Why Make Predictions?
While there are actually other stories unfolding in the world of energy, you would never know that by my inbox. Most of the correspondence I have received in the past week is still related to oil prices, particularly following the recent huge rally in crude futures. A few readers also wanted to make sure that I noticed that one of my 2015 predictions had fallen last week. I will address that in today’s column.
For background, each year in January I make predictions for the upcoming year, and I provide the context for those predictions. (See My 2015 Energy Predictions). I have been doing this for several years, and at the end of each year I grade my predictions. As I have stated on many occasions, context around a prediction can be more important than the prediction itself. When I grade the predictions, I will talk about the context when I made each prediction, and the reasons the predictions turned out to be right or wrong.
But one reader asked why I would even attempt to make predictions given such uncertain conditions. I make predictions to set up a narrative that describes what I see unfolding in the energy sector, incorporating as much data as I can into making each prediction. While this is not an investment column, I am aware that some readers use it for investment advice. So without overtly recommending investments, I generally try to make predictions that are actionable. I will give 2 examples of that today, one of which is the prediction that failed last week. CONTINUE»
The July announcement from Chevy of its upcoming $38K, 200-mile range Bolt electric car may be of similar historical importance to Nissan’s announcement back in 2011 of the Leaf.
As the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) retests the $40 per barrel (bbl) mark, some pundits are again calling for WTI to fall to $15 or $20/bbl. The same thing happened earlier in the year when crude prices tested $40. Lots of people predicted $20, the price went to $60, and the $20 crowd went quiet for a while. Well, they are back:
“There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest we have bottomed. You could have $15 or $20 oil — easily,” influential money manager David Kotok told CNNMoney. “I’m an old goat. I remember when oil was $3 a barrel,” said Kotok, whose clients include former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean.
Yes, and you could get a candy bar and soda for a nickel. But I will bet him $10,000 we don’t see WTI at $15/bbl unless he has access to a time machine. Today I want to address this argument. I got into a debate on this topic with a person yesterday, and I am seeing enough of these predictions that I thought it warranted addressing. Again. The $20/bbl argument goes something like this: Crude oil inventories are extremely high. U.S. oil production keeps rising. Demand is falling. Something has to give. CONTINUE»
Last December the Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its latest estimate of U.S. Crude Oil and Natural Gas Proved Reserves. Although natural gas reserves rose, the real story was crude oil reserves. The EIA reported that U.S. proved reserves of crude oil and lease condensate had increased for the fifth year in a row, and had exceeded 36 billion barrels for the first time since 1975:
There are two reasons for this increase in proved reserves. The first is that despite >150 years of oil production in the U.S., new fields are still being discovered. In March 2015 the EIA released its update to the Top 100 U.S. Oil and Gas Fields as a supplement to the December report. This was the EIA’s first update on the Top 100 fields since 2009. The most significant addition to the list was the Eagleville field (in the Eagle Ford Shale), which was only discovered in 2009 but is now the top producing oil field in the U.S. In addition to the Eagleville, there were 4 other fields in the Top 100 that were only discovered in 2009. Several others in the Top 100 were discovered in 2007 and 2008.
But the largest additions to reserves weren’t via new discoveries at all. The largest reserves additions have been a result of rising oil prices, and this is a source of frequent misunderstanding on the topic on reserves. CONTINUE»
I recently recieved two emails on the same day; one about more palm oil plantations usurping yet another tropical ecosystem, this time for highly endangered African Gorillas instead of Indonesian Orangutans, and the other from my local Sierra Club asking me to urge my elected representatives to reject a transportation funding bill that would not allow our Governor to mandate the consumption of biofuels. Instead, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times expressing my opposition to a biofuel mandate (which, of course, wasn’t published). I put a copy of that rejected submission at the end of this post as an example of what not to send to the Seattle Times Op Ed department. CONTINUE»
According to the recently-released BP (NYSE: BP) Statistical Review of World Energy 2014, the U.S. was the world’s largest and most diverse energy producer in 2014. The Statistical Review ranked the U.S.:
- #1 in oil production
- #1 in natural gas production
- #1 in nuclear power
- #1 in wind power
- #1 in geothermal power
- #1 in biofuels
- #2 in coal production
- #4 in hydropower
- #5 in solar power
The U.S. is clearly an energy production superpower, but we are an even greater energy consumer. Thus, despite the large amount of energy production, the U.S. is not energy independent. Our position as the #2 coal producer behind China (not coincidentally) mirrors our #2 position behind China in carbon dioxide emissions. And despite the rapid growth of renewable energy in both countries, carbon dioxide emissions in both countries rose in 2014 (to a new all-time record for China). CONTINUE»
Given the amount of air time the crude oil storage situation received back in March and April, this might be a good time to revisit that situation. If you recall, there was a great amount of hand-wringing regarding the crude oil storage picture in the U.S. Inventories were high and they were continuing to rise. There were a great many articles like this one, which assured us the situation was dire: US running out of room to store oil; price collapse next?
“The U.S. has so much crude that it is running out of places to put it, and that could drive oil and gasoline prices even lower in the coming months. For the past seven weeks, the United States has been producing and importing an average of 1 million more barrels of oil every day than it is consuming. That extra crude is flowing into storage tanks, especially at the country’s main trading hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, pushing U.S. supplies to their highest point in at least 80 years, the Energy Department reported last week.”
In last month’s article Where are the Unicorns?, I discussed the fact that the commercial cellulosic ethanol plants that were announced with great fanfare over the past couple of years are obviously running at a small fraction of their nameplate capacity. In fact, April was a record month for cellulosic ethanol production according to the EPA’s database that tracks this information, but that meant that at least 8 months into the learning curves for these plants actual production for that month was only about 6% of nameplate capacity.
May’s numbers are now in, and the situation has gotten worse. After reporting 288,685 gallons of cellulosic ethanol in April, May’s numbers only amounted to 114,018 gallons. This is only about 2.4% of the nameplate capacity of the announced commercial cellulosic ethanol plants. If we use year-to-date numbers, the annualized capacity is still less than 3% of nameplate capacity for facilities that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Let that soak in. POET alone spent $275 million, with U.S. taxpayers footing more than $100 million of that bill. Abengoa reportedly received $229 million from taxpayers for its project. For this (plus however much that was spent by INEOS), the combined plants are running at an annualized capacity of 1.7 million gallons of ethanol, which would sell on the spot market today for $2.6 million. CONTINUE»
I’ve recently discovered the reasonably priced LED shop light. “Big whoop” you may be thinking. It’s a bigger whoop than many realize, especially for me. Just for the fun of it, I measured the current draw of one of my old shop lights and one of the new LED versions. The LED lights use 66% less energy. This won’t make a meaningful, or possibly even a measurable difference in my electric bill but to put this into perspective, if you could achieve that level of efficiency improvement for all lighting in the country, from a CO2 emission perspective, it would be roughly equivalent to replacing about 7% of our fossil fuel power plants with renewable green lower CO2 emitting electrical energy sources, without having to build a single nuclear, wind, hydro, or solar power plant. That’s more than today’s total for wind and solar combined. Put yet another way, that is equivalent to about 1,000 utility scale wind projects (48,000 wind turbines), or about 36 nuclear power plants. But before you toss back that shot of whiskey in celebration, understand that the 66% reduction I achieved with my shop lights would not apply to all lighting across the country.
Just last year the Nobel Prize was awarded to the three Japanese scientists responsible for creating the version of diodes that is used for lighting today.
The only downsides of note I found (and I’m sure there are more) are the fact that insects are more attracted to diode lights and that they don’t generate enough heat to melt the snow when used as traffic lights (easily resolved by not using diodes). The insect problem appears to be potentially serious because insects are the key to nature’s food webs and I would hope that laws could be made to minimize their use outdoors where that is a concern.
The OPEC Free Fall
There is a popular narrative going around that I want to address in today’s article. Last November, after several months of plummeting crude oil prices, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met to discuss the oil production quotas for each country in the months ahead. Many expected OPEC to cut production in order to shore up crude prices that had been falling since summer. This was the strategy favored by OPEC’s poorer members, as many require oil prices at $100/barrel (bbl) in order to balance government budgets.
Instead, OPEC announced that they would continue pumping at the same rate. They chose to defend market share against the surge of supply from U.S. shale producers, and in doing so the fall in the price of crude oil accelerated. A look at the U.S. rig count shows the swift impact to U.S. shale drillers in the aftermath of that meeting: