Posts by Robert Rapier
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»
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:
Congress Mandates Cellulosic Ethanol and The EPA Tracks It
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with tracking compliance under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) that was set in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Obligated parties under the RFS2 must demonstrate compliance with Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which the EPA created to track RFS2 compliance. A RIN is a 38-character number assigned to a gallon equivalent of renewable fuel produced or imported. For corn ethanol, 1 gallon of ethanol produced generates 1 RIN. Other kinds of biofuel generates RINs at different rates which are defined by the EPA. For certain gaseous biofuels, such as di-methyl-ether (DME) and bio-methane (methane typically produced from sewage sludge or manure), the EPA has specified that 77,000 British thermal units (BTUs) of fuel are 1 gallon of renewable fuel equivalent. Not coincidentally, this is the energy content of 1 gallon of ethanol.
Obligated parties that produce or own RINs must register with the EPA, and RIN generation and transaction data is available from the EPA Moderated Transaction System (EMTS). A RIN is attached to each gallon of renewable fuel (or equivalent) as it is transferred to a fuel blender. After blending, RINs are separated from the blended gallon and are used by obligated parties (blenders, refiners, or importers) as proof that they have sold renewable fuels to meet their RFS mandated volumes. An obligated party can purchase RINs to satisfy their obligations, and that’s exactly what many obligated parties do. CONTINUE»
Occasionally I am deluged with inquiries about a particular news story. That happened this week. As the inquiries mounted, I decided I better address the story. After I saw one more gushing, uncritical report on CNN, I knew a reality check was in order.
This week German car manufacturer Audi announced they can economically produce carbon-neutral automotive fuel from ingredients found in the atmosphere:
That article’s subtitle is “Carbon-neutral diesel is now a reality.” The article explains:
German car manufacturer Audi has reportedly invented a carbon-neutral diesel fuel, made solely from water, carbon dioxide and renewable energy sources. And the crystal clear ‘e-diesel’ is already being used to power the Audi A8 owned by the country’s Federal Minister of Education and Research, Johanna Wanka.
There is also an explanatory graphic that goes along with the story, and that’s where a few people might begin to ask some critical questions about this process: CONTINUE»
Last week the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its Annual Energy Outlook 2015 (AEO2015). The report presents updated projections for U.S. energy markets through 2040 based on six cases, defined as follows:
- Reference — Real gross domestic product (GDP) grows at an average annual rate of 2.4% from 2013 to 2040. North Sea Brent crude oil prices rise to $141/barrel (bbl) (2013 dollars) in 2040.
- Low Economic Growth — Real GDP grows at an average annual rate of 1.8% from 2013 to 2040. Other energy market assumptions are the same as in the Reference case.
- High Economic Growth — Real GDP grows at an average annual rate of 2.9% from 2013 to 2040. Other energy market assumptions are the same as in the Reference case.
- Low Oil Price — Light, sweet (Brent) crude oil prices remain around $52/bbl (2013 dollars) through 2017, and then rise slowly to $76/bbl in 2040 while OPEC increases its liquids market share from 40% in 2013 to 51% in 2040
- High Oil Price — Brent crude oil prices rise to $252/bbl (2013 dollars) in 2040 while OPEC’s market share declines to 32%.
- High Oil and Gas Resource — Estimated ultimate recovery (EUR) per shale gas, tight gas, and tight oil well is 50% higher and well spacing is 50% closer than in the Reference case. Tight oil resources are added to reflect new plays or the expansion of known tight oil plays, and the EUR for tight and shale wells increases by 1%/year more than the annual increase in the Reference case to reflect additional technology improvements. This case also includes kerogen development; undiscovered resources in the offshore Lower 48 states and Alaska; and coalbed methane and shale gas resources in Canada that are 50% higher than in the Reference case.
I have been pretty adamant — some may say stubbornly so — about my expectations for crude prices this year. I have argued against the notion that oil prices were going to fall to $20 or $30/bbl for several reasons. In a nutshell, those reasons are:
- This is well below the marginal cost of shale oil production, and you can expect shale oil supplies to begin contracting in response to falling prices
- Growing crude oil inventories will peak soon for seasonal reasons
- Lower oil prices will spur demand
I have made this argument a number of places, including in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Noted oil analyst Philip Verleger made a comment following that article that those calling for collapsing prices are correct, and he patted himself on the back with the comment “A few of us who make a living in the field did (call the price collapse correct)” while arguing that those writing for the Wall Street Journal don’t “seem to understand what is going on” and are “in the dark ages.” Them’s fighting words! CONTINUE»
While U.S. crude oil inventories have been surging since last fall, I have argued that these inventories should peak off soon. There are several reasons for this, but the primary reason is that March is historically the month that refinery utilization is at its lowest, due to the popularity of performing refinery maintenance during the month. The difference in crude oil demand from refiners between March and July has historically been about 10 million barrels per week. This alone should be enough to halt the ~8 million weekly crude oil build that we have seen thus far in 2015.
Another factor is that the large capital spending cuts that have accompanied the oil price collapse will begin to negatively impact oil production. The Energy Information Administration reported 2 weeks ago that U.S. oil production had suffered a weekly decline for the first time since January. Last week, production was almost flat, up only 18,000 bpd over the previous week. Meanwhile, U.S. refinery inputs surged by 201,000 bpd, climbing back above 90% utilization for the first time in 2 months. This should have dropped crude oil inventories by more than a million barrels for the week, but the EIA reported a huge inventory build of nearly 11 million barrels for the week.
What is the explanation for this? CONTINUE»
In my previous column – Is the U.S. Running Out of Crude Oil Storage? – I discussed the tightening crude oil storage picture in the U.S. That column has already generated the highest level of feedback and inquiries from readers and the media of any I have written in quite some time. So I want to follow up and drill down a little more, and show why this situation is more dynamic than is typically conveyed.
Since I wrote that article, there have been 2 more weeks of crude oil storage builds. Pundits continue to predict that crude oil prices have nowhere to go but down, because something has to give. Well, something is about to give. CONTINUE»
Update: See my latest article Crude Oil Inventories Should Peak Soon for an understanding of how important refinery utilization is in this picture.
No, despite the popular narrative that we keep hearing, the U.S is not running out of crude oil storage. Yet there are those who are predicting that oil prices are going to fall to $20 or $30 a barrel, pointing to the crude oil storage numbers and suggesting that we are near maximum capacity and therefore a price collapse is imminent. (Although Goldman Sachs did some backpedaling on their forecast this week).
The argument goes something like this: 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.”
At first glance, the argument seems to be pretty straightforward. But let’s dig into the data a bit. Admittedly, if you look at the storage numbers in the nation’s most important oil storage hub (and the price settlement point for West Texas Intermediate on the New York Mercantile Exchange) in Cushing, Oklahoma, it’s easy to form the impression that storage is filling up and an oil price crash is inevitable: CONTINUE»
I will preface this article with my standard disclaimer on the Keystone XL Pipeline project: I have no vested interest in the pipeline either way. My interest is in fostering honest debate and discussion on energy policy, and because there has been so much distortion and outright lies related to the pipeline project, I have addressed the topic from time to time.
To reiterate, I don’t think it ultimately makes much difference one way or the other whether the pipeline is built. Not to the environment and not to energy security. I think the likelihood that this oil will simply be transported to market via other means (rail, other pipelines, and/or tanker) is vastly underestimated by Keystone XL opponents. I think the U.S. and the world will use about the same amount of oil with or without it. Refineries on the Gulf Coast will continue to run heavy Venezuelan crude if it isn’t built, which is what would be backed out in favor of heavy Canadian crude if it is built. That Venezuelan crude will continue to be transported via ship, and those have been known to spill oil. I think the risks of the pipeline have been vastly overstated by people who are generally unaware of the extent of the North American oil and gas pipeline system — and consequently how low the incident frequency actually is.
That summarizes what I believe are some of the misconceptions and misleading arguments from those who are arguing against the pipeline. But don’t mistake that as me lobbying for the pipeline. I don’t think I have ever said “We need this pipeline.” I will never be at a pro-pipeline rally. For most people who care one way or another, Keystone XL is just symbolic. The impact of building it — or not — is overstated by both sides. For those who are more interested in substance and who are concerned about the growing carbon dioxide inventory in the atmosphere — it’s going to come down to whether actions around Keystone XL can be leveraged into something much, much greater.
I do understand the core of the opponents’ arguments. Behind all of the misleading and false claims, it really boils down to one thing. CONTINUE»