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If you happen to be interested in the topic of “peak oil”, you almost certainly know the name M. King Hubbert. While you may know that Hubbert is widely credited with accurately predicting the peak of U.S. oil production, you may not know the full context of his predictions — which are legendary in peak oil circles.
The history of the scientific study of peak oil dates to the 1950s, when Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist, reported on studies he had undertaken regarding the production rates of oil and gas fields. In a 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, 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.
A peak in oil production, that is the maximum rate of production after which a field, country, or the world as a whole begins to decline is at the core of the peak oil issue. A country is said to have peaked, or reached peak oil after it becomes apparent that oil production in the region is steadily declining year after year. CONTINUE»
With world leaders meeting in Paris this week and next to formulate plans for tackling carbon emissions, I believe it’s critical to understand the source of those emissions. After all, if you are going to solve a problem, you better make sure you have a good understanding of the problem. Otherwise, as the great philosopher Yogi Berra might say, your solution to the problem won’t necessarily solve the problem.
In today’s column, I want to cover three items. First is the present and past geographical breakdown of carbon dioxide emissions. Second is the breakdown by type of fossil fuel. Third is the breakdown of potential future emissions given the world’s current oil, gas, and coal resources.
The Current Geographical Emissions Profile
In my previous article, I showed that the world’s carbon dioxide emissions had historically come from the world’s developed countries (as defined by membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), but since 2005 emissions in developing countries have outstripped those in developed countries. Of the 35.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted in 2014, developing countries were responsible for 21.7 billion tons — 61% of the total: CONTINUE»
Another Courageous Punt
I hadn’t planned to write yet another Keystone XL pipeline article, but I have gotten a lot of questions since the recent announcement by the Obama administration that they are still unable to make a decision on the project. I agree with the Washington Post’s assessment of the situation, that this is now into absurd territory.
At this point I don’t think the project will be approved by this Administration, although it could be approved by the next. I think this is a simple political calculation by President Obama, that by foot-dragging and delaying he is keeping his environmentalist allies at bay, but without all of the political fallout around Democratic Keystone XL supporters should he simply reject the pipeline.
This is one reason I would make a terrible president. I can’t play games like this. You make a decision. It can go one of two ways. You can say “I am going to make a stand along with my environmentalist allies who voted me into office and reject a continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.” That would be a courageous stand, albeit one more steeped in symbolism than in measurable climate impact. More on that below. CONTINUE»
LNG As the Next Battle after Keystone
A collection of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and 350.org apparently just sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to require a Keystone-XL-style environmental review — presumably entailing similar delays — for the proposed Cove Point, Maryland liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal. Given the President’s “all of the above“ approach to energy and his recent remarks in support of wider natural gas use, the hyperbole-laden letter seems likelier to rev up the groups’ activist bases than to influence the administration’s policies.
Either way, its timing could hardly be coincidental, coming just as opinion leaders across the political spectrum have seized on LNG exports as a concrete strategy for countering Russian energy leverage over Europe in the aftermath of President Putin’s seizure of Crimea. If, as Robert Rapier and the Washington Post have suggested, the Keystone XL pipeline is the wrong battle for environmentalists, taking on LNG exports now is an even more misguided fight — at least on its merits.
Wrong on Science, Wrong on Scale
Referring to unspecified ”emerging and credible analysis”, the letter evokes the thoroughly discredited argument that shale gas, pejoratively referred to here as “fracked gas”, is as bad or worse for the environment as coal. In fact, in a similar letter sent to Mr. Obama one year ago, some of the same groups cited a 2007 paper in Environmental Science & Technology that clearly showed that, even when converted into LNG, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of natural gas in electricity generation are still significantly lower than those of coal, despite the extra emissions of the liquefaction and regasification processes. The current letter also implies that emissions from shale gas are higher than those for conventional gas, a notion convincingly dispelled by last year’s University of Texas study, sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, that measured actual — not estimated or modeled — emissions from hundreds of gas wells at dozens of sites in the US.
I spent the first week of November in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands around Fort McMurray, Alberta. I was there as a guest of the Canadian government, which hosts annual tours for small groups of journalists and energy analysts. In the previous two articles, I covered some of the environmental issues arising from the development of the oil sands.
In Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I I discussed greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on wildlife, and I touched upon water usage. I also detailed some of the work of Pembina Institute (PI), which is working to improve the environmental conditions as the oil sands are developed. In Oil Sands and the Environment – Part II I covered the tailings ponds, water consumption, impacts to water quality, and impacts to indigenous people.
Today I want to discuss the actual process of converting the oil sands into oil. Some may feel that this should have been the first article I wrote, but because the development of the oil sands is environmentally controversial on many fronts, I thought it was important to go over environmental issues first before discussing the process. I think that if I had covered the process first, most of the comments and questions would have been about the environmental issues. CONTINUE»
A Rational Middle in Energy Futures
I recently spoke with director Gregory Kallenberg of the energy documentary film series, the “Rational Middle.” In their second round of energy education and outreach, Kallenberg and team address the topics of renewables, shale gas, conservation and transportation, and many others. From the short films, roughly ten to fifteen minutes each, I viewed the renewables, shale gas, and drilling features. They were well done and I intend to view more time permitted, particularly the “days in the life of” and Canada films.
What is useful —whatever part of the energy spectrum one falls into—is the exercise of being open and willing to listen to the arguments. The mere act of spending the time listening to the multiple perspectives offered was an exercise in finding one’s own middle. Hats off to the gesture, both simple and yet complicated, of finding and presenting the middle. The films feature some good academic and think tank-type commentary, of the ones I viewed.
Energy Trends Finance
In This Issue
Global Partners (GLP)
Magellan Midstream Partners LP (MMP): BUY
Changes to Previous Recommendation
In the last investment note to our readers, I spoke about Magellan Midstream Partners LP (NYSE: MMP), a master limited partnership or MLP. This week I want to talk about another pipeline infrastructure MLP – Global Partners (NYSE: GLP).
In our current high volatile capital markets and low bond yields, MLPs with a high dividend yield provide downside risk support to their share prices. Additionally, MLPs that provide a critical “middleman” role regardless of whether energy prices are high or low provide relative stability to their revenues and earnings growth, as they are the necessary infrastructure link in the energy value chain moving energy molecules from producers to final consumers.
This week I decided to analyze and recommend an energy company I feel is worthy of investing in. In the coming weeks, as we prepare to launch Energy Trends Finance — a service for investors, executives, and others involved in the energy sector — be sure to look out for similar analyses on companies across the energy industry.
Protect Your Downside
With all the crosscurrents in the markets, Europe in recession, Japan with no economic growth, and the U.S. registering slow GDP growth that keeps energy demand sluggish, and continued high volatility in oil and gas prices, I remain cautious in the energy sector. However, although cautious I am not absent from the market as I do believe that with a diligent and “defensive” investment philosophy one can achieve positive results over the long-term.
(Related: Three Reasons to Invest in Energy Long-Term)
Indeed, as I have outlined in several of my energy trend notes over the last few weeks, I remain bullish long-term in energy equities, as investors will continue to be attracted to energy equities due to long-term structural supply/demand imbalances that will continue to see demand – consumption increasingly outpace production growth.
Invest Defensively for the Long-Term
The key is to pick and choose wisely by not focusing on the overall broader energy market, but to seek out energy stocks that are “infrastructure” related as pipeline MLPs, or niche providers to the energy market as offshore rig providers, deep water drillers and specialty pump and valve flow systems.
In the current market of volatile share price swings, seek out companies with high dividend yields or MLPs with high distribution yields that will protect your downside by providing support to share prices in down turning markets. I’m talking about specialty companies with above average dividend yields, solid balance sheets, low debt, a sound credible and simple business plan, and — most importantly — high growth prospects. And that brings us to our energy investment idea this week: Magellan Midstream Partners LP (NYSE: MMP).
The U.S. is experiencing a boom in the production of oil. Only since the beginning of 2011, oil production in the U.S. has gone up by 30%, from 5.5 million barrels per day (mbd) to 7.2 mbd. Just this week, the U.S. Geological Survey announced that the amount of technically recoverable oil in North Dakota was tripled from a previous estimate – so this boom is unlikely to fall away in the short term.
At the same time, U.S. and European demand for petroleum products are declining. The economic troubles in the Euro zone have dampened economic activity (and petroleum demand), while in America, economic growth has returned, but the consumption of petroleum products are down as consumers change habits and lifestyles to drive less. At the same time, the low price of natural gas, particularly in the United States due to the boom in shale gas production, has some analysts predicting that gas will increasingly act as a substitute for oil whenever possible.
Given all this – an increase in production of oil coupled with a decline in demand – an elementary Economics 101 class would say that prices should be in a steep decline. Over the past several months, there have been a slew of articles predicting that oil prices are bound to drop.
In my previous column, Energy Industry Capital Spending Reaching New Highs, we looked at how the industry continues to ramp up spending across its sectors. As I noted, this is no surprise given the enormous capital requirements to sustain its business models.
However, what is surprising is that despite the significant tailwind of high crude prices since 2010 to current, net free cash flows (operating cash flow less cash capital spending) have actually declined for the industry overall. Operating costs are increasing crimping margins, and investment spending is rising faster than top-line revenue growth. To put things into perspective, although total industry operating cash flow (OCF) dropped only 1% in 2012 from 2011, from 2007 to 2012 spending grew at a per annum rate of nearly 10% while OCF increased at a 5% per annum rate.
The worst offender has been the U.S. E&P sub-sector heavily weighted to natural gas production at low prices; the sector has seen its deficit cash flow grow. In 2012, despite spending decreasing 2% from 2011, OCF dropped a whopping 17%. From 2007 to 2012, capital spending grew at nearly a 7% per annum rate, while OCF increased only 3% per annum.