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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

Catching Up

Back home now, just trying to catch up on the energy news of note. Four stories that I want to highlight. First was POET’s announcement on their progress on cellulosic ethanol:

Poet hits ‘long shot,’ cuts cellulosic ethanol costs

WASHINGTON – The head of the world’s largest ethanol producer, Sioux Falls-based Poet, said Wednesday that his company has drastically cut its cellulosic ethanol production costs.

It is a breakthrough that will allow cellulosic ethanol to compete with gasoline within two years.

Jeff Broin, Poet chief executive, told reporters during a roundtable discussion that the company has reduced its cellulosic ethanol production cost during the past year from $4.13 a gallon to $2.35 a gallon.

Andrew Leonard of Salon asked me for some comments, which he included in a story on the news:


Who cares about peak oil when you have corn cobs?

In addition to what made it into the story (and those comments were specifically about the kinds of risk factors POET faces), I said that I thought the guys at POET had done a nice job on this (that comment did make it into the follow-up story at Salon). One thing that isn’t clear to me is whether the production cost includes any capital recovery. If not, then they still have some distance to go to get that $2.35 into an economic range with ethanol presently trading at about $2.00 a gallon. [Edit: A comment from Nathan Schock of POET over at Green Car Congress indicates that this is in fact the total production cost – including depreciation]. Another question I would have is how their version of the process performs with other sources of biomass.

One other thing I said to Andrew (that didn’t make it into the story) is the really big challenge is in getting those ethanol titers up. Low titers mean lots of energy is spent in getting the water out. This is why I have always favored gasification technologies over hydrolysis technologies: You don’t have water to deal with, and thus the BTU efficiency is potentially going to be higher. (Probably your capital costs as well will be higher for gasification – depending on what you are producing from the syngas). If biomass costs rise in the future – as I expect them to – then there will be added incentive for maximizing BTU efficiency.

The second story was sent by a reader. In light of the amount of corn we produce, this could have significant ramifications:

Amaizing: Corn Genome Decoded

A team of scientists led by The Genome Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published the completed corn genome in the Nov. 20 journal Science, an accomplishment that will speed efforts to develop better crop varieties to meet the world’s growing demands for food, livestock feed and fuel.

The United States is the world’s top corn grower, producing 44 percent of the global crop. In 2009, U.S. farmers are expected to produce nearly 13 billion bushels of corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The next story is about a trend that I think will continue. In my presentation in Orlando, one of the trends that I pointed out is that more refineries are being built closer to the source of the oil. Saudi produces crude, but would like to capture more of that value chain by refining it as well. There are a number of very large refinery projects underway – especially in Asia and the Middle East – and in a world with stagnant oil production that means some refineries are going to shut down. In the U.S., our refining capacity is more than three times greater than our oil production rates. I see a dismal outlook for refining in the U.S., with a lot of refiners going out of business in the U.S. Valero just announced another refinery closing:

Valero refinery in Delaware City to close permanently

DELAWARE CITY, Del. — Valero Energy said this morning it plans to permanently close its Delaware City Refinery, eliminating hundreds of high-paying jobs, because of weak economic conditions, high local costs and chronic troubles at the 210,000 barrel-per-day complex.

Company spokesman Bill Day said that a plantwide maintenance shutdown, announced late last month, was already under way, and will convert to a final closing. Plant employees will continue on the payroll for 60 days under federal rules for large-scale layoffs.

Day said the plant — which produces about 70 percent of the gasoline sold on the Delmarva Peninsula— has lost $1 million a day since the start of 2009.

About 550 full time workers will be put out of work by the decision. Valero (VLO) also has notified companies that work closely with the refinery, Day said, but effects on those operations were not immediately available.

People forget that refining is a very tough business. They remember when refiners make money – as they were doing a couple of years ago – but forget that most of the time they aren’t making money. Plus, when they do make money they are subjected to accusations of gouging and calls from politicians to tax their windfall.

Finally, readers know that I have consistently avoided wading into the debate over global warming. It takes enough of my time just trying to keep up with the latest energy news, and I decided long ago to sit out the debate on climate change. It is far too politicized and people get too emotional over the issue. However, I do think it is important that the debate takes place, and I don’t like to see people trying to shut it down. Attaching labels like “denier” to people who question the science is an attempt to shut down debate, and I don’t care how right you think you are – in my view the debate needs to go on.

A couple of days ago it was announced that some e-mails from a climate research outfit in England had been hacked:

Global Warming Research Exposed After Hack

A climate change dust-up

I have to say that some of the e-mails I have seen posted are troubling. Whatever history ultimately shows, some of those e-mails appear to be agenda-driven and not science-driven. There is no place for that.

Let the debate carry on, and let science – not agendas – determine the outcome.

November 22, 2009 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, genetic engineering, global warming, greenhouse gases, oil refineries, POET, refining, Salon, valero | 118 Comments

Big Oil Buys Big Ethanol

Some people think that the oil industry is hostile toward the ethanol industry because they consider them a real threat. But I always point out that the oil industry dwarfs the ethanol industry by such a large amount that it could easily buy up all the available assets of the ethanol industry – if they thought there was a good business opportunity.

My speculation has turned into reality as an announcement was just released that major oil refiner Valero is buying up the assets of bankrupt ethanol producer VeraSun:

VeraSun Energy to sell assets to Valero Energy

Ethanol producer VeraSun Energy Corp. said Friday it is selling assets to Valero Energy Corp. for $280 million amid difficult industry conditions and tight credit markets.

The assets include certain VeraSun production facilities in South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana. The company will sell all production facilities and operations in separate or combined transactions.

“Given current difficult industry conditions and continued constrained credit markets, we believe that commencing a sale process is in the best interest of Company stakeholders,” said Don Endres, VeraSun’s chief executive.

For a pure refiner like Valero, this seems to be a decent fit with their business model. They buy oil and turn it into gasoline. Now they will buy corn and turn it into ethanol which will then be blended into gasoline. Their risk of course is that we see a return to the high commodity prices of last summer, which is what put ethanol producers into such dire straits in the first place.

I don’t expect that this is the last we will see of this. Despite the recent write-downs of assets, the oil industry will continue to generate cash (just not as much). They may be the only viable option for some of these distressed ethanol producers. And I know for a fact that there are companies that are keeping a close eye on some of the other troubled ethanol producers.

February 7, 2009 Posted by | American Coalition for Ethanol, oil companies, valero, verasun | 32 Comments