February 21, 2015 § 4 Comments

Sustained low cost oil will certainly damage the substitution of petroleum products in transportation.  For the purposes of this discussion we will operate with the scenario that oil will hang around in the range $40 to $60 per barrel.  But the answer to the question is more nuanced because oil is not oil.  Different types of oil have differing carbon footprints and production costs.  On the one hand, more cheap oil will inevitably lead to greater consumption and hence more associated carbon release.  But what if the carbon footprint of the crude oil goes down, what then may be the net impact?  We will discuss these matters below.

My position on oil substitution is essentially that of Ann Korin and Gal Luft in their book Turning Oil into Salt, substituting to the point that oil ceases to be a strategic commodity, and merely a useful one with alternatives.  Prior to this oil price crash we were on our way albeit haltingly.

green car

Status of Substitutes:

One entire class of substitutes was driven by arbitrage between gas and oil driven by per unit of energy price differential.  This did not exist until about 2005 because both commodities were in lock step.  In our assumed scenario the gap is still there, just closer to a factor of two than four in the US.  The obvious casualties are natural gas conversion to diesel or gasoline.  Sasol has already indefinitely postponed the Louisiana GTL plant.  They would have struggled to be profitable at $90 oil.  At half that they are in deep strife.  Also, at a relatively constant $50 oil price US shale oil is essentially the swing producer, meaning ups and downs in this sector take the world price with them.  In this scenario OPEC is essentially toothless and cannot be relied upon to be a stabilizing force on price.  Nothing hurts a costly GTL plant with long amortization schedules more than uncertainty.  With cheap shale gas in the US Sasol likely thought they had that licked.  Then oil became low and uncertain and the wheels came off.

Less impacted will be gas to other liquids such as methanol and dimethyl ether.  These are raw materials for a lot of chemicals and have world prices in their own right.  Also, China is on a big push to substitute gasoline with methanol.  Since that was driven largely by tailpipe emissions especially in urban areas, the reduction in the price of oil may not have as much effect.  That could put a floor on the world price of methanol.  Dimethyl ether is a seamless blend with LPG, a common fuel in countries such as India.  Not yet commonly done, the lower hydrocarbon prices could slow down that thrust.

Direct combustion of natural gas in vehicles has had a lot of traction in the form of CNG in short haul and LNG in long haul applications.  The narrowing of the oil/gas price will certainly reduce the economic merit of this action and consequently slow the momentum except in non-attainment areas and the like.  The struggling passenger vehicle program will more than ever need technological advances in higher density and low pressure storage systems allowing economical charging in homes.

The challenge faced by widespread adoption of electric vehicles remains the same: battery prices south of $200 per Kwh are necessary.  The next most important factor is reasonable night time pricing of electricity in all states.  Gasoline prices matter, but not as much as the other two factors.  The fact that electric vehicles (EV’s) are 60% more efficient well to wheel, and hence lower emitters of GHG (at power plants in their case) than conventional engines, ought to be recognized in policy setting.  CAFÉ standard do not adequately take into account EV’s.  At this early stage that is fair enough but a standard explicitly targeting emission reduction ought to recognize the unique EV advantage.  The common challenge to EV’s is that they are only as clean as the electricity producing plant.  The increased efficiency noted above means they simply use less energy no matter where it is produced.  Furthermore, we are well on our way to at least solar power being cost competitive with alternatives in many markets without subsidies.  Taken together with coal substitution by gas we can expect a gradual greening of electricity, certainly in the time frame that EV’s could reasonably be a double digit percentage of the market.

Carbon Footprint

Consistently lower diesel and aviation fuel prices will reduce costs in the delivery of goods and of people.  If this cost advantage is passed on it will increase commerce.  Passenger vehicles will be driven more with low gasoline and diesel prices.  CAFÉ standards will be harder to meet because the US public always switches to SUV’s and pickups when fuel prices drop.  All of this and sheer increased commerce will add to the carbon burden.

What of the oil types and their carbon footprint?  Canadian heavy oil is famously considered “dirty” by the folks opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline, meaning, that it has a high carbon footprint.  This comes about in two ways.  One is that this oil is intrinsically carbon rich compared to the hydrogen content.  When refined it has a residue of carbonaceous material known as petroleum coke which is essentially coal with some differences.  This can amount to up to 18% of the original oil.  The second is that getting it out of the ground requires more energy than for recovering conventional oil.  This energy use produces CO2. There is one other piece.  Refining it requires a lot of heat to break down the big molecules.  Considering all these factors it is a bit surprising that scholarly studies estimate only about 16% more carbon intensity when considering the “well to wheel” full cycle analysis.  Part of the reason may be that so much of the emission is in the final combustion process no matter the source.  One study has it as low as 6%.  In any case it is more.

Prior to shale oil bursting on the scene, the marginal barrel of oil was getting progressively heavier.  Even the more recent Saudi Arabian oil field Manifa is relatively heavy in character.  The continued growth in oil consumption equated to more carbon release.  Then came shale oil which is the polar opposite: very light and low carbon to hydrogen ratio comparatively.  When shale oil is refined there is no need for high temperature molecule breaking processes.

Oil priced near $50, our scenario, results in a shift away from Canadian heavy oil provided enough of the light oil is available and can be produced sustainably.  Canadian oil sands are exploited in one of two ways: Open pit mining and treatment of the oily sand and in-situ heating with steam to make it flow (SAGD).  New mining operations break even at about $90 and are unlikely to be pursued.  Paradoxically, already constructed mines are relatively cheap to operate if you don’t count amortization, in the vicinity of $25 per barrel operating cost, so current plants will continue to produce.  SAGD breaks even around $65.  Almost all future growth plans as far as I am aware are for SAGD, and this was even before the crash.  Technology development continues to reduce the steam to oil ratios, which will help costs and carbon footprint.

Shale oil breaks even somewhere between $40 and $70.  In our scenario the higher cost ones and those with restrictive financing will drop eventually.  But the key point is this.  These are early days in shale oil exploitation and technology to reduce costs is certain, it is only a question of timing.  So, if the reserves are in fact there, North America will shift to a higher fraction of light oil and hence lower carbon footprint.  But the original objective of chipping away at the oil monopoly of transport fuel still stands, while somewhat compromised by the low price on what it is substituting.

Vikram Rao

The Lack of a Natural Gas Shock

February 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

This is a Guest Post by Daniel Kauffman

Everyone has noticed that the price of gasoline is down significantly in 2015, with average prices in the range of $2.00-$2.20 per gallon compared to $3.40-$3.70 per gallon last summer.  This 40% decrease makes sense given the 50% decrease in the price of a barrel of oil, which has dropped to $45-55 per barrel of West Texas Intermediate in 2015 compared to $95-$105 last summer.  What has largely been overlooked is that though our gasoline bill is way down, our natural gas bill is not.

Last summer I was paying $0.93 per therm (about one hundred cubic feet) for natural gas, and now I am paying $0.89 per therm, only 4% less.  How is it that we are seeing less money leave our pocket for gasoline but not for natural gas?  Is there no downward natural gas shock to mirror the recent downward oil shock?   Domestic wholesale natural gas prices have fallen, but not by as much as oil has.  Henry Hub wholesale natural gas spot prices saw one million Btu (MMBTU) of natural gas (about 10 therms) trade in the $4.00-$4.50 range last summer, and are now trading in the range of $2.60-$3.00 (note: a million Btu is about 10 therms, so that is a drop from ~$0.42 to ~$0.28 per therm).  The first thing to notice is that the wholesale natural gas price drop of ~1/3, though significant, is not as large as the 50% oil price drop.  The second thing to notice is that the price pass-through to the consumer is much higher for oil:  around 70-80% of the price decrease in oil is being passed through to the pump in its refined derivatives of gasoline and diesel, whereas we are only seeing a scant 4¢ cent/therm retail price cut on natural gas from a 10-15¢ cent/therm wholesale price drop, a less than 50% pass-through.  The natural gas I am using to heat my home seems to be more expensive than it ought to be.

Let’s take these two issues separately: first the smaller wholesale natural gas price decrease, then the smaller pass-through reduction.

Kauffman graphic

Two Years of Wholesale Oil and Natural Gas Prices

Source:  Bloomberg

One explanation for the smaller wholesale natural gas price decrease is that domestic wholesale gas was already very cheap.  Natural gas in the U.S. is, to a large extent, a waste bi-product of the highly profitable oil production industry, and in many cases the low prices simply did not justify the expenditure on natural gas gathering infrastructure to bring the product to market.  The ratio of oil price in $/barrel to natural gas price in $/million Btu has dropped from ~24 last summer to ~18 now, but even 18 is very high by historic standards – it wasn’t until about 2009 that a long term range of 6 to 12 was exceeded (worth noting is that a barrel of oil has about six times the energy content of a million Btu of natural gas, so at a multiple of 18 we still value oil three times more than natural gas on an energy content basis).  To some extent an oil/natural gas ratio drop from 24 to 18 is really just a small regression towards the long-term mean.

Paradoxically, the oil price drop may in some places cause natural gas prices to increase.  This is because oil production will be deferred or new wells not drilled at all, thereby decreasing the quantity of natural gas coming to market.  Less extra natural gas will put less downward pressure on wholesale natural gas prices at locations where there is spare capacity to bring that natural gas to market.  Ironically, this also means that if oil prices go up again, natural gas prices may hold steady for the exact same reasons why they were already low to being with.

International LNG prices have recently come down dramatically.  LNG contract prices in Japan, the world’s biggest LNG importer, have dropped from $16 to $10 per million BTU from last year to this, and spot LNG prices are less than $7 (in case anyone wants to redirect an in-transit LNG tanker), the lowest level in five years.  Why has this precipitous drop not had a bigger impact on domestic prices? The simple reason is that the U.S. is not (yet) tied in to the global LNG trade, and so domestic supply and demand considerations will dictate prices with minimal international influence.  For LNG importers such as Japan and South Korea, natural gas can be substituted with oil or coal as a power generation input source depending on commodity prices.  Here in the U.S. though natural gas is still a growth fuel for power generation as decommissioning of old coal plants continue.  A substitution hedge to another fuel in the short term is not really in the cards and given low domestic natural gas prices is not at all necessary.

Does a precipitous fall in global natural gas prices threaten America’s competitiveness in natural gas-intensive industries?  Not really, and certainly not enough to move the needle on domestic wholesale natural gas prices.  There has been a move over the past five or so years to expand natural gas intensive industries in the U.S., which produce outputs such as methanol, chemicals, fertilizers and glass.  Such factories are long lead-time assets and once built prefer to run at capacity.  There have been no major announcements of postponements of projects because the energy economics are suddenly more favorable elsewhere in the world (note: postponements and cancellations may occur because of corporate capital allocation considerations, but that’s a different issue).  Foreign corporate owners might shift marginal capacity between their global factories based on relative regional input costs, but this is a very small short-term effect that would barely be noticed in the domestic wholesale natural gas markets.  For the time being much of the world’s wholesale natural gas will still have prices linked to oil, and most natural gas in Europe will retain the “brought to you by Putin’s Russia” brand.  Unless there is an assurance of long-term low natural gas prices somewhere else, corporations investing in America in part because of a competitive advantage in natural gas will have no reason to change plans.

In summary, here in the U.S. we have steady supply and captive long-term demand for natural gas, and a wholesale natural gas market detached from the far more globally fungible commodity of oil.  It makes sense that natural gas prices simply won’t drop as much here as oil will in a downward oil price shock.

As for the second issue, the smaller pass-through discount, consider the difference in industries between gasoline and natural gas distribution and retailing.  Gasoline is a refined commodity with multiple suppliers, delivered via tanker trucks in a highly competitive transportation industry, and sold to us by mom and pop gasoline retailers at very narrow retail margins.  Everywhere in this supply chain, assets are substitutable and margins are squeezed by competitive pressure.  Natural gas on the other hand more closely resembles the electric utility industry.  Retail natural gas utilities such as PSNC Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas procure bulk natural gas in long-term contracts, distribute through a capital intensive distribution pipeline network, have no retail competition, and are by extension regulated utility monopolies within their territories.  It would take a new distribution pipeline, such as the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, to put a long-term dent in local retail natural gas prices.  The competitive pressure in the two industries couldn’t be more different.

Personally, I’m going to enjoy the low gasoline prices while they last, which might not be for very long.  Though I would have liked to see lower heating bills this winter, I take comfort in the certainty that they will still be relatively low for many winters to come.

Daniel Kauffman, President of TerraCel Energy


February 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

Much reporting has been devoted to the hypothesis that Saudi Arabia held the line on not reducing production in the face of plummeting prices in order to drive US shale oil production into retreat.  If history repeats shale oil may actually become stronger, but not right away.

Hard to argue is the fact that the US has been placed in the position of becoming the swing producer.  In other words US production surges and declines will directly influence the world price of oil.  The Saudi’s used to be in that position and this was the primary basis for the OPEC cartel being the determinant of pricing.  The US added a million barrels per day (bpd) to the market each year for the last three years.  Until late last year this merely made up for declines in other parts of the world.  Then Libya added 700,000 bpd late last year and supply went into imbalance with demand.  This was particularly the case because China dropped into an unaccustomed single digit growth of their GDP, after a decade and more of double digit growth.  That drop in demand in China and elsewhere (India’s growth rate also ratcheted down) combined with US production and Saudi inaction led to a halving of oil price in the matter of a couple of months.

Most oil companies have responded with projected reductions in spending.  This will slowly have a depressing effect on production.  Shale oil has breakeven pricing between $40 and $65.  The higher cost prospects and those with restrictive financing conditions will drop out.  Also dropping out will be the so-called stripper wells, loosely defined as wells producing less than 100 bpd.  That’s right, shale oil wells produce as little as that.  In fact the vast majority are well under 700 bpd.  This compares to offshore wells producing 50 to a 100 times that.  Also, flat production in shale oil requires continuous drilling, due to high rates of decline in production in a given well.  The reported plummeting in rig count is therefore more of an indicator of future production decline than it would have been in conventional production.  All of this means that shale oil production can be expected to start declining in a matter of months.  This will put upward pressure on the price of oil.  A new normal may well settle in around $60 by the end of the year.

But the purpose of this essay is not to predict the future on oil pricing.  I am suggesting that a sustained low price of oil is likely to stimulate innovation.  In the decade comprising about 1985 to 1995, the price of oil had sunk and rig counts went from 2400 in 1985 to a flat 700 or so in the early nineties.  Forced to profit in a low oil price market (oil companies affected) and low rig count market (service companies impacted), industry, and the service companies in particular, responded with a basket of technologies that forced down the cost to produce.  For interest, the technologies were 3D subsurface imaging brought to the desk top, horizontal drilling and key enablers known respectively as steerable systems and measurement while drilling (MWD).  I was directly involved in the development and launch of the last mentioned, so know the period well.  The figure below shows the change in cost to produce over that period (undiscounted).  Service company profits were high because value pricing was available for that sort of gain.  The company in which I worked had revenue increases in the period 1987 to 1994 of about 7 times, and EBITDA increases with an even higher multiplier.

Production cost drop

Will history repeat?  The reason to respond in the affirmative is in part that the industry has been living on borrowed time in this sector.  In some ways the industry has been fortunate to profit while employing essentially brute force techniques. Many in the public believe that shale oil and gas spawned horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing.  Not so.  Horizontal wells hit the ground running in the period mentioned above and fracturing had been going on for decades prior to that.  In point of fact the technologies are being deployed in a very inefficient manner except for significant efficiency gains in the drilling process through pad drilling (closely spaced wells on a small footprint with rigs moving quickly on rails).  In particular, the reservoir is not being well managed.  Up to 50% of fracturing zones can be non-productive.  Only about 5% of the oil in place is currently being recovered.  New wells decline in production up to 70% in the first year.  All of these can be attacked with a high likelihood of success.  Again, the most likely players in this are the service companies in part because the vast majority of shale oil and gas is being produced by small players with little or no research capability.  This is my first mention of gas.  Shale gas will also profit directly from technology gains in the areas mentioned.

If history does repeat we could expect the breakeven price for shale oil to drop to $30 and below.  If that comes to pass, and industry responds predictably, and the reserves are in fact there, the world will be awash in oil again.  Market forces of supply and demand will control and OPEC will cease to be important.

Vikram Rao


December 1, 2014 § 1 Comment

The November 24, 2014 issue of the Wall Street Journal has a point counterpoint piece on this issue.  Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen speaks against the notion of lifting the oil export ban and Jason Bordhoff of Columbia University is in support.  They both discuss the popular issues: effect on gasoline price to the consumer, national energy security and the environmental threat of continued shale oil production.


                                     Source: Energy Information Administration

The Domestic Oil Glut: Good for Us?

Slocum raises an issue that is new to me, that the glut is beneficial.  He recognizes that keeping the export ban and thereby keeping US oil out of the world marketplace is a factor in West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil price running below Brent, the benchmark for the rest of the world.  The differential has been as much as $20 per barrel.  It was not always so.  Looking back the last five years, the split is coincident with the run up in production in Eagle Ford in 2011 and then later the Bakken.  One could comfortably conclude that the differential was caused by US shale oil production and the inability to put it out on the world market.  Of further interest is the fact that Bakken crude fetched a price lower than WTI for much the same period (late 2010 until the present).  This was occasioned by the fact that the shale oil has a light sweet (sulfur less than 0.4 %) character.  While seemingly a reason to rejoice for refiners, this presents a vexatious problem for them.  They spent enormous capital on equipment to process heavy and mostly sour crude from Canada, Venezuela and Mexico.  They also can buy this crude at a significant discount to WTI because of the relatively high proportion of carbon that cannot be converted to a useful fuel or chemical.  Now they were being asked to substitute this discounted imported crude utilizing their expensive capital with domestic crude at WTI price that would idle said equipment.  They responded by offering a lower price than WTI.  This sort of market based pricing is normal.  However, in this instance the market is being manipulated by the export restriction.  US producers are not in a position to spurn the US refineries and sell for higher prices elsewhere.

Slocum argues that this is good for the country.  He maintains that the resulting glut in US supplies “helps insulate the American economy from the uncertainty caused by oil supply disruptions abroad. Opening exports would remove that protection, which would be disastrous.”  In other words he thinks maintenance of a supply glut in perpetuity through a policy action is a good remedy for the occasional burps in world supply.  The national Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) was created for just this scenario and no further policy action is needed in support.  30 million barrels of the reserve was released in 2011 in response to the Arab Spring related disruption.  I have also opined elsewhere that the SPR could be drawn down quite a bit in recognition of the fact that shale oil can be brought on stream very rapidly.  Proof for this assertion is that US shale oil production has increased by 1 million barrels per day (bpd) over each of the last two calendar years.

Effect upon Gasoline Pricing.

Both Slocum and Bordoff address this issue.  The public in general appears to be in Slocum’s court in believing that exports would cause the gasoline price at the pumps to go up.  Bordoff argues, in my opinion correctly, that gasoline is a world commodity and that prices are generally set by Brent pricing.  He ascribes this to a finding by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).  I also agree with his view that allowing US crude on the world market is likely to have some downward pressure on Brent pricing, and hence gasoline.  Of note, though, is that US crude would add light oil to the market increasingly dominated by heavier crude.  So the main destinations would be “simple” refineries not the complex ones such as those that spurned it in the US.  So a factor would be the number and locations of these.  It is known that several such refineries have been mothballed in Europe.  Incidentally, at least two small simple refineries previously shut down have now been reopened in Texas.  One new one has been permitted in the Bakken, the first new refinery permit in decades.

Curiously, neither of the two authors speaks to the effect of the policy to allow export of refined products, including gasoline.  These account for 3.5 million bpd.  In my view, the fact that gasoline can, and is, exported, is a factor in gasoline prices remaining high simply by supply and demand arguments.  In theory, however, a simple refinery located close to oil production could produce gasoline relatively cheaply and pass on the savings to the consumer locally.  But this is not likely to be a large effect.  Each of these refineries is less than 20,000 bpd, compared to world scale ones up to and over a million bpd.  So their cumulative impact is relatively small.  But if the trend takes a hold, and in my view it ought to, much of our oil could be processed in these highly distributed small refineries.  Pipelines would be minimized, with a positive environmental footprint as a result.  Today the Bakken is moving a million bpd crude oil in largely unregulated trains already shown to be prone to derailment and attendant damage.  Local refining would be a welcome alternative.

Vikram Rao


October 8, 2014 § 7 Comments

There is that movie soundtrack by Paul McCartney which goes “Live and let die”. If the current drop in oil prices (see figure below) is sustained for any significant length of time, the effect on countries will be highly variable.  A sustained Brent oil price below $90 per barrel will do potentially grievous harm to the Russian economy with or without the financial burden of aggression in the Ukraine.  The latest Russian budget was premised upon oil at $100, and given that over 40% of treasury coffers are filled with oil and gas revenue, a sustained price below $90 would be very difficult to swallow. Some reports have it that every $1 drop in Brent results in a $2.1 billion annual drop in revenue.  In fact in an earlier blog I had mused on the option of release of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (no longer needed in the US due to burgeoning domestic oil production), to drive down prices, or the mere threat to do so, to influence Russian aggression.

Oil price trend 2014

The US on the other hand will broadly be unaffected. A steady Brent price between $80 and $90 (if there is such a thing as steady oil pricing) could dampen some of the shale oil ardor.  Shale oil prospects are highly variable with respect to breakeven price, but the vast majority of them make good returns at $80 per barrel pricing.  Particularly if oil export were to be permitted, the net effect would be minimal.  This is because US shale oil currently sells at a discount to Brent of well over $10, and export would afford it full Brent pricing.  Allowing exports would markedly improve the resiliency of US shale oil production relative to softness in world oil pricing.

Many oil producing countries could be placed in an untenable situation were the Brent prices to stay below $90 for extended periods of time. The Gulf monarchies have spent lavishly on their populations especially following the Arab Spring.  Good numbers are hard to come by, but Saudi Arabia is believed to need a $90 price as a minimum to sustain the social benefits.  That number is higher in some of the other OPEC members such as Venezuela and Algeria, as also in Iran.

The drops in oil price do not appear to be any country’s doing. As we previously reported, world oil production dropped by 2 MM bpd over the last two years and was entirely made up by new US production from shale deposits.  But more recently supply has also picked up elsewhere, especially Libya.  Demand on the other hand has reduced, especially in the US.  The trend towards demand reduction will continue at least in the US, where methane and ethane will displace oil in transportation and as the feedstock for chemicals such as olefins.  Although unintended, a sustained drop in oil prices will serve the political interests of US and its allies vis a vis containing Russian aggression in the Ukraine.  A sustained loss of oil and gas export related revenue, in conjunction with economic sanctions, would make military expenditures in the Ukraine affair essentially infeasible.  The most related aspect of the sanctions is that with loss of revenue the Russian oil firms would need to borrow and foreign capital would simply not be available.

This is somewhat ironic because Russia has threatened to use curtailment of gas supplies to Europe as an imposition of political will. I have maintained in these pages that energy is a much more powerful weapon than armies for exacting pain for behavior seen as detrimental to the interests of a producing country, in this case Russia.  In other words they would be living by the sword of energy.  It seems now that there is a risk of dying (thrown into a deep recession) by that very sword, even if it was wielded unintentionally and by no one in particular.

Vikram Rao


September 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

The White House Science advisor John Holdren is credited with suggesting that responding to the threat of climate change ought to be some mix of mitigation, adaptation and suffering, and all that remained to be determined was the mix. This statement implies the inevitability of climate change and that preparing for it must be a part of the response.  I suspect this cheered the climate hawks more than the doves.  The suffering part is right out of the playbook of economists, the dismal science folks.  Bleak though it may be, it is recognition of a stark reality.  The entire statement is an acknowledgement that doing nothing is in fact a choice for suffering.  Accordingly, climate hawks must not take too much comfort in the statement.

Even those who consider that climate change is a reality do not necessarily agree that climate science is “settled”, a characterization that is common. Nobody doubts that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has adverse consequences to global warming.  But influential scientists such as Steve Koonin dispute the ability of our models to predict the balance between human and natural influences. Consequently, adaptation has to be an important part of the debate on response.

Hurricane Hugo Slams Into Puerto Rico

In discussing the Holdren utterance, David Roberts recently had some interesting takes.  He suggests that the effect of mitigation is global while that of adaptation is local. He goes on to conclude that mitigation is altruistic and adaptation is “the opposite”, serving only a self-interest.  We will now examine this very interesting point of view.

Mitigation is that great big grab bag comprising all the measures to reduce greenhouse gases. These range from carbon capture and storage to curbing fugitive methane to energy efficiency and conservation.  Many of these have positive outcomes to society beyond the carbon mitigation objective including economic value created. Mitigation certainly has global impact.  In fact the common complaint is that India and China are not doing their part and consequently exacerbating the problem.  So in that sense a mitigation action is altruistic because it benefits distant faceless people unknown to us.  But it is not that clear and simple.  Mitigation measures include many that are technologies which can be sold to other parts of the world for a profit, neatly removing them from the altruism bucket.  An example is small modular nuclear reactors which are well suited to the over a billion people with no access to power grids. This serves the purpose of mitigation through not using fossil fuel (in the case of villages it is usually subsidized diesel).  But it is also adaptive because distributed power is inherently more resilient due to absence of grid infrastructure. It is easier to implement distributed power when there is no grid at all.  Consequently this is a technology from the first world that is uniquely appropriate for the third world.  Transferability could apply to a host of energy efficiency technologies.  The execution of these measures in the west could well be viewed as altruistic but not the transfer to other parts of the world.

Roberts also contends that carbon mitigation is innately altruistic because the benefit accrues to people in the future. This would have a ring of authenticity were it not to be for the popular refrain that climate action makes the world better for “our grandchildren”.  There goes altruism.  Incidentally, there is a school of thought that privation well into the future ought to be discounted with a social discount rate (similar to a financial discount rate) of as much as 3%.  But this is not the forum for that discourse.

Adaptation is even more opaque. Roberts suggests that adaptation is solely local and “benefits only those proximate to the spender”.  While this is true of the measures taken to account for sea level rise (in fact he uses the example of sea walls), many other measures have immense transferability even without redistribution of wealth.  An important example is sustainable food production in the face of climate change.  Here we define climate change to be “alterations in climatic and weather conditions characterized by shifts in average conditions and in the frequency and severity of extreme conditions” as discussed in a 2012 report on adaptive food production methods. These approaches are in large measure transferable to the second and third worlds and in some cases explicitly so.

Some of us here at RTI have been mulling over the extent to which distributed production of fuels and chemicals may be seen as an adaptive defense against climate change. Distributed production is a relatively new concept of producing chemical plants fifty to a hundred times smaller than conventional and located closer to either the raw material source or the market.  For purposes of this argument we will assume cost neutrality with respect to the alternative conventional large plants.  Certainly this action would result in shortening of supply lines of raw material, finished goods, or both.  Supply lines are notoriously disrupted in extreme weather.  Fewer long distance pipelines would also result in a smaller environmental footprint.  This issue merits study in part because to date the entire push for distributed production has been premised upon economics only and not the societal benefit.

Vikram Rao


September 18, 2014 § 2 Comments

The oil export ban is an anachronism and needs to be lifted. The original energy security beliefs no longer hold water.  We are fast approaching the point at which domestic production augmented with that of the near neighbors Canada and Mexico will serve the bulk of our oil needs.  Combine this with the fact that an overabundance of natural gas will inexorably displace oil in many sectors, beginning with key chemicals such as ethylene and derivatives.

The most compelling argument until recently was the nature of the oil that we produce. It is light (API gravity greater than 40) and sweet (less than 0.4% sulfur), making it highly desirable to all but the US refineries.  This anomalous situation comes about from the fact that most US refineries are outfitted with expensive process equipment to handle heavy crude (API gravity less than 20) often with high sulfur and heavy metals.  Heavy crude sells for a discount of 15 – 30% to the benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI).  So they are loath to pay full WTI price for crude that does not effectively utilize their expensive equipment.  The result is that oil from the Bakken has sold in 2014 for a discount to WTI ranging from $5 to $15 per barrel.  WTI in turn is selling at a discount to the North Sea benchmark Brent price.  In 2014 that spread was between $5 and $12.  US refiners love this spread because their raw material is cheaper.  They also love the shale oil to sell at a discount to WTI.  They are the principal opponents to lifting the crude export ban.

A segment of the public believes that oil exports will lead to higher gasoline prices. Since oil is fungible, with a world price, this argument is not viable.  However, one could argue that export ban mediated lower cost oil would allow US refiners to produce gasoline for less and pass on that reduction to the consumer.  The fly in that particular ointment is that gasoline exports are permitted by law.  So refiners will necessarily sell to the highest bidder.  In fact, export of US diesel to Europe is believed to be in part responsible for the shutdown of refineries there.

This last point brings us to the second reason to consider lifting the ban: possible oil diplomacy. Europe currently imports over 3 million barrels per day (bpd) from Russia, in addition to 14.7 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd).  Retaliation for sanctions is likely to come in the form of energy supply tightening.  US oil exports to Europe will have two positive outcomes.  One is just the gesture of coming to their aid and the corollary benefit that this quality oil is well suited to “simple” refineries, especially in Eastern Europe. The other benefit is to the US GDP.  This oil will sell for Brent price, which as we noted before is $10 to $27 over what Bakken oil sells for today.  Even at just a million bpd, that results in additional revenue to US producers of up to $10 billion per year.  Keep in mind also that US shale oil production has been seeing annual increases of a million bpd for the last two years.  The figure reproduced below from Platts is striking.



Over the period February 2012 to May 2014 US production increase has single handedly made up for a net drop of 2 million bpd from the rest of the world. While this US production rate is expected to slow in 2014 to closer to 0.75 million bpd, the contribution will continue to be large, and the bulk of this is not suited to US refineries.  So the domestic glut of light sweet crude is likely to continue.  Exporting oil is good for the economy and a potentially important political gesture at a time when European allies are needed to combat the latest threat in the Middle East.

Vikram Rao


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