Here are my choices for the Top 10 energy related stories of 2009. Previously I listed how I voted in Platt’s Top 10 poll, but my list is a bit different from theirs. I have a couple of stories here that they didn’t list, and I combined some topics. And don’t get too hung up on the relative rankings. You can make arguments that some stories should be higher than others, but I gave less consideration to whether 6 should be ahead of 7 (for example) than just making sure the important stories were listed.
1. Volatility in the oil markets
My top choice for this year is the same as my top choice from last year. While not as dramatic as last year’s action when oil prices ran from $100 to $147 and then collapsed back to $30, oil prices still more than doubled from where they began 2009. That happened without the benefit of an economic recovery, so I continue to wonder how long it will take to come out of recession when oil prices are at recession-inducing levels. Further, coming out of recession will spur demand, which will keep upward pressure on oil prices. That’s why I say we may be in The Long Recession.
2. The year of natural gas
This could have easily been my top story, because there were so many natural gas-related stories this year. There were stories of shale gas in such abundance that it would make peak oil irrelevant, stories of shale gas skeptics, and stories of big companies making major investments into converting their fleets to natural gas.
Whether the abundance ultimately pans out, the appearance of abundance is certainly helping to keep a lid on natural gas prices. By failing to keep up with rising oil prices, an unprecedented oil price/natural gas price ratio developed. If you look at prices on the NYMEX in the years ahead, the markets are anticipating that this ratio will continue to be high. And as I write this, you can pick up a natural gas contract in 2019 for under $5/MMBtu.
3. U.S. demand for oil continues to decline
As crude oil prices skyrocketed in 2008, demand for crude oil and petroleum products fell from 20.7 million barrels per day in 2007 to 19.5 million bpd in 2008 (Source: EIA). Through September 2009, year-to-date demand is averaging 18.6 million bpd – the lowest level since 1997. Globally, demand was on a downward trend as well, but at a less dramatic pace partially due to demand growth in both China and India.
4. Shifting fortunes for refiners
The Jamnagar Refinery Complex in India became the biggest in the world, China brought several new refineries online, and several U.S. refiners shut down facilities. This is a trend that I expect to continue as refining moves closer to the source of the crude oil and to cheap labor. This does not bode well for a U.S. refining industry with a capacity to refine 17.7 million barrels per day when total North American production is only 10.5 million bpd (crude plus condensate).
China was everywhere in 2009. They were making deals to develop oil fields in Iraq, signing contracts with Hugo Chavez, and they got into a bidding war with ExxonMobil in Ghana. My own opinion is that China will be the single-biggest driver of oil prices over at least the next 5-10 years.
6. U.S. oil companies losing access to reserves
As China increases their global presence in the oil markets, one casualty has been U.S. access to reserves. Shut out of Iraq during the recent oil field auctions there, U.S. oil companies continue to lose ground against the major national oil companies. But no worries. Many of my friends e-mailed to tell me that the Bakken has enough crude to fuel the U.S. for the next 41 years…
7. EU slaps tariffs on U.S. biodiesel
With the aid of generous government subsidies, U.S. biodiesel producers had been able to put their product into the EU for cheaper than local producers could make it. The EU put the brakes on this practice by imposing five-year tariffs on U.S. biodiesel – a big blow to U.S. biodiesel producers.
8. Big Oil buys Big Ethanol
I find it amusing when people suggest that the ethanol industry is a threat to the oil industry. I don’t think those people appreciate the difference in the scale of the two industries.
As I have argued many times before, the oil industry could easily buy up all of the assets of ethanol producers if they thought the business outlook for ethanol was good. It would make sense that the first to take an interest would be the pure refiners, because they are the ones with the most to lose from ethanol mandates. They already have to buy their feedstock (oil), so if they make ethanol they just buy a different feedstock, corn, and they get to sell a mandated product.
In February, Valero became the first major refiner to buy up assets of an ethanol company; bankrupt ethanol producer Verasun. Following the Valero purchase, Sunoco picked up the assets of another bankrupt ethanol company. If ExxonMobil ever decides to get involved, they could buy out the entire industry.
9. The climate wars heat up
There were several big climate-related stories in the news this year, so I decided to lump them all into a single category. First was the EPA decision to declare CO2 a pollutant that endangers public health, opening the door for regulation of CO2 for the first time in the U.S.
Then came Climategate, which gave the skeptics even more reason to be skeptical. A number of people have suggested to me that this story will just fade away, but I don’t think so. This is one that the skeptics can rally around for years to come. The number of Americans who believe that humans are causing climate change was already on the decline, and the injection of Climategate into the issue will make it that much harder to get any meaningful legislation passed.
Closing out the year was the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. All I can say is that I expected a circus, and we got a circus. It just goes to show the difficulty of getting countries to agree on issues when the stakes are high and the issues complex. Just wait until they try to get together to figure out a plan for peak oil mitigation.
10. Exxon buys XTO for $41 billion
In a move that signaled ExxonMobil’s expectation that the future for shale gas is promising, XOM shelled out $41 billion for shale gas specialist XTO. The deal means XOM is picking up XTO’s proved reserves for around $3 per thousand cubic feet, which is less than half of what ConocoPhillips paid for the reserves of Burlington Resources in 2005.
There were a number of stories that I considered putting in my Top 10, and some of these stories will likely end up on other Top 10 lists. A few of the stories that almost made the final cut:
The statement they made was that barring any major new discoveries “the output of conventional oil will peak in 2020 if oil demand grows on a business-as-usual basis.”
Turns out that deep geothermal, which the Obama administration had hoped “could be quickly tapped as a clean and almost limitless energy source” – triggers earthquakes. Who knew? I thought these were interesting comments from the story: “Some of these startup companies got out in front and convinced some venture capitalists that they were very close to commercial deployment” and “What we’ve discovered is that it’s harder to make those improvements than some people believed.” I am still waiting to see a bonafide success story from some of these VCs.
In total, $80 billion in the stimulus bill earmarked for energy was a big story, but I don’t know how much of that money was actually utilized.
The website is still there, but the hype of 2008 turned into a big disappointment in 2009 after oil prices failed to remain high enough to make the project economical. Pickens lost about 2/3rds of his net worth as oil prices unwound, he took a beating in the press, and he announced in July that we would probably abandon the plan.
So what did I miss? And what are early predictions for 2010’s top stories? I think China’s moves are going to continue to make waves, there will be more delays (and excuses) from those attempting to produce fuel from algae and cellulose, and there will be little relief from oil prices.
Oil on the Brain by Lisa Margonelli was recommended by Paul Sankey at the 2009 Energy Information Administration Conference as a book that provided great insight into the oil industry. I have had it on my list of books to read, and recently picked it up to read during my travels. I have been traveling a lot lately, and I like to read while I travel, so I knocked it out over the past couple of trips I have taken.
The premise of the book is that a person who doesn’t know much about the oil industry sets out to find out what it is really like on the inside. It reminded me in some ways of Crude World by Peter Maass (which I reviewed here). The biggest difference is that Margonelli was approaching the subject from a pretty basic starting point, and Maass had written quite a bit about the industry when he tackled Crude World.
I guess I never cease to be amazed by what people think the oil industry is like, and what it is really like. People seem to think that the oil industry is a bunch of guys in a smoke-filled room who conspire to set prices. To be honest, that’s probably the way I viewed the industry when I was growing up. And still, my first reaction to my cable bill going up is “Those greedy cable companies are ripping me off.” The big difference with the cable companies, though, is that their profits aren’t thrust in everyone’s faces at the end of every quarter. Every time oil prices do spike up and oil companies show nice profits, people do feel like they have been taken advantage of. But I digress a bit.
For this book, Margonelli embedded herself within various sectors of the oil industry. She spent time throughout the supply chain, hanging out at a gas station in California where she found that the owners made more money on candy and soda than they did on gasoline. She spent a day with a tanker truck driver and his dispatcher, and spent time in a refinery and on an oil rig. She even got inside the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is typically off limits to visitors. She traveled abroad to Chad, Venezuela, Nigeria, and even Iran to understand the world of oil and what is has meant to these regions.
Here were what I thought were some of Margonelli’s more interesting observations. She spoke a lot about the indirect costs of using oil. In talking about oil spills, she mentioned that her view of an oil spill had always been dominated by the Exxon Valdez. She had never connected these spills to her own fuel usage, but learned that drivers and boaters spill more oil every year than did the Exxon Valdez. The number she cited was 19 million gallons of oil products spilled each year in our waterways by boaters and auto drivers.
She wrote about the notion that oil companies are in a conspiracy to set prices. A jobber she spoke with – someone who has to buy fuel from the oil companies – said “There are eleven studies which show there isn’t a conspiracy. Chevron, Shell, Exxon – they hate each other. It’s like war daily. For them to collude is insanity, but people believe what they want to believe.”
On that topic, she noted an episode of hypocrisy displayed by Nancy Pelosi. One day in 2006 Pelosi told a group of school children that we hadn’t done enough to reduce our dependence on gasoline, and so demand was high and that’s why the price was high. Then she got in front of the cameras and she cited the conspiracy of big oil and the Republicans working for their interests. But as Margonelli noted, “the myth of conspiracy overwhelms reason, particularly when pump prices and oil company profits are high.” I think the lesson there is “If the talking point is working, keep pushing it.”
She met an old-time wildcatter named Michel Halbouty (now deceased) who complained that the country has not had a coherent energy policy in 30 years. He advocated more promotion of domestic energy exploration, and fears a slow slide into deindustrialization. He noted that the main problem is that “People. Don’t. Care.” As long as they can pull in and fill up, they just don’t care about energy policy.
In China, she met with someone within the government who was involved with energy policy. He noted that it would be a disaster for China to move toward an American way of life, but he says that cars are clearly there to stay in China. On GDP, Margonelli wrote that China requires 4 or 5 times as much energy as Japan per point of GDP. Finally, the minister commented that China needs “a bigger space to survive under U.S. hegemony.” On that point, she also spoke with a European analyst who said that U.S. hegemony is a part of China’s strategy; that if they can get the U.S. to bear the expense of maintaining the energy status quo, they will have the time and resources to retool their economy.
In the epilogue, Margonelli comments that there is no such thing as cheap gas; that there are hidden costs throughout the supply chain. But the population has come to expect cheap gas as a “grand bargain” with the government and the oil companies. When the price goes high, they look to the government to punish the oil companies so prices will come back down.
One weakness in the book is that it really didn’t address the question of depletion. It seemed to take at face value that oil will continue to be available and business will continue as normal for decades. However, I note that Margonelli was at the ASPO Conference this year (along with Peter Maas; I am sorry I missed that) so she got a heavy dose of peak oil information. Some very interesting comments by her can be found at this story covering the conference.
As one might expect, Margonelli emerged from her experience with a radically different view of how the oil industry works. I have to agree with Paul Sankey’s assessment that it does provide great insight into the industry, from a very basic starting point and with a balanced view. As one reviewer pointed out, it could have been titled “The Petro-economy for Dummies”, which is to say it is a book that is easily understood by those with zero knowledge of the industry. This book would be on my short list of books to recommend to people who want to know what the industry is really like.
I am at the 2009 Gasification Technologies Conference this week, with a pretty full schedule. But there are three stories that I wanted to quickly hit. One is a follow-up on the previous cellulosic ethanol post, one is about Paul Sankey’s new report on peak demand, and the last is on a technology that ExxonMobil has reported on here at the conference that I felt was quite interesting. There will probably be no more new posts from me until the weekend. I only got away with this one because I decided to write instead of network (which I hate to do anyway) during free periods today.
When Technologies Are Mandated
I don’t care too much for mandates. I think they are so much worse than subsidies, because with a mandate you are really saying that it doesn’t matter how much it costs, you don’t want to know how much it costs – just do it.
If the government thought it was a good idea to blend bio-butanol into the gas supply, they could offer a $0.50/gallon subsidy to do so. If that doesn’t result in butanol entering the fuel supply, then that’s a pretty good indication that butanol is at more than a $0.50/gal disadvantage to gasoline. But imagine instead that it is mandated. The costs could go very high in that case, but gasoline blenders would still have to pay up. We may find out that the cost to fuel suppliers was $8.00/gal. Had it been a subsidy instead – and it needed to go to $4 or $5/gal to make it economical – it would have never passed because the costs would be more transparent.
Thus, I was not too enthusiastic about the cellulosic ethanol mandates we got as part of the 2007 RFS. In 2010, for instance, it is mandated that 100 million gallons of advanced biofuels will be blended into the fuel supply. Cellulosic ethanol has been the technology that has been favored, but I have warned about costs that are going to be very high. Instead of a mandate, suppose we put a $1/gal subsidy in for cellulosic ethanol. Then instead of relying on people promising that they can make cellulosic ethanol for $1/gal if they can just get grants, mandates, and loan guarantees – you put the burden on the producer. Here is a $1/gal subsidy for you. Build the plant, make your $1/gal ethanol, and collect the subsidy.
Not surprisingly we are now getting news that despite throwing a lot of money at it, the 2010 levels of cellulosic ethanol are going to fall far short of the mandate – as I have been saying all along. They are going to need more money to meet future mandates – highlighting the problems I have with mandates. From the NYT:
“The current economic climate almost makes the RFS a moot point for the time being,” said Matt Carr, policy director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
His organization estimated last month that 2010 volumes will, optimistically, reach 12 million gallons, far short of the 100-million-gallon mandate that year.
Range Fuels had gotten an initial $76 million from the DOE, then an $80 loan guarantee from the USDA. They also got $100 million in private equity. (I predict some folks are going to lose some money – including taxpayers). But that still wasn’t enough, so they went back to the DOE for more money. This time, the DOE said no:
The Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, producers say, has been particularly flawed. No advanced biofuel makers, aside from a partnership between BP PLC and Verenium Corp., have so far won approvals.
“We received a ‘Sorry, Charlie’ letter,” said Bill Schafer, a senior vice president of Range Fuels Inc., which is now building a cellulosic facility in Soperton, Ga., slated for completion early next year.
He said that under the program, biofuels companies must compete directly against solar, wind and even compressed natural gas — all energy technologies that, unlike advanced biofuels, have already been built at commercial scale.
So there you have it. The DOE seems to be losing some of the earlier enthusiasm for cellulosic ethanol. Range Fuels is here at the conference, by the way. I should probably say hi.
Again, this highlights the risk of mandates. Costs can spiral out of control. The ultimate cost can’t be easily predicted. Instead of assuming that technology can be mandated if enough money is thrown at it, we would all have been better off had there merely been subsidies offered. In that case, if this is truly not economically viable, the taxpayer may not have to foot the bill for millions of dollars for failed or stalled plants.
One of the reasons I invest in oil companies is that I think oil prices will continue to spike higher in the future. Because of the recession, we currently find ourselves with excess production capacity. But it looks to me like that excess production capacity will be eroded in the future, which will once again put pressure on prices. Oil companies will again reap very big profits by supplying a dwindling resource. (Whether governments will aggressively move to confiscate these profits is another question entirely).
There is another view that the oil companies will die out as oil depletes, and therefore oil stocks are very risky investments in the longer term. I don’t subscribe to this view because I believe the oil companies will possess enough cash to enter into any future energy business that looks lucrative. If we are supplying 90% of the cars with liquid fuels derived from coal in 20 years, I suspect it will be the oil companies producing it. In fact, most major oil companies – ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips – have active programs in this area. It is a naïve view to think that the oil industry as a whole will fail to anticipate the changing markets. That’s why I always think it is humorous that people feel the ethanol industry is a threat. If the oil industry thought it was a threat, there is nothing keeping them from getting involved.
Paul Sankey of Deutsche Bank just put forth both views in a new report. As I have mentioned previously, I think Sankey is an analyst who really understands the industry. And I agree with his first comments. I just don’t think he is right about the second point.
That one is a somewhat misleading title because he is recommending ConocoPhillips (which I do own):
DESPITE NUMEROUS SIGNS that the global economy is still struggling, just about everyone following energy predicts at least one more spike in oil prices in coming years.
It’s just that scenario that prompted Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Sankey to publish today a 61-page opus to clients in which he upgraded shares of ConocoPhillips (COP) to “Buy” from “Hold” and raised his price target to $55 from $40.
Sankey’s thesis — and he’s not alone — is that Conoco will benefit in such a scenario by being able to sit back and milk profits from its existing reserves of oil with minimal new investment, thus leading to generous cash flows.
In brief, Sankey sees global demand surging again with economic rejuvenation, leading to a spike in oil of $175 per barrel in 2016, after which developments in global fuel efficiency, specifically electric cars, will cause demand for crude to fall off precipitously, until oil comes back into equilibrium with supply at $100 per barrel in 2030.
Sankey spells out why he is long-term bearish on the oil companies:
Deutsche Bank expects the electric car to become a truly “disruptive technology” which takes off around the world, sending demand for gasoline into an “inexorable and accelerating decline.”
In 2020, the bank expects electric and hybrid vehicles to account for 25% of new car sales—in both the U.S. and China. “We expect [electric propulsion] will reverse the dynamics of world oil demand, and spell the end of the oil age,” the bank writes.
But won’t cheaper oil in the future just lead to a revival in oil demand? That’s what’s happened in every other cycle. Au contraire, says the bank: Just as the explosion of digital cameras made the cost of film irrelevant, the growth of electric cars will make the price of oil (and gasoline) all but irrelevant for transportation.
He could be right, but I am betting against it. But I may find that in 20 years ConocoPhillips’ core business is something entirely different than it is today.
ExxonMobil’s MTG Technology
One of the more interesting presentations for me at the gasification conference has been ExxonMobil’s work on a different kind of coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology. Conventional CTL would involve gasification of the coal to syngas, followed by a Fischer Tropsch reaction that converts the gas into liquid fuels such as diesel. Exxon has a different process, in which they gasify the coal, but then they turn it into methanol. As I have said before, methanol can be made quite efficiently, and I think it’s a shame that it wasn’t allowed to compete with ethanol on an equal footing. But the technology doesn’t stop at methanol. The methanol is dehydrated to di-methyl-ether (DME, also a nice fuel). The DME is then passed over a catalyst and converted to gasoline in yields of around 90%. The technology is called methanol-to-gasoline (MTG).
The process has been around for a while, but hasn’t gotten much attention. In the 80’s and 90’s, they ran a 14,500 bbl/day plant in New Zealand. As far as synthetic fuel facilities go, that’s a big plant with an impressive track record of operation. The on-stream reliability of the plant was over 95% during its operation. (Following the oil price collapse in the 90’s, the plant stopped upgrading the methanol, and just made methanol the end product).
The advantage of the process is that capital costs are reportedly lower than FT, and the product is gasoline – in high demand in the U.S. The disadvantage is that the process produces relatively little diesel and jet fuel. The military and various airlines are highly interested in FT because of its ability to supply these important fuels.
Exxon reports that a new plant, based on 2nd generation technology with better heat integration and process efficiency, has been built in Shanxi, China. At 2,500 bbl/day, the facility is smaller than the earlier New Zealand facility, but Exxon has licensed MTG technology to a pair of companies in the U.S. DKRW announced in 2007 that they would utilize MTG in a 15,000 bbl/day facility in Medicine Bow, WY. Synthesis Energy Systems announced in September 2008 that they would license MTG for their global CTL projects.
While Exxon seems to be more focused on coal to gasoline, there is no reason this process couldn’t be used to turn natural gas or biomass into gasoline (GTL and BTL). This technology could be complementary to FT technology, providing gasoline while FT supplies the liquid fuels needed for airlines, marine applications, long-haul trucking, and the military.
During the Q&A, though, one guy asked “If this is so great, why aren’t you building these plants yourselves?” The answer was that they weren’t experts, and only wanted to license.
In this installment, I continue to work my way through the list of questions recently submitted by readers. This post picks up where Part 1 left off, and covers coal-to-liquids, technology hype, green gasoline, refining improvements, allocation of money toward renewables, electricity consumption, the Automotive X Prize, Big Oil, cellulosic ethanol, and Exxon’s recent algae announcement.
Benny wrote: Arlington researchers’ work could lead to $35-a-barrel oil. Any chance of making oil from lignite? At these prices? Or are they just some guys who want research money? Answer
takchess wrote (and Doug also asked about): Thought this was interesting. If cost and technically feasible this would be cool.
DDHv wrote: The new ionic liquid technique allows easier extraction of cellulose. Do you know if we have enough information yet to do energy and/or economic balances? If so, what are the present results? Improvements are likely, given the novelty of the technique. Answer
John asked: What do you think of pyloric conversion to make “green gasoline”? What are it’s peak lite and environmental ramifications? Specifically referring to an article in the Boston Globe RE: Anellotech and UMAss on July 13th: The greening of gasoline Answer
PeteS asked: How likely is money spent today on renewables to be wasted in retrospect because of “grey swans”? Obviously nobody can predict the future, but I’m thinking more in terms of, say, a plan to completely power a country from wind turbines, versus low-to-medium-probability dramatic improvements in wind-power within a decade or two. Answer
SamG wrote: I hear many theories about electricity consumption and the utility business model (sell more make more). Do you see any mechanism that puts suppliers in the loop for the reduction of consumption (not just demand reduction via passing through higher prices)? Answer
takchess asked: Any comments on this Urea fueled entry into the XPrize auto race?
John wrote: Americans are being “taxed” at a rate of 200 billion bucks a year to fund the U.S. Military to “baby-sit” the Strait of Hormuz and other oil company interests in the mid-east, etc.
Factor that in and the bio-fuels look good, as do CNG, electric vehicles or bio-fuel-electric hybrids. Imagine that…. a bio-fuel-electric hybrid. That completely shuts out the oil companies and their little “gasoline forever” game. The fact that bio-fuels, CNG and electricity are already cheaper than gasoline must be giving the traditional oil companies nightmares already. Answer
LovesoiL wrote: 1) What is a reasonable pace towards commercialization of ‘1st generation’ alternative fuels, e.g., cellulosic. Many ethanol advocates (DoE, USDA, EPA, US Congress) assume that while only 1 commercial scale facility is currently in construction (Range), somehow 1 billon gallons of annual capacity will get built during the next 3-5 years, and then we’ll build that much (30-40 plants) every year for the next decade?
2) How long is needed to operate a 1st gen facility to optimize its processing and demonstrate profitability before investors will agree to pay another ~$300 million build the 2nd facility?
3) Both Choren and Range fuels have gasification of woody biomass as the first step for their transformation process. Choren finished construction a year ago and has been in the commissioning process ever since. Range says they will finish construction 1Q 2010, and begin ethanol production in 2Q 2010. Can Range really begin production that soon?
4) Ask POET what they think of cellulosic from corn stover. They seem to say that stover has too many collection and handling problems (dirty, low density, etc), and that is one reason they are concentrating on cobs only. Many others assume corn stover will be the primary source of cellulosic feedstock. Answer
Anonymous wrote: While you’re in Alberta, ask about Iogen and when they’ll finally get their cellulosic plant started in Sask. Also, Enerkem has been making news lately, both with a 10 mgy MSW plant and their just-released plans to construct a $100 million R&D facility in Edmonton. EnerkemR&D EnerkemMSWPlant Answer
bts asked: Comments on this partnership between Venter and Exxon?
You always have to read between the lines. Sometimes people talk about where costs might be “in a few years” or “with technical breakthroughs” – as is often the case with algal biodiesel (and has been the case with oil shale for 100 years). Not that this is necessarily the case here, but those are the kinds of things I look for as I read these press releases. Is it possible to make oil from coal? Sure, it just traditionally takes a lot of energy. Coal into oil is essentially what you are doing with CTL, and there are several variations of the process (including non-gasification options). South Africa has been doing it for a while now.
So what the UTA researchers are describing is a chemical process for turning coal into oil. Such processes do exist, so the question is whether this is novel, cheaper, more efficient, etc. That will require peeling a few more layers of the onion than what one finds in a press release – where the best you may get is caveats. Generally speaking, press releases tend to over-simplify things a lot. If even a tenth of the press releases on “the next big thing” had turned out to be true, we would be living in a very different world. My favorite pasttime might be loading the family up in my cold fusion-powered hovercraft for a family outing. Or knocking out essays on my DNA-based computer (I remember in 1995 or so when this was going to put Intel out of business).
People have all sorts of motives for these press releases. Some are to announce something truly revolutionary. Those are a tiny fraction. More often, it is as you say; someone is trying to catch the eye of someone who might fund them. I have been in a position many times to issue just such a press release, and sometimes I think about that when I see one of these.
For instance, in 1994 at Texas A&M I had an idea to create a cellulose reactor based on the contents of termites’ stomachs. To my knowledge, I was the first person to attempt such a thing. The experiment didn’t turn out very well. My analysis detected only a small amount of butanol in the product. Had my imagination been big enough, here was the press release: “A&M Researcher Turns Trash into Fuel.” For the story, I could project increases in yields, renewable butanol bringing Arab sheiks to their knees, and an actual use for those pesky termites. Of course as my yield projections go up, my cost projections go down, and I could predict that this “may soon lead to sub-$1/gal fuel.” In reality, I considered it a failed experiment, stopped work, and wrote up my dissertation. But that is the sort of experience that always has me looking at these press releases in a pretty skeptical light.
Jim, this is along the lines of my last answer. People are working on these catalysts all the time. I have spent time in the lab working on gasification catalysts, and sometimes you come across something that looks pretty interesting. Then you try to scale it up and find that it isn’t stable in a larger reactor because the temperatures are hotter than they were in the lab.
Again, without peeling the onion and having a look at what everyone else is doing, it is impossible to tell whether this really amounts to something special. It could be that their competitors have already achieved these milestones and just didn’t issue press releases. Most organizations don’t. I was awarded several patents from my days at ConocoPhillips, but we never issued a press release even though the potential implications of some of them were pretty interesting.
One thing I will say is that from my time in a refinery, there wasn’t 7-9% efficiency gain to be had. We were already pushing the maximum possible conversion efficiency of oil into liquid products, and while you might have squeezed out another 2-3%, no way could you get up into the 8% range. There may be some really inefficient refineries out there that could benefit from this, but we will have to wait a couple of years and see if they actually start penetrating the market. Then you will know that they indeed invented something with a distinct advantage over the competitors.
There are a couple of developments in cellulose chemistry that I have been watching pretty closely: The ionic liquid techniques that you mentioned, and supercritical cellulose chemistry with either CO2 or ethanol.
Both of these techniques are energy intensive, so a lot of work needs to be done around the economics of these processes relative to competing technologies. A number of questions arise, such as “What other components are extracted along with the cellulose?” Or “What does it take to separate the cellulose from the component used to extract it?” That isn’t to say that these technologies aren’t well-worth further exploration. From an academic standpoint, they are very interesting. In the end, I think they will be hard pressed to compete with gasification if the intent is production of fuels. However, specialty chemicals might turn out to be a good niche application for these techniques.
Building on the previous answer, I think the more interesting developments in lignocellulosic chemistry are in chemical processing, as opposed to biochemical processing. I discussed this in an essay a couple of years ago, which was about Vinod Khosla’s investment into KiOR. This is their approach as well; to use catalytic processes to produce fuel.
The challenge is that biomass isn’t very energy dense, and these processes require elevated temperatures and pressures. So a key question is how much energy (and in what form) it takes to transport one BTU of biomass and process it into one BTU of fuel. Presently I think the processing energy is a pretty high fraction of the contained energy. Those energy inputs are going to have to come down before these sorts of technologies make much of an impact. The research is certainly promising, and I favor continued government funding. Would I invest in a company based on this concept? Not at this stage of development.
Generally speaking, I think we are going to look back and see that we wasted tremendous money, time, and resources chasing dead ends. As you say, nobody knows what developments are in front of us. But many are betting that there are revolutionary developments that will transform the energy sector. As a result, they are throwing a lot of money in a lot of different directions. I don’t have a big problem with this if the proper due diligence is done, especially if private money is being used to fund these various ventures. I do agree with Vinod Khosla’s philosophy of spreading his bets across many different technologies. What I find annoying is that often the proper due diligence is not done, and often taxpayer money ends up funding these dead ends. That is money that is truly wasted.
However, one thing to keep in mind with respect to your “grey swans” is that they also have entrenched lobbies to contend with. It may turn out that the grey swan finds itself in a difficult fight to penetrate the market. One particular example I am thinking of is the decision of Congress to kill support for more efficient 2nd generation green diesel production because the inefficient 1st generation producers argued that it would put them out of business. Add in the fact that it was an oil company involved in the 2nd generation technology, and we find that grey swan struggling to survive.
Sam, I don’t see an easy answer to that. Utilities are in the business of making money. When people reduce consumption it costs them money. Is there a way that they can benefit from that? I suppose in a world in which we are taxing carbon emissions, the savings from lower emissions would partially offset the loss of the sale of the electricity. But truthfully, that will be a small fraction at best. I always had the same issue when I was in the oil business. I wanted to see lower consumption, and I couldn’t see any way the oil companies could benefit directly from that. I think an effective mechanism for enabling suppliers to benefit from lower consumption would really be a game changer. If you think of something, let me know.
When I first saw this, I thought “That’s one of the strangest energy-related stories I have ever seen.” It reminded me of my reaction to a recent story: Greenland shark may become new source of biofuel. I like the wild and wacky, and both of these fall into that category. But can it make an impact? The problem with the urea idea is that the fuel is actually ammonia and hydrogen. Where do those come from? Mostly from natural gas. If you look at the efficiencies of the processes involved, you would be far better off just to burn the natural gas. So I don’t see it going far in its current form, but I applaud the creativity. Who knows, maybe this will evolve into something more promising.
John, while I agree that we are spending dollars in the Middle East because of oil, I disagree with several of your points. First, we aren’t spending that money to guard oil company interests. It is being done with the intent to keep cheap oil flowing to the American consumer. So the key interest here is that of the U.S. government, so the voting public is kept happy. Not that there is no benefit to the oil companies, but the government views a military presence there as an important issue of national security – not one of oil company security. If the oil did get cut off, the average person is going to bear the consequences.
I also disagree with your comment that biofuels are cheaper than gasoline. There are some exceptions – like sugarcane ethanol from Brazil – but for the most part gasoline is cheaper based on energy content. For instance, at today’s close ethanol on the CBOT for September delivery was trading for $1.65 a gallon. Gasoline on the NYMEX today was trading for $2.07/gal. However, because of the difference in energy content, the cost of this ethanol was $21.71/MMBTU and the gasoline was $18/MMBTU. With rare exceptions over the years, this has always been the case – and at times the differences have been quite large.
Further, you are kidding yourself if you think the oil companies are running scared. As I have pointed out before, it is a matter of scale. If corn ethanol started to look like a viable, long-term business model for them, the oil companies would just buy their way in as Valero recently did. Oil companies won’t sit around and go extinct because some fancy new biofuel put them out of business. They have big R&D budgets, and their efforts likely cover every biofuel you ever heard of (and many options you probably haven’t).
1. Put me down as someone who believes that the one currently under construction – Range Fuels – is going to see their schedule continue to slip, and I believe they are going to have a difficult time meeting production goals. Multiple sources are telling me that they have some issues.
Further, the national projected ramp-up in cellulosic ethanol – if it happens at all – will be a fraction of what has been projected. Right now there isn’t even a clear pathway. It’s like marking out the road map for curing various cancers over the next few years. It is great to have such a road map, but you are assuming technological breakthroughs that may not happen. Right now cellulosic ethanol still looks to me like a niche, and not a scalable, mainstream fuel.
2. That’s a good question, because I am aware of just such a situation now. Investors are dragging their feet on Plant #2 because Plant #1 is still not producing per the plan. In general, I think if a 1st gen facility comes online and starts to deliver per expectations, money will start to flow pretty quickly. I would think within 6 months of delivering, investors will be ready to jump in. But it is going to take more than 6 months to optimize production to optimize one of these next generation plants once it starts up. There isn’t a blueprint for success, and novel problems are going to be encountered and have to be solved.
3. No, the schedule for Range will slip because they still have kinks to work out. Write it down and hold me to it.
4. Here is what POET said about stover: “The yield of cobs is 0.65 tons/acre, and we can collect them commingled with grain with a modified combine. Or we can collect them with stover coming out of the back of the combine. The bulk density for cobs is higher than for stover, and that makes them easier to separate. We make sure sufficient stover is left on the field for erosion control and nutrition. We are focused on cobs because the bulk density for cobs is better than for stover, and cobs have 16% more carbohydrates than the stover. We don’t have to leave all stover in the field necessarily over soil depletion issues; we have just chosen to focus on cobs. How much one can remove depends on soil type, location, and tillage practice. Cobs take those variables away.”
I did ask about both Iogen and Enerkem while I was in Alberta. My hosts were quite skeptical that Iogen will ever build a commercial plant. I will say that they have enough demonstration level experience that it is suspicious that they don’t have plants sprouting up everywhere. After all, they have been producing cellulosic ethanol at small scale for 5 years. There are people that have been producing it for 0 years who are in the process of building plants. Given that governments are throwing money at anything looking like cellulosic ethanol, I think this puts a big question mark over their true commercial viability (at least at the present state of their technology).
There was less talk about Enerkem, and frankly before the trip I didn’t know much about them. The talk I did hear was that Enerkem is really only focused on the front end of a GTL plant (the gasification step). Enerkem’s view is that their post-gasification steps are flexible, and they can produce a variety of chemicals. They have announced that one site will produce ethanol (this is not the most efficient usage of syngas, by the way). Enerkem’s Press Release page certainly implies that they are busy with projects.
I think there are two approaches to algal fuel that might work. One is if algae can be made to naturally excrete oil. If so, then it may be possible to let the oil layer build up and then skim it. This avoids the materials handling nightmare of separating the algae from the water, and then the oil from the algae. This is apparently the focus of the research. Still, it is a long shot. Exxon’s VP for R&D was quoted as saying “I am not going to sugarcoat this — this is not going to be easy. Any large-scale commercial plants to produce algae-based fuels are at least 5 to 10 years away.” I think that is a realistic assessment. If the breakthrough came tomorrow then you are still looking at piloting and finally commercialization. I don’t think that is likely to happen in 5 years. So first you have to have some technical breakthroughs – and those aren’t a given – and if you pass through that gate then you won’t see this on the market for 10 years. I believe that is a realistic assessment.
The second approach that might work is if a valuable product – such as a pharmaceutical – is being produced as the primary product, and oil is being produced as a co-product. The expense of collecting and processing algae is just too great for oil to be the primary purpose of the operation.
Today a topical post the latest from Money Morning, which as I previously explained will be featured here whenever they have relevant material to offer. As always, normal caveats apply: I am not an investment advisor. I don’t endorse any specific stocks mentioned in the following story nor the ad at the end of the story.
China Tightens Grip on Africa’s Energy Resources with Stake in Offshore Field
By Jason Simpkins Managing EditorMoney Morning
CNOOC Ltd. (NYSE ADR: CEO) and Sinopec Corp. (NYSE ADR: SHI) have agreed to buy a 20% stake in an oil field off the shore of Angola for $1.3 billion, illustrating China’s persistent attempts to acquire resources for its economic expansion at a time of weakness for many Western oil majors.
CNOOC and Sinopec will form a 50-50 joint venture to buy the stake in the so-called Angola Block 32, which has 12 previously announced discoveries. The Chinese energy giants purchased the stake from U.S.-based Marathon Oil Corp. (NYSE: MRO), but the sale is still subject to government and regulatory approval.
Marathon’s existing partners in the block – France’s Total SA (NYSE ADR: TOT), Portugal’s Galp Energia SGPS SA, Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), and Sonangal, Angola’s state-owned oil company – have a right of first refusal. Marathon will keep a 10% interest in the block.
The oil field “is a significant resource base with estimated recoverable light crude oil reserves of 1.5 billion barrels,” Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) analysts wrote in a report, according to MarketWatch. “The $1.3 billion consideration compares with our valuation of $1.4 billion to $1.65 billion and Marathon’s publicly disclosed offer of $1.8 billion to $2 billion.”
The acquisition will build on CNOOC’s “growing deepwater exposure” and values the recoverable reserves at $4.30 a barrel, the analysts said.
The acquisition will also build on two of Beijing’s broader objectives: Securing long-term energy resources and expanding its presence in underdeveloped, and riskier, countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Since last fall, China has been using the Western world’s financial crisis as an opportunity to stock up on commodities while prices are low.
Sinopec recently paid $7.22 billion to acquire the Addax Petroleum Corp., a Canada-based energy company with operations in West Africa and Iraq. Meanwhile, Sinopec’s rival, China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), made its own foray into Iraq, winning the first contract in more than 30 years to develop the Rumaila oil field.
China’s involvement in Africa has an even richer history. In 2006, Beijing hosted the China-Africa Cooperation Forum – an event attended by more than 40 African heads of state. At the forum, China unveiled $9 billion in preferential loans, export credits, and trade incentives – all part of a strategic plan to achieve a preferential status with key African nations.The meeting was more than a mere publicity stunt to play up Beijing’s humanitarian efforts. It was a symbolic acknowledgment of growing cooperation between the regions.China has invested tens of billions of dollars directly into African-infrastructure and social-development projects, all in an effort to tighten its grip on the continent’s resources. Some examples:
And Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald says this is only the beginning.
“It’s a virtual certainty that China will maintain this policy going forward,” Fitz-Gerald said. “My contacts in China and Africa have told me point blank that China’s leaders ‘don’t care about human rights or nukes or hostile governments.’ What matters is anyone who provides oil to China no matter what the rest of the world thinks.”
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I just spent a fruitful week in Canada, learning about some of the biomass resources in Alberta. There are some interesting opportunities there for the right technology, and I expect that I will be making future trips up there.
One of the questions I was asked this week by one of my new Canadian friends was “Do you believe fossil fuels will still be the dominant power source in 20 years?” Without hesitation, I said “Absolutely.” Others around the table nodded their heads in agreement, and the questioner said “So do I.” It isn’t that this is what we want, but this is how we see it. Government agencies like the EIA see it the same way. While they show renewable energy growing, there is a very long hill to climb before they begin to challenge fossil fuels for supremacy.
I think the question was meant to gauge whether I am realistic about the potential contribution of biofuels in the years ahead. I believe that I am. While I believe that biofuels – or more appropriately renewable energy in general – will eventually become our predominant source of energy, that is going to take a long time. I also believe that it is going to happen by necessity – because of the depletion of fossil fuels – rather than a breakthrough that makes something like algal biofuel as cheap to produce as petroleum. Regardless, we need to pave the path to that potential future today, so when the need is pressing we aren’t scrambling to come up with solutions.
Speaking of algae, you may have seen the story on ExxonMobil plunking down $600 million for algal biofuel development. When I was in Canada, someone referred to this as “Dead Money Walking”:
Exxon, the west’s biggest oil company, has launched a new research programme into producing biofuels from algae, in a break from its general antipathy towards alternative energy.
At first sight, this looks a pretty bizarre thing for the company to be doing. Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s CEO, has been consistently sceptical about biofuels, even the advanced “second generation” variety. (Or, as Steven Chu, US energy secretary, described them to the FT, “fourth generation” biofuels.)
Incidentally, I did an interview in the airport yesterday on “4th generation biofuels.” I told the interviewer that I hate that term “4th generation biofuels.” Can we at least wait until we see what the 2nd generation really looks like?
But back to the ExxonMobil story. I am highly skeptical of the conventional paths to produce biodiesel from algae. In fact, John Benemann recently commented here that if you really want to know where algal biofuels stand, offer to buy some for $100/gal. He said you can’t get it. On the other hand ExxonMobil is certainly not stupid, so you have to wonder about their angle. The reporter I spoke with asked about algal biofuel, and I did say that I could see one circumstance in which it might work. If you could engineer/breed algae that excreted oil, you could potentially collect it by skimming it instead of collecting and pressing the algae. That would potentially be a much lower cost fuel, provided the production rates were decent.
Finally, it looks like I have 100 responses to the previous open thread, and I presume at least some of those are questions for me. I will try to work my way through those over the next few days. First, as indicated before I will speak with POET tomorrow about their ethanol work, and I will report on that conversation here in the next couple of days. If you have anything that you would like to ask them, let me know in the comments and I will try to get your questions answered.
An interesting link from a reader this morning:
The Maya 300: An Exxon-Assisted Electric Car
If you’ve picked up a magazine in the last year, you’ve likely seen ads touting ExxonMobil’s (XOM) research into lithium-ion batteries.
This week, you will get a further look into how that technology will come to the marketplace.
Electrovaya on Wednesday will discuss its plans for the Maya 300, an all-electric vehicle coming in 2011. The car will run on lithium-ion batteries, charge in about eight to 10 hours, run for 60 miles and plug into regular 110-volt outlets. It will cost around $20,000 to $25,000. An extended-range battery option will run for 120 miles on a charge and cost $30,000 to $35,000.
Turns out that ExxonMobil makes one of the components of the battery:
Electric vehicles have definitely hit the big time now that gasoline-slinging companies are getting involved. The Maya 300, an all-electric vehicle coming out in 2011, will feature a lithium ion battery separator film dubbed “the SuperPolymer” from Exxon-Mobil. The separator–a critical part of li-ion batteries–can withstand temperatures up to 374 degrees. That’s 85 degrees more than competing separator films can take.
Interesting development. If you asked me which oil company would be involved in battery technologies for electric cars, I wouldn’t have guessed Exxon.
At this point, you have to wonder who in their right mind will ever do business in Venezuela again as long as Chavez is in power. The risk that Chavez will steal your property is simply too great. During his administration, Chavez has seized phone companies, electric utilities, private real estate (just this week he ordered seizure of a private shopping mall), oil field investments, mines, steel plants, food processing plants, farms, (shades of Mugabe) and cement plants – to name a few.
Now this week he has stolen the assets of oil field services companies:
In the wake of the seizure of foreign and domestic oil service companies and assets by armed troops following the orders of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, experts began to count the cost to Venezuela — which holds the Western Hemisphere’s largest oil reserves — in lost oil production, lost jobs, lost foreign investment and lost foreign expertise.
This one is ironic, because he was “forced” to seize these assets based on his miscalculations on his previous thefts. Let me explain. In 2007, when oil prices were rising, the heavy oil investments of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips (Full disclosure: My former employer) finally began to pay off. It is very expensive to extract and process the heavy oil from the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela. It requires a lot of capital investment and significant expertise, but it also doesn’t pay off until oil prices rise. But when oil prices did rise and Chavez saw the goose start to lay golden eggs, he decided to seize the goose for himself. The problem is that Chavez doesn’t know how to care for a goose, so what has happened in the wake of these seizures should come as no surprise.
It was bad enough that oil production has fallen sharply under the Chavez regime. The reasons for that are simple enough, and have been covered here before. In a nutshell, the issue is this: It takes a lot of capital to maintain the heavy oil business, and Chavez was siphoning off profits to pay for his social programs. Now some (extreme-leftist) people might think that’s just great, but the only reason any money was there to siphon off was due to the high investments to begin with. By not reinvesting back into the business, Chavez set the stage for the plunging oil production we see now – but now the goose is on life-support so there will no longer be money for those social programs.
Much higher oil prices for a while dampened the blow of falling production, but once oil prices started to fall, plunging revenues became a real problem. You would think he would have saved some money for a rainy day, but he is just like that irresponsible person who spends their entire paycheck every week, no matter how much money they make. Although I guess you don’t have to save for a rainy day if you are willing to just rob a bank when the rainy day comes.
But first, he had the bright idea to invite Western oil companies back in to invest again. Surely they can let bygones be bygones? Apparently not, because there doesn’t seem to be a rush to come back in. After all, does anyone doubt that Chavez will steal the investments as soon as prices/production turn back up?
This all leaves Chavez in a bind. He hasn’t made the investments that he needs to make, and nobody else is doing it for him. Production and prices are falling, and he has social programs to pay for. Debt started to pile up with oil services companies, and Chavez demanded lower prices from them. Given that he simply has no money for investment, he does what he always does. Threaten and then steal when he doesn’t get what he wants:
Chavez’s government and seized the assets of 60 foreign and domestic oil service companies after conflict erupted over nearly $14 billion in debt owed by the country’s state-owned energy company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
Irate over a growing backlog of invoices, many of the companies threatened to halt operations – something PDVSA and Chavez can ill-afford. The company accounts for about half of Venezuela’s revenue, and is largely responsible for funding and administering the social programs that Chavez has employed to court popular support.
PDVSA brought in more than $120 billion in revenue in 2008, but this year, it will likely make just $50 billion. With its back against the wall, PDVSA is demanding that service companies accept a 40% cut in their bills. Last Friday, the government began expropriating equipment and projects from foreign oil service firms that refused to renegotiate their debt. At least 12 drilling rigs, more than 30 oil terminals, and about 300 boats were seized, the according to The Financial Times.
But the brash gesture will also bring negative consequences that could significantly jeopardize the nation’s oil production, which is already in decline.
“PDVSA has to invest in the business,” James L. Williams, heads of oil consultancy WTRG Economics told BusinessWeek. “You have to feed a cow if you expect it to give milk.”
Hey, this is about geese and golden eggs, not cows and milk. But, point taken. The fact is that Chavez continues Venezuela’s slide toward becoming Zimbabwe. One wonders if he truly lacks the ability to plan, or was just too stupid to see the consequences of this road he has chosen to go down. The only thing that can save him at this point will be for oil prices to go up. Ironically, that’s the same thing I would like to see happen, but if we are lucky Chavez will be ousted before prices get much higher. Then again, if production continues to fall it won’t matter how high prices go; they won’t be able to offset the drops in production.
Chavez is now rattling sabers with Coca-Cola, so don’t be surprised if they go down next. Seriously, I don’t know why we don’t just seize Citgo as a response, auction off the refineries, and then pay damages to those whose assets have been expropriated. Chavez has said he doesn’t want to operate in the U.S., so we should extend a helping hand. It is the least we could do.
As the previous post indicated, we in the U.S. have a pretty low energy IQ. One of the reasons is that energy stories are often reported in a very biased or uninformed manner, which tends to distort public viewpoints. For instance, you may think those evil oil companies are wrecking the world. You are entitled to your opinion, and admittedly the oil industry has done plenty to help forge those sorts of views.
However, in the U.S. we take an especially negative view of the oil industry relative to the rest of the world. Why? Odds are that your opinion has been shaped by stories like the examples in this essay. Make no mistake: Your views are carefully nurtured and cultured by various groups with agendas, often by publishing stories full of misinformation. (Full disclosure: I am attempting to influence your viewpoint here, but I am going to do so by pointing out shenanigans).
Here is a perfect example of a story in which words and examples were carefully chosen to convey a very specific (negative) viewpoint:
The Center for American Progress released a new report analyzing 2008 oil company profits and lack of investment in renewable energy, even while the companies spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns touting their emphasis on renewable energy.
Note the wording. There was a “lack of investment” in renewable energy, while they spent “millions of dollars” on ad campaigns. The problem with that line – as you will see – is that the “lack of investment” is in the billions, which dwarfs the millions spent on the ad campaigns. But I suppose “billions spent on renewable energy and millions spent on ad campaigns” doesn’t convey the desired negative impression as does “4% spent on renewable energy and millions on ad campaigns.” The first phrase would likely elicit a response of “Uh, OK.” The second one on the other hand? “Why that’s outrageous! Those misers!“
These kinds of stories also inevitably fail to note that the ‘miserly’ oil companies paid several hundred billion dollars in taxes as a result of those profits (if the stories mention taxes at all, it’s that the oil companies aren’t paying their ‘fair share’). According to the Tax Foundation, oil companies have paid out some $2.2 trillion in taxes over the past 25 years – far more than they earned over that time period. But such a misleading picture tends to get painted, that many may think this MoveOn.org petition is rational:
Stop subsidies for Big Oil
Think oil companies should pay their fair share of taxes? So does President Obama. In his budget, the President has proposed cutting billions of dollars in special subsidies and tax loopholes for oil and gas companies.
Just what is a fair share? Will it only be a fair share when oil companies are funding the entire U.S. government? But back to the initial article:
It should come as no surprise that last year’s record high oil prices also led to near record profits for big oil companies.
No, we were bombarded with headlines about it all the time. It should come as no surprise at all. So someone should tell this guy, who thinks it is a secret:
Little known fact: While most every other industry was falling to pieces last year, the oil industry posted record profits. ExxonMobil alone made $45 billion. So Obama, in his attempt to bolster the sinking U.S. economy, is likely not feeling too much sympathy for the industry as he goes after the clearly unnecessary tax credits the industry currently enjoys.
Another example of a highly misleading article (which actually led me to the MoveOn.org petition). Important to note once again that while other industries were falling to pieces and requiring multi-billion dollar bailouts, the oil industry was making big profits and paying big taxes; taxes in part which enabled those bailouts. But let’s continue to dissect the initial article:
Despite their soaring earnings, the big five companies were very stingy with investments in renewable and low-carbon energy technologies and fuels that would reduce oil dependence.
Media tracking group TNS Media Intelligence reported that $52.5 million was spent in the first quarter of 2008 along by the oil industry on greenwashing advertisements that boast about investments in wind and solar power or efficiency.
In fact, a CAP analysis of their investments reveals that the big five oil companies invested just an average of 4 percent of their total 2008 profits in renewable and alternative energy ventures.
So, let’s have fun with math. According to the story, 4 percent of total 2008 profits was spent on renewable and alternative energy. That amounts to $4 billion, which the writer considers “very stingy.” $52.5 million spent on advertising – which is only 0.0525% of 2008 profits – amounts to a “smokescreen PR campaign.” Just once I would like to see one of these articles stick in a line like “In fairness, spending on their tax bills amounted to 250% of total 2008 profits.”
What planet do these people live on? Oh, right. The planet where oil companies are run by psychotic madmen and profits go to a select few executives and insiders who conspire in smoke-filled rooms. The planet where novices ‘know’ that the industry should invest their profits into ventures that aren’t their core business, and which would likely cause their profits to vanish (potentially leading to a bailout scenario!) These people live in a cartoon world, but the problem is that most of the population lives there.
Voters have been conditioned to hate Big Oil, as Robert Bryce points out in:
While it’s unlikely that the general public’s attitude toward Big Oil will ever be changed, the public should recognize that Exxon’s profits have come along with an enormous tax bill and that those tax payments are helping governments all over the world stay solvent. According to the company’s income statement, the amount of taxes it paid in 2008 was 2.5 times as much as its net profit.
In 2008, Exxon’s tax bill averaged about $318 million per day. And it paid those taxes at the very same time that the whiz kids on Wall Street, the geniuses at AIG, and the mavens at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, were begging Uncle Sam for multibillion-dollar life preservers in order to prevent financial chaos. Exxon made huge profits—and paid record taxes—at the very same time that the U.S. financial system was undergoing near-fatal convulsions brought about by excessive speculation, uncontained greed, and a basic failure to provide goods and services needed by the overall economy. How many Americans really need credit default swaps or collateralized debt obligations? Now compare that number with the tens of millions of Americans who absolutely must have gasoline every day.
What about the original article at the Center for American Progress (CAP)? Funny story on CAP. I was invited to D.C. a few years ago for an energy conference, and I happened to be acquainted with the Director of Environmental Policy at CAP (which is a liberal think tank). I was invited to drop by and talk to CAP about the oil industry. Even though I expected a hostile audience, I was looking forward to it, because I thought I might be able to address some gross misconceptions. But at the last moment, my company decided that it wasn’t a good idea for me to make the trip as oil prices were at all time highs and they were worried that I might find myself in an awkward situation with the media. But, back to the original CAP article:
That certainly looks like a balanced title from an organization that describes itself as “non-partisan.” The strategy in the article is the same as the earlier article: Use a percentage to downplay the multi-billion dollar investments in renewable energy, and then quote the advertising money in “millions” to make it appear that more was spent on advertising than on renewable energy. But why must a truly non-partisan organization spin like this? Shouldn’t a balanced article mention the monumental tax bill that has been used in part to bail out other industries?
Worse, there are blatant falsehoods in the article itself. After noting that the American Petroleum Institute claimed that “most people support putting more of America’s oil and natural gas to work”, the CAP article claims:
And API’s assertion that “most people” support more oil and gas drilling is misleading at best. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked “When it comes to addressing our energy problems, which one of the following do you think should receive the most emphasis?” (italics used for emphasis). Six of 10 respondents favored “developing alternative energy sources.”
Misleading at best? Hmm. Let’s have a look at the poll, shall we? On Page 26, we see Question 35:
I’m going to read you several steps that could be taken to ease America’s energy problems. For each one, tell me whether you think this is a step in the right direction, a step in the wrong direction, or if you do not have an opinion either way. And do you think this will accomplish a great deal or just a little in dealing with America’s energy needs?
How did people answer? While 92% felt that developing alternative energy sources would either accomplish a great deal or at least a little, 63% said the same about expanding areas for drilling for oil off the coast of the United States. Where I come from, 63% is “most people” and there is nothing misleading about the API making that claim. It is quite disingenuous, though, for CAP to suggest that API’s statement was misleading. CAP is either spinning or they didn’t read the survey very carefully. They have interpreted the question “Do you support this?” – which is the question API commented upon – as “Do you support this as your number 1 priority?” The ‘misleading at best’ charge aptly applies to CAP in this case.
I wish there wasn’t such an antagonistic relationship between the oil industry and Democrats. There is too much at stake. Historically, Republicans are more supportive of the oil industry, and in turn the oil industry overwhelmingly supports Republican candidates. (Or it may be the other way around; the oil industry supports Republicans who in turn support the industry). On the other hand Democrats (except for those in oil-producing areas) are generally hostile to the oil industry, which ensures that not much money from the oil industry will go to support the Democratic party (although Diane Feinstein has reportedly received $100,000 from the oil industry in the past decade).
My view that Big Oil and Democrats should find common ground has nothing to do with wanting to make nice with a new administration. My views are based on the belief that any intermediate success at achieving some level of energy independence must involve a large contribution from oil and gas. I think it goes without saying that oil and gas provide the overwhelming majority of our transportation fuel, and that they are forecast to provide the overwhelming majority for decades to come.
The problem is of course that some naively think they can marginalize the oil industry with punitive taxes, and alternatives will step up and fill the void. (To be clear, I also don’t subscribe to Newt Gingrich’s viewpoint that encouraging the development of shale oil will lead to energy independence). What will happen in reality is that punitive measures will discourage domestic production, which will quicken the pace of shifting our supply to imports. It is ironic that Steven Chu doesn’t seem to feel the need to work with our domestic oil industry, but warns OPEC not to cut production, and then is pleased when they don’t. I believe the blind spot in the present administration over the need to support our domestic producers will simply mean that future energy secretaries are even more beholden to OPEC.
This might change if we could have a more balanced discussion on our energy policy. However, I am keeping expectations pretty low. I have learned to do this when the topic is energy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the latest attempt to pass a windfall profits tax on oil companies. You know, it isn’t the windfall profits tax itself that bugs me. It is the fact that it wouldn’t be applied consistently across industries, some of which have much higher profit margins. These measures would single out the oil industry for punitive measures, which just reinforces the image that oil companies are manned by people who like kicking puppies and pushing old people down stairs.
I actually spent some time digging around in the legislation to understand how they were defining windfall profits, reasonable profits, and what exactly constitutes “gouging.” You might be surprised (and I explain below). One section actually amends a section on “alcohol, tobacco, and certain other excise taxes” and throws crude oil into that mix. Glad to see that our lawmakers have such regard for the fuel that allows them mobility.
But just about the time I was knee-deep in the legislation, I read that the measure had been blocked:
The Democratic energy package would have imposed a 25 percent tax on any “unreasonable” profits of the five largest U.S. oil companies, which together made $36 billion during the first three months of the year. It also would have given the government more power to address oil market speculation, opened the way for antitrust actions against countries belonging to the OPEC oil cartel, and made energy price gouging a federal crime.
“Americans are furious about what’s going on,” declared Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. He said they want Congress to do something about oil company profits and the “orgy of speculation” on oil markets.
So there you have it. Americans are angry. They are paying more than they like for gasoline. Oil companies are making more money than they think is fair. So let’s base our energy policy on spite. Throw in a provision to sue OPEC and force them to abide by U.S. law, mandate a few alternative energy technologies that aren’t commercially viable, tap into our Strategic Petroleum Reserves in a short-sighted attempt to bring prices down – and you begin to understand why U.S. energy policy is dysfunctional. U.S. energy policy can be summed up as “Cheap energy for everyone, and if it isn’t cheap someone shall be punished.”
Other noteworthy comments:
“The oil companies need to know that there is a limit on how much profit they can take in this economy,” said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, warning that if energy prices are not reined in “we’re going to find ourselves in a deep recession.”
So, Durbin obviously believes that a windfall profits tax is going to bring down oil prices. Maybe we should do that with the solar industry. Prices are still too high at $4.82/watt for solar PV to be competitive with coal. I had never considered that we might pull prices down to <$1.00/watt by slapping a windfall profits tax on solar firms. It's brilliant, and sure to work.
“We are hurting as a country. We’re hurting individually as Americans … and the other side says, `Do nothing. Don’t even debate the issue,'” complained Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Average citizens are scratching their heads and saying, what’s wrong with Washington,” said Schumer.
“This is a start. It will help lower prices. It will help working families make ends meet,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a vain effort to keep the bill alive. “It is one small step on a long and uphill road to a cleaner, more affordable energy future.” The bill would have ended tax breaks for big oil companies, imposed a new tax on windfall profits and fought price manipulation by OPEC, Reid said.
Back to the legislation, though, because I think some version of it’s going to eventually pass. So it was of interest to me to wade through the language. You can find the text of the bill here: Consumer-First Energy Act of 2008.
Of particular interest to me was “SEC. 202. DEFINITIONS.” Here’s what I found:
PRICE GOUGING- The term `price gouging’ means the charging of an unconscionably excessive price by a supplier in an affected area.
Hmm. That’s not very helpful. Fortunately, they followed up with a definition of “unconscionably excessive price.”
UNCONSCIONABLY EXCESSIVE PRICE- The term `unconscionably excessive price’ means an average price charged during an energy emergency declared by the President in an area and for a product subject to the declaration, that–
(A)(i)(I) constitutes a gross disparity from the average price at which it was offered for sale in the usual course of the supplier’s business during the 30 days prior to the President’s declaration of an energy emergency; and
(II) grossly exceeds the prices at which the same or similar crude oil, gasoline, petroleum distillates, or biofuel was readily obtainable by purchasers from other suppliers in the same relevant geographic market within the affected area; or
(ii) represents an exercise of unfair leverage or unconscionable means on the part of the supplier, during a period of declared energy emergency; and
(B) is not attributable to increased wholesale or operational costs, including replacement costs, outside the control of the supplier, incurred in connection with the sale of crude oil, gasoline, petroleum distillates, or biofuel, and is not attributable to local, regional, national, or international market conditions.
Some interesting tidbits in there. I find that it is very important to properly define terms, especially when debating issues. Here, the legislation defines “unconscionably excessive” with terms like “unfair”, “unconscionable” (isn’t this what we are trying to define?), and “gross disparity.” The courts would have fun with this. “That’s a gross disparity! Gasoline was selling down the street for $0.20/gallon less!“
I also find it interesting that biofuels would have been covered.
So let’s set the stage and play this one out. A hurricane is bearing down on the coast of Texas. There is a run on gasoline, as people hoard. The local 7-Eleven would normally respond to such increased demand by raising prices, and forcing people to decide just how much they really needed the gasoline. But, as a result of the new price gouging provision, they don’t raise prices. They simply run out of gas. That is exactly what would happen. Is that preferable to allowing merchants to raise prices? In that case, those who have a critical need can still get it. Those who don’t can wait. But due to the price gouging stipulation, even if you don’t really need it, you can buy it up and hoard it from those who do.
How about a definition of ‘windfall profit’? This one’s a gem:
For purposes of this chapter, the term `windfall profit’ means the excess of the adjusted taxable income of the applicable taxpayer for the taxable year over the reasonably inflated average profit for such taxable year.
Reasonably Inflated Average Profit- For purposes of this chapter, with respect to any applicable taxpayer, the reasonably inflated average profit for any taxable year is an amount equal to the average of the adjusted taxable income of such taxpayer for taxable years beginning during the 2002-2006 taxable year period (determined without regard to the taxable year with the highest adjusted taxable income in such period) plus 10 percent of such average.
Let me make sure I understand this. You are proposing that a publicly traded company – not a public utility, mind you – has an unreasonable profit if the profit increases by more than 10% from one year to the next? Do you hear that giant sucking sound? It is the enormous flood of money out of the energy sector and into other sectors – where a 40% year on year increase in profits is just peachy. Are you people serious?
I think it is inevitable, though, that we will try this experiment once again. I believe Obama will win the presidency, and he is all for it. I just hope he has the sense to pick a running mate who knows more about energy than he does (Hint: Bill Richardson).
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said on Monday he would impose a windfall profits tax on U.S. oil companies as he sought political gain from Americans’ pain over high gasoline prices.
“I’ll make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and we’ll use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills,” the Illinois senator said.
Doesn’t ExxonMobil already pay taxes on their “windfall profits?” Something like $30 billion last year? That windfall belongs to the government, though. I wonder if it is unconscionably excessive?
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