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»
I tend to receive one or two guest submissions each week, most of which I pass on for various reasons. Either the submission isn’t topical enough, it has been republished multiple times elsewhere, I already have something scheduled, or it’s merely a front to generate traffic to a for-profit website that has nothing to do with energy.
This past week I received a submission that was original, well-written, and topical, although I had just published something. But I received the OK to wait until this week to publish it. The article was written by Elisabeth Wiebusch, a development consultant based out of New York who lived in Ghana for four years. She currently works on projects related to sustainability and energy in West Africa. I thought her article was educational, and because we spend most of the time talking about U.S. energy issues, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to shed light on the issues of another region of the world. So this week, Elisabeth discusses the challenges faced by Nigeria as they try to modernize their electricity grid. CONTINUE»
By now you have probably heard that a CSX (NYSE: CSX) train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota’s shale oil fields derailed and caught fire. The oil was bound for a coastal oil shipping depot owned by the midstream Master Limited Partnership Plains All American Pipelines (NYSE: PAA) in Yorktown, Virginia. While the cause is still under investigation, the train was carrying 109 tankers of crude oil. 26 of the cars left the tracks, and several caught fire. Some reportedly ended up in a tributary of the Kanawha River.
Fortunately, there were no casualties from the accident, but one thing is certain: There will be more incidents like this, and it’s a matter of time before another incident like this happens in a more populated area. While there are safeguards in place to minimize the risks when these trains have to go through towns, the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that claimed 47 lives emphasizes the risks of transporting flammable liquids.
Following the incident, someone asked me “Why do we transport something so dangerous via rail?” That’s a good question. Why do we do it? CONTINUE»
When I made my energy predictions for 2015, I made some very aggressive predictions. Perhaps the most aggressive was that the closing price of West Texas Intermediate would not fall below $40/barrel (bbl) in 2015. Why do I consider this a particularly aggressive prediction? Because on the day I made it, the price of WTI closed at $48.80, but in each of the previous three months the price of WTI had dropped at least $10/bbl over the course of the month. So if WTI had maintained the same downward trajectory, it could have easily ended January below $40/bbl. My prediction could have been proven wrong before we even got out of January, so I really stuck my neck out on that one.
It’s not that there is anything special about $40, and I acknowledge that it’s possible that we could overshoot. But I made the prediction to highlight my conviction that $40 oil simply isn’t a sustainable price in today’s world.
A number of respected pundits are projecting that we will go below $40/bbl, with some suggesting that crude could even crash all the way to $30/bbl. Last week on CNBC, respected oil analyst Stephen Schork said “I do think this is a dead cat bounce”, elaborating that at least over the next 2 to 3 months that there is too much oil supply relative to current demand. My point is that it has been a widely held belief that oil is going to fall below $40/bbl, so I am definitely on the wrong side of conventional wisdom on this prediction. That’s not a safe place to be, because when you are wrong in that case people think “Everyone read this correctly except for you.”
But I think conventional wisdom is wrong in this case. CONTINUE»
In the past few weeks I have received numerous questions about the role of a “drop in demand” in the oil price decline. These questions are driven by many stories in the media that have referenced a drop in demand.
There are two primary reasons given for this so-called demand drop. One is that years of high oil prices have resulted in reductions in consumption through conservation and improvements in vehicle fleet efficiency. The second reason is due to the strengthening dollar, oil has become more expensive for many countries since oil is generally traded in dollars.
There are elements of truth behind both reasons. There has indeed been reduced oil consumption in recent years in most developed regions of the world. It is also true that the dollar has strengthened against many currencies. But despite the rationale that explains this drop in oil consumption, ultimately the data must support the narrative. CONTINUE»
Happy New Year to readers around the world! For the past 5 or 6 years, I have begun the year by making predictions for the upcoming year in the energy markets. I am generally happy if I can hit on 60-80% of them. In 2014 I went 5 for 5, but I can say with a fair amount of confidence that this is a feat that’s unlikely to be repeated for 2015.
The reason for this is that I see a lot of uncertainty in the energy markets at this point. There are many changing variables right now, and the direction on several fronts is unclear. And if you look at some of the predictions others have made, that becomes obvious. I have seen predictions of $30 per barrel (bbl) oil and $100/bbl oil, and some suggesting that we would see both extremes. I have also seen people predict that oil production would decline in the U.S. after rising for 6 straight years.
Nevertheless, it’s time to take a stab at 2015. I will offer up my predictions, and explain the reasoning behind them. This year I am going to make 6 predictions. Note that understanding the narrative around the prediction can be more important than the prediction itself, because that can better prepare you for reacting to changing market conditions. CONTINUE»
There was an energy story that stood head and shoulders above all the rest in 2014, but no clear runner-up. After the #1 entry on the list below, the rest of the Top 10 is highly debatable. I don’t think there is a consensus #2 story, and I don’t believe there is a well-defined Top 10.
But I do believe there is a clear #1. Here are my choices for the Top 10 energy stories of 2014, followed by about 15 more that could have easily been on the list. Feel free to chime in with any major stories I have missed.
1. Crude oil prices collapse
On July 30, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) closed at $104.29 per barrel (bbl). The next day it suffered a sharp decline below $100/bbl. As the year comes to an end, WTI has dropped below $55/bbl. The last time oil was this cheap was during the global financial crisis six years ago. CONTINUE»
As the year expires and the new year arrives, there are several topics I like to cover in a series of articles. One is to review the top energy stories of the year. Another is to grade my predictions for the year. And finally, I lay out my predictions for the upcoming year.
Usually I have a dilemma of whether to grade my predictions first, or to lay out the energy stories first — because I normally do both stories at the end of the year, and something could potentially happen right at the end of the year that might change the narrative. For example, I might do the top energy stories this week, but what if something monumental happens in the next two weeks? The other option is of course to wait until after the first of the year, but then that delays my predictions.
This year, however, there isn’t much of a dilemma on which story to do first. I can grade my 2014 predictions at this point with a high level of confidence. CONTINUE»
As the year winds down, my next 3 articles or so are fairly predictable. One will be on the top energy stories of the year. As always, I would appreciate any suggestions from readers. Another is that I will grade My 2014 Energy Predictions. (Spoiler alert: I guessed pretty well this year). Finally, I will make predictions for 2015, while providing appropriate context for the predictions. I find the context is more important than the predictions themselves. I can make a prediction on the direction of oil prices, but if you understand the factors likely to drive the price in 2015, you can adjust your expectations accordingly as conditions change.
But this week I would like to post a new interview that I did with Jason Burack of Wall Street for Main Street. I have been asked many times in recent weeks for comments on what’s happening in the oil and gas markets. Here I lay things out as I see them in a wide-ranging 40 minute interview:
Back in February, I wrote an article called Natural Gas Inventories are Headed Toward Zero. The purpose of the article was to call attention to the fact that natural gas inventories were experiencing the fastest decline in U.S. history, and were approaching dangerously low levels heading into the end of winter. In August I did an update to that article called Why Natural Gas Prices Collapsed. Because natural gas prices rose following that article, and since injection season is now over (see below), let’s once more revisit what happened with natural gas this year.
In prior articles, I explained how the U.S. natural gas inventory system works. The U.S. has 9 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas storage capacity, but according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the actual amount in storage has never exceeded 4 tcf. During the summer season when demand is lower, natural gas inventories will usually build to between 3 and 4 tcf. This build usually starts around mid-April, and then about mid-November as cold weather begins to ratchet up natural gas demand, the withdrawal season begins.
This year injections began during the first week of April. At that time, natural gas inventories were at their lowest level in more than a decade, so that any supply/demand imbalances during injection season could cause natural gas prices to spike. In fact, gas prices did spike several times toward the end of what was the coldest winter in many years. My thesis was that low inventories would affect the natural gas markets in the following ways. Year-over-year natural gas prices were likely to be higher than the previous year because supplies were lower. Natural gas producers would need to produce at high rates to replenish the inventories, and since I believed they would be getting better prices for the natural gas, profits would be up for most producers. This, naturally, would cause the share prices of natural gas producers to rise. CONTINUE»