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I am at the 2009 Gasification Technologies Conference this week, with a pretty full schedule. But there are three stories that I wanted to quickly hit. One is a follow-up on the previous cellulosic ethanol post, one is about Paul Sankey’s new report on peak demand, and the last is on a technology that ExxonMobil has reported on here at the conference that I felt was quite interesting. There will probably be no more new posts from me until the weekend. I only got away with this one because I decided to write instead of network (which I hate to do anyway) during free periods today.

When Technologies Are Mandated

I don’t care too much for mandates. I think they are so much worse than subsidies, because with a mandate you are really saying that it doesn’t matter how much it costs, you don’t want to know how much it costs – just do it.

If the government thought it was a good idea to blend bio-butanol into the gas supply, they could offer a $0.50/gallon subsidy to do so. If that doesn’t result in butanol entering the fuel supply, then that’s a pretty good indication that butanol is at more than a $0.50/gal disadvantage to gasoline. But imagine instead that it is mandated. The costs could go very high in that case, but gasoline blenders would still have to pay up. We may find out that the cost to fuel suppliers was $8.00/gal. Had it been a subsidy instead – and it needed to go to $4 or $5/gal to make it economical – it would have never passed because the costs would be more transparent.

Thus, I was not too enthusiastic about the cellulosic ethanol mandates we got as part of the 2007 RFS. In 2010, for instance, it is mandated that 100 million gallons of advanced biofuels will be blended into the fuel supply. Cellulosic ethanol has been the technology that has been favored, but I have warned about costs that are going to be very high. Instead of a mandate, suppose we put a $1/gal subsidy in for cellulosic ethanol. Then instead of relying on people promising that they can make cellulosic ethanol for $1/gal if they can just get grants, mandates, and loan guarantees – you put the burden on the producer. Here is a $1/gal subsidy for you. Build the plant, make your $1/gal ethanol, and collect the subsidy.

Not surprisingly we are now getting news that despite throwing a lot of money at it, the 2010 levels of cellulosic ethanol are going to fall far short of the mandate – as I have been saying all along. They are going to need more money to meet future mandates – highlighting the problems I have with mandates. From the NYT:

Biofuels Producers Warn They Are Going to Fall Far Short of Federal Mandates

“The current economic climate almost makes the RFS a moot point for the time being,” said Matt Carr, policy director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

His organization estimated last month that 2010 volumes will, optimistically, reach 12 million gallons, far short of the 100-million-gallon mandate that year.

Range Fuels had gotten an initial $76 million from the DOE, then an $80 loan guarantee from the USDA. They also got $100 million in private equity. (I predict some folks are going to lose some money – including taxpayers). But that still wasn’t enough, so they went back to the DOE for more money. This time, the DOE said no:

The Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, producers say, has been particularly flawed. No advanced biofuel makers, aside from a partnership between BP PLC and Verenium Corp., have so far won approvals.

“We received a ‘Sorry, Charlie’ letter,” said Bill Schafer, a senior vice president of Range Fuels Inc., which is now building a cellulosic facility in Soperton, Ga., slated for completion early next year.

He said that under the program, biofuels companies must compete directly against solar, wind and even compressed natural gas — all energy technologies that, unlike advanced biofuels, have already been built at commercial scale.

So there you have it. The DOE seems to be losing some of the earlier enthusiasm for cellulosic ethanol. Range Fuels is here at the conference, by the way. I should probably say hi.

Again, this highlights the risk of mandates. Costs can spiral out of control. The ultimate cost can’t be easily predicted. Instead of assuming that technology can be mandated if enough money is thrown at it, we would all have been better off had there merely been subsidies offered. In that case, if this is truly not economically viable, the taxpayer may not have to foot the bill for millions of dollars for failed or stalled plants.

Printing Money

One of the reasons I invest in oil companies is that I think oil prices will continue to spike higher in the future. Because of the recession, we currently find ourselves with excess production capacity. But it looks to me like that excess production capacity will be eroded in the future, which will once again put pressure on prices. Oil companies will again reap very big profits by supplying a dwindling resource. (Whether governments will aggressively move to confiscate these profits is another question entirely).

There is another view that the oil companies will die out as oil depletes, and therefore oil stocks are very risky investments in the longer term. I don’t subscribe to this view because I believe the oil companies will possess enough cash to enter into any future energy business that looks lucrative. If we are supplying 90% of the cars with liquid fuels derived from coal in 20 years, I suspect it will be the oil companies producing it. In fact, most major oil companies – ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips – have active programs in this area. It is a naïve view to think that the oil industry as a whole will fail to anticipate the changing markets. That’s why I always think it is humorous that people feel the ethanol industry is a threat. If the oil industry thought it was a threat, there is nothing keeping them from getting involved.

Paul Sankey of Deutsche Bank just put forth both views in a new report. As I have mentioned previously, I think Sankey is an analyst who really understands the industry. And I agree with his first comments. I just don’t think he is right about the second point.

Don’t Fill Up on ConocoPhillips

That one is a somewhat misleading title because he is recommending ConocoPhillips (which I do own):

DESPITE NUMEROUS SIGNS that the global economy is still struggling, just about everyone following energy predicts at least one more spike in oil prices in coming years.

It’s just that scenario that prompted Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Sankey to publish today a 61-page opus to clients in which he upgraded shares of ConocoPhillips (COP) to “Buy” from “Hold” and raised his price target to $55 from $40.

Sankey’s thesis — and he’s not alone — is that Conoco will benefit in such a scenario by being able to sit back and milk profits from its existing reserves of oil with minimal new investment, thus leading to generous cash flows.

In brief, Sankey sees global demand surging again with economic rejuvenation, leading to a spike in oil of $175 per barrel in 2016, after which developments in global fuel efficiency, specifically electric cars, will cause demand for crude to fall off precipitously, until oil comes back into equilibrium with supply at $100 per barrel in 2030.

Sankey spells out why he is long-term bearish on the oil companies:

Peak Oil: The End Of the Oil Age is Near, Deutsche Bank Says

Deutsche Bank expects the electric car to become a truly “disruptive technology” which takes off around the world, sending demand for gasoline into an “inexorable and accelerating decline.”

In 2020, the bank expects electric and hybrid vehicles to account for 25% of new car sales—in both the U.S. and China. “We expect [electric propulsion] will reverse the dynamics of world oil demand, and spell the end of the oil age,” the bank writes.

But won’t cheaper oil in the future just lead to a revival in oil demand? That’s what’s happened in every other cycle. Au contraire, says the bank: Just as the explosion of digital cameras made the cost of film irrelevant, the growth of electric cars will make the price of oil (and gasoline) all but irrelevant for transportation.

He could be right, but I am betting against it. But I may find that in 20 years ConocoPhillips’ core business is something entirely different than it is today.

ExxonMobil’s MTG Technology

One of the more interesting presentations for me at the gasification conference has been ExxonMobil’s work on a different kind of coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology. Conventional CTL would involve gasification of the coal to syngas, followed by a Fischer Tropsch reaction that converts the gas into liquid fuels such as diesel. Exxon has a different process, in which they gasify the coal, but then they turn it into methanol. As I have said before, methanol can be made quite efficiently, and I think it’s a shame that it wasn’t allowed to compete with ethanol on an equal footing. But the technology doesn’t stop at methanol. The methanol is dehydrated to di-methyl-ether (DME, also a nice fuel). The DME is then passed over a catalyst and converted to gasoline in yields of around 90%. The technology is called methanol-to-gasoline (MTG).

The process has been around for a while, but hasn’t gotten much attention. In the 80’s and 90’s, they ran a 14,500 bbl/day plant in New Zealand. As far as synthetic fuel facilities go, that’s a big plant with an impressive track record of operation. The on-stream reliability of the plant was over 95% during its operation. (Following the oil price collapse in the 90’s, the plant stopped upgrading the methanol, and just made methanol the end product).

The advantage of the process is that capital costs are reportedly lower than FT, and the product is gasoline – in high demand in the U.S. The disadvantage is that the process produces relatively little diesel and jet fuel. The military and various airlines are highly interested in FT because of its ability to supply these important fuels.

Exxon reports that a new plant, based on 2nd generation technology with better heat integration and process efficiency, has been built in Shanxi, China. At 2,500 bbl/day, the facility is smaller than the earlier New Zealand facility, but Exxon has licensed MTG technology to a pair of companies in the U.S. DKRW announced in 2007 that they would utilize MTG in a 15,000 bbl/day facility in Medicine Bow, WY. Synthesis Energy Systems announced in September 2008 that they would license MTG for their global CTL projects.

While Exxon seems to be more focused on coal to gasoline, there is no reason this process couldn’t be used to turn natural gas or biomass into gasoline (GTL and BTL). This technology could be complementary to FT technology, providing gasoline while FT supplies the liquid fuels needed for airlines, marine applications, long-haul trucking, and the military.

During the Q&A, though, one guy asked “If this is so great, why aren’t you building these plants yourselves?” The answer was that they weren’t experts, and only wanted to license.

October 6, 2009 Posted by | btl, cellulosic ethanol, ConocoPhillips, COP, ExxonMobil, Paul Sankey, range fuels, XOM | 115 Comments

China Tightens Grip on Africa’s Energy Resources with Stake in Offshore Field

Today a topical post the latest from Money Morning, which as I previously explained will be featured here whenever they have relevant material to offer. As always, normal caveats apply: I am not an investment advisor. I don’t endorse any specific stocks mentioned in the following story nor the ad at the end of the story.

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China Tightens Grip on Africa’s Energy Resources with Stake in Offshore Field

By Jason Simpkins Managing EditorMoney Morning

CNOOC Ltd. (NYSE ADR: CEO) and Sinopec Corp. (NYSE ADR: SHI) have agreed to buy a 20% stake in an oil field off the shore of Angola for $1.3 billion, illustrating China’s persistent attempts to acquire resources for its economic expansion at a time of weakness for many Western oil majors.

CNOOC and Sinopec will form a 50-50 joint venture to buy the stake in the so-called Angola Block 32, which has 12 previously announced discoveries. The Chinese energy giants purchased the stake from U.S.-based Marathon Oil Corp. (NYSE: MRO), but the sale is still subject to government and regulatory approval.

Marathon’s existing partners in the block – France’s Total SA (NYSE ADR: TOT), Portugal’s Galp Energia SGPS SA, Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), and Sonangal, Angola’s state-owned oil company – have a right of first refusal. Marathon will keep a 10% interest in the block.

The oil field “is a significant resource base with estimated recoverable light crude oil reserves of 1.5 billion barrels,” Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) analysts wrote in a report, according to MarketWatch. “The $1.3 billion consideration compares with our valuation of $1.4 billion to $1.65 billion and Marathon’s publicly disclosed offer of $1.8 billion to $2 billion.”

The acquisition will build on CNOOC’s “growing deepwater exposure” and values the recoverable reserves at $4.30 a barrel, the analysts said.

The acquisition will also build on two of Beijing’s broader objectives: Securing long-term energy resources and expanding its presence in underdeveloped, and riskier, countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Since last fall, China has been using the Western world’s financial crisis as an opportunity to stock up on commodities while prices are low.

Sinopec recently paid $7.22 billion to acquire the Addax Petroleum Corp., a Canada-based energy company with operations in West Africa and Iraq. Meanwhile, Sinopec’s rival, China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), made its own foray into Iraq, winning the first contract in more than 30 years to develop the Rumaila oil field.

China’s involvement in Africa has an even richer history. In 2006, Beijing hosted the China-Africa Cooperation Forum – an event attended by more than 40 African heads of state. At the forum, China unveiled $9 billion in preferential loans, export credits, and trade incentives – all part of a strategic plan to achieve a preferential status with key African nations.The meeting was more than a mere publicity stunt to play up Beijing’s humanitarian efforts. It was a symbolic acknowledgment of growing cooperation between the regions.China has invested tens of billions of dollars directly into African-infrastructure and social-development projects, all in an effort to tighten its grip on the continent’s resources. Some examples:

  • In Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, office blocks, military headquarters and a refurbished stadium are all the work of planners from Beijing.
  • In Uganda, the new State House was built with Chinese money.
  • In the city of Rwanda, Chinese companies built 80% of all new roads.
  • And in Nigeria, China’s Civil Engineering Construction Corp. is building an $8.3 billion railroad linking Lagos and Kano.
  • And Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald says this is only the beginning.
    “It’s a virtual certainty that China will maintain this policy going forward,” Fitz-Gerald said. “My contacts in China and Africa have told me point blank that China’s leaders ‘don’t care about human rights or nukes or hostile governments.’ What matters is anyone who provides oil to China no matter what the rest of the world thinks.”

    [Editor’s Note: In a market as uncertain as the one investors face now, it helps to have a guide. And the ideal guide is The Money Map Report, the monthly investment newsletter that’s a sister publication to Money Morning. In fact, a new offer from Money Morning is a two-way win for investors: Noted commentator Peter D. Schiff’s new book – ” The Little Book of Bull Moves in Bear Markets” – shows investors how to profit no matter which way the market moves, while our monthly newsletter, The Money Map Report, provides ongoing analysis of the global financial markets and some of the best profit plays you’ll find anywhere – including such markets as Taiwan and China. To find out how to get both, Check out our latest offer. ]

    July 22, 2009 Posted by | Africa, China, ExxonMobil, Money Morning, Total, XOM | 31 Comments

    ExxonMobil in the Electric Car Business?

    An interesting link from a reader this morning:

    The Maya 300: An Exxon-Assisted Electric Car

    If you’ve picked up a magazine in the last year, you’ve likely seen ads touting ExxonMobil’s (XOM) research into lithium-ion batteries.

    This week, you will get a further look into how that technology will come to the marketplace.

    Electrovaya on Wednesday will discuss its plans for the Maya 300, an all-electric vehicle coming in 2011. The car will run on lithium-ion batteries, charge in about eight to 10 hours, run for 60 miles and plug into regular 110-volt outlets. It will cost around $20,000 to $25,000. An extended-range battery option will run for 120 miles on a charge and cost $30,000 to $35,000.

    Turns out that ExxonMobil makes one of the components of the battery:

    Exxon Entering Electric Vehicle Market With Maya 300

    Electric vehicles have definitely hit the big time now that gasoline-slinging companies are getting involved. The Maya 300, an all-electric vehicle coming out in 2011, will feature a lithium ion battery separator film dubbed “the SuperPolymer” from Exxon-Mobil. The separator–a critical part of li-ion batteries–can withstand temperatures up to 374 degrees. That’s 85 degrees more than competing separator films can take.

    Interesting development. If you asked me which oil company would be involved in battery technologies for electric cars, I wouldn’t have guessed Exxon.

    June 22, 2009 Posted by | batteries, electric cars, ExxonMobil, XOM | 9 Comments