model year.

Even in Europe, where EVs haven't sold very well outside Norway, a big shift away from diesel would surely help EVs gain market share. If European consumers bought 9 gasoline cars and one EV for every 10 new diesels they avoided, European refiners would soon see not just a shift, but a net drop in total fuel sales. Nor would refineries be the only part of the petroleum value chain to be affected. Global oil demand would grow more slowly as well, bringing "peak demand" that much closer.

For now, this scenario is hypothetical. VW may yet solve its technical problem, bringing the 11 million affected vehicles into compliance with minimal impact on performing and fuel economy. Meanwhile, regulators could find that most other carmakers have been in compliance all along, particularly those selling cars that use the urea-based Selective Catalytic Reduction NOx technology; the rest might only need a few tweaks.

​In that case, the scandal might eventually die down without putting small diesel cars into the grave, as a mock obituary in the Financial Times suggested. Carmakers would have a hard time increasing diesel's penetration of markets like the US, but loyal diesel customers around the world might conclude that these cars still provide them the best combination of value, convenience and drivability. Having driven a number of diesels as rentals and at auto shows, I wouldn't dismiss that possibility too lightly. The jury is likely to be out for a while.

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

Friday, October 09, 2015

What the Congressional Hearing on VW Missed

I made time in my schedule to watch yesterday's Congressional hearing on the VW scandal on C-SPAN. It left me with very much the same sense tweeted by Amy Harder of the Wall Street Journal, though perhaps for different reasons:

Similarly to the Deepwater Horizon hearing, some of the Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee used the occasion to demonstrate that their outrage over this event equaled or exceeded that of their constituents back home. This is par for the course. But just as when confronted with the highly technical issues of a well blowout in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, the committee's members would also have benefited from more technical advice prior to and during the hearing.

In particular, I thought they missed key opportunities to follow up on answers given by the CEO of Volskwagen's US subsidiary, Michael Horn. One example followed Mr. Horn's response to a question about the timeline for attempting to fix the company's non-complying diesel cars from model years 2009-2015.

He explained that the affected models included three generations of engine and emissions treatment technology. The oldest, which he described as "Gen-1" would be the hardest to fix and was clearly not amenable to merely updating the engine management software to remove the "defeat device" code. However, he also indicated that the newest generation might be fixed in exactly that way. That's because they already incorporate the Selective Catalytic Reduction and urea technology used in bigger, more expensive models. The question left hanging in the air but never asked was why VW would have abandoned the exhaust-gas-recirculation (EGR) technology that had been matched to the 2-liter diesel engine since 2009, if it was convinced the cheaper technology was doing the job.

Several members of the committee pointed out to both Mr. Horn and Christopher Grundler, the EPA official responsible for emissions compliance, that although the EPA had indicated these cars were safe to drive and would not be pulled off the road, they would be emitting unacceptable levels of NOx until they were recalled and repaired.  Mr. Horn had already indicated that might take up to two years, which seemed quite realistic.

Despite Mr. Grundler's expertise, everyone seemed to treat these emissions as an unalterable circumstance, ignoring the fact that NOx is a traded commodity in the US. In fact, the markets for NOx and SOx emissions credits--overseen by the EPA--have been so effective that they provided the intellectual spark for the whole idea of CO2 cap-and-trade. In light of that, I was surprised that no one suggested that VW, either voluntarily or at the direction of the EPA, should immediately purchase NOx credits equivalent to the excess emissions of the affected cars until they have been brought into compliance.

Of course that wouldn't be a perfect substitute for tailpipe compliance. Unlike CO2, NOx acts locally, rather than globally. However, as I understand it the NOx markets function regionally, and I would be surprised if there wasn't a reasonable overlap between the geographic concentrations of VW diesel car sales and the focus of the NOx markets in the Northeast, Midwest and California. Buying large blocks of  NOx credits would push  up the price for these instruments and prompt more emissions reductions from power plants and other participants in these markets, leaving the air cleaner.

I am sure many of those watching the hearings shook their heads when Mr. Horn expressed his belief that the responsibility for circumventing the cars' emission controls likely rested with a few software engineers, rather than a corporate decision. Representative Chris Collins (R-NY) channeled a lot of frustration when he rejected that idea on the basis that if VW had found software to fix diesel emissions it would have rushed to patent the idea. I'm less certain of that in this age of widespread technology outsourcing. For VW's diesels, much of the key hardware came from vendors, and I would expect the same to be true for software. I was hoping someone would ask whether the "defeat device" software itself had been sourced from a vendor.

Either way, it was clear that Mr. Horn was struggling with the disconnect between his own beliefs about the situation and the facts that had emerged. I experienced something similar when my former employer, Texaco Inc., was embroiled in a scandal over diversity in the 1990s. The newspaper accounts I read of blatant discrimination in closed-door meetings were at odds with everything I knew about a company for which I had worked for two decades. Mr. Horn expressed similar feelings, but I doubt they provided much consolation to those whom VW's actions have harmed.

In that vein, there was a lot of speculation about damages and remedies at yesterday's hearing.  It was clear that most of the committee shared the view of one member, who advised VW to be "aggressively compliant" in responding to its customers and dealers. However, suggestions that the company offer "loaners" to all 500,000 affected customers seemed detached from reality, as did the notion that VW should voluntarily refund the full purchase price of these cars. A quick calculation puts the price tag on that idea in the $10-20 billion range, before paying any of the fines and penalties that seem inevitable in this case. I don't know what compensation I'd want if I had bought a diesel VW, instead of a gasoline model, but I don't think I'd be counting on getting my purchase price back.

Yesterday's hearing had its share of posturing, but on balance I thought it contributed to our understanding of the scandal and the next steps in the process. The panel treated Mr. Horn with remarkable civility, under the circumstances. That is likely attributable to his having been among the first to admit that the company had "screwed up." Perhaps his most telling remark yesterday was that they would have to figure out how to manage a company of 600,000 people differently, after this. "This company has to bloody learn," was how he put it. I imagine we'll be hearing a lot more in the weeks and months ahead about exactly what those lessons are, and how much they will cost.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

How Shale Reduced US Energy Risks from Hurricanes

  • The Gulf of Mexico will be a key region for energy supplies for years to come, but shale development has boosted output elsewhere to such an extent that the US is much less vulnerable than a decade ago to shortages resulting from hurricanes.
Just in time for the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last month, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported on the reduced vulnerability of US energy supplies to Atlantic hurricanes, as a result of the energy shifts of the last decade. As the Houston Chronicle noted, this illustrates another benefit of the revolution in shale oil and gas. However, with oil still below $50 per barrel, it is also worth considering how durable these particular effects might be if low oil prices were to persist much longer.

Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast within a few weeks of each other in 2005, I recall some lively  discussions concerning the concentration of US energy assets in the region, and what that meant for US energy security. There was talk of new inland refineries, and even proposed legislation to promote them. With the exception of one small refinery in North Dakota, which came online earlier this year, most of that talk led nowhere. The synergies of the Gulf Coast refining and petrochemical complex were and still are overwhelming.

From the perspective of diversifying US crude oil and natural gas supplies, the situation looked equally daunting in 2005, excluding higher imports of both--an outcome that already seemed unavoidable. The country's main onshore oil fields, including the Alaska North Slope, were in decline. In 2004 their combined output averaged less than 4 million barrels per day for the first time since the 1940s. The deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico were where the majority of accessible, unexploited US oil and gas was expected to be found.

With hindsight it now seems clear that in 2005 the first large-scale application of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and horizontal drilling to shale in the Barnett gas field near Dallas, TX was pointing to an entirely different set of possibilities.  The Barnett had just passed a major milestone: one billion cubic feet per day of production. However, other than visionary entrepreneurs like George Mitchell, few energy experts then foresaw how rapidly shale could scale up elsewhere.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the country has experienced a profound geographical diversification of its energy sources. As the following key chart from the EIA's analysis shows, since 2003 the offshore Gulf of Mexico's share of US production has fallen by 40% for crude oil and by nearly 80% for natural gas.

The divergence in those figures may seem surprising. "Tight" oil from deposits North Dakota, onshore Texas and the mountain West supplemented deepwater production that post-Deepwater Horizon has recovered to roughly the level of 2004, bringing total US oil output close to an all-time record earlier this year.  Meanwhile, rising shale gas output in Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania  more than compensated for  the steady, long-term decline of Gulf of Mexico gas production. The extent of the shift in US gas sources has even raised questions about the viability of the benchmark Henry Hub (Louisiana) trading point for the main gas-futures contract

In fact, when we look beyond oil and gas to factor in the growth of renewable energy and the recent decline in coal consumption in the power sector, since 2004 the equivalent energy dependence of the US on the Gulf of Mexico--including imports--has fallen from 7% to roughly 4%, in terms of total energy consumption.

If oil prices had remained where they were a year ago, above $90 per barrel, there would be little doubt that this trend would continue. However, the latest short-term forecast from the EIA suggests that US onshore oil production will fall by about 6%, due to reduced shale drilling, while Gulf of Mexico production ticks up about the same percentage, as more projects that were begun under higher oil prices come onstream. This is generally consistent with the outlook of the International Energy Agency. By itself that could cause a small increase in Gulf of Mexico dependence.

As for gas, EIA projects that US onshore natural gas production will continue to grow, though at a slower rate than recently, while offshore gas continues its decline, reinforcing the shift away from the Gulf. The technology and techniques for developing onshore shale gas continue to improve, even with low natural gas prices, while the identified gas resources of the eastern Gulf of Mexico remain off-limits.

The relative importance of the large refining centers on the Gulf Coast may be evolving, too, for different reasons. US refined product exports have grown substantially since the financial crisis, with most of them sourced from the Gulf Coast. To the extent such shipments could be delayed in an emergency or swapped for product sourced abroad to be delivered to their original destinations, that effectively creates a buffer against storm-related disruptions in domestic deliveries.

The abundance of natural resources and the legacy of decades of infrastructure investment guarantee that the US Gulf Coast will remain a key region for US energy supplies. However, the technology for tapping resources elsewhere has greatly reduced the chances for a repeat of the events of 2005, when a pair of hurricanes set the stage for the highest natural gas prices in US history. Low oil prices might slow down further reductions in the relative energy contribution of the Gulf, but a significant reversal of this trend looks unlikely under either low or high oil prices.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.