Sunday, February 19, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break and expect to post again on Sunday, February 26.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Does the Australian LNG export experience foreshadow soaring U.S. natural gas prices?

Two times last winter Australians living in the country's eastern region paid more than twice as much for natural gas as did Japanese customers taking delivery of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the same region. (Australia has three separate natural gas pipeline networks which create three domestic natural gas markets, Eastern, Northern and Western.)

The price spikes had eastern natural gas users, particularly business users, hopping mad about what they perceive as foolish energy policy. That policy, they say, gives away Australian energy resources at bargain prices to foreign countries while making domestic industries that are reliant on those resources less competitive because of high energy costs. In addition, the new volatility in gas prices makes planning difficult and expansion financially risky.

The dust-up in Australia has some people thinking that the same thing could happen in the United States, something I pointed out in 2013. In the United States the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved natural gas export terminals with a capacity of 17 billion cubic feet (bcf) per day. That represents 19 percent of current U.S. natural gas production. If all terminals for which applications are pending or expected are included, the number goes up to 42 bcf per day or about 47 percent of current production. Only one U.S. export facility is currently in operation in the lower 48 states. Another facility in Alaska has been exporting LNG to Asia since 1969.

It's worth noting that U.S. marketed natural gas production is down a little over 1 percent for the 12-month period ending November 2016. During the same 12-month period net imports were about 654 bcf or about 2.7 percent of total consumption. That's right. The United States remains a net importer of natural gas even as it contemplates a major expansion of LNG export capacity.

Back in Australia electricity blackouts in the state of South Australia are being blamed partly on the mothballing of a major new natural-gas-fired electric generating plant. The operator had contracted for large deliveries of natural gas at low prices to fuel the plant. But with the price of LNG exports from Australia soaring, it became so profitable to resell the gas for export that the plant was never opened. (That was before the domestic price spike. But by then the plant's gas was already committed.)

The rapid expansion of natural-gas-fired electricity generating plants in the United States leaves the country vulnerable to similar dynamics that also include higher electricity rates. Most utilities get to pass fuel price increases on to their customers. And, LNG exporters cannot withhold deliveries and sell their contracted gas back into the domestic market if prices spike. They are obliged by long-term contracts with their customers to deliver. In addition, LNG customers are typically bound by take-or-pay contracts which oblige them to take LNG deliveries or pay for them anyway. Which do you think they'll choose to do?

The U.S. natural gas industry argues that natural gas production is bound to rise and keep on rising for a long time. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is forecasting a continuous increase in annual U.S. production through 2050 when production is supposed to reach 40 trillion cubic feet (tcf), up from just 26.5 tcf in 2016. The EIA is basing its forecast on dramatic gains in so-called shale gas production since conventional gas production continues to decline.

But the reality is already much different. As geoscientist David Hughes tells us in Shale Gas Reality Check published in December 2016:

Shale gas production overall has declined by 4.7% since peaking in February 2016 (down 2.1 billion cubic feet per day...). All shale plays have peaked and older plays, like the Barnett and Haynesville, are down 38% and 52%, respectively.

Higher prices might turn the trend around. But higher prices will also make LNG exports less attractive to world markets. A deeper reading of Shale Gas Reality Check--which provides detailed analysis of all major shale gas plays based on actual production trends, not company press releases--suggests a declining U.S. natural gas industry rather than a growing one in the years ahead.

The industry promise of large and growing supplies at low prices was a fiction from the beginning designed to get regulators to approve export facilities that would bring U.S. natural gas prices closer to world levels--and thus make the natural gas industry more profitable.

There is actually a principled argument for the industry position. But it would be popular neither with voters nor with the legislators who represent them, and the industry understood this. Here is the argument: The natural gas industry should be allowed to sell its products to the highest bidder anywhere in the world just like every other industry in America. If we are now truly in a global economy, then natural gas should become a global commodity and Americans should pay the global price.

Some governments, however, perceive that the central role of energy in the economy warrants special rules that retain domestic energy sources for domestic uses. After all, nothing gets done without energy. Along these lines the Australian government is currently getting an earful from irate natural gas business and household customers.

In theory environmentalists should be content to see fossil fuel prices including natural gas prices drift higher in the United States. That makes renewable energy more attractive to investors. But environmentalists fear that providing an outlet for America's shale gas via LNG to world markets will only make the environmental nightmare associated with fracking in shale gas fields that much worse. The industry would then be able to go after deposits that only higher world prices make viable.

In all likelihood many of the proposed LNG export projects in the United States will never be built. Glutted world LNG markets are giving investors pause. As it turns out, the U.S. natural gas industry wasn't the only one that saw opportunity in gaining access to the LNG export market.

Whether the United States will see more frequent natural gas price spikes or an overall long-term increase in domestic natural gas prices will depend partly on how investors and regulators perceive the availability of future U.S. natural gas supplies and the conditions of the LNG export market. On balance the evidence suggests that they remain too optimistic about both.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Risk, double-edged swords and imagining the worst

A friend of mine recently said that intellectual honesty often requires imagining the worst. Of course, in the study of climate change and natural resources one needs only to read the analyses of scientists to imagine the worst.

Imagining the worst in not necessarily the same as believing the worst is inevitable or even likely. It can be merely a standard part of both scenario and emergency planning. Of course, imagining the worst can also be a double-edged sword with a sinister edge, sometimes eliciting Richard Hofstadter's paranoid style of politics.

When we imagine the worst concerning our political opponents or our enemies (sadly often placed into the same category), this is merely a reflex designed to justify our own hatreds and also a tool for broadly smearing those with whom we disagree. Clearly, this is not the same as seeking out solid evidence and using logic to construct a worst-case scenario.

In scenario planning the whole point is to consider seriously a range of possible outcomes and formulate plans for dealing with those outcomes. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reference case for world oil production (defined as crude oil and lease condensate) shows it rising from about 76 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2012 to 99.5 mbpd in 2040. The low production case is 92 mbpd and the high production case is almost 103 mbpd.

You may feel that this range doesn't reflect more extreme scenarios, but at least the agency offers a range. Some forecasters pretend to know to the second decimal point the future of oil production and reserves decades hence. It's hard to put this down to anything but hubris.

Compare these forecasts to a forecast based on much sounder data, this one made by an EIA researcher in 2009 about how much oil we would have to find and deliver to meet rather extravagant future demand expectations:

The researcher demonstrated that we will have to find more than five new Saudi Arabias by the early 2030s (or 2040s if demand growth slows somewhat as the EIA anticipates) if we are going to fill the gap between production from existing fields and expected future demand (in this case for so-called total liquids which include natural gas plant liquids and other non-oil items). He based this on the estimated average production decline rate of 4 percent per year for existing fields, a fairly conservative number given that other estimates range as high as 6 to 9 percent. We know with a fair degree of accuracy what existing fields will on average be producing decades hence because we have a long series of actual field data.

This graph looks more like imagining the worst than the other forecasts. Without being hyperbolic, this one graph suggests that our confidence that future oil production will match our expectations--and that therefore we will NOT need to plan for a disappointing outcome--deserves considerable scrutiny.

What imagining the worst can do is allow us to discern the risks in our lives and our futures, collective and individual. This does not have to be a glum exercise. We can, as the saying goes, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We can prepare responses to any anticipated challenges as a positive way forward.

The naturally optimistic disposition of humans tends to make them critical of those who point out possible catastrophic downsides, especially when those observations conflict with business-as-usual. But it is the ability to hold in one's mind both optimistic promises and the possibility of catastrophic failures that makes for intellectual honesty.

It is intellectually honest to acknowledge that we live in a tragic universe. Things often don't turn out for the best. The future of humankind is not assured either by technology or by religious prophecy (and sometimes it is hard to tell them apart). But, we can learn to live with uncertainty and risk without living in fear.

This piece on the so-called high-reliability organization tells us that "[t]o avoid failure we must look for it and be sensitive to early signs of failure." That is just prudence.

But we live in an age where unchecked technological optimism is treated as prudence, and intellectual honesty is treated with disdain. Questioning is not the same as gainsaying. But the questions are frequently batted away with protestations that "you just don't understand."

I am reminded of the film Melancholia in which the severely depressed character turns out to be the sane one in the face of global catastrophe. You don't have to be depressed to begin questioning the path we are on. But if depression comes from imagining the worst, then you have come by it honestly.

It will be hard in the years ahead to be intellectually honest. Like virtue that honesty will have to be its own reward. If you are intellectually honest, you may be made to feel like the narrator of Thomas Hardy's poem In Tenebris II who says: "I think I am one born out of due time, who has no calling here." But you can more easily remain true to yourself when you understand as Hardy does that "if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst."

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.