Energy on the Edge
Along with the OPEC meeting that takes place late this week, the biggest story in the world of energy is the Paris Climate Change Conference (Conference of Parties 21, or COP21) that runs through the end of next week. This conference is put on by the United Nations with the goal of producing a global agreement that will lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Implementation of strategies that will help mitigate potential impacts of climate change are also on the agenda.
Decarbonizing our energy systems by encouraging greater usage of alternative energy — a frequent topic of this column — is one of the common themes in the fight against rising greenhouse gas emissions. Next weekend a new episode of National Geographic Channel’s Breakthrough series covers progress being made on this front. “Breakthrough: Energy on the Edge” debuts Sunday, December 6, at 9 pm ET on National Geographic Channel and covers some of the latest advances in alternative energy.
Ahead of the premiere, National Geographic Channel contacted me and extended an invitation to join the conversation by answering the question “Do you think that by tapping into the new alternative energy sources we can reverse most of the damage we have done to our environment?” But first I think we need to step back and make sure we understand the problem. Failure to correctly characterize a problem makes it much more difficult to address that problem. So let me first offer some context on the question. CONTINUE»
A Long-Awaited Decision
Earlier this month, after a debate that spanned nearly the entire duration of his presidency, President Obama finally rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project. He had been heavily criticized on this issue from many angles, including by me, for his long-running failure to make a decision on this issue. For the record, my position on the pipeline wasn’t that it should be built. Nor that it shouldn’t. But rather that it was a distraction that garnered far more attention than it deserved, while more important issues desperately warranted attention.
Today, in the last Keystone XL article that I plan to write, I want to review the controversy, explain why I feel it took on a symbolic meaning far beyond what it deserved, and describe some of the other things that were taking place while an environmental movement mobilized to stop the pipeline. In a nutshell, I am going to strip the symbolism and wishful thinking and address things we actually know to be true. CONTINUE»
It’s Not That Simple
In my previous article Why the Bakken Boomed, I discussed the shale oil boom that has had such a dramatic impact in North Dakota’s Williston Basin over the past decade. But throughout the U.S. shale boom there have been those who doubted that the production gains would prove anything other than fleeting. Those doubts were grounded in the fact that shale oil production is more complex and expensive than conventional oil production, and the fact that cash flow has been consistently negative for virtually all shale oil producers.
While the doubts are based on fact, the story is more complex than it may appear. Isn’t that always the case though? Things are never quite as simple as they seem. Superficially, the narrative for many has been “Shale oil isn’t economical. The wells deplete too quickly. Just look at the negative cash flow.” But it’s just not quite that simple. Let’s dig a little deeper to gain a better understanding of what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to happen moving forward.
The Boom-Bust Cycle for Dummies
First it’s important to understand that the oil industry is cyclical, and more importantly to understand the reason that it is cyclical. The long history of the oil industry has been one of boom and bust cycles. During the booms we hear about windfall profits, but during the downward part of the cycle, oil companies lose a lot of money and many people lose their jobs. CONTINUE»
A Williston Basin Primer
In my previous article Addressing the World’s Flare Gas Problem, I discussed my current project, which recently took me to the Williston Basin in North Dakota and Montana. Today, I will discuss the region’s shale oil boom in greater detail. In Part 3 of this series, I will conclude by delving into the economics of shale oil production.
The Williston Basin underlies parts of North and South Dakota, Montana, southern Saskatchewan, and southwestern Manitoba. Within the Williston Basin is the Bakken Formation, which first produced oil over 60 years ago. It was on North Dakota farmer Henry Bakken’s farm in 1953 that Amerada Petroleum — later acquired by Hess (NYSE: HES) — discovered oil at a depth of about 10,000 feet. The Bakken Formation is to date the source of most of North Dakota’s rapid oil production growth, but underneath the Bakken Formation is the Three Forks Formation, which has also begun to produce oil:
Source: US Geological Survey CONTINUE»
I don’t generally use this column to discuss the projects that I am working on. In fact, it’s been more than 2 years since I did. But I often get inquiries about where I am and what I am doing, so in today’s column I thought I would update readers who may be interested.
Since I graduated from Texas A&M in 1995 with my master’s degree in chemical engineering, I have worked for 5 companies in 10 different locations — including 3 foreign countries. Most of my work has been on energy projects. I am not going to run through my entire career here, but I will explain what brought me to my current job. If you want a full accounting, please refer to my CV.
From 2009 to 2014, I worked for a company in Hawaii called Merica International. Merica was essentially a holding company for a German entrepreneur who lived in Hawaii and invested in energy companies and technologies. Most of the published biographies for me still list Merica as my employer. In my role as Chief Technology Officer for Merica, I had the responsibility for conducting due diligence and making investment recommendations. When I joined the company, one of the major holdings was the German company Choren, which produced diesel from biomass. I first wrote about Choren back in 2008 before joining Merica. Long story short, as is often the case with new technology, startup issues dragged on and on and we finally made the decision to shut the plant down. I documented the timeline for these events in What Happened at Choren? CONTINUE»
Another Clinton Administration Likely
I know some people cringe at the idea, but Hillary Clinton is the current favorite to win not only her party’s nomination, but the presidential election in 2016. An online Irish bookmaker lists Hillary at 11/8 odds to win the presidency, followed by Jeb Bush and Donald Trump at 9/2 odds, and then Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Marco Rubio at 8/1 odds. (You can even bet on Kim Kardashian at 1,000 to 1 odds of winning the 2016 presidential election).
Some will argue that her unfavorable ratings are too high, but all of the leading candidates have significant negatives of one kind or another. I imagine that Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump could result in the highest voter turnout in U.S. history — much of it from voters trying to keep the opposing candidate out of office. Others have argued that someone will rise up and knock Hillary out of the lead. That was my exactly feeling 8 years ago during the Democratic primaries when Hillary was in the lead — that Barack Obama would not only win the party’s nomination but would go on to win the presidency. I felt like he could beat McCain, but I didn’t think Hillary could have beaten McCain in 2008. But I don’t see a Barack Obama in the wings this time around. I think it’s Hillary’s election to lose, even though a large fraction of the population loathes her.
Hillary on Energy
Given the circumstances, let’s take a look at Hillary’s energy proposals. As I pointed out during the 2008 election campaign, her energy policy proposals have been rife with pandering and flip-flops. Of course they all do it to some extent. John McCain wasn’t above a bit of both, flip-flopping on ethanol and pandering by proposing a cut in gasoline taxes leading up to the election. CONTINUE»
The Origins of Peak Oil Awareness
The scientific study of peak oil began in the 1950′s, when Shell geophysicist M. King Hubbert reported on the evolution of production rates in oil and gas fields. In a 1956 paper Hubbert suggested that oil production in a particular region would approximate a bell curve, increasing exponentially during the early stages of production before eventually slowing, reaching a peak when approximately half of a field had been extracted, and then going into terminal production decline.
Hubbert applied his methodology to oil production for the Lower 48 US states and offshore areas. He estimated that the ultimate potential reserve of the Lower 48 US states and offshore areas was 150 billion barrels of oil. Based on that reserve estimate, the 6.6 million barrels per day (bpd) extraction rate in 1955, and the 52.5 billion barrels of oil that had been previously produced in the US, Hubbert’s base case estimate was that oil production in the US would reach maximum production in 1965. He also estimated that global oil production would peak around the year 2000 at a maximum production rate of 34 million bpd. CONTINUE»
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»
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»