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Transcript from My EIA Panel Session

I only recently became aware that the 2009 Energy Conference put on by the Energy Information Administration has posted the audio and transcripts of all of the sessions. You can hear the audio or download the transcript from my session – Energy and the Media – here. I summarized the overall conference in two posts right after the conference:

The 2009 EIA Energy Conference: Day 1

The 2009 EIA Energy Conference: Day 2

My fellow panelists were Steven Mufson from the Washington Post; Eric Pooley from Harvard, (and the former managing editor of Fortune); and Barbara Hagenbaugh from USA Today. The panel was moderated by John Anderson of Resources for the Future (and a long-time reporter and editorial writer for the Washington Post).

There were questions on the oil price run-up of 2008 (and how the media handled the coverage), false balance in reporting, scale of biofuels versus petroleum usage, peak oil, and the role bloggers are playing now with respect to reporting news.

I will extract portions of my comments below, correcting the transcription as needed for clarity. (For instance, when I said I also write for The Oil Drum, it was transcribed as “aldrum.”)

Mr. Anderson: …subject of energy of the media, a rich subject if ever there was one. My name is John Anderson. I’m joined here by four people who are in the midst of that subject. From my left, Steve Mufson, who writes on this for the Washington Post, and incidentally was also a Beijing Bureau Chief of the Post for several years which turns out to have relevance to our subject. Eric Pooley, who had a long career at Time Incorporated. He was national political correspondent among other things, and managing editor of Time, and has recently been at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Robert Rapier, who resides over the R-SQUARED Energy blog which I and I suspect many of you pay attention to, and Barbara Hagenbaugh who covers economics and energy for USA Today.

I would like to start off by going around the table and asking about a piece of recent history clear in everybody’s minds — four dollar gasoline last summer, $147 oil. That was a huge story for several months. In retrospect, how did we do? Did we get it roughly right? Did we have the causes and consequences roughly right? And in retrospect, what could we have done differently?

My response to that one:

Mr. Rapier: I’ve got a stat counter on my blog, and it tells me what brought people in there and where they came from. “Why are oil and gas prices rising?” is probably the number one keyword search that brings people in. Sometimes ironically from the media, they want to know why oil and gas prices are rising.

I’m an inventory watcher, and I use the EIA data religiously every week when they put out the statistics. On Wednesday I go in and I look to see what oil inventories are doing, what gasoline inventories are doing because we have a pretty good idea of what the gasoline inventory situation is.

So in 2007 we had, I think it was ten or eleven weeks in a row, that gasoline inventories fell, and they fell well below the average range just as we were going into summer driving season. And I got in a little bit of a friendly banter back and forth with Doug McIntyre who wrote This Week in Petroleum at that time, he works for the EIA, and I said I think we’re heading for record gas prices by Memorial Day. He said that generally prices pull off before then and level off. And I said, “Yes, but look at the trend here. The gasoline inventory trend was like this.” I said, “Something has got to give here because demand is just about to pick up.” And sure enough, that’s when we hit $3.00 gasoline by Memorial Day.

In the world oil markets it’s a little bit more murky because we don’t always have good inventory data. Again, we do in the U.S. We’ve got pretty good data in the U.S., but gasoline — if you want to know what gasoline prices are going to do, pay attention to inventories, and the time of year. I mean, if gasoline inventories are low in the fall; it’s not such a big deal. Gasoline inventories low going into summer driving season, that’s something you better watch out for.

Hurricane season. Going into hurricane season you better have good inventories. And we didn’t last year, and that’s again — when the hurricanes started to come in, I warned people we’re going to see some gasoline shortages. And we did because the refineries went down. We didn’t have enough inventories on hand, and suddenly spot shortages.

I was then asked about peak oil:

Mr. Anderson: I hope the EIA is listening. There may be someone from the EIA here for all I know. Robert, you have dealt recently in your blog with the interesting question are we running out of oil? This is one that all reporters constantly have to deal with. How do you deal with that?

Mr. Rapier: It’s obviously a very controversial subject. And often I see very frequently media stories dealing with peak oil as we’re actually not running out of oil. We’ve still got a trillion barrels in the ground. So the issue is not running out of oil. We will never be running out of oil. We will have oil for one hundred more years. It’s can we get it out of the ground fast enough to keep up with demand growth? And that’s where the problem is going to lie in my opinion and forward.

We may see an oil production peak in the next three to five years. There are a lot of very authoritative people who believe that that’s the case. There are some people that would believe that renewables are going to come in and fill that void. I’m not one of those people. I believe it will — there will be a contribution, but if we have a world oil production peak in the next three to five years we’ve got a serious problem.

But again, it’s not about running out of oil. And that’s the most common misconception I see about peak oil when people write about peak oil. They want to debunk that by showing how much oil is left in the ground, and that’s what we’re talking about, issues like one trillion barrels of shale in Utah. The trillion barrels doesn’t help if it takes more than one trillion barrels worth of energy to get it out. In that case it’s useless. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to get that oil out. So we don’t have a trillion barrels of recoverable reserves, maybe a very small fraction of that because the energy balance on that is very marginal.

On the issue of there not always being black and white answers to some of the questions:

Mr. Anderson: Barbara, how does a reporter working from day to day deal with the problem of editors and readers who want sharp clear answers to questions like this that are very much in controversy and very often as Robert suggests aren’t even quite the right questions?

Ms. Hagenbaugh: It’s complicated, and you know, USA Today a lot of times, I’ve got this much space to do all that. So I mean, the most important thing is like Robert just said, there’s two sides to this story and this is always to try to bring that out. I sometimes — editors get frustrated with me because I don’t come out and say this is how it is and this is what the answer is.

On the question of false balance:

Mr. Rapier: I put the question to my readers on my blog and also at The Oil Drum where I write—I said, “Energy in the media, what do we need to talk about?” False balance, probably the most popular answer. One reader gave the example: “scientists discover that the earth is round: flat earth society disagrees.”

The problem is it’s not always clear who the flat earth society is especially in the new biofuels technologies. Algae into biodiesel, is that flat earth thinking that we’re going to be doing that on a grand scale within five years? I can’t even tell for sure early on. I have to really dig and dig.

Steve (Mufson) interviewed me about three or four years ago. It was very early on whenever I was writing about ethanol. He interviewed me for about an hour and one tiny snippet showed up in that story. And I thought, boy, that was a lot of work, but I understand why he did it now. Steve is one of the best writers out there on energy. He does his homework. It really takes a lot of discussion to determine whether I’m credible or a complete nut, and that’s what you have to do. And not everybody does that. And so you get some of this false balance reporting; lazy reporters who simply want quotes from both sides. It’s important for the reporters to really do research. And the good ones do, and the good ones don’t take the false balance approach.

Then came an exchange that was longer than I remembered it being:

Mr. Anderson: Robert speaks with some authority. He’s the one person on the panel, and one of the few people writing on this subject who has a technical background. He’s a chemical engineer, unlike most reporters. Steve, did you want to add anything to that?

Mr. Rapier: That means I can get away without wearing a tie, though, and people forgive me for that.

Mr. Anderson: What about ethanol? How should a reporter approach the future of ethanol? What are the questions he should ask?

Mr. Rapier: Energy in and energy out is very important, but it’s not the only important thing. And I give an example. Some people say that if it takes more than a BTU of a fuel to make a BTU of ethanol that’s a no go. It’s not really because coal, for instance, is quite cheap. So if you took two BTUs of coal to make a BTU of liquid fuel ethanol, from an economic standpoint maybe that’s doable. So the energy in and energy out is not the complete story.

Unintended consequences — I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about what can happen here. What are the things that can happen? Cellulosic ethanol -we turn all this biomass into cellulosic ethanol. What are the implications?

There was a story a while back. Michigan, they figured out they might not have enough trees to fuel this cellulosic ethanol plant because cellulosic biomass in general has a very low energy density. And that’s what I call the logistical problems of cellulosic ethanol. You have to go out farther and farther to fuel this plant. Do the calculations of a mid-size cellulosic ethanol plant; it is going to consume the equivalent of about one million mature trees a year. So think about a 20-year lifetime, 20 million trees, that’s a lot of biomass. And as you get out to the edges of that you’re burning up all your energy getting it back into the plant.

So, those are the kind of things I would question. Your logistics. How are you going to logistically pull this off? How many trucks in and out of days is that? And how in the future are you going to fuel this? A lot of the biofuel options we have are really recycled fossil fuel because they’re entirely dependent on fossil fuel. If fossil fuel prices go up —they have to go up because that’s what they are. They’re fossil fuel. And we really need to go to something — and I talk about the Brazilian ethanol example.

I’m a fan of Brazilian ethanol. I was in India last year, and they do the same thing. I went through a plant. They end up with a waste material at the plant that they have to dispose of bagasse It’s free fuel. Now we don’t have something — in Louisiana and Florida they could potentially do something like that, but the economics of selling molasses and sugar are better than turning it into ethanol, but they do the same thing. They’ve got all the bagasse, and they use it to fuel their plant. A model like that will work. And people sometimes say — and this is some of the false balance that we discussed earlier. Dan Rather, Frank Sesno out there saying, “I was in Brazil. I saw what they did. We can do the same thing.” The problem is we’ve got a higher population than Brazil. We use six times the per capita energy of Brazil. It’s completely apples and oranges.

So, no way can we emulate Brazil, but I see person after person saying the ethanol miracle in Brazil was done because the government set the mandates and they set the standards. What they don’t tell you is that the ethanol miracle really is about 90-percent oil. Ninety percent of their energy comes from oil, and Brazil makes a lot of oil per capita, and they’ve got a lot of oil reserves. That’s how the ethanol miracle in Brazil happened.

On the question of trying to sort what is and isn’t credible:

Mr. Rapier: It’s like Eric said, there’s a lot of garbage out there. And the thing is you can find an argument for any position you wish to make. I can support the flat earth position by things I find on the internet. I can go edit Wikipedia and then use that to support the point that I’m trying to make. So you really have to be careful and you have to know what’s credible, what’s not credible. It’s like drinking from a fire hose. There’s just so much information.

When I’m researching a story, I could take either side and I can support it.

It then went into Q&A from the audience:

Mr. Hall: Yes, Chris Hall, independent oil and gas producer from California. I enjoyed the discussion on ethanol because I think as an industry we spent $135 million to fight Proposition 87 which would have imposed a severance tax, but EIA and the country is focused on reducing our dependence on foreign oil by increasing investment in green energy. And yet the forecasts show the need as you referred to for large supplies of oil and gas and coal during the next 20 years. Meanwhile, the domestic fossil fuels are under attack in Washington, as well as state and local governments, to punish them for last year’s high prices, for polluting the environment, to raise funds to offset deficits, to pay for development of renewable resources, all of which appeal to the public. For example, the Administration 2010 budget would result in the elimination of most of the R&D budget from Department of Energy for the oil and gas industry, would increase 150 percent in oil and gas taxes and a 40 percent reduction in drilling by one account. This will only lead to less domestic oil supply for our needs. How can the media help explain the problem so that we just don’t make matters worse?

Mr. Rapier: I spend a lot of time writing about that kind of issue, and make no mistake I’m a big fan of alternative energy. I would like to see us produce all our energy domestically, but I’m a realist as well. I submitted a question to Secretary Chu yesterday. He did not take it, but it was along the lines of I find it very ironic that he is calling on OPEC to continue producing and at the same time domestic oil and gas has essentially no part in the Administration. So I agree with that. I think the reality is we’re heading down a path here where we’re likely to increase our imports because we’re going to disincentivize our domestic production.

And I know the administration is counting on renewable to fill that gap. I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I believe they will play a part. I believe we should continue to fund that, but I’d also like to see the Administration take a more realistic view of some of these forecasts. Seventy-nine percent oil and gas, maybe that’s not desirable, but that’s what it looks like it’s going to be. So we prefer to get that domestically, I think, as much to the extent possible, but I think we’re just going to be importing it more from OPEC when biofuel targets fall short. We’re going to be counting on Venezuela, and you’ll hear future energy secretaries continue to call on OPEC: “Please don’t cut us off.”

My friend Morgan Downey then asked which books I recommend:

Mr. Downey: Morgan Downey. Just written the book Oil 101. And Robert, I read in your blog this morning that a survey came out earlier this week that said that more than half of Americans could not name one alternative fuel. And is there a role for books and other slow media in improving the average person’s energy IQ and what books in oil would you recommend?

Mr. Rapier: Well, Morgan knows that I’m 250 pages into his book, which is a fantastic book, by the way. The survey you refer to, that was pretty disheartening to read that. I think 51 percent of people surveyed couldn’t name an alternative fuel. Thirty-nine percent couldn’t name a fossil fuel. Nineteen percent said I couldn’t care less. I think you’ll find and I see the same thing, interests waxes and wanes with oil prices. Oil prices are high. Gasoline prices are high. People want to know what’s going on. So the best thing for your book would be for gas prices to start setting new records this year. People will pick up the book and they want to know what’s happening? Why is this happening?

Mr. Downey: Any other books in oil you recommend, or what do you read?

Mr. Rapier: I read a lot of different view points. One of the first ones I ever read was Twilight in the Desert which I think is a good book. It has some faults, but it kind of brings attention to the potential issue with Saudi Arabia. So that was one of the early books that influenced me.

Within the industry, I’m reading technical books on refining. And this is what I told Morgan, that his refining section is incredibly detailed. I don’t think there is a popular book that exists like that with that kind of information. Within the refining industry I’ve got technical refining books, and those are the things that I read to — how do we troubleshoot the cat cracker – and you don’t go into that sort of detail, but for a lay person who really wants to be informed about energy, I can’t give your book a high enough endorsement. I think it’s a fantastic book.

Mr. Rapier: Gusher of Lies by Robert Bryce, I really like that one, too.

There was a question about fact-checking, which was the last thing I responded to:

Mr. Rapier: I have a big issue with fact checking myself. I saw that with the SPR, Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The rate of fill that was reported and picked up and reported and reported was wrong. I showed the actual numbers from the SPR. It was about half what the reported fill rate was. And those kinds of things annoy me. And I wonder why more people don’t. Somebody, somewhere calculated a number based on some monthly fill rate and extrapolated it for a year, and it was just wrong. And then everybody picked it up and just ran with it. So I sympathize.

Anyway, my contribution was only a small part of the whole, which I think went on for about an hour. I would have published this sooner, but only became aware of the transcript about a week ago.

December 28, 2009 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, Doug MacIntyre, EIA, Energy Information Administration, gas prices, logistics, Media coverage, Morgan Downey, Peak Oil, Steven Chu | Comments Off on Transcript from My EIA Panel Session

My Top 10 Energy Related Stories of 2009

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).

5. China

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.

Honorable Mention

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 IEA puts a date on peak oil production

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.”

AltaRock Energy Shuts Down

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.

The biggest energy bill in history was passed

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 Pickens Plan derails

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.

December 24, 2009 Posted by | biodiesel, China, climate change, ethanol, ExxonMobil, geothermal, global warming, Media coverage, natural gas, oil consumption, oil demand, oil prices, oil refineries, T. Boone Pickens, valero | 27 Comments

Platts Survey of Top Energy Stories of 2009

As I compile my year end list of the biggest energy stories of the year, I have just gotten an e-mail from Platts that is very helpful. As they have done in previous years, they have a survey up so readers can rank the top stories:

Platts wants to know: the biggest oil stories of ’09

They will publish the results shortly after Christmas. Scanning the list and comparing to my rough draft of the Top 10, I see one story that isn’t currently on my list that I missed: The Valero Foray into Ethanol. Other than that, all of the stories that I have tentatively in my Top 10 are on their list except for two (and I bet people who take the survey will suggest both of them).

I will post my list prior to Christmas, and hope that we don’t see another big year end story like the XOM acquisition of XTO. That is a Top 10 story that came in right at the end of the year. Here is how I ranked the stories Platts had listed, but this was off the top of my head and very subjective. I may decide later on that #3 should really be #8, or that something that didn’t make the list should really be on there. My Top 10 will be a bit different because I have combined some topics that they treated separately.

1. Prices (basis WTI) comes roaring back to the $80 level after almost hitting $30
2. Full-year decline in demand heads toward biggest drop since 1981
3. Natural gas-crude spread in US blows out to unprecedented levels
4. Refinery woes: Valero shuts Delaware City , Sunoco shuts Eagle Point, Repsol shuts Cartegena, Japan cutbacks underway (RR: related to Reliance news)
5. Valero makes big foray into ethanol with multiple ethanol plant purchases; Sunoco follows on smaller scale
6. EU slaps duties on US sales of biodiesel into Europe
7. OPEC holds to its 24.845 million b/d ceiling all year
8. US EPA rules greenhouses gases are a threat to public health, plans on using authority to regulate them
9. ExxonMobil gets into bidding war with Chinese, others over Ghana stake (RR: more for what it signals for the future).
10. Exxon buys XTO for $41 billion

December 16, 2009 Posted by | Media coverage, oil demand, oil prices, Platts | 20 Comments

Brainstorming the Year’s Top Energy Stories

I am working on a few things right now that should be finished up in the next week or so. First, I am compiling a list of questions/comments for Bob Cohen regarding his recent guest post on ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). I will post his answers. If you have a relevant question that you feel wasn’t asked following that essay, post it here and I will get it to him.

Second, I am trying to put together the year’s top energy stories. In my mind the one at or near the top has been the resurgence in oil prices since January. Oil prices have more than doubled, and in a normal year that would be big news. But I think the news has been discounted merely because the levels are so much lower than the record levels of 2008. After that, there are a few stories that I think go in the Top 10, like the enormous amount of money devoted to energy in the stimulus package, the plunge in oil demand/imports, the commissioning of various alternative energy projects, Climategate, and the passage of Markey-Waxman. What other significant stories happened this year that deserve a spot in the Top 10?

Third, I have been really overwhelmed with e-mails lately. If I didn’t answer your e-mail in a timely manner, I apologize. If I missed it completely and you really need an answer, please resend. Sometimes things inadvertently end up in my spam folder. But I have gotten a couple of e-mails recently from people wishing to share links on energy saving tips, and so here those are:

20 Under $5 Tips to Improve Your Cars Gas Mileage

One of their tips:

Too much junk in the trunk – It’s a known fact that excess weight in your car caused the engine to work even harder. Being that said, having too much junk in the trunk, of your car, that is, can significantly affect the way your car utilizes gas. Please leave the unwanted items at home before starting your driving journey. Just think of all the junk you can accumulate in your car and how all those items can start to add up.

And:

8 Painless Ways To Cut Your Electric Bill This Winter

One of their tips:

Strip : According to the experts at Lowe’s, a 1/8″ space between a standard exterior door and its threshold is equivalent to a two square inch hole in the wall. Closing those gaps can save you up to 15% in heating costs and reduce the demand on your heating system. They also offer a guide on how to accomplish this at the beginner level. Only three tools, three materials, and a day is all it requires to weatherstrip your entire home.

Finally, thanks to all who read and contribute here. I probably don’t say that enough, but this blog continues because of you. I initially started it just as an outlet for myself, unsure of whether it would attract any readers. But I enjoy writing, and would have still probably written a dozen or so essays even if nobody ever stopped by. Based on current trends, 2010 should bring in the 1 millionth visit (page views are already at 1.2 million views) and I should publish essay number 1,000.

December 10, 2009 Posted by | climate change, Media coverage, ocean thermal energy conversion | 43 Comments

An E-Fuel MicroFueler Dealer Responds

After publishing the previous story, I went back and searched through my Gmail to see when I had first heard about the E-Fuel MicroFueler. It turns out that about a year ago a regular reader of my blog – and someone I had exchanged a number of e-mails with – sent me the first bit of information and asked for my opinion. He told me at that time that he had become a dealer of these systems.

At the time, the idea was to use sugar as the feedstock. I made a number of comments, including my concern that the capital costs alone were too high to make the unit economical. I said that I felt like they would need to get capital costs down by 2/3rds, and I questioned several assumptions in the economics. Further, I flagged up a concern that people who couldn’t program their VCRs would be expected to produce ethanol in their garage. On the other hand, I did favor the idea of localized production of fuel (and still do).

Following the previous essay in which I pulled no punches, we exchanged several e-mails. I told him that I felt like what was being presented about the MicroFueler’s capabilities bordered on fraud. In response, he said he wanted to clarify a number of points raised in the L.A. Times article that I addressed. Since he is not authorized to speak on behalf of E-Fuel, he will not be identified and this will be his opinion – and not the official company position. One of my core principles is to allow people to respond to my criticisms, so in the interest of fairness, I present excerpts of his response to me.

On the topic of the government picking up half the cost, he wrote:

Section 30C of the US Internal Revenue Code (as amended by the Stimulus Act) provides an income tax credit of 50% (up to $50,000) for a taxpayer to install “Alternative Fuel Vehicle Refueling Equipment” as long as the fuel is used in a “trade or business”. Individuals can qualify for a credit of up to $2,000. This credit applies to commercial E-85 pumps, natural gas refueling equipment, hydrogen, biodiesel, and yes, even MicroFuelers. The credit also applies to other “turn-key” ethanol fuel production/dispensing solutions. The same government that provides these incentives is the same one that gives incentives to the petroleum industry for exploration, infrastructure, research & development, etc. Fair is fair.

If individuals qualify for $2,000, then that puts the out of pocket cost at $8,000 – and not the $5,000 that I have seen mentioned again and again.

Regarding my comment about people being trusted to put the correct amounts of ethanol in their vehicles, he wrote:

There was a study by the University of North Dakota that looked at the ability of unmodified non-flex fuel vehicles to run on ethanol/gasoline blends. The study showed that these vehicles could run quite well on high-level blends such as E-50, E-60, etc. The study also looked at fuel economy when using these various blends and concluded that blends of E-20 or E-30 might well be the “optimal” blend in terms of overall fuel economy for non-flex fuel vehicles, but the results tended to be different for each make/model/year vehicle tested.

“Optimal” in the real world translates (and this is very important) into two things:
1. Lowest net cost per mile (including vehicle manufacture & upkeep)
2. Lowest net “well to wheel” emissions per mile (including vehicle manufacture & upkeep)

Optimal Ethanol Blend-Level Investigation

Unfortunately, it didn’t address the question of vehicle longevity, but we have many real-world data points that support our position that ethanol is unlikely to cause any problems.

We know that most vehicles built after 1989 have parts that are ethanol compatible (fuel pumps, fuel injectors, fuel lines, etc). In fact, if you compare part numbers between today’s “flex fuel” and “non-flex fuel” vehicles, you’ll find the exact same part number used in both applications. There is a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about whether ethanol can be used in non-flex fuel vehicles – but the fact is that we’ve been using high-level ethanol blends (up to E100) in a number of unconverted non-flex fuel vehicles with no problems except the occasional “Check Engine” light… and the only reason the Check Engine light comes on is because the on-board ECU thinks that the fuel system is putting too much fuel into the engine so it assumes there is a problem when, in fact, there really isn’t. It’s just that the ECU was never programmed to take the possibility of using ethanol (lower energy density) into account. In these cases, the “Check Engine” light is a false indication of a non-existent problem.

I am familiar with the University of North Dakota study. It was paid for by the American Coalition for Ethanol. I think we would agree that if an anti-ethanol result was found as a result of research funded by the American Petroleum Institute, ethanol proponents wouldn’t accept that at face value.

The study has been widely spun as showing that an optimal ethanol blend was E20 or E30. But I looked at the report, and previously commented on it at TOD. Here were some of my comments on this paper:

I took some time to review this paper again. This is what I see from the ethanol tests. Look at Figures 10-13. Here is the reality of the tests:

Figure 10. 2007 Toyota Camry, 2.4-L engine – 6 of 7 tests show worse fuel efficiency on an ethanol blend. There is one apparent outlier, which was the basis for the claims. (And it looks like a classic outlier, with almost all of the other points falling as predicted).

Figure 11. 2007 Chevrolet Impala (non-flex fuel), 3.5-L engine – 5 of 5 tests show worse fuel efficiency on an ethanol blend.

Figure 12. 2007 Chevrolet Impala (flex fuel), 3.5-L engine – 8 tests, 2 show better fuel efficiency, 2 show the same, and 3 show worse fuel efficiency on an ethanol blend.

Figure 13. 2007 Ford Fusion, 2.3-L engine – 4 of 5 tests show worse fuel efficiency on an ethanol blend. There is one apparent outlier.

So, what can we conclude? Of 25 data points, 18 confirm that the fuel economy is worse on an ethanol blend. That is 72% of the tests, and these tests were paid for by the ethanol lobby (which is why I suspect the results were spun as they were). The outliers are interesting enough for further investigation, but you have vastly overstated the test results. In reality, if you pulled the results out of a bag, you have only a 28% chance of improving your fuel efficiency on the basis of any particular test. Further, the outlier didn’t always occur at the same percentage, which would be quite problematic even if the result is confirmed.

On the L.A. Times article itself, and my claim that the author had been duped:

“Duped” might be a bit strong, but there were certainly a few problems with the article. I’m not sure if Tom/Chris misspoke or if they were misquoted (I wasn’t there), but the inaccuracies should have been identified and cleared-up before the article went to press. Incorrect? Perhaps in some ways. Misleading? Maybe. Intentionally misleading (fraud)? No… I’m confident that there was no intent by E-Fuel or GreenHouse to be misleading. I think it’s unfair to expect any journalist to have the same level of technical knowledge and industry experience that we have, so I’m prepared to live and let live when an article doesn’t get everything exactly right. The fact is that nobody “lied” here, and there’s really no way to control what gets printed. No journalist in the world would allow us to review the article before it goes to print.

I agree that someone with more experience could have handled the interviews or at least reviewed the article before it went to press. And perhaps an “interview” isn’t the best way to present the concepts that were discussed. Maybe a “press sheet” or “whitepaper” would be more appropriate. We (the biofuels industry in general) need to be careful to properly manage customer expectations because, ultimately, failure to do so could seriously undermine our credibility.

Regarding my comment that a big ethanol refinery would be more efficient:

Energy efficiency of huge biorefineries isn’t going to be much different than in the MicroFueler. It takes a certain amount of energy to distill no matter what quantities we’re talking about. Take a look at Floyd’s 1982 design and then look at the MicroFueler design and you’ll see it’s pretty well thought out. Where “the big boys” have a definite advantage is there economies of scale with respect to capital costs. Where we have a huge advantage is the cost of feedstock, carbon balance, and the (near) elimination of the whole petroleum distribution system.

I disagree with that. A smaller purification system is going to suffer heat losses to a much greater degree. It is inevitable. You see it all the time when trying to run a laboratory column to simulate a production column. Efficiencies aren’t nearly as good because of the higher relative heat losses.

Regarding the comment that 100 billion gallons of fuel are thrown away:

Misquoted or misspoken. He probably meant to say that the US is sitting on about 100 billion gallons worth of cellulosic biomass on a sustainable, annual basis. That’s the USDA/DOE “Billion Ton” study. There’s a fine line between “thrown out” and “not utilized”. Then there’s all the stuff that we’re paying to haul away to landfills (another 6-10 billion gallons worth). Tom knows the difference, but somehow the two thoughts got combined into a single statement.

We exchanged a number of e-mails regarding the claims around adding water to ethanol to improve the engine efficiency. I have seen some references to that, but I haven’t been able to find actual results. (See this article, for instance). My comment was that the results may have been spun like the University of North Dakota study cited above. But one thing that I told him I don’t believe is credible is that a person was running out of fuel and added 3 gallons of water to their tank to get home (see the previous story for that example). It is possible that a vehicle running on ethanol – and with a pretty full tank – could “tolerate” that much water.

But this much is true. It takes a lot of energy and capital to get that last 5% of water out of ethanol that is produced. Cars can run on ethanol that contains water (hydrous ethanol), albeit at a lower efficiency (which is why the water is removed). Brazil runs some of their cars on hydrous ethanol. But the claim that this improves the efficiency is pretty far-fetched, in my opinion. One of the articles I recently read stated that the water lowered the combustion temperature, thus increasing the efficiency. But if you look at the equation for efficiency of an engine, a lower combustion temperature will normally result in a lower efficiency. Regardless, I don’t put much faith in highly counter-intuitive results until they have been well-replicated (see ‘cold fusion’). And if they are – it would be a potentially revolutionary finding.

On the cellulosic issue, he wrote:

The MicroFueler is an automated fermentation, distillation, and dispensing platform. Our fermentation process regulates agitation, temperature, and other parameters to optimize output, but fermentation is fermentation. Distillation isn’t rocket science. If you can boil water then you can distill ethanol. We happen to be able to do this very efficiently and we produce a very high quality fuel. So the question is, can we really hydrolyze cellulosic materials to liberate the sugars and then convert them into ethanol? The answer is yes. The better question is “can we do this efficiently in order to get close to the maximum theoretical yields?”

You can’t just put grass clippings in a MicroFueler and walk away from it and expect ethanol fuel. There’s more to it than that. But, it’s not a big deal to put a grinder, pump, and a 300 gallon tank next to a MicroFueler or to add a bottle of enzymes now and again. It’s like having a pool, and then having the pumps, filters, to make it work, and the chlorine to keep it all clean. Or like a washing machine for that matter. Laundry detergent is mostly enzymes, and the clothes don’t wash themselves.

There’s another issue here which is that people toss around the term “cellulosic” far too often without really knowing what it means. Food waste (starch/carbohydrates) is very easy to work with, but it’s not cellulosic. People think that anything other than corn is cellulosic. Blame that on the media.

Around the economics, he essentially said that not everyone will save money, but some will save a lot of money. I haven’t seen the assumptions that went into those financial calculations, but I am highly skeptical that the average person would save any money.

In his conclusion, he again hit upon the local production aspect, which was the one part I did find appealing:

And here’s the $64,000 controversy… Say for example I feed my MicroFueler a steady diet of corn (grain) and amylase enzymes. I grow the corn on my farm, make the fuel on my farm, and feed my chickens the WDGS that are left-over from making ethanol. No transportation. Then I collect the chicken manure and spread it back in my corn field (which I also irrigate with the wastewater). By the way I’m also paying a premium for wind power to run my MicroFueler in this scenario. Is this sustainable? Does this defeat the argument that all corn ethanol is patently unsustainable (by definition)? I guess it all depends on the price delta between a bushel of corn and a gallon of gasoline. High gas prices and low corn prices you better believe I’m making fuel.

I don’t think anyone would argue that corn ethanol is unsustainable by definition. If a farmer is growing his own corn and taking care of the soil, and using that to produce his own ethanol, then he has a shot at sustainability. We lose the plot when we try to ramp that up to be a large scale solution.

To conclude, I recognize that my original article was pretty harsh. But that is because in my opinion there had been a distinct pattern of embellishment with this device, and if there is one thing I loathe it is people making far-fetched promises around renewable energy. I found the L.A. Times article to be irresponsible, either because the journalist did a poor job or the developers were overselling their device.

The end result of articles like this is that it creates the potential for money – private equity and taxpayer funds – to flow to an undeserving source. Ultimately this will have the effect that the funds will dry up, and promising technologies won’t be funded as a result. Imagine funds for cancer research being diverted to some of the fraudulent cancer cures, and you have the sort of example that gets me worked up. That is the reason I am quick to pounce on embellishment.

August 26, 2009 Posted by | biofuels, ethanol, Media coverage, scams | 68 Comments

Rank the Top 10 Oil Stories of 2008

As I recover from a backlog of work, one of the stories I plan to write is a post covering the top energy stories of 2008. Around that theme, Platts just put up a request for reader input on the top oil industry stories of 2008. Their poll runs until Christmas:

Rank the top 10 oil industry stories of 2008

Below is the way I would rank the Top 10. I had an easy time ranking the top five, but then it was more difficult to sort them out.

My top 10 oil industry stories of 2008:

  1. Crude prices soar in 1H, WTI tops $147, Brent right behind
  2. Prices collapse below $50 in 2H as demand retreats
  3. Ethanol’s struggles: VeraSun bankruptcy, others barely profitable, spreads collapse
  4. Push begins to lift offshore drilling ban in US; Obama and McCain differ on approach
  5. Capital crunch and low prices lead to deferred investment
  6. Shale gas supply in US surges, a new factor in supply/demand balance
  7. Credit crunch slows activity for once free-wheeling traders
  8. Diesel surges, gasoline/naphtha plunge; traditional cracks skewed
  9. Russian oil output to fall in 2008, first time in a decade
  10. Brazil subsalt finds continue to lift nation’s upstream prospects

A couple of options that weren’t on the list (I placed them in the suggestion box) were:

  • Peak oil becomes fashionable, then unfashionable again
  • Obama elected; potential major impact on energy policy
  • Feel free to share your own input. What other stories do you consider to be Top 10 material (not limited to the oil industry)?

    December 5, 2008 Posted by | Media coverage, oil inventories, oil prices, oil production, Peak Oil | 36 Comments

    A Mixed Bag of Oil Projections in the MSM

    Update: One more noteworthy story from Newsweek:

    The Coming Energy Wars

    Oil drives so much of the global economy, it’s almost impossible to fully imagine the world of $200 oil. No question, the shock will force nations to go greener much faster than now, particularly by conserving energy and developing and adopting new non-fossil fuels. But none of this can happen full stop in six to 24 months. So the predictions tend to be gloomy: some analysts see a shift toward regional trade, and even a major reversal of globalization itself, as rising transport costs make it too expensive to ship many kinds of goods long distances.

    A major acceleration in the transfer of wealth that has, in the past five years, shifted trillions of petrodollars from oil consumers to producers would alter the world balance of power—including a boost for the troublesome oil autocrats of Iran, Venezuela and Russia. At $200 a barrel the proven oil reserves of the six Gulf nations alone would rise in value to $95 trillion, about twice the size of public equity markets, according to Morgan Stanley managing director Stephen Jen. That would make the Sovereign Wealth Funds of oil states market kingmakers. Western efforts to press more openness on these funds, many controlled by royal courts, would surely grow.

    ———————-

    As I browsed through recent energy headlines on my Sunday morning – which lately has been the only time slot that allows me to catch up – I saw two contrasting stories in the mainstream media. One is from CNN Money, warning of $6 gasoline if we have a bad hurricane season:

    An ill wind for gas prices

    NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Batten down the hatches: hurricane season starts on June 1. It’s expected to be a rough one, threatening to upend refineries and disrupt pipelines in the southern United States.

    “With the market the way it is now, a move in crude because of a hurricane could really be exacerbated,” said MF Global energy analyst Don Luke.

    Peter Beutel, oil analyst at Cameron Hanover Beutel, said if a Katrina-like hurricane were to hit in July, gas prices could go as high as $5 or even $6.

    “The last thing this market needs at this time is a hurricane, because we can’t afford to lose any of our refining capacity at this point,” said Beutel. “If anything bullish happens with the market in this state, it would make it go absolutely crazy.”

    One thing that I haven’t covered lately is that gasoline stocks have now slid to the lower end of the normal range, which you can see at the lastest version of This Week in Petroleum:

    As was discussed at length last season (also note my warnings in those archives of rising gas prices), that does put the pieces into place for a huge run-up in case of a disruption. Last year, we didn’t see any bad hurricanes than interrupted supplies, but we certainly take a risk in this situation.

    The other MSM story comes from Newsweek:

    What Goes Up Must Come Down

    There are widespread signs that the surging oil price is leading to demand destruction in the largest consumer of oil—the United States. From reports of the sharpest ever year-over-year drop in miles driven, SUV sales falling off a cliff and cutbacks airlines are making to their flight operations, U.S. consumers are clearly coming under severe stress. Oil spending as a share of the global economy has risen to more than 7 percent, a level last seen in late 1979. What happened next is instructive: from 1980 to 1983, the consumption of oil fell by 10 percent, and it took another seven years for oil consumption to reach the 1979 peak level of consumption. The length of the cycles may vary, but in the end, oil, too, is a cyclical business.

    Encouraging signs that we are reducing our consumption, but I think the author misses the mark with that last statement. Oil has historically been a cyclical business. This will change when supply growth can no longer outstrip demand. This is going to be the case when oil production peaks, and all signs indicate to me that the erosion of excess capacity is driving the current surge in prices. Unless we have enormous demand destruction (and how is that going to occur other than through very high prices?), or there are a couple of Saudi Arabia’s hiding in the Arctic and soon to be discovered, I can’t easily see supply getting far ahead of demand. That is what would be required to continue the cycles – an oversupply situation.

    All price setbacks in oil over the past three decades have been demand- and not supply-led. Still, the oil bulls are willing to ignore evidence of demand destruction and are instead obsessed with supply issues. While there may be some merit in the increasingly fashionable “peak oil” theory, which essentially postulates that the world will have consumed most of its oil within a 300-year period, there is no evidence that world oil production is peaking today. The crude-oil market is currently well supplied, and production is expected to grow by 1.5 to 2 percent this year.

    Peak oil is now “fashionable.” That’s a relief. Now I am going to try to promote this idea I have called “Peak Money” theory. It goes like this. If I inherit a bank account, and I draw money out of it – yet I make no deposits – eventually I will run out of money. If my spending is increasing over time, then I will need to make some big adjustments when I start to run out of money. In truth, this is no more theory than peak oil is a theory. It puzzles me to hear people refer to “so-called peak oil theory” or some other term that indicates that it is anything other than an observation.

    There is no question that global oil production will peak. We have country after country in which this has already taken place. The key questions are “When?” and “What are the impacts?” I believe the answer to the timing is that it is soon. Even the most optimistic predictions mean that my children will have to deal with it. The more pessimistic suggest that it is upon us now. Personally, I think >90% probability of a global peak within 5 years – which is why I spend so much time pondering the impacts.

    Regarding the question on the impacts, that debate continues to play out in my mind – and in this blog.

    June 1, 2008 Posted by | EIA, Media coverage, Peak Oil, twip | 31 Comments

    A Mixed Bag of Oil Projections in the MSM

    Update: One more noteworthy story from Newsweek:

    The Coming Energy Wars

    Oil drives so much of the global economy, it’s almost impossible to fully imagine the world of $200 oil. No question, the shock will force nations to go greener much faster than now, particularly by conserving energy and developing and adopting new non-fossil fuels. But none of this can happen full stop in six to 24 months. So the predictions tend to be gloomy: some analysts see a shift toward regional trade, and even a major reversal of globalization itself, as rising transport costs make it too expensive to ship many kinds of goods long distances.

    A major acceleration in the transfer of wealth that has, in the past five years, shifted trillions of petrodollars from oil consumers to producers would alter the world balance of power—including a boost for the troublesome oil autocrats of Iran, Venezuela and Russia. At $200 a barrel the proven oil reserves of the six Gulf nations alone would rise in value to $95 trillion, about twice the size of public equity markets, according to Morgan Stanley managing director Stephen Jen. That would make the Sovereign Wealth Funds of oil states market kingmakers. Western efforts to press more openness on these funds, many controlled by royal courts, would surely grow.

    ———————-

    As I browsed through recent energy headlines on my Sunday morning – which lately has been the only time slot that allows me to catch up – I saw two contrasting stories in the mainstream media. One is from CNN Money, warning of $6 gasoline if we have a bad hurricane season:

    An ill wind for gas prices

    NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Batten down the hatches: hurricane season starts on June 1. It’s expected to be a rough one, threatening to upend refineries and disrupt pipelines in the southern United States.

    “With the market the way it is now, a move in crude because of a hurricane could really be exacerbated,” said MF Global energy analyst Don Luke.

    Peter Beutel, oil analyst at Cameron Hanover Beutel, said if a Katrina-like hurricane were to hit in July, gas prices could go as high as $5 or even $6.

    “The last thing this market needs at this time is a hurricane, because we can’t afford to lose any of our refining capacity at this point,” said Beutel. “If anything bullish happens with the market in this state, it would make it go absolutely crazy.”

    One thing that I haven’t covered lately is that gasoline stocks have now slid to the lower end of the normal range, which you can see at the lastest version of This Week in Petroleum:

    As was discussed at length last season (also note my warnings in those archives of rising gas prices), that does put the pieces into place for a huge run-up in case of a disruption. Last year, we didn’t see any bad hurricanes than interrupted supplies, but we certainly take a risk in this situation.

    The other MSM story comes from Newsweek:

    What Goes Up Must Come Down

    There are widespread signs that the surging oil price is leading to demand destruction in the largest consumer of oil—the United States. From reports of the sharpest ever year-over-year drop in miles driven, SUV sales falling off a cliff and cutbacks airlines are making to their flight operations, U.S. consumers are clearly coming under severe stress. Oil spending as a share of the global economy has risen to more than 7 percent, a level last seen in late 1979. What happened next is instructive: from 1980 to 1983, the consumption of oil fell by 10 percent, and it took another seven years for oil consumption to reach the 1979 peak level of consumption. The length of the cycles may vary, but in the end, oil, too, is a cyclical business.

    Encouraging signs that we are reducing our consumption, but I think the author misses the mark with that last statement. Oil has historically been a cyclical business. This will change when supply growth can no longer outstrip demand. This is going to be the case when oil production peaks, and all signs indicate to me that the erosion of excess capacity is driving the current surge in prices. Unless we have enormous demand destruction (and how is that going to occur other than through very high prices?), or there are a couple of Saudi Arabia’s hiding in the Arctic and soon to be discovered, I can’t easily see supply getting far ahead of demand. That is what would be required to continue the cycles – an oversupply situation.

    All price setbacks in oil over the past three decades have been demand- and not supply-led. Still, the oil bulls are willing to ignore evidence of demand destruction and are instead obsessed with supply issues. While there may be some merit in the increasingly fashionable “peak oil” theory, which essentially postulates that the world will have consumed most of its oil within a 300-year period, there is no evidence that world oil production is peaking today. The crude-oil market is currently well supplied, and production is expected to grow by 1.5 to 2 percent this year.

    Peak oil is now “fashionable.” That’s a relief. Now I am going to try to promote this idea I have called “Peak Money” theory. It goes like this. If I inherit a bank account, and I draw money out of it – yet I make no deposits – eventually I will run out of money. If my spending is increasing over time, then I will need to make some big adjustments when I start to run out of money. In truth, this is no more theory than peak oil is a theory. It puzzles me to hear people refer to “so-called peak oil theory” or some other term that indicates that it is anything other than an observation.

    There is no question that global oil production will peak. We have country after country in which this has already taken place. The key questions are “When?” and “What are the impacts?” I believe the answer to the timing is that it is soon. Even the most optimistic predictions mean that my children will have to deal with it. The more pessimistic suggest that it is upon us now. Personally, I think >90% probability of a global peak within 5 years – which is why I spend so much time pondering the impacts.

    Regarding the question on the impacts, that debate continues to play out in my mind – and in this blog.

    June 1, 2008 Posted by | EIA, Media coverage, Peak Oil, twip | 31 Comments

    A Mixed Bag of Oil Projections in the MSM

    Update: One more noteworthy story from Newsweek:

    The Coming Energy Wars

    Oil drives so much of the global economy, it’s almost impossible to fully imagine the world of $200 oil. No question, the shock will force nations to go greener much faster than now, particularly by conserving energy and developing and adopting new non-fossil fuels. But none of this can happen full stop in six to 24 months. So the predictions tend to be gloomy: some analysts see a shift toward regional trade, and even a major reversal of globalization itself, as rising transport costs make it too expensive to ship many kinds of goods long distances.

    A major acceleration in the transfer of wealth that has, in the past five years, shifted trillions of petrodollars from oil consumers to producers would alter the world balance of power—including a boost for the troublesome oil autocrats of Iran, Venezuela and Russia. At $200 a barrel the proven oil reserves of the six Gulf nations alone would rise in value to $95 trillion, about twice the size of public equity markets, according to Morgan Stanley managing director Stephen Jen. That would make the Sovereign Wealth Funds of oil states market kingmakers. Western efforts to press more openness on these funds, many controlled by royal courts, would surely grow.

    ———————-

    As I browsed through recent energy headlines on my Sunday morning – which lately has been the only time slot that allows me to catch up – I saw two contrasting stories in the mainstream media. One is from CNN Money, warning of $6 gasoline if we have a bad hurricane season:

    An ill wind for gas prices

    NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Batten down the hatches: hurricane season starts on June 1. It’s expected to be a rough one, threatening to upend refineries and disrupt pipelines in the southern United States.

    “With the market the way it is now, a move in crude because of a hurricane could really be exacerbated,” said MF Global energy analyst Don Luke.

    Peter Beutel, oil analyst at Cameron Hanover Beutel, said if a Katrina-like hurricane were to hit in July, gas prices could go as high as $5 or even $6.

    “The last thing this market needs at this time is a hurricane, because we can’t afford to lose any of our refining capacity at this point,” said Beutel. “If anything bullish happens with the market in this state, it would make it go absolutely crazy.”

    One thing that I haven’t covered lately is that gasoline stocks have now slid to the lower end of the normal range, which you can see at the lastest version of This Week in Petroleum:

    As was discussed at length last season (also note my warnings in those archives of rising gas prices), that does put the pieces into place for a huge run-up in case of a disruption. Last year, we didn’t see any bad hurricanes than interrupted supplies, but we certainly take a risk in this situation.

    The other MSM story comes from Newsweek:

    What Goes Up Must Come Down

    There are widespread signs that the surging oil price is leading to demand destruction in the largest consumer of oil—the United States. From reports of the sharpest ever year-over-year drop in miles driven, SUV sales falling off a cliff and cutbacks airlines are making to their flight operations, U.S. consumers are clearly coming under severe stress. Oil spending as a share of the global economy has risen to more than 7 percent, a level last seen in late 1979. What happened next is instructive: from 1980 to 1983, the consumption of oil fell by 10 percent, and it took another seven years for oil consumption to reach the 1979 peak level of consumption. The length of the cycles may vary, but in the end, oil, too, is a cyclical business.

    Encouraging signs that we are reducing our consumption, but I think the author misses the mark with that last statement. Oil has historically been a cyclical business. This will change when supply growth can no longer outstrip demand. This is going to be the case when oil production peaks, and all signs indicate to me that the erosion of excess capacity is driving the current surge in prices. Unless we have enormous demand destruction (and how is that going to occur other than through very high prices?), or there are a couple of Saudi Arabia’s hiding in the Arctic and soon to be discovered, I can’t easily see supply getting far ahead of demand. That is what would be required to continue the cycles – an oversupply situation.

    All price setbacks in oil over the past three decades have been demand- and not supply-led. Still, the oil bulls are willing to ignore evidence of demand destruction and are instead obsessed with supply issues. While there may be some merit in the increasingly fashionable “peak oil” theory, which essentially postulates that the world will have consumed most of its oil within a 300-year period, there is no evidence that world oil production is peaking today. The crude-oil market is currently well supplied, and production is expected to grow by 1.5 to 2 percent this year.

    Peak oil is now “fashionable.” That’s a relief. Now I am going to try to promote this idea I have called “Peak Money” theory. It goes like this. If I inherit a bank account, and I draw money out of it – yet I make no deposits – eventually I will run out of money. If my spending is increasing over time, then I will need to make some big adjustments when I start to run out of money. In truth, this is no more theory than peak oil is a theory. It puzzles me to hear people refer to “so-called peak oil theory” or some other term that indicates that it is anything other than an observation.

    There is no question that global oil production will peak. We have country after country in which this has already taken place. The key questions are “When?” and “What are the impacts?” I believe the answer to the timing is that it is soon. Even the most optimistic predictions mean that my children will have to deal with it. The more pessimistic suggest that it is upon us now. Personally, I think >90% probability of a global peak within 5 years – which is why I spend so much time pondering the impacts.

    Regarding the question on the impacts, that debate continues to play out in my mind – and in this blog.

    June 1, 2008 Posted by | EIA, Media coverage, Peak Oil, twip | Comments Off on A Mixed Bag of Oil Projections in the MSM

    Rank the Top 10 Oil Stories of 2007

    While I intend to write a post covering the top energy stories of 2007, Platts is asking for reader input on the top oil industry stories of 2007:

    The top 10 oil industry stories of 2007

    A lot of the listed stories would make both lists. I list my Top 10 below that I submitted to Platts. The first few were easy, but I had a hard time picking between the last three or four.

    My top 10 oil industry stories of 2007:

    1. Oil soars, reaches close to $100 for WTI
    2. Spare capacity dwindles, supply/demand balance tightens; Peak Oil theory gets more attention
    3. Climate change rapidly moves up the list of the world’s concerns; US Senate votes for mandatory GHG emission limits
    4. OPEC increases production by 500,000 b/d in November, rejects a further increase after that
    5. Weakness in demand in developed countries more than offset by strength in developing nations, like China
    6. Venezuela takes over former foreign-operated fields
    7. Ethanol use soars in the US, but its price plunges
    8. Cost pressures lead to some diverted refinery plans
    9. WTI plunges below Brent in spring on buildup in Cushing inventories
    10. Iraq production slowly begins to recover

    I think by far the biggest stories were the supply/demand issues, oil prices, and the fact that the MSM “discovered” Peak Oil in 2007. Ethanol was a big story as well, but I would have put it differently. 2007 was the year that the realization of the downsides of corn ethanol finally reached critical mass. One other thing I think I would have listed among the stories was something around the Congressional hearings, and/or attempts to pass an energy bill.

    So, let the debate begin. What else should be on there? What do I have too high? Not high enough?

    December 12, 2007 Posted by | Media coverage, oil inventories, oil prices, oil production, Peak Oil | 38 Comments