R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Ethanol and Petroleum Imports

This is the concluding post in a series looking at the impact of increased ethanol production on petroleum imports. Previous posts concluded that there has been little measurable impact on our petroleum imports as a result of increased ethanol production. In this post, I provide a spreadsheet to all the data and graphics used, and delve a bit deeper into the issue.

Previous posts in the series were:

Does Ethanol Reduce Petroleum Imports?

Ethanol, Imports, and the MTBE Effect

The spreadsheet that was used to tabulate all of this information is archived here:

Oil Imports Versus Ethanol Production

(For some reason the graphs don’t show up in the Google Documents link. However the data and calculations are all there).

Audacious Claims

One of the most frequently cited reasons for our U.S. ethanol policy is that it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Some of the more audacious claims actually suggest that one barrel of ethanol will displace more than one barrel of foreign oil. Here is a sampling of some of the claims. From the Renewable Fuels Association’s (RFA) “Energy Facts”:

FACT: The production and use of 9 billion gallons of ethanol in 2008 displaced the need for 321.4 million barrels of oil. It also saved American consumers and taxpayers $32 billion, an average of more than $87 million a day. This is the equivalent of eliminating oil imports from Venezuela for 10 months, or looked at another way, it would mean that the U.S. would not have to import ANY oil for 33 days.

The RFA’s page on industry statistics shows that ethanol production in 2006 was 9 billion gallons, which is 214 million barrels. Once refined, a barrel of oil will turn into products with an average BTU value of 126,000 BTUs/gal, versus 76,000 BTUs/gal for ethanol; therefore 214 million barrels of ethanol contain the BTU equivalent of 129 million barrels of oil. (Source: ORNL). The claim then is that ethanol with an energy equivalent of 129 million barrels of oil (BOE) displaced more than twice that much oil – 321 million barrels!

The RFA’s source on that was the consulting firm LECG, where director John M. Urbanchuk consults for the Renewable Fuels Association and the National Corn Growers Association. Thus, Urbanchuk is expected to spin a positive ethanol story, but one would hope he could do so without completely sacrificing his credibility. He has also been quoted:

The production of nearly five billion gallons of ethanol means that the U.S. needed to import 206 million fewer barrels of oil in 2006, valued at $11.2 billion. This is money that stayed in the American economy.

Source: Contribution of the Ethanol Industry to the Economy of the United States in 2006 (PDF download)

Even grander claims have been made by the U.S. Government. From DOE Assistant Secretary Alexander Karsner’s keynote address to the RFA’s National Ethanol Conference (link now dead) in Tucson, Arizona:

Last year, we contributed something on the order of a displacing 500 million barrels of oil, oil that we didn’t have to import from regimes that are hostile to our interest or might leverage energy economics over our future.

Here’s the same claim (that link has also been taken offline) by Paul Dickerson, Chief Operating Officer at the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy:

Over 6 billion gallons of ethanol were produced in the United States last year, and we have an additional 5 billion gallons of refining capacity under construction.

That effort means 500 million fewer barrels of oil that we have to import from the Middle East.

That’s from the U.S. Department of Energy. Those are pretty bold claims. How on earth are people coming up with these numbers? More importantly, can we go to the data and actually see this impact?

Probing the Data

The import situation is complicated by several factors, the biggest of which is the rapid run-up in petroleum prices over the past few years. The increase in prices caused overall demand to fall, which can be seen in Figure 1 below:

Figure 1. Net Imports Versus Total Demand

It is important to note that “demand” includes all crude oil, natural gas liquids (ethane, propane, butane, etc.), ethanol, fuel gas (offgas from the refinery used as fuel or feedstock), and asphalt. (See the full list of products covered here). This is important to understand, because if ethanol displaces petroleum, it has no impact on overall demand – since it is already included. What you would see in that case is merely a shift between ethanol and gasoline, for instance, with total demand remaining constant (actually it would have to go up a little due to ethanol’s lower BTU content).

The conclusion one draws is also influenced by the time period over which one looks. In the first post in this series, I looked at imports, demand, and ethanol production over the time period 2002 through 2007. The reason for choosing that particular time period was that this was when ethanol was ramping up sharply.

I left off 2008 because of the very sharp drop in demand due to the recession. However, as one reader pointed out, since ethanol is included in the demand number, it doesn’t really matter whether demand went up, down, or stayed constant. If ethanol is displacing imports, we should see that effect even if demand drops sharply. For example, if demand fell by 1 million barrels a day, then all else being equal I would expect imports to fall by 1 million barrels a day. Now add in expanding ethanol production, and I expect imports to fall by more than 1 million barrels a day.

What I observed was that between 2002 and the end of 2007, our petroleum imports do not appear to have been impacted at all by the increase in ethanol production. But that time period is complicated by a couple of things. First, the largest increase in ethanol production took place in 2008. Thus, the largest impact would be expected to show up in 2008 – a year I left off because of the recession effect.

Second, the phase-0ut of methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether (MTBE) took place during this time. I went into detail on how this would have impacted the issue in the second post in this series. The bottom line was that even when MTBE was taken into account, it still did not appear that ethanol production had a measurable impact on petroleum imports.

However, the MTBE phase-out was completed in the first half of 2006. So for the rest of this post, I want to focus on 2007 and 2008. (And as I write this, I don’t know what the answer is; I will work it out as I put the rest of this post together).

During 2007 and 2008, total demand fell by 434 million barrels. Domestic production fell by 74 million barrels. (You can see all of the data in this spreadsheet; there are comments indicated where different data originated). So then all else being equal, I would expect imports to fall by 434 million barrels, but then they also need to make up for the 74 million barrel domestic production deficit. That modifies the expected import change to (-434 million + 74 million) = – 360 million barrels.

Over that two-year time period, net imports actually fell by 466 million barrels. This is the first time period I have looked at over which the import change was less than the demand change, which is what I would expect to see if ethanol was displacing imports. The change certainly isn’t the often exaggerated 200 million or 500 million barrels, but over the course of 2007 and 2008 imports did fall by 106 million more barrels (53 million barrels per year) than would be expected on the basis of demand and domestic production changes. Over the longer time frame of 2002 through 2008, the cumulative increase in imports (+207 million barrels) is very close to what would be expected based on changes in demand and domestic production (-225 million barrels), still implying no measurable impact from ethanol.

How much ethanol was produced over that period of time? Per the RFA’s ethanol statistics, a total of 15.5 billion gallons of ethanol was produced in 2007 and 2008, which amounts to 369 million barrels. On an energy equivalent basis, this is equal to about 215 million barrels of finished petroleum products. Yet the measured fall in imports was less than half that value.

One of the problems here is that we may be looking for a needle in a haystack. By that, I mean that the contribution of ethanol is so small relative to that of overall demand, that any actual displaced imports would be lost in the noise. Figure 2 illustrates:

Figure 2. Ethanol Production Versus Total Demand

For this graphic, I have put ethanol production on the same scale as total demand to show the relative contribution. The production for ethanol in 2008 amounted to 0.59 million barrels per day of a total demand of 19.5 million barrels per day. For people who claim that the oil companies are threatened by the ethanol companies, that graphic puts things in perspective.

One could argue that the ethanol impact should show up most strongly in a comparison with gasoline demand. Figure 3 shows that effect:

Figure 3. Ethanol Production Versus Gasoline Demand

In fact, gasoline demand* did dip in 2008 by 300,000 bpd. Ethanol may have been part of the reason, but the increase in ethanol production was quite a bit less than the fall in gasoline demand. Corrected for energy content, the ethanol increase was less than half the drop in gasoline demand (which can be mostly explained by higher prices and recession, as shown below).

One thing Figures 2 and 3 show is the dip in demand in 2008, which followed a flattening of demand for a few years prior. Recall that since ethanol is included in the demand number, ethanol can’t be a cause of the drop in demand. Figure 4 shows part of the culprit:

Figure 4. Average World Crude Price Versus Total Demand

As crude prices began to climb in 2004, crude demand flattened. As the price skyrocketed in 2008, we were also entering a recession. The combination caused a sharp drop in demand. One interesting thing to consider is that since ethanol is mandated in increasing volumes each year, it is not impacted by the drop in demand. While total demand fell by 1.2 million bpd in 2008 relative to 2009, “demand” for ethanol actually increased by nearly 200,000 bpd – because the mandated increase has no allowance for overall drops in demand.

Conclusions

What to conclude from this exercise? The easiest conclusion is that the claims of petroleum import displacement have been at a minimum grossly exaggerated. It may even be that ethanol hasn’t backed any petroleum imports out, or that the impact is so small as to be unnoticeable.

All of these conclusions, however, point toward a common theme: Even our biggest source of alternative fuel is taking very little bite out of our petroleum consumption. Much more effective has been high prices and recession. In fact, I believe it unlikely that any combination of biofuels will ever replace even 50% (net) of our present petroleum consumption. That points toward the need for conservation as a critical component of any major effort to wean off of fossil fuels. Perhaps some combination of conservation, electrification, mass transit, and biofuels can make a significant impact on our fossil fuel consumption. But the graphics above should demonstrate that it isn’t a trivial matter to significantly impact our petroleum consumption.

*Total gasoline demand contains the ethanol contribution. Therefore, Figure 3 shows gasoline after subtracting out the ethanol volumes.

Special thanks to the Energy Information Administration for answering some of my questions about the data.

October 15, 2009 Posted by | EIA, Energy Information Administration, ethanol, ethanol production, oil imports | 82 Comments

Ethanol, Imports, and the MTBE Effect

I am traveling later this week, and will be on the road for nine days (Colorado, New York, Massachusetts). I was trying to wrap up the loose ends from my previous post with a much more comprehensive look at the ethanol/import issue before I travel. However, there are a couple of questions I had for the EIA before I finish up. As soon as I hear back from them, I will post a number of graphs and I will put my spreadsheet up so everyone can pick through it. But if I don’t hear back within a couple of days, it may be a while before I can put up the final installment.

But so far, it still looks like my initial observation was correct: Ethanol has not reduced our oil imports. Our oil imports have fallen over the past couple of years, but here is why:

Net Crude Imports Versus Total Demand. Source: EIA

I will clean that graph up in the final posting. It should be obvious, but the import scale is on the left. Bear in mind that the ethanol production numbers do show up in the demand numbers. Thus, whether petroleum demand was impacted by ethanol displacement is irrelevant in that demand number, since whatever is no longer counted as petroleum is counted as ethanol.

If you notice, “Imports” track “Demand” very closely, except demand fell faster in 2008 than did imports. If ethanol was actually impacting imports, what I would expect to see is the import line negatively trending away from the demand line. For instance, since ethanol began to really ramp up in 2002, we are producing an incremental 7 billion gallons per year with an energy content of over 250,000 bbl/day of finished petroleum products. The change in demand through 2002 was down slightly. Yet imports actually rose slightly. If ethanol was impacting imports this is where I would expect to see it; with imports falling faster than demand fell (or rising more slowly than demand rises as ethanol makes a contribution).

The MTBE Effect

One reader asked a great question – just the kind of question I like to get following these essays. The blending of the oxygenate methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) was phased out in 2006. In order to meet the oxygenate requirements for specific areas of the country, ethanol replaced MTBE in the gasoline blending pool. So is it possible that the reason petroleum imports didn’t fall as ethanol ramped up was that ethanol was being used to replace MTBE? If MTBE was being made with domestic products that are not captured in the liquid demand summary, then it would be theoretically possible for ethanol to replace MTBE with no impact on imports. That sent me on a mission into the EIA archives digging through historical MTBE data.

The MTBE picture is complicated, and thus I expect there to be many opinions on how to handle it. Until 2008, the EIA published a monthly supply/demand picture on MTBE. The report is called Monthly Oxygenate Report, and the historical data are still all there. Figure 29 of this USGS report confirms that MTBE production had plateaued in the years 1999-2002 at just over 3 billion gallons per year. During 2002, production dropped sharply as it started to be phased out. If you look at this year end 2003 report, they show historical production separated into merchant plants and captive plants. (See Table D-4). The EIA defines a merchant plant as one that isomerizes normal butane to isobutane, dehydrogenates isobutane to isobutylene, and then reacts the isobutylene with methanol to produce MTBE. The definition of a captive plant is one that takes isobutylene, produced as a byproduct of refinery operations, and reacts it with methanol to produce MTBE.

The previous definitions are important for understanding how the MTBE phase-out should have impacted the import picture. Because butane is captured both in the import numbers and in the petroleum demand numbers, any ethanol that displaced MTBE should have backed out butane imports – thus lowering total imports. But, MTBE is partially produced from methanol, which is generally produced from domestic natural gas. Natural gas is not captured in the petroleum imports number, nor is it captured in the demand number. Thus, ethanol that backed out MTBE would not have impacted the natural gas piece that went into MTBE. So what we have then is that some of the ethanol ramp-up would have been diverted into MTBE replacement without being expected to have impacted demand.

How much? The portion that came from the natural gas. The MTBE reaction as stated above requires isobutylene and methanol. One molecule of MTBE has one molecule of embedded methane (via methanol). Let’s make the best case assumption that all MTBE production was replaced by ethanol. In 2002, ethanol production was really ramping up and MTBE was falling off the plateau. So let’s take the last year of strong production, 2001, and assume that must be replaced by ethanol. In 2001, MTBE production averaged 212,000 bbl/day for the year (per the previous historical report). The EIA did a comprehensive study of the MTBE replacement issue in 2006, and they concluded that from the oxygenate perspective, it takes 9 barrels of ethanol to replace 10 barrels of MTBE.

So to replace 212,000 bbl/day of MTBE was going to require 191,000 bbl/day of ethanol, which is 2.9 billion gallons per year. 191,000 bbl/day of ethanol production has the energy content of about 115,000 bbl/day of oil. In the absence of the MTBE issue, this is how much petroleum product imports I would expect to be backed out as ethanol displaced MTBE. But we need to prorate it by the isobutylene content, which is 64% of the mass of MTBEs. Thus, I would still expect the ethanol that backs out MTBE to displace imports equal to 64% of the 115,000 barrels, which would be 74,000 bbls.

There are two other factors that complicate matters even more. Since ethanol has a lower energy content, when ethanol displaces MTBE other components need to be added to compensate for the loss of energy. That may result in addition imports to keep the BTU content of the gasoline pool constant. Further, because the vapor pressure of ethanol is higher, certain components like butane and pentane must be backed out of the gasoline and replaced with other components that may need to imported. However, the latter shouldn’t have much impact on imports, because butane and pentane are already captured in both the import number and in the product supplied number.

Bottom line? We should still expect to see imports backing out even as MTBE is replaced by ethanol. Further, the MTBE phase-out was completed in the first half of 2006, so there is no longer any complication from that. And 2007 and 2008 also show no compelling case that ethanol is backing out imports.

Conclusion

It still appears to me that ethanol has had no impact on oil imports. However, it is not yet clear to me why this would be the case, so I am digging to better understand. It may be that we are just trying to see a change that amounts to noise in the overall demand picture. In that case, the ethanol contribution is really put into perspective and readers may understand why I am focused on other solutions; solutions that I think can ultimately make a bigger impact.

It may be that something is still missing from the picture, which is one of the reasons I have contacted the EIA for some additional clarifications. I think the conclusion in any case is that ethanol backs out approximately zero imports, plus or minus some very small number.

So those like the RFA who make claims like thisFACT: The production and use of 9 billion gallons of ethanol in 2008 displaced the need for 321.4 million barrels of oil – are simply promoting misinformation.

September 30, 2009 Posted by | EIA, Energy Information Administration, ethanol, mtbe, oil imports, Renewable Fuels Association | 75 Comments

Does Ethanol Reduce Petroleum Imports?

One of the main arguments in favor of ethanol production in the U.S. is that it supports the goals of energy independence by getting us off of foreign oil. After all, we could just tell the entire Mideast to take a hike while we grow our own fuel. In fact, there have been some truly grandiose claims made around this theme. Of course if we are making more ethanol, we are importing less oil as a result. Right? Maybe not. Has anyone actually taken a good look?

A couple of years ago, I looked at total gasoline consumption in an essay called The Mythical Ethanol Threat. My conclusion from that was that despite the rapid ramp up of ethanol, there was no apparent drop in gasoline demand. In fact, gasoline demand (which was corrected for ethanol content by backing that out) actually grew at a steady pace even as ethanol was ramping up sharply. But a couple of years have passed, and some comments following my last essay got me curious: Has U.S. ethanol production actually impacted petroleum imports?

From 2002 through 2007, ethanol production in the U.S. more than tripled: From 2.1 billion gallons per year to 6.5 billion gallons per year. (SourceRFA: Historic U.S. Fuel Ethanol Production). Yet total net petroleum imports (oil, gasoline, diesel, etc.) increased over that time period by 2.1 million barrels per day – from 10.2 million bpd in 2002 to 12.3 million bpd in 2007. (SourceEIA: Weekly U.S. Total Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Net Imports). So what does this mean?

I wasn’t going to jump to a hasty conclusion, so I started to dig. I started with several hypotheses. Perhaps U.S. oil production had fallen by 2.1 million barrels per day over that period of time, and the increase in imports were merely to compensate for that. So I checked. No, domestic production did fall over that period of time, but only by 682,000 barrels per day. Domestic production fell from 5.746 million bpd in 2002 to 5.064 million bpd in 2007 (SourceEIA: U.S. Field Production of Crude Oil). But one could allocate that much of the 2.1 million barrel per day import increase to the lower U.S. production.

Had demand growth accounted for the additional 1.4 million barrel per day increase in imports? Yes, in fact petroleum demand did grow (partially rebounding from the 9/11 attacks that reduced demand) from 19.8 million barrels per day in 2002 to 20.7 million barrels per day in 2007. (SourceEIA: U.S. Product Supplied of Crude Oil and Petroleum Products.) So of the remaining 1.4 million barrels per day of the increase in imports, 900,000 could be explained away as being due to an increase in demand. That still leaves a real increase in petroleum imports of 500,000 barrels per day – despite a tripling of ethanol production.

So how to explain this discrepancy? How can petroleum imports rise above and beyond the total increase in demand plus the drop in domestic production? There are two possibilities that I can think of. If the product in storage increased from 2002 to 2007, that can explain part of it. And we did in fact put a lot of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve during those years (but not enough to account for 500,000 barrels per day).

Another portion can be allocated to declining energy returns as oil becomes heavier, and as we switch to lower energy return options like ethanol. For instance, as the quality of crude oil worsens – higher sulfur and lower gravity – it takes more energy inputs to refine it. Likewise as sulfur standards for clean products tighten; energy inputs increase and the net energy falls. This can result in some cannibalization of the oil. In a case with light, sweet crude you may end up with 9 BTUs of net products for 10 BTUs of petroleum inputs. As the crude gets heavier, the net BTUs may drop to 7 because of the need for higher energy inputs for processing. This can explain more of the discrepancy.*

The same is true of ethanol. It does take some liquid petroleum to grow corn and process ethanol, and as ethanol ramps up some of the petroleum imports will now be required in the ethanol industry. This is similar to the case of light, sweet crude gradually becoming heavier, more sour crude. You may have to increase the imports just to net out the same amount of fuel.

But one thing is pretty clear. Our petroleum imports have not fallen as ethanol has ramped up. So it is really hard to make a strong case based on the data that increased ethanol production is reducing our dependence on foreign oil. One reason for this is something I have talked about before, and that is scale. In 2007, our oil demand was 20.7 million barrels per day. When the lower energy content of ethanol is factored in, the 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol produced in 2007 is only worth 0.26 million barrels per day – just over 1% of our total petroleum consumption.** Factor in that some petroleum (and other fossil fuels as well) was used in the manufacture of the ethanol, and the net contribution falls even further.

Factor in all of the fossil fuel inputs that can also be used as fuels (diesel, natural gas, gasoline) and the total net contribution of ethanol toward our petroleum consumption ends up at under 0.5% (and that includes the energy credit from by-products). This relatively low contribution is another likely reason that there is no obvious impact on our imports from ethanol: The contribution may be simply too small to measure.

Conclusions

In closing, this more than anything explains why I often come out against our ethanol policy. It is being presented as a bigger solution than I think it can ever be – and yet we are throwing a lot of taxpayer money at it. That doesn’t mean that I am against ethanol. If you read a post like this, you might come to that conclusion. But I think ethanol is a fine fuel, and if we had a more efficient way to produce large amounts of it, I would happily support that. I strongly support attempts to get the fossil fuel inputs out of ethanol production. In fact, in my current job I keep a very close watch on ethanol developments – ready to jump in if I see one that I think has major long-term potential.

I also believe – as stated in my essay on Biofuel Niches – that corn ethanol may work out well in specific situations. For instance, it may never provide more than around 1% of net U.S. petroleum needs, but it may be able to supply a fair fraction of the needs in the Midwest. But then I also think that a local solution for Iowa – if it must be subsidized – should be subsidized by the taxpayers of Iowa. If the fuel is produced and consumed in Iowa, and the jobs are created in Iowa, then Iowa should support it. Try to scale it across the U.S., and again I think the net contribution will be lost in the noise – and money from taxpayers outside the Midwest won’t be well-utilized. In the latter case you essentially have a transfer of wealth from taxpayers across the nation into the Midwest.

I actually wanted to be wrong about my initial suspicions as I worked through this, because I don’t like the idea that there has been no measurable impact on imports from our massive ethanol ramp-up. But maybe a reader can spot a mistake that will change the overall conclusion.

Methodology

In this exercise, I used data available from the Energy Information Administration website. I used annual averages to dampen out any noise. I looked at net petroleum imports, which includes those destined for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The reason for using net imports is that this subtracts out the imports that simply went into increased exports. For example, our exports of fuel oil have increased over the past few years, so the imports that ended up being fuel oil exports are excluded.

I only considered data from 2002 through 2007 for two reasons. First, the ethanol ramp-up was pretty steep over those years. An impact should be noticeable as ethanol production tripled. Second, the end of 2007 approximately defines the beginning of the current recession. Imports definitely fell during 2008, but overall consumption fell even more. So inclusion of 2008 would make it more difficult to separate out cause and effect, especially considering the speed at which demand fell. But it will be interesting as we come out of the recession – and as ethanol continues to scale up – whether we eventually see a sustained drop in net petroleum imports.

Notes

* While it can explain some of the phenomenon, it can’t explain a whole lot, because most of the energy used to remove the sulfur from oil is derived from natural gas. Some may be cannibalized from fuel gas produced as the oil is refined, and in that case it would show up as an incremental increase in the barrel inputs into a refinery to produce the same amount of net products. That could translate into higher imports in order to keep production steady.

** A barrel of oil contains around 5.8 million BTUs of energy. It takes approximately 500,000 BTUs to process that barrel into finished products, for a net energy content of finished products of 5.3 million BTUs, or 126,000 BTUs per gallon. Ethanol contains 76,000 BTUs per gallon, so one gallon of ethanol is worth 76,000/126,000 = 0.6 gallons of oil.

September 27, 2009 Posted by | EIA, Energy Information Administration, ethanol, ethanol subsidies, gasoline imports, oil imports | 202 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

Forbes Making Misleading Claims

Forbes magazine is making claims that the U.S. is exporting oil to other countries:

America’s Oil Export Problem (Yes, Export)

The U.S. could cut oil imports by nearly 15% tomorrow without using less gasoline, invading a foreign country or driving up prices at the pump. How? By cutting exports.

This will come as a surprise to many, but in the past four years U.S. oil and petroleum exports have reached four consecutive record highs–at least since the early ’80s. In 2007, the U.S. exported 1.43 million barrels of oil per day; up by roughly half a million barrels of oil per day since 2004.

As I said when Jon Tester made similar claims, that’s utter rubbish:

First off, here are the numbers from the EIA on exports from the U.S. of petroleum and petroleum products. What is the #1 destination for these exports? Mexico, one of our largest suppliers of crude oil. #2? Canada, our largest supplier of oil. And what are we sending them? Here, again, is the breakdown. The #1 product that we are supplying? Petroleum coke. #2? Residual fuel oil.

Misleading arguments simply give comfort to those who would argue that energy independence is within our grasp. After all, we are exporting all of this oil to other countries! But such arguments misrepresent the situation we are in.

The argument is correct on one point. Exports of high sulfur diesel did increase when the ultra-low-sulfur-diesel specs went into effect in the U.S. in 2006. However, in 2007 they were back down to the 2005 levels. Further, the total is still only a fraction of the ‘barrels’ of petroleum coke that are factored into the total ‘petroleum’ exports.

But the sound bite message that most people will come away with from articles like this is that we could go a long way toward energy independence if we just stop exporting oil. Just like we could be energy independent if those darn environmentalists would move out of the way and let us drill into our remaining oil reserves. The fact is, the problem of energy independence is so much greater than that. Drilling would be a drop in the bucket (albeit one that I favor). Exports are a drop in the bucket, and the countries that receive the exports – primarily Canada and Mexico – provide us far more petroleum in return.

October 2, 2008 Posted by | Canada, Mexico, oil exports, oil imports | 196 Comments

Tester’s Energy Plan

Tis the season for energy plans. Coming up on the elections, everyone has to have a plan – and I was just e-mailed a copy of Montana Senator John Tester’s plan. There are some good components, but it is also rich with irony.

A common-sense energy plan for Montana and America

As Sharla and I buckle down for another harvest near Big Sandy, we’re feeling what all Montanans are feeling at home — the pinch of out-of-control energy prices.

It’s an issue that I deal with every day as a U.S. Senator and as a family farmer. Our energy problems are the result of poor presidential leadership and a weak dollar. And with $12 billion in borrowed money going to Iraq every month, our dollar isn’t going to get stronger any time soon.

For 30 years we’ve known that depending on imported oil was dangerous foreign policy and bad economic policy. But we haven’t done what it takes to get ourselves off it. That needs to change. And that’s why I support a three-part plan for the short term and the long term:

First, we ought to drill more in places that make sense, like eastern Montana. The Bakken Formation holds an estimated four billion barrels of recoverable oil. I don’t have a problem with responsible drilling offshore or in parts of Alaska set aside for drilling. But I want to be darn sure that oil stays in America, not shipped off to Asia so the big oil companies can make more record profits.

Second, I believe that oil speculation and hedging has gotten way out of hand. Some folks on Wall Street are trading oil they never intend to actually use in order to make a quick buck. That creates artificial supply and demand, resulting in artificially high gas prices. That’s why I support smart legislation cracking down on out-of-control manipulation of the oil market.

And of course, conservation and renewable energy have to play a big role in our energy future. It’s time to make a serious investment in renewable energy like biofuels, wind, solar power, and geothermal energy.

Unfortunately, a few White House allies in Congress shot down important legislation like extending tax credits for renewable energy, cracking down on speculators and hedgers, and getting tough on OPEC. They pay lip service to the need for renewable energy, then insist on voting only for legislation that gives big oil bigger profits.

Drilling for more oil can’t be the only solution. Drilling is a bridge, but without a long-term solution it will be a bridge to nowhere. As a country that uses 25 percent of the world’s oil, yet has only three percent of it, drilling alone won’t solve the problem. Some on the other side of the aisle are not shooting straight with Montanans.

You would think from listening to some politicians that the big oil companies’ agenda is the solution to record high gas prices. That defies common sense when the U.S. is exporting 1.4 million barrels every day to other countries. It’s another example of the failed leadership that has taken the price of a gallon of gas from $1.50 in 2001 to more than $4 today.

With our national and economic security at stake, it’s time for all of Congress to work together. It’s a shame partisan politics gets in the way of common sense. Montana families and main street businesses deserve better than that.

I’m always interested in hearing your thoughts on the issues. Please visit http://tester.senate.gov/contact to drop me a note.

Jon Tester
United States Senator

Funny story about Tester. Montana has a significant oil refining industry. Yet when he was campaigning, gasoline had just cracked $3/gal, so he campaigned on the party line: “Big Oil is evil and is ripping everyone off.” So, one day I was at home in Billings, and the doorbell rang. It was someone from the Tester campaign, asking if they could count on my vote.

I looked at him for a few seconds, and I said “I work downtown at the ConocoPhillips refinery. You have said some pretty nasty things about my industry, and insulted a lot of hard-working people in the process. So tell me why I should vote for Tester.” The guy looked very uncomfortable, and said “Look, buddy. It’s not personal. It’s just politics.” So I responded with “And it won’t be personal if I don’t vote for him.”

That is Jon Tester. A man with some good idea, but also very quick to fall in line and resort to the ad hominem attacks in order to win votes. In his proposal above, he calls for responsible drilling, conservation, and investments in renewable energy. I am with him on those. And then he makes some completely asinine statements that make me wonder “Is this guy serious?” Here are some examples:

But I want to be darn sure that oil stays in America, not shipped off to Asia so the big oil companies can make more record profits.

That’s stupid on several fronts. First, oil removed from federal lands must already stay in America. Second is the implication that oil companies are engaged in the shady business of sending oil to Asia when we have shortfalls at home. (More on that below). Finally, he wants to be sure that America’s oil stays in America. How about Canada’s oil? As Canada is our largest supplier of oil, where would we be if Canada adopted Tester’s plan – that Canada’s oil stays in Canada? What if all of our suppliers adopted that position?

You would think from listening to some politicians that the big oil companies’ agenda is the solution to record high gas prices. That defies common sense when the U.S. is exporting 1.4 million barrels every day to other countries.

That’s just rubbish. He needs someone on his staff to do a bit of investigating before he makes uninformed statements like this. First off, here are the numbers from the EIA on exports from the U.S. of petroleum and petroleum products. What is the #1 destination for these exports? Mexico, one of our largest suppliers of crude oil. #2? Canada, our largest supplier of oil. And what are we sending them? Here, again, is the breakdown. The #1 product that we are supplying? Petroleum coke. #2? Residual fuel oil.

Less than 10% of what is exported is gasoline, and less than 2% is crude oil. Is that the picture Tester painted? Of course not. He has us exporting over a million barrels of crude oil to China so big oil can get rich. This is the Tester that I found so annoying during the campaign. Is he badly misinformed, or just playing political games?

Of course one might ask why we would export any petroleum products to other countries. That’s quite easy. If you are a refiner in Montana or Texas, and your product pipelines are full – or your orders are otherwise filled – you may sell some across the border to Canada or Mexico. Or, your petroleum coke that you might not be able to find a home for (and which you are selling at a loss) ends up going out of the country. Or you have some material that doesn’t meet U.S. specs, but it does meet the specs of some other country. When I was at the refinery, I remember we got in a shipment of butane. It did not meet one of our specs, but it did meet Mexico’s, so we sent it south. It had originated in Canada, came to Montana, and ended up in Mexico. It was counted as an export.

Further, I think if we adopted the position that we won’t sell to Canada or Mexico (which may be prohibited by NAFTA anyway) then we might have trouble convincing them to provide oil to us. This would be a problem, since those two countries provide more than three times the amount of oil to us as the amount of exports Tester is complaining about.

The irony then in Tester’s e-mail is that he felt compelled to write:

Some on the other side of the aisle are not shooting straight with Montanans.

And

It’s a shame partisan politics gets in the way of common sense.

I guess we can be thankful that Senator Tester is above all of that.

August 8, 2008 Posted by | energy policy, jon tester, oil exports, oil imports, politics | 7 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

My Drilling Proposal is on the Table

I said I wasn’t going to update until Wednesday, but have a little free time this morning. Imagine my surprise to read this headline today:

Senate Democrats offer deal to break energy bill standstill

Turns out they are proposing the same deal that I proposed in my essay from last week on coming to a compromise on the drilling question:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid surprised Republicans on Monday by offering them a chance to vote this week on four GOP-backed amendments to an energy bill, including one that would expand offshore oil drilling.

The possible breakthrough comes days before Congress recesses for August and lawmakers return home to face constituents anxious for relief at fuel pumps.

Reid, D-Nevada, said Democrats would allow votes on GOP amendments that would permit new drilling on the outer continental shelf; the development of oil shale in Western states; construction of new nuclear power plants; and broader legislation that Republicans have dubbed “find more, use less.” That legislation includes expanded offshore drilling, conservation initiatives, the improvement of battery technology, and language to curb speculation in the oil futures market.

Energy legislation also has been stalled in the House. A bipartisan “energy working group” of 28 lawmakers hopes to break the impasse this week by proposing a compromise that couples new offshore drilling with conservation and renewable energy programs.

Yet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, says she won’t allow a vote on a bill that includes new offshore oil drilling.

It is exactly this coupling that I think will get both sides to an agreement. Pelosi runs the risk here of losing all negotiating power if she blocks this sort of compromise. Pressure to drill will continue to increase, and right now the Democrats could still demand pretty generous concessions. I predict that unless supplies can grow (and I don’t expect them to grow much) and stay ahead of demand, then the pressure to drill will only increase over the next few years – and the Democrats will be in a weaker negotiating position. On the other hand, I think we are going to end up with a Democrat for president, and he will have something to say on the matter as well.

July 29, 2008 Posted by | Alaska, alternative energy, ANWR, energy policy, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, OCS, oil exploration, oil imports, oil prices, politics | 29 Comments

The Drilling Debate: Narrowing the Chasm

I have given a lot of thought to the issue of opening up new areas for drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). My position has always been to leave that oil in place for a very rainy day. I wanted to see major conservation efforts in place before we considered tapping that oil. Opening those areas when oil was $20 a barrel would have meant that much of it would have been used frivolously.

Now that oil is over $100 – and in my opinion will be much higher in 5 or 10 years (T. Boone Pickens predicts $300/bbl in 10 years) – we will have tightened our belts a good deal by the time any of this oil could actually reach the market. Therefore, I think now is the time for Congressional hearings on opening up these areas. Let’s have an open debate on the issue. However, if these areas are opened for drilling, I have a compromise that should be very attractive to those in opposition.

Hopefully this essay conveys a pragmatic approach designed to bring two sides in this debate closer together. At present it is hard to imagine that they could be further apart. A big part of the reason for the chasm between views is that there is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the issues. I hope to address those in this essay.

A recent sampling of letters to the New York Times gives a flavor of the views of the opposing sides:

To Drill or Not to Drill? There’s the Rub

First a letter opposed to further drilling:

Allowing offshore drilling for gas as a solution to high fuel costs, as President Bush urges Congress to do, is as sensible as growing more food in response to rising levels of obesity or robbing a bank in response to overspending one’s budget.

While it is not popular, the clear answer, as it is in the case of overeating and overspending, is to cut back in the consumption of food, in the consumption of one’s salary and in the consumption of fuel.

Painful as it is, I applaud the $4 gallon because it is the one thing that has finally gotten the public to focus on the fact that we need to consume less. For the first time, one hears from every quarter, turn off the lights in rooms you are not in, recycle that paper, drive less and take public transportation or ride your bike. That is the kind of talk political leaders should be encouraging, not new ways to keep up the old habits.

And one in favor:

As a 40-year Alaskan, I can tell you that opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most sensible solution for America’s oil problems. Most of the people who are trying to stop drilling in the refuge have never been in our state.

You have no idea how little space they are talking about. Take a regular envelope, pretend that is the refuge … now where you would put the stamp, that is the area they want to open.

Alyeska Pipeline has worked, the gas pipeline is in the process, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be. Congress is making this a party fight. How about putting that energy into fighting for all Americans, as oil prices don’t care whether you are Republican or Democrat?

So, where does the truth reside? Is it not worth the effort? Or can we “drill here, drill now” and make a significant step toward energy independence? Let’s investigate.

What is the Objective?

This is the key to the entire debate. Different groups have different agendas, and desires are often based on misinformation. Take a couple of extreme examples. I consider myself an environmentalist, but one who is practical, and informed on energy issues. Let’s take an environmentalist who may be less-informed. Like me, they are concerned about the impact of continued fossil fuel consumption on our environment. When they think of drilling, they envision oil slicks washing up on the shore, and a polluted ANWR. They see oil companies – not ordinary citizens – as the primary beneficiaries if drilling is allowed. They are optimistic about the ability of alternative fuels to rapidly scale up and replace depleting fossil fuel reserves. Or, they don’t fully understand the implications of falling fossil fuel reserves, or in an extreme case they don’t care and think the earth could use a healthy die-off of the human population.

Each of these groups is going to be vehemently opposed to opening up areas to additional drilling. They simply don’t think there is a need, and that it will simply delay our transition to alternatives. Those in Congress who are so outspoken against additional exploration likely fall into the category of ‘alternative fuel optimist.’ If they can only keep the ban in place, alternatives, mass transit, and conservation will rise to the challenge. The key to this approach is that the alternatives must deliver when they are needed, and they must cover severe shortfalls. What if they don’t? What is Plan B? Shortages? Rationing?

For our other extreme example, let’s consider the Hummer-driving, non-negotiable lifestyle mentality. The majority of this group is also not very informed on energy. They believe that underneath U.S. territory lies an ocean of oil, waiting to be tapped – if those darned environmentalists would only get out of the way. They are prepared to drill through a polar bear’s head if it will mean cheap gasoline – which they know it will. These people are going to be very outspoken about the need to drill anywhere, anytime. This approach suffers from a very similar problem as the previous approach: What if the oil that is available simply can’t cover any severe shortfalls? What if the expectations of these vast oceans of oil lead us to delay actions on alternatives? Again, what is Plan B? Military action?

The majority of us fall somewhere in between, but it breaks pretty sharply along party lines. Democrats don’t want to drill, Republicans think we should drill. Perhaps we should first develop an idea of the stakes.

How Much Oil is at Stake?

That’s a big problem. We don’t know. All we have right now are ‘educated’ guesses. Multiple government agencies have made assessments. The Minerals Management Service in the Department of the Interior estimated in 2006:

The MMS estimates that the quantity of undiscovered technically recoverable resources ranges from 66.6 to 115.3 billion barrels of oil and 326.4 to 565.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The mean or average estimate is 85.9 billion barrels of oil and 419.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Of that, they estimate that reserves in areas currently off-limits to exploration amount to just under 18 billion barrels. Based on the 2007 U.S. consumption rate of 20.7 million barrels of oil per day, 18 billion barrels would last just under 2.5 years.

The EIA estimate from areas currently off-limits to exploration was very similar at just over 18 billion barrels:

Impacts of Increased Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Lower 48 Federal Outer Continental Shelf

This graphic was recently used in a post at Grist by Joseph Romm, who argued that the amount of oil that is off limits has been greatly exaggerated. Based on the above graphic, Romm has a point, as the amount of undiscovered oil in areas open to exploration is more than twice the estimate from areas off limits to exploration. However, much of that oil is in mile-deep water that will be very expensive to develop. So the comparison isn’t necessarily apples to apples.

Estimates of recoverable oil from ANWR are of a similar magnitude. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) in a 2008 report noted:

In the mean oil resource case, the total volume of technically recoverable crude oil projected to be found within the coastal plain area is 10.4 billion barrels, compared to 5.7 billion barrels for the 95-percent probability estimate, and 16.0 billion barrels for the 5-percent probability estimate.

The EIA also presumes that it will take 10 years to scale up and bring production online:

At the present time, there has been no crude oil production in the ANWR coastal plain region. This analysis assumes that enactment of the legislation in 2008 would result in first production from the ANWR area in 10 years, i.e., 2018.

The primary constraints to a rapid development of ANWR oil resources are the limited weather “windows” for collecting seismic data and drilling wells (a 3-to-4 month winter window) and for ocean barging of heavy infrastructure equipment to the well site (a 2-to-3 month summer window).

The timeline broke down as 2 to 3 years to obtain leases, 2 to 3 years to drill an exploratory well, 1 to 2 years to develop a production development plan, and 3 to 4 years to build infrastructure.

What’s the bottom line? With an estimated 18 billion barrels of oil offshore and 10 billion barrels in ANWR, there is potentially enough oil there to meet four years of U.S. demand. However, in terms of imports, currently around 13 million barrels a day, there is potentially enough there to eliminate oil imports for nearly 6 years. Further, based on my proposal below, there may be enough there to eliminate imports for 20 years.

Finally, consider the economic ramifications. If we do nothing, despite well-intentioned calls for conservation, our insatiable demand for oil imports will continue. With production from some of our major suppliers having peaked (e.g., Mexico) and with internal consumption in other countries negatively affecting their exports, the price of oil will be under constant upward pressure over the long term. If we don’t produce those 28 billion barrels of oil, we will go and buy those barrels on the open market. At today’s oil price, that means that about $3.5 trillion will leave this country, much of it flowing into countries that are hostile to the U.S. By keeping that money at home, we can not only create jobs, but we have an opportunity here to fund a transition away from oil, and to more sustainable options.

Let’s Compromise

Both sides generally agree that our dependence on petroleum is a problem. Among the arguments from both sides is that this dependence puts our national security at risk and that it endangers the environment. I think both sides would agree that a long-term solution to the problem could be a combination of conservation, along with alternative options such as higher efficiency vehicles, electric transport, and mass transit. Where large numbers will start to disagree is whether this is achievable in the short-term, or whether it is going to take a few more years and a few more technological developments.

I fall into the latter category, for a variety of reasons. I am pretty familiar with a lot of the alternatives, and they are simply not competitive even at gasoline prices of >$4/gallon. To illustrate that point, consider Europe, where gasoline prices in many locations are now approaching $10/gallon. Even at that price, fossil fuels remain the dominant choice for transportation. It is going to take more than price – or at a minimum much higher prices than Americans probably anticipate – to drive us away from a very high level of dependence upon fossil fuels.

So how about a compromise? I propose that we open up some of the more promising areas to exploration, and then devote the royalties to funding fossil fuel alternatives. We could subsidize public transportation. We could provide a tax credit of $1,000 for each person who purchases a car that gets over 40 mpg. We could borrow a page from T. Boone Pickens’ plan, use these oil revenues to fund wind and solar power, and displace natural gas which could then be used to displace petroleum.

It is true that the oil won’t flow from these areas for perhaps a decade, but by then we are likely to be in very bad need of it. Prices will probably be very high, which means the royalties from the oil will provide a lot of money for funding alternatives. This should be a compromise that parties from both sides could agree to. If not, then what’s going to happen is that as prices continue to rise, so will the pressure to drill, and Congress will eventually cave in to these demands. But by failing to earmark the money for alternatives, it will just postpone the inevitable. So now is an opportune time to hold open Congressional hearings on the subject.

That’s a compromise I prefer. However, one that would have even greater support behind it would be to return an oil dividend to U.S. citizens (as Alaska has historically done). That is tangible for people, whereas funding the alternatives may not be. However, while I think this compromise would find wide support among many people with stretched budgets, it does nothing to address the problem of oil dependence. That, in my opinion, must be part of any solution.

A final excerpt from those New York Times letters summed it up best, in my opinion:

People say we should have a Manhattan Project-style program to develop alternative energy. That is fine, but while the Manhattan Project was continuing, we did not put World War II on hold while we waited for the atom bomb. The conventional war was continually fought throughout that time.

Conclusion

As I recently calculated, we could displace a great deal of our fossil fuel consumption with solar power, but it will ultimately take a multi-trillion dollar investment. We could borrow from T. Boone Pickens’ plan and use wind and solar power to displace natural gas that is currently used to produce electricity. That natural gas could then be used in CNG vehicles to displace petroleum. The net impact would be a large reduction in our fossil fuel consumption (and note that it is much easier to produce natural gas from biomass than it is to produce liquid fuels).

We sit on top of trillions of dollars of oil. We should use it – sparingly – to wean ourselves from oil dependence. The realistic alternative to this is that we continue to be highly dependent upon petroleum. As a result, we will watch those dollars flow out of the U.S. – right up until the point that our imports dry up and we watch a new generation of sons and daughters march off to fight resource wars because of our failure to plan ahead.

July 23, 2008 Posted by | Alaska, alternative energy, ANWR, OCS, oil exploration, oil imports, oil prices, solar power, wind power | Comments Off on The Drilling Debate: Narrowing the Chasm

The Drilling Debate: Narrowing the Chasm

I have given a lot of thought to the issue of opening up new areas for drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). My position has always been to leave that oil in place for a very rainy day. I wanted to see major conservation efforts in place before we considered tapping that oil. Opening those areas when oil was $20 a barrel would have meant that much of it would have been used frivolously.

Now that oil is over $100 – and in my opinion will be much higher in 5 or 10 years (T. Boone Pickens predicts $300/bbl in 10 years) – we will have tightened our belts a good deal by the time any of this oil could actually reach the market. Therefore, I think now is the time for Congressional hearings on opening up these areas. Let’s have an open debate on the issue. However, if these areas are opened for drilling, I have a compromise that should be very attractive to those in opposition.

Hopefully this essay conveys a pragmatic approach designed to bring two sides in this debate closer together. At present it is hard to imagine that they could be further apart. A big part of the reason for the chasm between views is that there is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the issues. I hope to address those in this essay.

A recent sampling of letters to the New York Times gives a flavor of the views of the opposing sides:

To Drill or Not to Drill? There’s the Rub

First a letter opposed to further drilling:

Allowing offshore drilling for gas as a solution to high fuel costs, as President Bush urges Congress to do, is as sensible as growing more food in response to rising levels of obesity or robbing a bank in response to overspending one’s budget.

While it is not popular, the clear answer, as it is in the case of overeating and overspending, is to cut back in the consumption of food, in the consumption of one’s salary and in the consumption of fuel.

Painful as it is, I applaud the $4 gallon because it is the one thing that has finally gotten the public to focus on the fact that we need to consume less. For the first time, one hears from every quarter, turn off the lights in rooms you are not in, recycle that paper, drive less and take public transportation or ride your bike. That is the kind of talk political leaders should be encouraging, not new ways to keep up the old habits.

And one in favor:

As a 40-year Alaskan, I can tell you that opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most sensible solution for America’s oil problems. Most of the people who are trying to stop drilling in the refuge have never been in our state.

You have no idea how little space they are talking about. Take a regular envelope, pretend that is the refuge … now where you would put the stamp, that is the area they want to open.

Alyeska Pipeline has worked, the gas pipeline is in the process, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be. Congress is making this a party fight. How about putting that energy into fighting for all Americans, as oil prices don’t care whether you are Republican or Democrat?

So, where does the truth reside? Is it not worth the effort? Or can we “drill here, drill now” and make a significant step toward energy independence? Let’s investigate.

What is the Objective?

This is the key to the entire debate. Different groups have different agendas, and desires are often based on misinformation. Take a couple of extreme examples. I consider myself an environmentalist, but one who is practical, and informed on energy issues. Let’s take an environmentalist who may be less-informed. Like me, they are concerned about the impact of continued fossil fuel consumption on our environment. When they think of drilling, they envision oil slicks washing up on the shore, and a polluted ANWR. They see oil companies – not ordinary citizens – as the primary beneficiaries if drilling is allowed. They are optimistic about the ability of alternative fuels to rapidly scale up and replace depleting fossil fuel reserves. Or, they don’t fully understand the implications of falling fossil fuel reserves, or in an extreme case they don’t care and think the earth could use a healthy die-off of the human population.

Each of these groups is going to be vehemently opposed to opening up areas to additional drilling. They simply don’t think there is a need, and that it will simply delay our transition to alternatives. Those in Congress who are so outspoken against additional exploration likely fall into the category of ‘alternative fuel optimist.’ If they can only keep the ban in place, alternatives, mass transit, and conservation will rise to the challenge. The key to this approach is that the alternatives must deliver when they are needed, and they must cover severe shortfalls. What if they don’t? What is Plan B? Shortages? Rationing?

For our other extreme example, let’s consider the Hummer-driving, non-negotiable lifestyle mentality. The majority of this group is also not very informed on energy. They believe that underneath U.S. territory lies an ocean of oil, waiting to be tapped – if those darned environmentalists would only get out of the way. They are prepared to drill through a polar bear’s head if it will mean cheap gasoline – which they know it will. These people are going to be very outspoken about the need to drill anywhere, anytime. This approach suffers from a very similar problem as the previous approach: What if the oil that is available simply can’t cover any severe shortfalls? What if the expectations of these vast oceans of oil lead us to delay actions on alternatives? Again, what is Plan B? Military action?

The majority of us fall somewhere in between, but it breaks pretty sharply along party lines. Democrats don’t want to drill, Republicans think we should drill. Perhaps we should first develop an idea of the stakes.

How Much Oil is at Stake?

That’s a big problem. We don’t know. All we have right now are ‘educated’ guesses. Multiple government agencies have made assessments. The Minerals Management Service in the Department of the Interior estimated in 2006:

The MMS estimates that the quantity of undiscovered technically recoverable resources ranges from 66.6 to 115.3 billion barrels of oil and 326.4 to 565.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The mean or average estimate is 85.9 billion barrels of oil and 419.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Of that, they estimate that reserves in areas currently off-limits to exploration amount to just under 18 billion barrels. Based on the 2007 U.S. consumption rate of 20.7 million barrels of oil per day, 18 billion barrels would last just under 2.5 years.

The EIA estimate from areas currently off-limits to exploration was very similar at just over 18 billion barrels:

Impacts of Increased Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Lower 48 Federal Outer Continental Shelf

This graphic was recently used in a post at Grist by Joseph Romm, who argued that the amount of oil that is off limits has been greatly exaggerated. Based on the above graphic, Romm has a point, as the amount of undiscovered oil in areas open to exploration is more than twice the estimate from areas off limits to exploration. However, much of that oil is in mile-deep water that will be very expensive to develop. So the comparison isn’t necessarily apples to apples.

Estimates of recoverable oil from ANWR are of a similar magnitude. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) in a 2008 report noted:

In the mean oil resource case, the total volume of technically recoverable crude oil projected to be found within the coastal plain area is 10.4 billion barrels, compared to 5.7 billion barrels for the 95-percent probability estimate, and 16.0 billion barrels for the 5-percent probability estimate.

The EIA also presumes that it will take 10 years to scale up and bring production online:

At the present time, there has been no crude oil production in the ANWR coastal plain region. This analysis assumes that enactment of the legislation in 2008 would result in first production from the ANWR area in 10 years, i.e., 2018.

The primary constraints to a rapid development of ANWR oil resources are the limited weather “windows” for collecting seismic data and drilling wells (a 3-to-4 month winter window) and for ocean barging of heavy infrastructure equipment to the well site (a 2-to-3 month summer window).

The timeline broke down as 2 to 3 years to obtain leases, 2 to 3 years to drill an exploratory well, 1 to 2 years to develop a production development plan, and 3 to 4 years to build infrastructure.

What’s the bottom line? With an estimated 18 billion barrels of oil offshore and 10 billion barrels in ANWR, there is potentially enough oil there to meet four years of U.S. demand. However, in terms of imports, currently around 13 million barrels a day, there is potentially enough there to eliminate oil imports for nearly 6 years. Further, based on my proposal below, there may be enough there to eliminate imports for 20 years.

Finally, consider the economic ramifications. If we do nothing, despite well-intentioned calls for conservation, our insatiable demand for oil imports will continue. With production from some of our major suppliers having peaked (e.g., Mexico) and with internal consumption in other countries negatively affecting their exports, the price of oil will be under constant upward pressure over the long term. If we don’t produce those 28 billion barrels of oil, we will go and buy those barrels on the open market. At today’s oil price, that means that about $3.5 trillion will leave this country, much of it flowing into countries that are hostile to the U.S. By keeping that money at home, we can not only create jobs, but we have an opportunity here to fund a transition away from oil, and to more sustainable options.

Let’s Compromise

Both sides generally agree that our dependence on petroleum is a problem. Among the arguments from both sides is that this dependence puts our national security at risk and that it endangers the environment. I think both sides would agree that a long-term solution to the problem could be a combination of conservation, along with alternative options such as higher efficiency vehicles, electric transport, and mass transit. Where large numbers will start to disagree is whether this is achievable in the short-term, or whether it is going to take a few more years and a few more technological developments.

I fall into the latter category, for a variety of reasons. I am pretty familiar with a lot of the alternatives, and they are simply not competitive even at gasoline prices of >$4/gallon. To illustrate that point, consider Europe, where gasoline prices in many locations are now approaching $10/gallon. Even at that price, fossil fuels remain the dominant choice for transportation. It is going to take more than price – or at a minimum much higher prices than Americans probably anticipate – to drive us away from a very high level of dependence upon fossil fuels.

So how about a compromise? I propose that we open up some of the more promising areas to exploration, and then devote the royalties to funding fossil fuel alternatives. We could subsidize public transportation. We could provide a tax credit of $1,000 for each person who purchases a car that gets over 40 mpg. We could borrow a page from T. Boone Pickens’ plan, use these oil revenues to fund wind and solar power, and displace natural gas which could then be used to displace petroleum.

It is true that the oil won’t flow from these areas for perhaps a decade, but by then we are likely to be in very bad need of it. Prices will probably be very high, which means the royalties from the oil will provide a lot of money for funding alternatives. This should be a compromise that parties from both sides could agree to. If not, then what’s going to happen is that as prices continue to rise, so will the pressure to drill, and Congress will eventually cave in to these demands. But by failing to earmark the money for alternatives, it will just postpone the inevitable. So now is an opportune time to hold open Congressional hearings on the subject.

That’s a compromise I prefer. However, one that would have even greater support behind it would be to return an oil dividend to U.S. citizens (as Alaska has historically done). That is tangible for people, whereas funding the alternatives may not be. However, while I think this compromise would find wide support among many people with stretched budgets, it does nothing to address the problem of oil dependence. That, in my opinion, must be part of any solution.

A final excerpt from those New York Times letters summed it up best, in my opinion:

People say we should have a Manhattan Project-style program to develop alternative energy. That is fine, but while the Manhattan Project was continuing, we did not put World War II on hold while we waited for the atom bomb. The conventional war was continually fought throughout that time.

Conclusion

As I recently calculated, we could displace a great deal of our fossil fuel consumption with solar power, but it will ultimately take a multi-trillion dollar investment. We could borrow from T. Boone Pickens’ plan and use wind and solar power to displace natural gas that is currently used to produce electricity. That natural gas could then be used in CNG vehicles to displace petroleum. The net impact would be a large reduction in our fossil fuel consumption (and note that it is much easier to produce natural gas from biomass than it is to produce liquid fuels).

We sit on top of trillions of dollars of oil. We should use it – sparingly – to wean ourselves from oil dependence. The realistic alternative to this is that we continue to be highly dependent upon petroleum. As a result, we will watch those dollars flow out of the U.S. – right up until the point that our imports dry up and we watch a new generation of sons and daughters march off to fight resource wars because of our failure to plan ahead.

July 23, 2008 Posted by | Alaska, alternative energy, ANWR, OCS, oil exploration, oil imports, oil prices, solar power, wind power | 71 Comments