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Natural Gas: A Geo-Political Tool Or Modern Weapon?

Natural Gas: A Geo-Political Tool Or Modern Weapon?.

Fri, 03/14/2014 – 1:00am
Tom Kadala

 

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a formidable maneuver that launched a 10+ year conflict. Today, President Obama is on the verge of another conflict in the Ukraine that involves Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Unlike Bush, however, Obama and Congress are eyeing natural gas exports as their weapon of choice to rein in Vladimir Putin from reclaiming territories along the perimeter of Russia. A geo-political tool to enable a global energy transformation or a modern weapon to settle disputes, natural gas has truly evolved.

Cleaner to burn but messy to legislate, natural gas from shale holds great promise for the US and the world. This relatively clean energy source has miraculously become the ideal bridge-fuel that society desperately needs to wean itself off its addiction to dirtier coal and oil. The rapid expansion of wells drilled since 2006 has given engineers plenty of valuable field data to improve upon yields and safety standards. From these field trials, amazing, breakthrough technologies have emerged.

Now into its eighth year, the US natural gas bonanza is no longer a nascent business for wild cat investors, its unprecedented success placing it front and center on the global stage. Presently at the helm, is the US who practically overnight, has gone from being a net importer that was often subjected to the whims of OPEC, to a net exporter. For a long time, Americans have always been taught to loathe their dependence on oil-rich countries. They often accused these oligarchs of using US oil payments to wage war against the same US freedom-fighting armies that protect their regions. With this recent change of the guards, however, Americans and their leaders are finding themselves in uncharted territory. The improved situation favors the US significantly but also leaves its leaders facing a tough dilemma.

To Prohibit or To Allow Exports
While the US can boast having the cheapest natural gas on the planet and the best technology to extract it, elected leaders in Congress must deal with two opposing issues: either to prohibit the export of US natural gas so manufacturers can create more American jobs or to allow exports to threatened US allies whose economies are constantly challenged by volatile energy prices. Already, the US’s offer to export natural gas to the Ukraine in response to Putin’s invasion of Crimea has prompted a strong reaction between both sides. Seen in this manner, one might contemplate the following question:

Could natural gas become the US enabler for global sustainable economic growth and world peace? …and if so, should it be implemented as a tool or a weapon?

There are three key benefits the US could gain from exporting its natural gas.

  • First, the US could stabilize energy prices globally for a long time. Stable energy prices would help remove a fundamental uncertainty that concerns investors. Keeping investors happy is important since they are instrumental in relieving government coffers of additional financial burdens.
  • A second benefit focuses on building global awareness on climate change. Just as the US has done to limit the use of their coal-fired power plants, other countries could be further encouraged to adopt similar environmentally friendly laws and best practices.
  • Finally, for countries seeking a free trade agreement with the US, natural gas exports could earn valuable trade concessions that could lead to integrated capacity-building among government institutions, a critical component toward establishing sustainable democracies worldwide.

These lofty expectations may be too high for even the US, considering that every new encounter will introduce more complexities and unknowns. We can only hope that US elected officials will recognize this once in a millennium opportunity and use natural gas as a tool rather than a weapon to steer the world toward a sustainable energy transformation strategy that follows a common set of internationally vetted guidelines and best practices.

Tom Kadala is an internationally recognized writer, speaker, and facilitator well-versed in economics, engineering,  technology, finance, and marketing. His views are regularly published by prominent  industry publications and also distributed to an exclusive list of contacts, some of whom he has met personally during his 20+ year tenure as the founder & CEO of Alternative Technology Corporation (ATC, Inc.). 

EROEI: Economics Without the Money

EROEI: Economics Without the Money.

Chris Mayer

Posted Mar 5, 2014.

“For some years now,” Tim Morgan writes in Life After Growth, “global average EROEIs have been falling, as energy resources have become both smaller and more difficult (meaning energy-costly) to extract.”

You may have heard of this concept called energy return on energy invested (EROEI). It looks at how much energy we expend in relation to how much energy we extract. Some, like Morgan, think this is very important.

Consequently, falling EROEIs have become the basis of a variety of dire forecasts…

Be skeptical of anything that seeks to analyze our economy by taking money out.

In these scenarios, we spend more and more energy just getting energy, and we have less and less for other discretionary items. As Morgan writes, “If EROEI falls materially, our consumerist way of life is over.”

I’m writing to you today to slay this flawed EROEI concept.

I have to say I used to be taken in by this argument. I wrote an issue of my Capital & Crisis newsletter a couple of years back with the headline “Crack This Code: EROEI — Why It Matters Now and What to Do About It.” I included a list of approximate EROEI ratios for various energy sources:

  • 1970s oil and gas discoveries: 30-to-1
  • Current conventional oil and gas discoveries: 20-to-1
  • Oil sands: 5-to-1
  • Nuclear: 4-to-1
  • Photovoltaic: 4-to-1
  • Biofuel: 2-to-1

I noted that such ratios were falling and concluded that a lower mix of EROEI sources means higher prices for many commodities, because “it will take more energy to produce them.”

It means nothing of the kind.

I would like to right my old error and convince you why EROEI is fatally flawed, so you don’t fall for it. I’ll use Morgan as the foil, because he is an articulate and strong proponent of the idea in his new book.

Morgan’s crucial assumption appears on page 5: “The economy is not primarily a matter of money at all. Rather, our economic system is fundamentally a function of surplus energy.”

This is the key to the whole EROEI argument. Morgan repeats it often. And it is completely wrong.

You can’t take money out of the equation! Money is what it’s all about. It is the essence of the economic life. It’s at the center of decision making. As economist Hyman Minsky said, “Money isn’t everything. It is the only thing.”

Be skeptical of anything that seeks to analyze our economy by taking money out. Households and firms make decisions based on money. They certainly don’t use EROEI, nor should they.

When a firm decides to drill a well or not, it does so on the basis of estimated costs and profits. It makes a decision based on some expected return — as measured in money. They are not the same. High-EROEI projects can be losers. Low-EROEI projects can be winners — as measured in profits and return on investment in money terms.

According to Morgan’s logic, you wouldn’t bother generating electricity…

Here is Robin Mills, currently with Manaar Energy (and once a petroleum manager for the Emirates national oil company in Dubai):

“Generating electricity, usually at a thermal conversion efficiency of less than 50% plus transmission losses, has an EROEI of much less than 1, but is still rational and economic because electricity is such a useful form of energy.”

Put another way, the money costs of the inputs are less than the money prices of the outputs. It works because… it’s profitable! People value electricity more than they value the inputs. Looked at through an EROEI lens, though, it doesn’t make sense.

You can build any scary resource scenario you want if you exclude money prices. If, say, falling ore grades were predictive of prices, then we would see continually rising prices for copper and other resources. Clearly, this isn’t the case. But this does not prevent people (usually geologists) from taking these moneyless concepts to make economic forecasts of higher prices.

A general rule of thumb: If it doesn’t take into account money prices, then it isn’t about the real-world economy as it exists today.

That’s my biggest objection to EROEI. But I’m not making a comprehensive case against EROEI here. That would take too long. I won’t get into how EROEI is calculated: there is no agreement and when you think about it, maybe it’s impossible to know with any accuracy worth relying on.

In the end, I think Morgan doesn’t really get modern money. He repeats an old myth about its origins. He doesn’t seem to know why fiat currency has value. (He says money is a “claim on real goods and services,” which only begs the question: Why do people accept dollars in exchange for real goods?) He doesn’t seem to understand the primacy of making a monetary profit in a market economy.

Contrary to Morgan, you can’t take money out and hope to understand the modern economy. You have to study money. And in markets, you have to make a money surplus (a profit) — or you are out of the game before long. I can’t say the same is true for EROEI, which is perhaps the best I can say against it.

You can ignore EROEI, but you can’t ignore money.

Sincerely,

Chris Mayer
for The Daily Reckoning

Ukraine Won't Pay Russia For Gas, Has Billions In Obligations Due; Europe Promises Aid Money It Doesn't Have | Zero Hedge

Ukraine Won’t Pay Russia For Gas, Has Billions In Obligations Due; Europe Promises Aid Money It Doesn’t Have | Zero Hedge.

About an hour ago, the head of Russia’s top natural gas producer Gazprom said on Wednesday that Ukraine had informed the company it could not pay for February gas deliveries in full, further adding to tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Alexei Miller said Ukraine’s total debt to Gazprom for gas deliveries was nearing $2 billion. “Our Ukrainian colleagues informed us that they would not be able to pay in full for February gas deliveries,” he told Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As reported by Reuters, Miller added that Ukraine managed to redeem only $10 million on Wednesday from a total debt of $1.529 billion. He said that Ukraine’s debt would rise by $440 million on March 7, a deadline for payments. In other words, as of this moment the Ukraine already owes Russia $2 billion, or about double what John Kerry announced to much fanfare, the US would provide the country with in terms of aid. And considering that yesterday Gazprom announed that beginning in April it would end the gas pricing discount to the Ukraine, which lowered the price of gas to $268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres from around $400, this accrual is only set to get bigger with every passing day, and very soon Ukraine may get no Russian gas at all which was and continues to be the biggest leverage Russia has over the country which nuclear power plants provide less than half of its electricity needs.

As a reminder, and as we have pointed out since the start of the Ukraine conflict, Gazprom, which meets 30 percent of Europe’s gas demand, shipped 86 billion cubic meters, or over half of its total exports, to the European Union through Ukraine last year. Gazprom already warned Europe may see “fluctuations” in its gas delivieries from Russia.

A Gazprom spokesman said Russian gas transit to Europe via Ukraine was flowing normally. For now.

But gas is only the beginning of Ukraine’s problems. As also announced about an hour ago, Ukraine’s acting finance minister Oleksander Shlapak reported that the country needs to repay $10 billion by year end and that the country may ask for a debt restructuring. Naturally, absent outside help, no repayment is possible and the country will certainly default, which means someone has to step up and bail out the Ukraine. The only question is where this aid comes from: EU/IMF or Russia.

And that is the €/$64K question. Which is why also earlier today, the European Commission announced that it will provide Ukraine with 11 billion euros ($15 billion) in financial assistance to Ukraine.  As reported by RIA, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the aid package was designed to enable “a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented government in rebuilding a stable and prosperous future for Ukraine.” The European Commission said in a statement that financial support would be provided over a two-year period from the EU budget and EU-based international financial institutions.

There is only one problem with Europe’s aid:  the money is not only not “there,” it is also conditional on individual countries getting approval from their populations, and most of it would come from the IMF, i.e. funded primarily by US taxpayers. As the WSJ summarized, “The EU said it would make at least $15 billion in grants and loans available for Ukraine in the next couple of years, although much of the money has strings attached and would need approval from member states and other institutions.”

So basically, it comes down to a matter of timing and payment acceleration: if Russia really wants Ukraine to fold, it will make sure the bill is high enough and the gas shut off looming enough that the only source of funds would be Russia itself, not insolvent Europe. The last thing Putin will want is to give Europe the years it needs to figure out how to honor its bailout commitment (ask Greece). Which is why Medvedev has also announced Russia would be able to provide $2-3 billion immediately to Ukraine… to pay for the gas bill. Naturally, with a few strings attached.

Ukraine Won’t Pay Russia For Gas, Has Billions In Obligations Due; Europe Promises Aid Money It Doesn’t Have | Zero Hedge

Ukraine Won’t Pay Russia For Gas, Has Billions In Obligations Due; Europe Promises Aid Money It Doesn’t Have | Zero Hedge.

About an hour ago, the head of Russia’s top natural gas producer Gazprom said on Wednesday that Ukraine had informed the company it could not pay for February gas deliveries in full, further adding to tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Alexei Miller said Ukraine’s total debt to Gazprom for gas deliveries was nearing $2 billion. “Our Ukrainian colleagues informed us that they would not be able to pay in full for February gas deliveries,” he told Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As reported by Reuters, Miller added that Ukraine managed to redeem only $10 million on Wednesday from a total debt of $1.529 billion. He said that Ukraine’s debt would rise by $440 million on March 7, a deadline for payments. In other words, as of this moment the Ukraine already owes Russia $2 billion, or about double what John Kerry announced to much fanfare, the US would provide the country with in terms of aid. And considering that yesterday Gazprom announed that beginning in April it would end the gas pricing discount to the Ukraine, which lowered the price of gas to $268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres from around $400, this accrual is only set to get bigger with every passing day, and very soon Ukraine may get no Russian gas at all which was and continues to be the biggest leverage Russia has over the country which nuclear power plants provide less than half of its electricity needs.

As a reminder, and as we have pointed out since the start of the Ukraine conflict, Gazprom, which meets 30 percent of Europe’s gas demand, shipped 86 billion cubic meters, or over half of its total exports, to the European Union through Ukraine last year. Gazprom already warned Europe may see “fluctuations” in its gas delivieries from Russia.

A Gazprom spokesman said Russian gas transit to Europe via Ukraine was flowing normally. For now.

But gas is only the beginning of Ukraine’s problems. As also announced about an hour ago, Ukraine’s acting finance minister Oleksander Shlapak reported that the country needs to repay $10 billion by year end and that the country may ask for a debt restructuring. Naturally, absent outside help, no repayment is possible and the country will certainly default, which means someone has to step up and bail out the Ukraine. The only question is where this aid comes from: EU/IMF or Russia.

And that is the €/$64K question. Which is why also earlier today, the European Commission announced that it will provide Ukraine with 11 billion euros ($15 billion) in financial assistance to Ukraine.  As reported by RIA, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the aid package was designed to enable “a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented government in rebuilding a stable and prosperous future for Ukraine.” The European Commission said in a statement that financial support would be provided over a two-year period from the EU budget and EU-based international financial institutions.

There is only one problem with Europe’s aid:  the money is not only not “there,” it is also conditional on individual countries getting approval from their populations, and most of it would come from the IMF, i.e. funded primarily by US taxpayers. As the WSJ summarized, “The EU said it would make at least $15 billion in grants and loans available for Ukraine in the next couple of years, although much of the money has strings attached and would need approval from member states and other institutions.”

So basically, it comes down to a matter of timing and payment acceleration: if Russia really wants Ukraine to fold, it will make sure the bill is high enough and the gas shut off looming enough that the only source of funds would be Russia itself, not insolvent Europe. The last thing Putin will want is to give Europe the years it needs to figure out how to honor its bailout commitment (ask Greece). Which is why Medvedev has also announced Russia would be able to provide $2-3 billion immediately to Ukraine… to pay for the gas bill. Naturally, with a few strings attached.

It Begins: Gazprom Warns European Gas "Supply Disruptions" Possible | Zero Hedge

It Begins: Gazprom Warns European Gas “Supply Disruptions” Possible | Zero Hedge.

We had previously warned that Putin’s “trump card” had yet to be played and with Obama (and a quickly dropping list of allies) preparing economic sanctions (given their limited escalation options otherwise), it was only a matter of time before the pressure was once again applied from the Russian side. As ITAR-TASS reports, Russia’s Gazprom warned that not only could it cancel its “supply discount” as Ukraine’s overdue payments reached $1.5 billion but that “simmering political tensions in Ukraine, that are aggravated by inadequate economic conditions, may cause disruptions of gas supplies to Europe.” And with that one sentence, Europe will awaken to grave concerns over Russia’s next steps should sanctions be applied.

 

It would appear this is the most important map in Europe once again…

 

 

Some recent history…

In late January, Ukraine asked Russia for deferral of payments for gas supplied in 2013 and in early 2014. President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine’s debt totalled $2.7 billion then.

and then…

On March 1, Gazprom’s spokesperson Sergai Kupriyanov said the gas holding could cancel its gas supply discount for Ukraine as its overdue debt for gas reached $1.5 billion. This figure includes debts not only for last year’s supplies, but also for the current deliveries.

 

The situation with payments is worrying,” said Andrei Kruglov, Gazprom’s chief financial officer.

Ukraine is paying but not as well as we would like it to. We are still thinking about whether to extend the pricing contract into the next quarter based on current prices.”

And now today…

Russia’s gas giant Gazprom said on Monday it did not rule out possible disruptions of gas supplies to Europe over Ukraine’s political situation.

 

Simmering political tensions in Ukraine, that are aggravated by inadequate economic conditions, may cause disruptions of gas supplies to Europe,” the monopoly said in its materials, adding that it would do its utmost to reduce export risks.

 

“We will further invest into other export-oriented projects such as South Stream and will enhance our LNG (liquefied natural gas) production and export capacity. We also increase our access to underground gas storage facilities in Europe.”

 

Andrei Kruglov, Gazprom’s chief financial officer, said at the moment Russia had been supplying gas to Ukraine according to schedule, although the latter failed to fulfil its debt obligations.

With that last sentence providing exactly the ‘real world’ cover Gazprom needs to cut its supplies “through” Ukraine and thus to Europe…

And, as The Guardian notes, this would…

not the first time Russia has used gas exports to put pressure on its neighbour – and “gas wars” between the two countries tend to be felt far beyond their borders. Russia, after all, still supplies around 30% of Europe’s gas.

 

In late 2005, Gazprom said it planned to hike the price it charged Ukraine for natural gas from $50 per 1,000 cubic metres, to $230. The company, so important to Russia that it used to be a ministry and was once headed by the former president (and current prime minister) Dmitry Medvedev, said it simply wanted a fair market price; the move had nothing to do with Ukraine’s increasingly strong ties with the European Union and Nato. Kiev, unsurprisingly, said it would not pay, and on 1 January 2006 – the two countries having spectacularly failed to reach an agreement – Gazprom turned off the taps.

 

The impact was immediate – and not just in Ukraine. The country is crossed by a network of Soviet-era pipelines that carry Russian natural gas to many European Union member states and beyond; more than a quarter of the EU’s total gas needs were met by Russian gas, and some 80% of it came via Ukrainian pipelines. Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland soon reported gas pressure in their own pipelines was down by as much as 30%.

Short of an actual war, the consensus appeared to be, Europe’s gas supplies are unlikely to be seriously threatened (since Putin relies on those revenues)… that is clearly about to change with Gazprom’s comments.

As the following image from Agence France Presse (created at the end of last year) indicates, things are about to get a lot more problemati for Germany, France, and Italy…

It Begins: Gazprom Warns European Gas “Supply Disruptions” Possible | Zero Hedge

It Begins: Gazprom Warns European Gas “Supply Disruptions” Possible | Zero Hedge.

We had previously warned that Putin’s “trump card” had yet to be played and with Obama (and a quickly dropping list of allies) preparing economic sanctions (given their limited escalation options otherwise), it was only a matter of time before the pressure was once again applied from the Russian side. As ITAR-TASS reports, Russia’s Gazprom warned that not only could it cancel its “supply discount” as Ukraine’s overdue payments reached $1.5 billion but that “simmering political tensions in Ukraine, that are aggravated by inadequate economic conditions, may cause disruptions of gas supplies to Europe.” And with that one sentence, Europe will awaken to grave concerns over Russia’s next steps should sanctions be applied.

 

It would appear this is the most important map in Europe once again…

 

 

Some recent history…

In late January, Ukraine asked Russia for deferral of payments for gas supplied in 2013 and in early 2014. President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine’s debt totalled $2.7 billion then.

and then…

On March 1, Gazprom’s spokesperson Sergai Kupriyanov said the gas holding could cancel its gas supply discount for Ukraine as its overdue debt for gas reached $1.5 billion. This figure includes debts not only for last year’s supplies, but also for the current deliveries.

 

The situation with payments is worrying,” said Andrei Kruglov, Gazprom’s chief financial officer.

Ukraine is paying but not as well as we would like it to. We are still thinking about whether to extend the pricing contract into the next quarter based on current prices.”

And now today…

Russia’s gas giant Gazprom said on Monday it did not rule out possible disruptions of gas supplies to Europe over Ukraine’s political situation.

 

Simmering political tensions in Ukraine, that are aggravated by inadequate economic conditions, may cause disruptions of gas supplies to Europe,” the monopoly said in its materials, adding that it would do its utmost to reduce export risks.

 

“We will further invest into other export-oriented projects such as South Stream and will enhance our LNG (liquefied natural gas) production and export capacity. We also increase our access to underground gas storage facilities in Europe.”

 

Andrei Kruglov, Gazprom’s chief financial officer, said at the moment Russia had been supplying gas to Ukraine according to schedule, although the latter failed to fulfil its debt obligations.

With that last sentence providing exactly the ‘real world’ cover Gazprom needs to cut its supplies “through” Ukraine and thus to Europe…

And, as The Guardian notes, this would…

not the first time Russia has used gas exports to put pressure on its neighbour – and “gas wars” between the two countries tend to be felt far beyond their borders. Russia, after all, still supplies around 30% of Europe’s gas.

 

In late 2005, Gazprom said it planned to hike the price it charged Ukraine for natural gas from $50 per 1,000 cubic metres, to $230. The company, so important to Russia that it used to be a ministry and was once headed by the former president (and current prime minister) Dmitry Medvedev, said it simply wanted a fair market price; the move had nothing to do with Ukraine’s increasingly strong ties with the European Union and Nato. Kiev, unsurprisingly, said it would not pay, and on 1 January 2006 – the two countries having spectacularly failed to reach an agreement – Gazprom turned off the taps.

 

The impact was immediate – and not just in Ukraine. The country is crossed by a network of Soviet-era pipelines that carry Russian natural gas to many European Union member states and beyond; more than a quarter of the EU’s total gas needs were met by Russian gas, and some 80% of it came via Ukrainian pipelines. Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland soon reported gas pressure in their own pipelines was down by as much as 30%.

Short of an actual war, the consensus appeared to be, Europe’s gas supplies are unlikely to be seriously threatened (since Putin relies on those revenues)… that is clearly about to change with Gazprom’s comments.

As the following image from Agence France Presse (created at the end of last year) indicates, things are about to get a lot more problemati for Germany, France, and Italy…

The energy transition tipping point is here – SmartPlanet

The energy transition tipping point is here – SmartPlanet.

The economic foundations supporting fossil fuels investments are collapsing quickly, as the business case for renewables such as solar and wind finds a new center of balance.

I have waited a long time—decades, really—for a tipping point in the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables beyond which there can be no turning back. Fresh evidence pertaining to many themes I have explored in this column over the past three years suggests that tipping point is finally here.

Oil and gas

Underlying the abundance hype over tight oil, tar sands and other “unconventional” sources of liquid fuel has been a dirty little secret: They’re expensive.

The soaring cost of producing oil has far outpaced the rise in oil prices as the world has relied on these marginal sources to keep production growing since conventional oil production peaked in 2005. Those who ignored the hype and paid attention to the data have known this for years. I have detailed this evidence repeatedly (for example, in “The cost of new oil supply,” “Oil majors are whistling past the graveyard,” and “Trouble in fracking paradise”), but now the facts are earning mainstream recognition.

The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that oil and gas production by Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell has declined during the past five years even as the companies spent more than a half-trillion dollars on new projects. Chevron’s costs alone have jumped 56 percent since 2010.

A marvelous new presentation by Steven Kopits, Managing Director of the Douglas-Westwood consultancy, details oil supply, demand, cost and price trends with merciless precision. If you can take an hour to watch Kopits’ presentation I highly recommend it, as it’s the most comprehensive perspective you’ll find on the global dynamics of oil.

 

oil-majors-capex-and-production-kopits.png

The graphic above shows how capital spending (capex) by the world’s publicly listed oil majors has increased by more than a factor of five since 2000, while their production of oil has fallen back to the 2000 level after a few years of very modest increases. In Kopits’ earthy metaphor, the companies kept watering the plant but it just wouldn’t grow anymore—precisely as the peak oil model predicted.

 

In late February, Bloomberg finally addressed the most problematic issue in shale gas and tight oil wells: their incredible decline rates and diminishing prospects for drilling in the most-profitable “sweet spots” of the shale plays. I have documented that issue at length (for example, “Oil and gas price forecast for 2014,” “Energy independence, or impending oil shocks?,” “The murky future of U.S. shale gas,” and my Financial Times critique of Leonardo Maugeri’s widely heralded 2012 report).

The sources for the Bloomberg article are shockingly candid about the difficulties facing the shale sector, considering that their firms have been at the forefront of shale hype.

The vice president of integration at oil services giant Schlumberger notes that four out of every 10 frack clusters are duds. Geologist Pete Stark, a vice president of industry relations at IHS—yes, that IHS, where famous peak oil pooh-pooher Daniel Yergin is the spokesman for its CERA unit—actually said what we in the peak oil camp have been saying for years: “The decline rate is a potential show stopper after a while…You just can’t keep up with it.”

The CEO of Superior Energy Services was particularly pithy: “We’ve drilled all the good stuff…These are very poor quality formations that I don’t believe God intended for us to produce from the source rock.” Source rocks, as I wrote last month, are an oil and gas “retirement party,” not a revolution.

The toxic combination of rising production costs, the rapid decline rates of the wells, diminishing prospects for drilling new wells, and a drilling program so out of control that it caused a glut and destroyed profitability, have finally taken their toll.

Numerous operators are taking major write-downs against reserves. WPX Energy, an operator in the Marcellus shale gas play, and Pioneer Natural Resources, an operator in the Barnett shale gas play, each have announced balance sheet “impairments” of more than $1 billion due to low gas prices. Chesapeake Energy, Encana, Apache, Anadarko Petroleum, BP, and BHP Billiton have disclosed similar substantial reserves reductions. Occidental Petroleum, which has made the most significant attempts to frack California’s Monterey Shale, announced that it will spin off that unit to focus on its core operations—something it would not do if the Monterey prospects were good. EOG Resources, one of the top tight oil operators in the United States, recently said that it no longer expects U.S. production to rise by 1 million barrels per day (mb/d) each year, in accordance with my 2014 oil and gas price forecast.

Coal and nuclear

When I wrote “Why baseload power is doomed” and “Regulation and the decline of coal power” in 2012, the suggestion that renewables might displace baseload power sources like coal and nuclear plants was generally received with ridicule. How could “intermittent” power sources with just a few percentage points of market share possibly hurt the deeply entrenched, reliable, fully amortized infrastructure of power generation?

But look where we are today. Coal plants are being retired much faster than most observers expected. Thelatest projection from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is for 60 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power capacity to be taken offline by 2016, more than double the retirements the agency predicted in 2012. The vast majority of the coal plants that were planned for the United States in 2007 have since been cancelled, abandoned, or put on hold, according to SourceWatch.

Nuclear power plants were also given the kibosh at an unprecedented rate last year. More nuclear plant retirements appear to be on the way. Earlier this month, utility giant Exelon, the nation’s largest owner of nuclear plants, warned that it will shut down nuclear plants if the prospects for their profitable operation don’t improve this year.

Japan has just announced a draft plan that would restart its nuclear reactors, but the plan is “vague” and, to my expert nose, stinks of political machinations. What we do know is that the country has abandoned its plans to build a next-generation “fast breeder” reactor due to mounting technical challenges and skyrocketing costs.

Grid competition

Nuclear and coal plant retirements are being driven primarily by competition from lower-cost wind, solar, and natural gas generators, and by rising operational and maintenance costs. As more renewable power is added to the grid, the economics continue to worsen for utilities clinging to old fossil-fuel generating assets (a topic I have covered at length; for example, “Designing the grid for renewables,” “The next big utility transformation,” “Can the utility industry survive the energy transition?” “Adapt or die – private utilities and the distributed energy juggernaut” and “The unstoppable renewable grid“).

Nowhere is this more evident than in Germany, which now obtains about 25 percent of its grid power from renewables and which has the most solar power per capita in the world. I have long viewed Germany’s transition to renewables (see “Myth-busting Germany’s energy transition“) as a harbinger of what is to come for the rest of the developed world as we progress down the path of energy transition.

And what’s to come for the utilities isn’t good. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Germany’s three largest utilities, E.ON, RWE, and EnBW are struggling with what the CEO of RWE called “the worst structural crisis in the history of energy supply.” Falling consumption and growing renewable power have cut the wholesale price of electricity by 60 percent since 2008, making it unprofitable to continue operating coal, gas and oil-fired plants. E.ON and RWE have announced intentions to close or mothball 15 GW of gas and coal-fired plants. Additionally, the three major utilities still have a combined 12 GW of nuclear plants scheduled to retire by 2020 under Germany’s nuclear phase-out program.

RWE said it will write down nearly $4 billion on those assets, but the pain doesn’t end there. Returns on invested capital at the three utilities are expected to fall from an average of 7.7 percent in 2013 to 6.5 percent in 2015, which will only increase the likelihood that pension funds and other fixed-income investors will look to exchange traditional utility company holdings for “green bonds” invested in renewable energy. The green bond sector is growing rapidly, and there’s no reason to think it will slow down. Bond issuance jumped from $2 billion in 2012 to $11 billion in 2013, and the now-$15 billion market is expected to nearly double again this year.

new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute and CohnReznick about consumers “defecting” from the grid using solar and storage systems concludes that the combination is a “real, near and present” threat to utilities. By 2025, according to the authors, millions of residential users could find it economically advantageous to give up the grid. In his excellent article on the report, Stephen Lacey notes that lithium-ion battery costs have fallen by half since 2008. With technology wunderkind Elon Musk’s newannouncement that his car company Tesla will raise up to $5 billion to build the world’s biggest “Gigafactory” for the batteries, their costs fall even farther. At the same time, the average price of an installed solar system has fallen by 61 percent since the first quarter of 2010.

At least some people in the utility sector agree that the threat is real. Speaking in late February at the ARPA-E Energy Summit, CEO David Crane of NRG Energy suggested that the grid will be obsolete and used only for backup within a generation, calling the current system “shockingly stupid.”

Non-hydro renewables are outpacing nuclear and fossil fuel capacity additions in much of the world, wreaking havoc with the incumbent utilities’ business models. The value of Europe’s top 20 utilities has been halved since 2008, and their credit ratings have been downgraded. According to The Economist, utilities have been the worst-performing sector in the Morgan Stanley index of global share prices. Only utilities nimble enough to adopt new revenue models providing a range of services and service levels, including efficiency and self-generation, will survive.

In addition to distributed solar systems, utility-scale renewable power plants are popping up around the world like spring daisies. Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar “power tower” at 392 megawatts (MW),  just went online in Nevada. Aura Solar I, the largest solar farm in Latin America at 30 MW, is under construction in Mexico and will replace an old oil-fired power plant. India just opened its largest solar power plant to date, the 130 MW Welspun Solar MP project. Solar is increasingly seen as the best way to provide electricity to power-impoverished parts of the world, and growth is expected to be stunning in Latin America, India and Africa.

Renewable energy now supplies 23 percent of global electricity generation, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with capacity having doubled from 2000 to 2012. If that growth rate continues, it could become the dominant source of electricity by the next decade.

Environmental disasters

Faltering productivity, falling profits, poor economics and increasing competition from power plants running on free fuel aren’t the only problems facing the fossil-fuels complex. It has also been the locus of increasingly frequent environmental disasters.

On Feb. 22, a barge hauling oil collided with a towboat and spilled an estimated 31,500 gallons of light crude into the Mississippi River, closing 65 miles of the waterway for two days.

More waterborne spills are to be expected along with more exploding trains as crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale seeks alternative routes to market while the Keystone XL pipeline continues to fight an uphill political battle. According to the Association of American Railroads, the number of tank cars shipping oil jumped from about 10,000 in 2009 to more than 230,000 in 2012, and more oil spilled from trains in 2013 than in the previous four decades combined.

Federal regulators issued emergency rules on Feb. 25 requiring Bakken crude to undergo testing to see if it is too flammable to be moved safely by rail, but I am not confident this measure will eliminate the risk. Light, tight oil from U.S. shales tends to contain more light molecules such as natural gas liquids than conventional U.S. crude grades, and is more volatile.

Feb. 11 will go down in history as a marquee bad day for fossil fuels, on which 100,000 gallons of coal slurry spilled into a creek in West Virginia; a natural gas well in Dilliner, Pa., exploded (and burned for two weeks before it was put out); and a natural gas pipeline ruptured and exploded in Tioga, ND. Two days later, another natural gas line exploded in the town of Knifely, Ky., igniting multiple fires and destroying several homes, barns, and cars. The same day, another train carrying crude oil derailed near Pittsburgh, spilling between 3,000 and 7,500 gallons of crude oil.

And don’t forget the spill of 10,000 gallons of toxic chemicals used in coal processing from a leaking tank in West Virginia in early January, which sickened residents of Charleston and rendered its water supply unusable.

No return

At this point you may think, “Well, this is all very interesting, Chris, but why should we believe we’ve reached some sort of tipping point in energy transition?”

To which I would say, ask yourself: Is any of this reversible?

Is there any reason to think the world will turn its back on plummeting costs for solar systems, batteries, and wind turbines, and revert back to nuclear and coal?

Is there any reason to think we won’t see more ruptures and spills from oil and gas pipelines?

What about the more than 1,300 coal-ash waste sites scattered across the United States, of which about half are no longer used and some are lacking adequate liners? How confident are we that authorities will suddenly find the will, after decades of neglect, to ensure that they’ll not cause further contamination after damaging drinking water supplies in at least 67 instances so far, such that we feel confident about continuing to rely on coal power?

Like the disastrous natural gas pipeline that exploded in 2010 and turned an entire neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., into a raging inferno, coal-ash waste sites are but one part of a deep and growing problem shot through the entire fabric of America: aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance. President Obama just outlined his vision for a $302 billion, four-year program of investment in transportation, but that’s just a drop in the bucket, and it’s only for transportation.

Is there any reason to think citizens will brush off the death, destruction, environmental contamination of these disasters—many of them happening in the backyards of rural, red-state voters—and not take a second look at clean power?

Is there any reason to believe utilities will swallow several trillion dollars worth of stranded assets and embrace new business models en masse? Or is it more likely that those that can will simply adopt solar, storage systems, and other measures that ultimately give them cheaper and more reliable power, particularly in the face of increasingly frequent climate-related disasters that take out their grid power for days or weeks?

Is there any reason to think the billions of people in the world who still lack reliable electric power will continue to rely on filthy diesel generators and kerosene lanterns as the price of oil continues to rise? Or are they more likely to adopt alternatives like the SolarAid solar lanterns, of which half a million have been sold across Africa in the past six months alone? (Here’s a hint: Nobody who has one wants to go back to their kerosene lantern.) Founder Jeremy Leggett of SunnyMoney, who created the SolarAid lanterns, intends to sell 50 million of them across Africa by 2020.

Is there any reason to believe solar and wind will not continue to be the preferred way to bring power to the developing world, when their fuel is free and conventional alternatives are getting scarcer and more expensive?

Is there any reason a homeowner might not think about putting a solar system on his or her roof, without taking a single dollar out of his or her pocket, and using it to charge up an electric vehicle instead of buying gasoline?

Is there any reason to think that drilling for shale gas and tight oil in the United States will suddenly resume its former rapid growth rates, when new well locations are getting harder to find, investment by the oil and gas companies is being slashed, share prices are falling, reserves are getting taken off balance sheets and investors are getting nervous?

I don’t think so. All of these trends have been developing for decades, and new data surfacing daily only reinforces them.

The energy transition tipping point is here, and there’s no going back.

Photo: Vladimir Cetinski, iStock Photo

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Feb 28, 2014

Chris Nelder

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure

Dream of U.S. Oil Independence Slams Against Shale Costs | CollapseNet

Dream of U.S. Oil Independence Slams Against Shale Costs | CollapseNet.

Off the World News Desk:

Dream of U.S. Oil Independence Slams Against Shale Costs 

“The path toward U.S. energy independence, made possible by a boom in shale oil, will be much harder than it seems.

Just a few of the roadblocks: Independent producers will spend $1.50 drilling this year for every dollar they get back. Shale output drops faster than production from conventional methods. It will take 2,500 new wells a year just to sustain output of 1 million barrels a day in North Dakota’s Bakken shale, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Iraq could do the same with 60.

Consider Sanchez Energy Corp. The Houston-based company plans to spend as much as $600 million this year, almost double its estimated 2013 revenue, on the Eagle Ford shale formation in south Texas, which along with North Dakota is one of the hotbeds of a drilling frenzy that’s pushed U.S. crude output to the highest in almost 26 years. Its Sante North 1H oil well pumped five times more water than crude, Sanchez Energy said in a Feb. 17 regulatory filing. Shares sank 7 percent.

We are beginning to live in a different world where getting more oil takes more energy, more effort and will be more expensive,” said Tad Patzek, chairman of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Drillers are pushing to maintain the pace of the unprecedented 39 percent gain in U.S. oil production since the end of 2011. Yet achieving U.S. energy self-sufficiency depends on easy credit and oil prices high enough to cover well costs. Even with crude above $100 a barrel, shale producers are spending money faster than they make it…”

MCR, Rice Farmer, and CollapseNet generally have been reporting on this since this website has been in existence. There is no “free lunch”, and one of the primary problems that comes with Peak Oil is that all the easy to get oil has been found and used (or is being pumped but is in decline), and finding and extracting what’s left will be more energy-intensive and cash-expensive. U.S. “energy independence” is a bigger fucking myth than Santa Claus…at least until the general public can no longer afford their energy-intensive lifestyles and oil demand drops off the cliff, which can also be referred to as the collapse of industrial civilization… – Wes

Dream of U.S. Oil Independence Slams Against Shale Costs | CollapseNet

Dream of U.S. Oil Independence Slams Against Shale Costs | CollapseNet.

Off the World News Desk:

Dream of U.S. Oil Independence Slams Against Shale Costs 

“The path toward U.S. energy independence, made possible by a boom in shale oil, will be much harder than it seems.

Just a few of the roadblocks: Independent producers will spend $1.50 drilling this year for every dollar they get back. Shale output drops faster than production from conventional methods. It will take 2,500 new wells a year just to sustain output of 1 million barrels a day in North Dakota’s Bakken shale, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Iraq could do the same with 60.

Consider Sanchez Energy Corp. The Houston-based company plans to spend as much as $600 million this year, almost double its estimated 2013 revenue, on the Eagle Ford shale formation in south Texas, which along with North Dakota is one of the hotbeds of a drilling frenzy that’s pushed U.S. crude output to the highest in almost 26 years. Its Sante North 1H oil well pumped five times more water than crude, Sanchez Energy said in a Feb. 17 regulatory filing. Shares sank 7 percent.

We are beginning to live in a different world where getting more oil takes more energy, more effort and will be more expensive,” said Tad Patzek, chairman of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Drillers are pushing to maintain the pace of the unprecedented 39 percent gain in U.S. oil production since the end of 2011. Yet achieving U.S. energy self-sufficiency depends on easy credit and oil prices high enough to cover well costs. Even with crude above $100 a barrel, shale producers are spending money faster than they make it…”

MCR, Rice Farmer, and CollapseNet generally have been reporting on this since this website has been in existence. There is no “free lunch”, and one of the primary problems that comes with Peak Oil is that all the easy to get oil has been found and used (or is being pumped but is in decline), and finding and extracting what’s left will be more energy-intensive and cash-expensive. U.S. “energy independence” is a bigger fucking myth than Santa Claus…at least until the general public can no longer afford their energy-intensive lifestyles and oil demand drops off the cliff, which can also be referred to as the collapse of industrial civilization… – Wes

Russian Lukoil Halts Oil Supplies To Ukraine Odessa Refinery | Zero Hedge

Russian Lukoil Halts Oil Supplies To Ukraine Odessa Refinery | Zero Hedge.

A few days ago we reported that the Ukraine decided to call Russia’s “trump card” bluff – that would be everyone else’s reliance on Russian gas supplies – when it drastically cut imports of Russian gas by 80% in February, seemingly to demonstrate its energy independence from Puting. Now Russia has decided to take the Ukraine to task, by announcing it has halted oil deliveries to the Ukraine Odessa refinery. Hopefully the Ukraine, whose foreign currency reserves tumbled from $17.9 billion on February 1 to $15 billion currently, has alternative means of supplying itself with energy from benevolent sources, particularly those who are willing to provide the country with oil in exchange for goodwill.

From Itar-Tass:

Russia’s oil company LUKOIL has stopped oil supplies to the Odessa refinery in Ukraine.

“The last tanker was sent on December 29,” a company official said on Wednesday, February 26.

Ukrainian media reports said earlier in the day that police had sealed oil tanks at the Kherson refinery. Oilnews quoted eye witnesses as saying that police had blocked all exits from the Odessa refinery in the morning of February 25.

On February 24, the refinery’s Director Valery Chakheyev tendered resignation; executive Director Sergei Kuznetsov and other top managers also walked out of the enterprise’s offices.

Media reports also said that the refinery would soon stop operation as it gets no more oil from the Sintez Oil transshipment centre that has stopped supplies to the enterprise because of its debts.

The refinery has also been notified about the coming termination of power supplies from February 27 because of the unpaid debts.

Telephones at the Odessa refinery do not answer. Sintez Oil officials told ITAR-TASS they “have no information.”

Ukraine may have gotten its indepdence from Russia. One wonders how much it likes being independent of heating and energy too.

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