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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

Book Review: Crude World

Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil by Peter Maass

Introduction

It succors and drowns human life. And for the last eight years, oil — and the people and places that make it — was my obsession. – Peter Maass

Today a new book by Peter Maass was released. The book is called Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. Peter Maass is a name you may know from a 2005 article that he wrote for the New York Times called The Breaking Point. The story was a comprehensive look at where he thought oil production/prices were headed – and what the implications might be. Maass focused on Saudi Arabia in the article, and spent a lot of time covering Matt Simmons’ viewpoints. It was after reading this story that New York Times columnist John Tierney offered to bet Simmons on the future direction of oil prices. Thus arose the Simmons-Tierney bet.

I thought Maass’ 2005 article was well-researched, and it was a captivating read. So when Mr. Maass e-mailed and asked if I would like a copy of his new book, I thought it would probably be a book I would enjoy. I still have a stack of books that have been sent to me to review, but I jumped this one to the front of the queue. I hadn’t really intended to, as I am working on two other books right now*, and would normally finish those before starting another. But once I picked this book up and started thumbing through it, I couldn’t put it down.

The subtitle of the book is The Violent Twilight of Oil. The book talks about the twilight of oil, but as the chapter titles imply the focus is less on the twilight and more on the seedy side of the business. The book notes that there are some countries like Norway, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Brunei to which oil appears to have generally benefited the population as a whole. But then there are also many cases in which the discovery of oil seems to have brought many problems to the population. (The book suggests that countries with established democracies and strong self identities are less likely to suffer following the discovery of oil).

The Chapters

The chapters read like the Seven Deadly Sins: “Plunder”, “Rot”, “Fear”, “Greed”, and “Desire” are a few of the ‘sins’ covered in various chapters. Within each chapter, Maass then takes a look at an example that embodies that particular “sin.” That sort of style reminded me of a really good book I read a few years ago written by Matt Ridley. It was called Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. Each chapter of that book tells the tale of one gene from each chromosome. In Crude World, Peter Maass tells the story of oil one dysfunctional example at a time.

The book picked up where the New York Times story left off. In fact, Chapter 1 – Scarcity – was mostly about Saudi Arabia and incorporates much of that 2005 story. And if you liked his New York Times story, you will probably enjoy the book as the same style is evident. But I use the word “enjoy” loosely, as it is a sober read. You will find yourself shaking your head at some of the things that have been carried out as a result of the world’s desire for oil.

In Chapter 2 – Plunder – the book covers the case of Equatorial Guinea. The oil wealth was plundered, with the help of international oil companies, banks that looked the other way as government officials brought suitcases of money in for deposit, and governments eager for access to the resource. While he was investigating the oil story in Equatorial Guinea, Maass was accused of being a spy and kicked out of the country.

Chapter 3 – Rot – was all about Nigeria. I won’t tell you how that one turns out, but I am amazed at the (dangerous) lengths Maass went to for the story. Rot describes his journey deep into the Niger Delta in a leaky canoe, courtesy of one of the local warlords. It is well known in the oil industry that Nigeria is a dangerous place to operate. Oil companies generally pay very big premiums to get workers to agree to an assignment in Nigeria. Oil workers are kidnapped in Nigeria regularly (but rarely harmed) and held for ransom from the oil companies operating there. Warlords are constantly doing battle there, and Maass described his visit to one village that had been attacked. Shell also featured prominently in this chapter.

Chapter 4 – Contamination – tells the story of Ecuador, with special focus on the Chevron lawsuit. Maass notes the irony that California – one of the most environmentally conscious states – receives the largest portion of Ecuador’s exports.

The rest of the book’s ten chapters covers a litany of oil-induced miseries. Iraq, Russia, and Venezuela are all profiled. Former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond is presented as the face of “Greed” (albeit it in the “Fear” chapter). There is an interesting explanation in “Greed” on why companies function as they do. Maass discusses a court case between Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers, in which the court ruled that a company’s mission “is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of its shareholders.” Thus, Maass argues that if Mr. Raymond had decided to run ExxonMobil in a more altruistic manner, the board would have removed him for not operating in the best interests of the shareholders.

The complaint that some will have about the book is that it isn’t balanced. There are a number of villains portrayed, but the oil companies really stand out. It seems that those who are telling the tales of misdeeds are generally trusted in the book, but those who are interviewed for balance are treated with suspicion. For instance, in the chapter on Nigeria, the author interviewed the director of Shell’s operations in Nigeria. The interview appears to proceed like a cross-examination. A Nigerian warlord’s words, on the other hand, seem to be taken mostly at face value.

But this is not intended to be a balanced book. It is a book designed to highlight the downside of our oil dependence. We can all think about ways in which oil has made our life better, but in the Western world we are generally spared from the nasty side of the business. In this book, Maass brings that message home loud and clear.

Conclusion

Crude World was released today, September 22, 2009. The general theme of the book is that the world’s dependence on oil has come at a very high price. This is not a book on peak oil, climate change, or renewable energy. It is not a technical book on the oil industry (for that see Morgan Downey’s Oil 101). The book covers the misery – the wars, the corruption, and the ruined lives – brought about primarily by greed from the lure of black gold. The book highlights the irony that oil could be used to improve the lives of a country’s citizens, but in far too many cases a country’s citizens end up being worse off after oil is discovered. The book was a fascinating read, and I couldn’t put it down once I started it. Now I can get back to my regularly scheduled reading.

Footnote

* The other books I am working on right now are Axis by Robert Charles Wilson and Outsourcing Energy Management by Steven Fawkes. The former is a science fiction book that I picked up because I really enjoyed Wilson’s previous book Spin. The latter has been a difficult read; I have been working on the book for six months. I met the author earlier in the year when he visited the Titan Wood plant in the Netherlands. We had quite a lot in common, and he sent me a copy of his book. But it is really a textbook, and so I have been reading it in small doses.

September 22, 2009 Posted by | book review, Matt Simmons, oil companies, oil consumption, oil exploration, oil production, peter maass | 55 Comments

How Much Natural Gas to Replace Gasoline?

I Took This Picture of a CNG Bus on a Recent Trip to D.C.

You may have seen the news this week that a report by the Potential Gas Committee says natural gas reserves in 2008 rose to 2,074 trillion cubic feet. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (via Rigzone) both had stories on it, and T. Boone Pickens issued a press release. First, from the New York Times (and this is a really good article):

Estimate Places Natural Gas Reserves 35% Higher

Thanks to new drilling technologies that are unlocking substantial amounts of natural gas from shale rocks, the nation’s estimated gas reserves have surged by 35 percent, according to a study due for release on Thursday.

Estimated natural gas reserves rose to 2,074 trillion cubic feet in 2008, from 1,532 trillion cubic feet in 2006, when the last report was issued. This includes the proven reserves compiled by the Energy Department of 237 trillion cubic feet, as well as the sum of the nation’s probable, possible and speculative reserves.

The new estimates show “an exceptionally strong and optimistic gas supply picture for the nation,” according to a summary of the report, which is issued every two years by a group of academics and industry experts that is supported by the Colorado School of Mines.

The Wall Street Journal wrote:

US Has Almost 100-Year Supply of Natural Gas

The amount of natural gas available for production in the United States has soared 58% in the past four years, driven by a drilling boom and the discovery of huge new gas fields in Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, a new study says.

…the Potential Gas Committee’s study was prepared by industry geologists who analyzed individual gas fields using seismic imagery and production data provided by gas producers. The surge in gas resources is the result of a five-year-long drilling boom spurred by high natural-gas prices, easy credit and new technologies that allowed companies to produce gas from a dense kind of rock known as shale. The first big shale formation to be discovered, the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, Texas, is now the country’s top-producing gas field, and companies have made other huge discoveries in Arkansas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Together, the shale fields account for roughly a third of U.S. gas resources, according to the Potential Gas Committee.

Pickens had this to say:

T. Boone Pickens Statement on Surge in Estimated Natural Gas Reserves

Today’s report substantiates what I’ve been saying for years: there’s plenty of natural gas in the U.S. I launched the Pickens Plan a year ago to help reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, and using our abundant supply of natural gas as a transition fuel for fleet vehicles and heavy-duty trucks is a key element of that plan. On the same day this report is going out, diesel prices are again on the rise, squeezing the trucking industry. Now more than ever we need to take action to enact energy reform that will immediately reduce oil imports.

The 2,074 trillion cubic feet of domestic natural gas reserves cited in the study is the equivalent of nearly 350 billion barrels of oil, about the same as Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.

A number of people have rightly pointed out that a 100-year supply implies usage at current rates. But it got me to thinking about how much natural gas it would take to displace all U.S. gasoline consumption. So in the spirit of my previous essay Replacing Gasoline with Solar Power, I will do the same calculation for replacing gasoline with natural gas. The big difference between this calculation and the earlier one is that solar power still has some technical issues to resolve (e.g., storage) and electric vehicles are not yet ready for prime time. On the other hand we are perfectly capable, today, of displacing large numbers of gasoline-fueled vehicles with natural gas.

How Much Do We Need?

The U.S. currently consumes 390 million gallons of gasoline per day. (Source: EIA). A gallon of gasoline contains about 115,000 BTUs. (Source: EPA). The energy content of this much gasoline is equivalent to 45 trillion BTUs per day. The energy content of natural gas is about 1,000 BTUs per standard cubic foot (scf). Therefore, to replace all gasoline consumption would require 45 billion scf per day, or 16.4 trillion scf per year. Current U.S. natural gas consumption is 23 trillion scf per year (Source: EIA). Therefore, replacing all gasoline consumption with natural gas would require a total usage of 39.4 trillion scf per year, an increase in natural gas consumption of 71% over present usage.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the 2,074 trillion standard cubic feet cited in the study is accurate, that the “probable, possible and speculative reserves” eventually equate to actual reserves, and that the gas is economically recoverable, that is enough gas for 53 years of combined current natural gas consumption and gasoline consumption. If you assume that only the proven plus probable reserves are eventually recovered, the amount drops to about 1/3rd of the 2,074 trillion scf estimate, still enough to satisfy current natural gas consumption and replace all gasoline consumption for almost 20 years.

We can also calculate in terms of oil imports. Right now the U.S. imports about 13 million barrels per day of all petroleum products. A barrel of oil contains around 5.8 million BTUs, but oil only makes up 10 million of the 13 million barrel per day figure. Other imports include things like gasoline (4.8 million BTUs/bbl) and ethanol (3.2 million BTUs/bbl). Scanning the list of imports, I probably won’t be too far off the mark to presume that the average BTU value of those 13 million bpd of imports is about 5.4 million BTUs/bbl. On an annual basis, this equates to 25.6 trillion scf of natural gas, which would be an increase over current natural gas usage of 111%. Going back to the 2,074 trillion scf from the study, this would be enough to displace imports of all petroleum products (again, at current usage rates and not factoring in declining U.S. oil production) for 43 years.

What’s the Cost?

Natural gas is presently trading at about $4 per million (MM) BTU (although December 2009 is trading at almost $6). Oil is presently trading at $71/bbl, which equates to $12.24/MMBTU. Gasoline is presently trading at over $17/MMBTU. Thus, natural gas is a bargain relative to oil or gasoline. Incidentally, I just checked on seasoned wood and wood pellets, and they range from $8-$12/MMBTUs. So it is cheaper to heat your house with gas than with wood. I am not sure I would have guessed that.

While natural gas is a bargain relative to gasoline, converting a gasoline-powered vehicle to natural gas isn’t cheap. According to this source, it can cost $12,500 to $22,500 to convert a gasoline-powered car to natural gas. Honda makes a compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle, but according to this review in Car and Driver the premium over the gasoline version is $8780. A person would need to drive an awful lot to justify that premium. However, that’s what fleets do. They drive a lot. The large price differential explains why fleets would be interested in running their vehicles on natural gas.

Conclusions

So, the good news is that the United States could be energy independent if the newly released natural gas reserve numbers are remotely accurate. It also appears that we have enough natural gas available that civilization isn’t going to end any time soon due to lack of energy supplies. There are three caveats. First, energy independence via natural gas could require us to spend significantly more for personal automotive transportation. Second, “possible” reserves may never materialize. Finally, a large chunk of the calculated reserves are based on shale gas, and that requires gas to be in the $6-$8/million BTU range to be economical. Still, it is a bargain compared to gasoline, and it explains why fleets are more receptive to conversion to natural gas than the general public is likely to be for their personal vehicles.

June 19, 2009 Posted by | CNG, energy consumption, gasoline, gasoline demand, gasoline imports, natural gas, oil consumption, oil imports, T. Boone Pickens | 63 Comments

IEA Report Leaked

Update: IEA Dismayed Over Leaked Report (says final version to be released on November 12th).

——————

A much anticipated report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook, has been obtained in draft by Financial Times. The headline says it all:

World will struggle to meet oil demand

Output from the world’s oilfields is declining faster than previously thought, the first authoritative public study of the biggest fields shows.

Without extra investment to raise production, the natural annual rate of output decline is 9.1 per cent, the International Energy Agency says in its annual report, the World Energy Outlook, a draft of which has been obtained by the Financial Times.

The findings suggest the world will struggle to produce enough oil to make up for steep declines in existing fields, such as those in the North Sea, Russia and Alaska, and meet long-term de­mand. The effort will become even more acute as prices fall and investment decisions are delayed.

And while they have slashed their consumption forecasts for 2030, they still look incredibly optimistic to me:

The IEA predicted in its draft report, due to be published next month, that demand would be damped, “reflecting the impact of much higher oil prices and slightly slower economic growth”.

It expects oil consumption in 2030 to reach 106.4m barrels a day, down from last year’s forecast of 116.3m b/d.

It’s not just me who thinks that consumption number looks far too high. A year ago Total CEO Christophe de Margerie and ConocoPhillips CEO Jim Mulva were both quoted as saying those numbers didn’t look achievable (as reported on here). Here’s Mulva:

ConocoPhillips (COP) Chief Executive James Mulva had earlier told a New York financial conference that he doubted that world oil producers would be able to meet forecast long-term energy demand growth. The International Energy Agency, the energy watchdog for western economies, has projected 2030 world oil demand of 116 million barrels a day. But Mulva said he doesn’t believe oil supply will ever exceed 100 million barrels a day. He didn’t offer a price forecast.

“Demand will be going up, but it will be constrained by supply,” Mulva said. “I don’t think we are going to see the supply going over 100 million barrels a day and the reason is: Where is all that going to come from?”

The increased consumption, the IEA predicts, will come from emerging countries. Demand in developed countries is expected to fall.

A related article in FT has more:

Investment key to meeting oil demand

“Saudi Arabia remains the world’s largest oil producer throughout the projection period, its production climbing from 10.2m b/d in 2007 to 15.7m b/d in 2030,” the report says. “Its willingness and ability to make timely investments in oil production capacity will be a key determinant of future oil price trends.”

While I have stated many times that I don’t think Saudi has peaked – and I think they have a lot of oil left to produce – I have read comments from the Saudis themselves that say these projections of 15 million bpd are sheer fantasy.

Finally, there’s this nugget:

The draft report has found that the planet is far from running out of oil, as some so-called “peak oil” theorists argued. But it also finds that output from the world’s oil fields, some of them discovered more than 30 years ago, is declining much faster than previously thought. That means the oil industry will need to invest more than expected.

This business about “running out of oil” is a gross mischaracterization. The fact is we could peak and not run out of oil for a hundred years. Peak oil does not mean “running out of oil”, and it is this misunderstanding that has helped prevent the public from absorbing the potential implications of peak oil. “Peak oil? Nah, we have plenty of oil.” Of course we do have plenty of oil. The question is whether supply can continue to grow. And I think we are nearing the end of supply growth. How that plays out is one of the things we spend a lot of time debating here.

As soon as I get a chance I want to write up something on OPEC mismanagement, and the problems that poses for the world economy. They have announced deep cuts, and are contemplating deeper cuts. These are the sorts of cuts that helped the big price run-up, so if OPEC maintains discipline we may be headed back up the roller coaster by next summer.

October 29, 2008 Posted by | iea, oil consumption, oil production, Peak Oil | 431 Comments

Five Reasons Oil is Headed to $250

Any time I write about investing, I always stress the long-term. Short-term fluctuations don’t drive my investment decisions. I try to see 5 or 10 years into the future, and position myself accordingly. This is a big part of why I started to shift money into oil beginning in 2002; I felt like I could see the supply/demand handwriting on the wall.

My long-term strategy is why I don’t get too excited about oil shooting to $147 or correcting back to below $100. The only question for me is “Will oil be higher or lower in 5 years?” At no point since 2002 have I felt like the answer to that question is “Lower.” I can’t see any combination of alternatives making a serious dent in our consumption until prices are much higher. How much higher? Well, in the Netherlands this summer they were paying $10/gallon for gasoline. Sure, that’s mostly taxes, but consumers were still willing to pay over $400/bbl and alternatives didn’t ride in to the rescue.

Don’t get me wrong, I think alternatives can ride to the rescue – just not until much higher prices force people to cut way back on consumption. As I told someone yesterday, I could make the U.S. energy independent in 10 years. It’s just that it would be very painful. I may have to make oil prices rise to north of $500/bbl.

This morning I saw an article that laid out 5 reasons why the author felt like oil is headed toward $250/bbl:

Five Reasons Why the $700 Billion Banking Bailout Will Translate into $250 Oil

Unless I overlooked it, the author doesn’t give a timeframe, but I can see oil at $250 in less than 5 years. Here are the reasons the author provides:

First, global oil demand is still accelerating and, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), will reach more than 115 million barrels per day by 2030 – even with conservation efforts and high prices stunting demand.

Second, daily production has probably peaked right now at nearly 90 million barrels a day, or will peak in a few years at the very latest. While experts once debated the reality of the “Peak Oil” concept, they now accept it and only question when it will take hold.

Third, the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India, are still increasing consumption at double-digit rates, and that more than offsets any conservation efforts that are under way elsewhere around the world. And their governments want to buy oil at any cost – even if that means there’s none left for us.

Fourth, the world will learn one day – probably sooner rather than later – that Saudi Arabia’s vaunted reserves are nowhere near what it claims them to be, and those reserves are certainly not at the levels long held as “gospel” in the oil business. Matthew Simmons, chairman of the Houston-based investment bankSimmons & Co. International and author of the seminal 2005 book, “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy” has been most vocal about this alleged shortfall, and I respect his work, especially since I’ve spoken behind closed doors with several OPEC figures who privately acknowledged that this may be their worst nightmare. Simmons recently predicted that oil prices would rally to $500 a barrel.

Fifth, Bailout Ben has dropped trillions into the system to stabilize the Wall Street while Paulson has broken out his bazooka which suggests that as much of 95% or more of oil’s price drop can be attributed to nothing more than the dollar’s rise since July. Nothing else has changed.

I put a lot of emphasis on the first two reasons above. As readers know from my ‘peak lite‘ arguments, I think long-term supply will lag demand growth, and it is only a matter of time before supplies start to decline. What we don’t consume in the U.S. is going to be consumed by developing 3rd world countries.

As I told someone last week at the ASPO conference, the future is uncertain. There will be Black Swan. But we have to plan based on best guesses for what lies ahead, and I am still betting on oil headed higher long-term.

October 1, 2008 Posted by | investing, oil consumption, oil demand, oil prices, Peak Lite | 34 Comments

Five Reasons Oil is Headed to $250

Any time I write about investing, I always stress the long-term. Short-term fluctuations don’t drive my investment decisions. I try to see 5 or 10 years into the future, and position myself accordingly. This is a big part of why I started to shift money into oil beginning in 2002; I felt like I could see the supply/demand handwriting on the wall.

My long-term strategy is why I don’t get too excited about oil shooting to $147 or correcting back to below $100. The only question for me is “Will oil be higher or lower in 5 years?” At no point since 2002 have I felt like the answer to that question is “Lower.” I can’t see any combination of alternatives making a serious dent in our consumption until prices are much higher. How much higher? Well, in the Netherlands this summer they were paying $10/gallon for gasoline. Sure, that’s mostly taxes, but consumers were still willing to pay over $400/bbl and alternatives didn’t ride in to the rescue.

Don’t get me wrong, I think alternatives can ride to the rescue – just not until much higher prices force people to cut way back on consumption. As I told someone yesterday, I could make the U.S. energy independent in 10 years. It’s just that it would be very painful. I may have to make oil prices rise to north of $500/bbl.

This morning I saw an article that laid out 5 reasons why the author felt like oil is headed toward $250/bbl:

Five Reasons Why the $700 Billion Banking Bailout Will Translate into $250 Oil

Unless I overlooked it, the author doesn’t give a timeframe, but I can see oil at $250 in less than 5 years. Here are the reasons the author provides:

First, global oil demand is still accelerating and, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), will reach more than 115 million barrels per day by 2030 – even with conservation efforts and high prices stunting demand.

Second, daily production has probably peaked right now at nearly 90 million barrels a day, or will peak in a few years at the very latest. While experts once debated the reality of the “Peak Oil” concept, they now accept it and only question when it will take hold.

Third, the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India, are still increasing consumption at double-digit rates, and that more than offsets any conservation efforts that are under way elsewhere around the world. And their governments want to buy oil at any cost – even if that means there’s none left for us.

Fourth, the world will learn one day – probably sooner rather than later – that Saudi Arabia’s vaunted reserves are nowhere near what it claims them to be, and those reserves are certainly not at the levels long held as “gospel” in the oil business. Matthew Simmons, chairman of the Houston-based investment bankSimmons & Co. International and author of the seminal 2005 book, “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy” has been most vocal about this alleged shortfall, and I respect his work, especially since I’ve spoken behind closed doors with several OPEC figures who privately acknowledged that this may be their worst nightmare. Simmons recently predicted that oil prices would rally to $500 a barrel.

Fifth, Bailout Ben has dropped trillions into the system to stabilize the Wall Street while Paulson has broken out his bazooka which suggests that as much of 95% or more of oil’s price drop can be attributed to nothing more than the dollar’s rise since July. Nothing else has changed.

I put a lot of emphasis on the first two reasons above. As readers know from my ‘peak lite‘ arguments, I think long-term supply will lag demand growth, and it is only a matter of time before supplies start to decline. What we don’t consume in the U.S. is going to be consumed by developing 3rd world countries.

As I told someone last week at the ASPO conference, the future is uncertain. There will be Black Swan. But we have to plan based on best guesses for what lies ahead, and I am still betting on oil headed higher long-term.

October 1, 2008 Posted by | investing, oil consumption, oil demand, oil prices, Peak Lite | 279 Comments

Obama Was Right

I was traveling the past couple of days, or I would have been all over this story. As it stands, I certainly won’t be the first one to make this point.

You may know that Barack Obama recently suggested that if all Americans kept their tires properly inflated and their cars correctly maintained, this would save as much oil as we could get from new drilling. Here he is making these comments, courtesy of YouTube. Obama’s critics (and his political opponent) jumped all over this, and are having a field day with it, suggesting that this is Obama’s energy plan, that he said “that’s all we need to do”, or “this will make us energy independent.” That’s not what he said. Time has already weighed in with a definitive rebuttal:

The Bush Administration estimates that expanded offshore drilling could increase oil production by 200,000 bbl. per day by 2030. We use about 20 million bbl. per day, so that would meet about 1% of our demand two decades from now. Meanwhile, efficiency experts say that keeping tires inflated can improve gas mileage 3%, and regular maintenance can add another 4%. Many drivers already follow their advice, but if everyone did, we could immediately reduce demand several percentage points. In other words: Obama is right.

I thought the issue had probably passed, but apparently not. I am presently in the Netherlands, and during my visits here I have a roommate who is very conservative. This morning, he was listening to Fox News, and I overheard Sean Hannity ask “How on earth is keeping your tires inflated going to reduce dependence on foreign oil?” As someone who has long advocated this as a way to reduce gasoline consumption, I had a hard time believing that Hannity had asked that question. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that under-inflated tires alone waste about 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline a year. To put that in perspective, that’s 28 million barrels of gasoline a year, worth over $3 billion that we won’t send out of the country for foreign oil purchases.

Of course I mentioned this to my roommate. I said “You know, Obama is correct about that.” My roommate then said that he has a device in his tires that enables his tire pressure to be monitored remotely. He said – completely tongue in cheek – that we should require this on all new vehicles and have someone in the government monitoring everyone’s tire pressure to make sure they were properly inflated. If not, fine them $25 for being unpatriotic and supporting foreign dictators with their unnecessary gasoline purchases.

Whether it’s a good idea to get government involved in monitoring our tire pressure is beside the point. The bottom line is that the suggestion that this would reduce our dependence on foreign oil is correct. While I have criticisms of some aspects of Obama’s energy plans (McCain’s as well; his gas-tax holiday is a joke) – and I believe he is definitely pandering on this windfall profits issue – his comments here are on the mark.

Further, I have a real problem with people who would ridicule someone for suggesting that we conserve. This sends the wrong message that this is not a serious issue. Our energy problems aren’t going to be completely solved by increasing supplies (drilling our way to independence) or by conservation. It’s going to require both. Let’s keep that in mind, and not suggest that conservation won’t have an important role to play.

August 6, 2008 Posted by | Barack Obama, conservation, oil consumption, oil imports | 53 Comments

Energy Export Databrowser

Jonathan Callahan, a Ph.D. chemist who spent 12 years working for NOAA, has created a very useful databrowser for exploring the supply/demand situation in various countries around the world. Based on BP’s 2007 Statistical Review, it provides a quick and easy way to see the trends for whether countries are consuming or producing, importing or exporting crude oil and natural gas. The tool may be found at Energy Export Databrowser.

How useful is this tool? It took me about 5 seconds to pull up the following graphic for crude oil trends in the U.S.:

The databrowser contains over 80 countries. The strength of the tool is that it groups a lot of valuable information in one place, and makes it easily accessible. So, the next time someone asks you how much oil Gabon produces, in about 15 seconds you can tell them that Gabon produces a little over 200,000 bbl/day, down 0.2% from the previous year – and that it looks like their production has peaked.

Jonathan informs me that he is looking for constructive feedback so he can make the tool even better. He said he will monitor comments, but can also be reached at mazamascience “at” gmail “dot” com.

June 11, 2008 Posted by | natural gas, oil consumption, oil exports, oil imports, oil production | Comments Off on Energy Export Databrowser

Energy Export Databrowser

Jonathan Callahan, a Ph.D. chemist who spent 12 years working for NOAA, has created a very useful databrowser for exploring the supply/demand situation in various countries around the world. Based on BP’s 2007 Statistical Review, it provides a quick and easy way to see the trends for whether countries are consuming or producing, importing or exporting crude oil and natural gas. The tool may be found at Energy Export Databrowser.

How useful is this tool? It took me about 5 seconds to pull up the following graphic for crude oil trends in the U.S.:

The databrowser contains over 80 countries. The strength of the tool is that it groups a lot of valuable information in one place, and makes it easily accessible. So, the next time someone asks you how much oil Gabon produces, in about 15 seconds you can tell them that Gabon produces a little over 200,000 bbl/day, down 0.2% from the previous year – and that it looks like their production has peaked.

Jonathan informs me that he is looking for constructive feedback so he can make the tool even better. He said he will monitor comments, but can also be reached at mazamascience “at” gmail “dot” com.

June 11, 2008 Posted by | natural gas, oil consumption, oil exports, oil imports, oil production | 16 Comments

Energy Export Databrowser

Jonathan Callahan, a Ph.D. chemist who spent 12 years working for NOAA, has created a very useful databrowser for exploring the supply/demand situation in various countries around the world. Based on BP’s 2007 Statistical Review, it provides a quick and easy way to see the trends for whether countries are consuming or producing, importing or exporting crude oil and natural gas. The tool may be found at Energy Export Databrowser.

How useful is this tool? It took me about 5 seconds to pull up the following graphic for crude oil trends in the U.S.:

The databrowser contains over 80 countries. The strength of the tool is that it groups a lot of valuable information in one place, and makes it easily accessible. So, the next time someone asks you how much oil Gabon produces, in about 15 seconds you can tell them that Gabon produces a little over 200,000 bbl/day, down 0.2% from the previous year – and that it looks like their production has peaked.

Jonathan informs me that he is looking for constructive feedback so he can make the tool even better. He said he will monitor comments, but can also be reached at mazamascience “at” gmail “dot” com.

June 11, 2008 Posted by | natural gas, oil consumption, oil exports, oil imports, oil production | 17 Comments