Friday, July 29, 2011

The Market for US Cleantech Is Out There

One of many press releases I received this week highlighted the new Clean Energy Export Principles developed by a "multi-industry coalition, which was coordinated by the National Foreign Trade Council, and U.S. government representatives." They recommend a significantly expanded and technology-neutral effort by the US government to promote exports of clean energy gear, including equipment for the smart grid, energy efficiency and energy storage. They also suggest the need to reduce trade barriers affecting such exports globally, not just to help US industry but to increase the effectiveness of efforts to mitigate climate change. I can only hope that the administration embraces these recommendations as enthusiastically as it has other aspects of its green agenda, because these principles are aimed squarely at the biggest opportunities for clean energy technology and emissions reduction, outside our borders.

It doesn't really matter whether these principles reflect the sensible recognition of trends in the global energy marketplace, or merely make a virtue of necessity at a time when government support for domestic clean energy deployment is approaching its statutory and practical limits. However the current debt ceiling crisis is resolved, the capacity for the federal government to continue providing generous incentives for cleantech deployment, either through the Treasury renewable energy cash grants that have totaled nearly $8 billion to date, or the Department of Energy Loan Guarantee program that has backed or directly funded more than $40 billion in loans for clean energy projects is likely to be far more constrained in the future.

Nor is this simply a question of money. The whole notion that we are in some kind of renewable energy deployment race with China or any other country ignores the big differences in our respective levels of economic development. If there were such a race we would be bound to lose, and not because we don't have the right policies or strict enough regulations, but because US electricity demand is growing slowly and is backed by both ample generating capacity and ample supplies of relatively cheap and low-emitting fuel. Meanwhile both electricity demand and capacity in the developing world are growing rapidly, and the indigenous generation fuel in good supply is mainly coal. That, together with the disparities in economic growth coming out of the global recession, is the underlying reason why investment in renewable energy in the developing world apparently surged past that in the developed world last year.

With cleantech supply chains already substantially globalized, the leaders in this industry must be global in scope and focus. US manufacturers of cleantech equipment shouldn't ignore the US market, but they must be realistic about it. Even with growing opportunities in the smart grid and solar power, the US will account for only a small fraction of the global market for such goods and services, as growth shifts away from the mature markets of Europe and North America. The market share that counts, for competitive strength and economies of scale, is global market share. And global sales will provide the volumes needed to drive down costs for both exports and domestic installations. There's a huge, growing market for cleantech, and it is mainly out there.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Anthropocene and Other Topics

For the first four years of this blog I published nearly every weekday, and as time went on occasionally struggled to find suitable topics. Lately, I've been running across more good blog topics than I could conceivably cover. I think more is at work in that than my having scaled back the blog's frequency; energy has become an integral part of so many crucial conversations in the meantime. So instead of my customary single topic, today's post includes three essentially unrelated ones, all of which I thought merited sharing with my readers.

The first item concerns compact fluorescent lighting, those "CFL" bulbs people seem to either love or hate, and upon which many base unrealistic expectations of energy and emissions reductions. According to the tracking of NEMA, the Association of Electrical and Medical Imaging Manufacturers, US demand for CFL bulbs has declined for four straight quarters, while demand for the incandescent bulbs that are being phased out by law has revived to 79% of the market. This shift begs for deeper analysis. Is it the result of consumers stocking up on 100 Watt incandescents before they disappear from store shelves next January 1 and become a new kind of black market commodity, or is it more along the lines of what happened to tire sales after steel belted radials were introduced? Like the latter, CFLs last a lot longer than the traditional product they're replacing, and at some point one would expect sales to plateau at a much lower level than incandescents previously held. Or is it the case, as in my household, that CFLs are simply not viewed as a satisfactory replacement in all the fixtures where they could be placed, because of a combination of lighting quality, cost effectiveness, and concern about potential mercury contamination?

Now let's turn to plastics. Two stories, both involving Dow Chemical, caught my eye. In the first, Dow is investing in a facility to make polyethylene, a very common plastic, from ethanol in Brazil. As the article in Technology Review notes, Brazil is one of the few places that would make sense. The process of producing ethanol from sugar cane is so energy-efficient and cost-competitive that ethanol can sensibly be substituted for the petroleum products from which it might otherwise be produced there. In the other story, Dow recently announced a process for extracting most of the available energy from non-recycled plastic waste. Taken together, these two items challenge our traditional view of the relationship between oil and plastics: not only does oil no longer have a lock on the feedstock market, but it could face competition from waste plastics in end-use energy applications, or possibly even as a potential source of synthetic oil, as I noted a couple of years ago.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend an article from the May 28, 2011 issue of The Economist, which had been in my reading pile for weeks. It suggests that we are living in a new epoch of the earth called the Anthropocene, signifying humanity's having become the equivalent of a force of nature in our effect on the earth and its systems. I'm intrigued by this not just because it dovetails with my view that essentially everything we do on a civilization-wide scale, including energy production and consumption, agriculture, transportation and public works, has consequences for the entire planet, but also because of its implications for what sustainability is likely to mean going forward. If the cited scientists are correct, we influence the earth's systems as much as the climate does, with climate change only one example of our impact.

The corollary to that is that an earth restored to the conditions that prevailed in the Holocene epoch from which we emerged--before we started messing with the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, and other key processes--could not support the population expected by mid-century. There's just no going back to our bucolic roots, but neither is that a justification for the large-scale destruction of the environment needed to sustain humanity. The other interesting twist to this is that it's possible we will need the energy from the large-scale harnessing of solar power to conduct the intentional geoengineering that might be necessary to get the global climate back on an even keel. It's the sort of thing that gives environmentalists nightmares but makes believers in an approaching Technological Singularity nod sagely.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Energy Crisis Prices Persist

Watching oil prices is a hard habit to break, once formed. They're always moving up and down, sometimes for obvious reasons and sometimes not. It has probably escaped most observers' notice that the magnitude of this year's price moves has exceeded the total nominal price of oil that prevailed not many years ago, yet without the sort of apocalyptic events that one might expect such volatility would require. Perhaps that's because we seem to be stuck in the middle of an ongoing, slow-boil oil crisis from which the financial crisis and the demand contraction that accompanied the global recession only provided a brief respite. In fact, when you glance at the oil price trend in real dollars over the last 40 years, it's apparent that prices are back at the level associated with the peak of the oil crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s:

One reason I've been paying extra attention to oil prices lately is that I've been observing the impact of the coordinated release from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) and strategic reserves of other members of the International Energy Agency. So far, my initial assessment that it would have little lasting effect seems to have been validated, though I'll reserve judgment until the oil is actually delivered during August, when we might see the market respond to the increase in commercial oil inventories that should result. Robert Rapier had an excellent posting yesterday on the folly of this decision. My view is, if anything, less flattering. Not only was this choice unwise, but it also appears to have been ineffective, which in the current economic climate is an even more damning assessment.

The modest response to this move tells us something about the fundamentals of the market. In the past, an SPR release on this scale would have crushed prices--not just for a few days, but for months at least. Consider the release that accompanied the start of the first Gulf War in 1991. Only about half of the nearly 34 million bbls authorized was eventually sold, but the price of oil dropped by 33% overnight and took 13 years to recover to the peak it had reached during the lead-up to Desert Storm. By comparison, the announced release of 30 million bbls from the US SPR--the sale of which was fully-subscribed--and another 30 million bbls from other IEA members managed to depress the price of oil by only around 5% for a week or so. As of this morning Brent crude, the global marker, is $4/bbl higher than it was on June 22nd. And as of this Monday's survey, the average pump price of unleaded regular in the US was also higher than before the President announced the release.

The market's tepid reaction to the SPR release suggests that oil prices have been driven up by more than just speculators. Speculation may be playing a role, but it's more like the head on a glass of beer. Beneath that froth lies the robust demand growth in the developing world, which has pushed global oil consumption to a record level of 89 million bbl/day this year. On the supply side, some point to incipient Peak Oil, but characterizing the crisis we're in doesn't require a grand theory. In addition to the curtailment of production from places like Libya and Yemen, and OPEC's desire to keep a lid on output to preserve their revenues, there's a fundamental mismatch between the companies that have the capital and the desire to invest in new production, and the willingness of some governments to grant access to the resources, whether in the Middle East or the US. All of this is compounded by the inherent time lags in resource development, which can range from 5-10 years, depending on the technology and permits required.

As different as the causes and symptoms of this crisis are from those of the 1970s, the broad outline of solutions remains quite similar: Reduce demand, increase supplies, and diversify our sources of energy. We have more and better options than in 1979, but still no miracle cures.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Energy Implications of a Federal Default

Much of the attention concerning a possible failure to increase the US debt ceiling by month-end has focused on the government's ability to borrow, and on how individuals might be affected, whether as recipients of social security, pay or pensions from various branches of the federal government, or as consumers seeking car loans or mortgages. I haven't seen a lot of discussion about the potential impact on energy, other than some speculation about higher oil prices. As I started to consider how different categories of energy might be affected, it occurred to me that a list, or a set of lists was the best way to tackle this. It's not intended to be comprehensive, and I would welcome your input on what I've overlooked.

The first category of energy impacts concerns companies or individuals who are awaiting a check or wire transfer from the government, for which funds might not be available in the absence of a prompt deal to extend the debt ceiling. These include:
  • Projects that have qualified for Treasury renewable energy cash grants, but have not yet received the funds, or that hope to qualify shortly. Since this program started in 2009, the Treasury has disbursed $7.8 billion to project owners and developers.
  • Companies that sell energy to the federal government and its various branches. This includes start-ups selling renewable aviation and diesel fuels to the Department of Defense, as well as firms selling the government the large quantities of electricity and conventional fuels it uses. (I will be attending a joint Army/Air Force energy forum tomorrow.
  • Companies with contracts related to various energy efficiency programs initiated under the stimulus or previous legislation, including weatherization.
  • Individuals who receive federal energy assistance.
The next category includes companies that aren't expecting cash, but are relying on loan guarantees from the federal government to help them secure more attractive financing--or in the case of some risky projects and technologies, any financing at all--either from commercial lenders or directly from the Federal Financing Bank.

  • Beneficiaries of the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program that have not yet secured loans are a good example of this category. Note than many of the projects listed on the Loan Program Office's site have only obtained conditional approvals, indicating that their financing has not yet closed. They would be vulnerable either to a protracted default or one that undermined confidence in the government's "full faith and credit" to such an extent that a federal loan guarantee wouldn't aid in lining up lenders.
The next category covers the large number of entities that benefit from energy-related tax credits and deductions. Although they aren't directly vulnerable to a default, they are exposed to the risk that their particular tax benefits might be canceled or reduced as part of an agreement between the Congress and White House to extend the debt limit.
  • Refiners and others blending ethanol into gasoline and collecting the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit.
  • Producers of biodiesel and cellulosic biofuels and small ethanol producers, all of which receive tax credits for producing renewable fuels.
  • Oil and gas companies benefiting from the various tax credits and deductions that have been in the administration's cross-hairs since it took office.
  • US manufacturers, including oil and gas companies, power generators, ethanol producers, and a wide array of non-energy recipients of the Sec. 199 deduction for manufacturing their products in the US.
  • Purchasers of electric vehicles eligible for the tax credit of up to $7,500 per car for EVs and qualifying plug-in hybrids, or up to $4,000 for natural gas vehicles and other alternative fuels.
  • Car manufacturers and dealers depending on these tax credits to help sell their vehicles.
Then there's the effect on the vast majority of us who aren't in line for an energy-related grant, loan guarantee, or tax credit, but could see the ripple effects of all of these concerns in our energy bills, along with the more basic question of how a default might affect the price of oil and other mainstream energy sources. That subject deserves a posting of its own, but my quick take on this is that while a default could certainly drive up oil prices by means of a weaker dollar, that could be offset by the reduced oil demand that would follow the slowing of the US and global economies in the aftermath of a default. Up, then down, perhaps? I will join you in hoping we don't have to find out the hard way.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Carmageddon, Hybrid Cars and Diamond Lanes

The looming "Carmageddon" in Los Angeles made the front page of today's Wall St. Journal, as residents there brace for the two-plus day closure of ten miles of the famed San Diego Freeway (I-405) this weekend. The disruption is apparently required to allow for some demolition necessary for the construction of new high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the 405. As locals assess their alternate routes--there are many--they might also want to spend some time thinking about who will be allowed to drive in those new HOV lanes. California recently decided to deny ordinary (non-plug-in) hybrid cars that privilege, in preference to plug-ins and other alternatively fueled vehicles. The new policy and the one it replaces both reflect muddled thinking, but I would argue that abandoning hybrids at this juncture is a mistake, at least if saving gas is still a priority in the Golden State.

I routinely commuted on that stretch of the 405 between the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) and the Ventura Freeway (US-101) when I lived on the West Side and worked in Mid-Wilshire and later in the San Fernando Valley. I carpooled for part of that time but for most of it, like most other Angelenos, I drove alone. I would have found the option of going solo in the HOV lanes a very appealing way to avoid the frequent stop-and-go traffic, and that's why offering that right to hybrid cars has been a useful non-cash incentive to boost their sales. State officials apparently concluded that normal hybrids are now commonplace, so the incentive should be shifted to the even more efficient cars now becoming available. They have emissions data on their side, because California's electricity mix is dominated by hydropower, nuclear and efficient gas turbines, plus a growing contribution of non-hydro renewables, though it also includes some imported coal-fired power from the Four Corners region. A plug-in should indeed emit less CO2 (directly and indirectly) than a Prius-type hybrid under those conditions.

What I think the state's regulators have missed, however, is that simpler hybrids, which currently enjoy no other incentives, still look like an equally effective way to save gasoline. That's particularly true if most buyers of plug-in cars are choosing them in preference to non-plug-in hybrids, rather than instead of gas-guzzling conventional cars. It comes down to the simple, but often counter-intuitive math of fuel economy the way we calculate it in the US, yielding diminishing gallon savings for increasing miles per gallon (see chart below.) Consider a 50 mpg hybrid that replaces a 25 mpg conventional car. Driven 12,000 miles per year, this choice saves 240 gallons per year. Trading in that hybrid for a plug-in like a Nissan Leaf only saves an additional 240 gallons per year, while a Chevy Volt would save somewhat less than that, unless it were never filled up.

Moreover, plug-ins didn't lack for incentives already. In addition to the federal tax credit of up to $7,500 per car, California offers its own rebate of up to $5,000 for qualifying plug-ins, which also receive discounted rates for electricity. Then there's the money the state is investing in recharging infrastructure. Whether or not the aggregate level of incentives is justified on grounds of economics, environmental and energy security benefits, throwing the HOV benefit on top of them seems like an unnecessary gilding of the lily. The 85,000 hybrids that were given the sticker allowing HOV access for solo drivers still represent a tiny fraction of the state's 39 million registered motor vehicles, and offering 40,000 new stickers for EVs won't make a noticeable dent in California's emissions, or its 40 million gallon-per-day gasoline consumption.

I don't know whether this weekend's Carmageddon will live up to its name, or like L.A.'s 1984 Summer Olympics result in lighter-than-normal traffic because motorists had enough notice to allow them to plan ahead. Yet it does seem that continuing to offer HOV access for non-plug-in hybrids would provide a meaningful incentive for a class of gas-saving vehicles that still represents only around 3% of US car sales, at no cash cost to the state. And if the state is truly concerned that a growing hybrid population could choke the HOV lanes and make them less useful for everyone, an even better option would be to auction the stickers, with only buyers of hybrids, plug-ins and other alternative fuel cars eligible to bid. The proceeds might be sufficient to relieve the state's battered budget of a large portion of the cost of the cash subsidies they're already paying on plug-in cars.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ethanol's Future Without Subsidies

Given the remarkable longevity of the tax credit for ethanol blended into gasoline, it seems fitting that it would take a problem on the scale of the massive US deficit and $14 trillion federal debt to trigger its demise. Yet despite a widely-publicized Senate vote in June and the announcement of a key compromise among three Senators last week--two from the corn belt and one from the West Coast--it remains unclear just when and how the cancellation of this subsidy will become law. And because the fate of the subsidy is linked to that of the parallel tariff and duty on imported ethanol, the US ethanol industry faces not just the prospect of a more challenging market by year-end, but one that could include competition from foreign suppliers with special advantages under US renewable fuels regulations. Some producers may end up wishing they hadn't expanded output quite so fast.

I've followed the ethanol subsidy for much longer than I've been blogging about it. As I was reading a two-part assessment of the changing ethanol situation in Biofuels Digest it occurred to me to take the dusty report from my long-ago M.B.A. project off the shelf. Its topic was the market for "gasohol", gasoline blended with up to 10% ethanol, on the West Coast in the early 1980s. At the time, blenders received roughly the same tax credit as today's $0.45 per gallon of ethanol blended, thanks to the 1978 Federal Energy Tax Act and the Highway Tax Act of 1983. That benefit was a lot more generous in then-current dollars than now, but much smaller in aggregate. In the intervening decades, gasoline with ethanol has expanded from around 2% of the market to nearly 100%. In much of the country it is now harder to find gasoline without ethanol than it was to find gasohol back then.

That's only one indication of the tremendous success this industry has enjoyed, due almost entirely to government policies like the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit and the national Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) established in 2005. In fact the eventual demise of the ethanol tax credit was virtually guaranteed by the passage of an even more ambitious RFS as part of the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Under the RFS, blending ethanol into gasoline in steadily increasing proportions became mandatory, rendering the tax credit paid to refiners and other gasoline blenders redundant. Just as importantly, it expanded the scale of ethanol blending to such an extent that the total annual cost of the so-called blenders credit grew from roughly $1.8 billion in 2005 to a projected $6 billion this year--too big to ignore.

The deal agreed by Senators Feinstein (D-CA), Klobuchar (D-MN) and Thune (R-SD) last week would reportedly result in the early termination of both the ethanol tax credit, which was due to expire at the end of 2011 but could have been renewed, and the corresponding ethanol import tariff. It would devote $1.33 billion of the unspent funds to deficit reduction, while diverting another $668 million to extend tax credits for alternative fuel refueling (or recharging) infrastructure and cellulosic biofuel tax credits. This outcome appears to have pleased at least part of the ethanol industry. However, in order for it to become law, it must still be voted on by both houses of Congress, either by itself or as a provision within another bill, perhaps even the debt ceiling extension package that could emerge from the ongoing deliberations between the House, Senate and White House.

The ultimate effect of these changes on the ethanol industry remains somewhat uncertain, though it is hard to see them as a net positive, other than the longer-term benefit of supporting infrastructure investments that could be crucial in resolving a key bottleneck in ethanol distribution. Without much higher sales of gasoline blends containing more than 10% ethanol, the market is already nearly saturated with ethanol, and that's before factoring in the additional imports that the elimination of the tariff is likely to promote. And at least in the case of ethanol derived from sugar cane, those imports will enjoy an important advantage over ethanol derived from corn: most of them are likely to qualify for the stricter designation of "Advanced Biofuel" under the RFS, a category for which the annual quota is just starting to take off, and that cannot be satisfied by corn ethanol but also seems unlikely to be filled by domestic cellulosic ethanol any time soon.

Biofuels Digest suggested that long-dated ethanol futures have already nose-dived in anticipation of the end of the tax credit. It's true that ethanol for delivery in January 2012 is trading for around $0.35/gal. less than the August 2011 ethanol futures contract, reflecting a widening of ethanol's discount to the gasoline futures contract over that interval of around $0.11/gal. However, it also seems highly relevant that corn futures have recently retreated from their early-June peak of nearly $8/bushel to $6.80, with December corn--from which January ethanol might be produced--down at $6.20/bu. That leaves ethanol producers a small but still positive margin on that January futures price. So it is hardly certain that the end of the tax credit will, by itself, stress US corn ethanol producers. If anything, refiners and consumers--who have arguably received most of the benefit of the credit in recent years--stand to lose the most from its disappearance.

Import competition could have much more serious consequences, as the fuel ethanol industry truly begins to globalize. Brazil is the big player internationally, even if the recent rise in sugar prices and a smaller-than-expected cane crop have created the bizarre situation of Brazil actually importing corn ethanol from the US. The historically fragmented Brazilian sugar cane industry is currently both expanding and consolidating, led by companies like Raizen, the new joint venture between Shell and Cosan, which has indicated plans to double its ethanol capacity to 5 billion liters per year (1.3 billion gallons per year.) Nor is Brazil the only tropical country that can grow cane and produce sugar, ethanol and electricity from modern facilities. The Brazilian model could be replicated elsewhere in Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa. Not all of that extra ethanol will come here, but enough of it could, helped by the RFS, to put an effective cap on US ethanol prices. I'm not aware of a similar constraint on corn prices.

The US ethanol industry has matured in the last three decades. Today's ethanol plants are much more efficient than the ones supplying the small quantities used for gasohol in the early 1980s, and they now consume around 40% of the US corn crop. The industry has expanded on a scale that would have seemed nearly impossible thirty years ago, though in my view it has in the process fallen into the classic overcapacity trap of commodity manufacturers. Whether that situation is temporary or permanent depends on the success of blends containing more than 10% ethanol--blends that the market has so far treated with indifference. But either way, when the training wheels finally come off with the end of the blenders credit and import tariff, we shouldn't be surprised to see more of the small and higher-cost producers fall by the wayside. That will have local consequences, but the ethanol industry will survive, just as it survived the bankruptcies of some ethanol producers during the financial crisis. Ethanol is here to stay, and it is about to embark on a new career as a more normal commodity.

Friday, July 08, 2011

A New Era in Space

In the lead-up to the launch of the last space shuttle, "Atlantis", I've been seeing a number of articles on the general theme of an era ending. This week's Economist went so far as to suggest it marks the "End of the Space Age." I sincerely hope they are wrong, and not just because I have followed the US space program avidly since before the first moon landing, but also because of my primary focus on energy. Most of the resources of the solar system, including most of its energy resources, lie outside the earth's atmosphere. To choose a relevant example, space solar power (SSP) might not contribute significantly for decades, but it still looks like an important option for ensuring that energy limits don't constrain our long-term prosperity after the ages of oil and coal wind down.

One presentation that I still recall vividly from the many meetings involved in the economic review of NASA's "Fresh Look" approach to SSP in the 1990s, and from my time on NASA's oversight committee for SSP, dealt with the crucial role of a low-cost, high-frequency launch system in putting the components of solar power satellites into orbit affordably. Even then, it was clear that the current shuttle was not that system. It was equally clear that the traditional alternative of disposable rockets couldn't come close to the $ per pound-on-orbit threshold required. He was proposing a second- or third-generation system using unmanned reusable cargo vehicles that would land like airplanes. This was before the recent advances in drone aircraft.

I wonder what that scientist would recommend today. Perhaps he would build on some of the private spacecraft designs currently under development, such as those of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and XCOR. However, assembling a solar power system over dozens or hundreds of launches involves very different requirements than taking tourists into space or sending astronauts back to the moon or on to Mars. In any case, without reliable access to space--traveling as passengers on Russian vehicles using a 50-year-old design doesn't count--the benefits of space will be limited to capabilities like the communications and remote sensing of today's satellites. Those are impressive enough and have transformed our world and our view of it, but they can't supply us with the concentrated energy to power cities or industries.

During the space shuttle program's 30-year history, shuttle crews accomplished extraordinary feats at tremendous risk, and sadly some of them paid with their lives. It's interesting to contemplate, as a noted space commentator did this week in Technology Review, whether the right shuttle design was chosen in the early 1970s, though mainly from the perspective of what it might tell us about what our next steps in space should be. I'm as intrigued as anyone by the prospect of resuming manned exploration beyond earth orbit, but it's hard to square the cost of that with the deep cuts that must be made elsewhere to set our financial house in order. A serious examination of the techniques and hardware necessary to deliver space resources for use on earth--now that it wouldn't have to fit an existing shuttle's capabilities--could provide a suitably pragmatic focus for NASA in the current environment.

I have a hunch that a goal of obtaining non-polluting energy from space would go a lot farther towards galvanizing the necessary public support for NASA than the next planetary mission--which incidentally might be easier to construct with the capabilities that a more nuts-and-bolts effort might create. Either way, while it's nice to look back at past achievements, I'd much rather be looking ahead to the accomplishments of the next era in space.

Friday, July 01, 2011

A Shale Gas Bubble?

Last weekend the New York Times published a front-page article raising serious questions about the true scale and economics of the production of natural gas from shale, invoking the specter of another asset bubble. To say that this created a buzz would be an understatement. Yet while the article addressed important concerns, it mischaracterized the overall situation by conflating the fortunes and prospects of individual companies with the long-term viability of exploiting the underlying resource. Even if some prominent shale-focused companies were to fail, that wouldn't alter the quantity of shale gas in the ground. It also wouldn't change the fact that shale gas accounted for more than 15% of domestic US natural gas production in 2009 and is expected to supply at least 25% by 2035, even in the most pessimistic shale gas scenario included in the Department of Energy's 2011 Annual Energy Outlook. Comparisons to Enron or the Dot-Com bubble make little sense when the shale gas bonanza has shifted the fundamentals of physical supply and demand, irrespective of its effect on the equity values of companies in this sector.

I understand why the Times' assessment might resonate just now. In the aftermath of a series of asset bubbles and the economic contractions they helped trigger, skepticism about claims such as the game-changing potential of shale gas comes naturally, particularly when it appears that some industry and government insiders don't share the consensus enthusiasm for shale gas. There's nothing wrong with asking some tough questions, particularly given the scale of the opportunity and what it could mean for long-term electricity prices and the displacement of higher-emitting fuels. I have made a career of asking tough questions, myself. However, I also hope that these government officials asked questions at least that tough before issuing billions of dollars in cash grants, loans and loan guarantees to renewable energy developers and electric vehicle start-ups with shorter track records than most shale drillers, and facing greater uncertainties.

That's not as much of a non sequitur as it might seem, because of the prominent placement of the article and its context within the series of probing articles the Times has done on shale gas and its main enabling technology, hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." I wouldn't be surprised to learn that that the paper's editors, like many in environmental circles, find the development of this resource to be an unwelcome diversion on the path to a lower-carbon future. After all, while natural gas emits much less greenhouse gas than coal over its lifecycle, particularly for electricity generation, it certainly emits much more than wind, solar and geothermal power. Many renewable energy projects have struggled to compete with the low cost of gas-fired power generation that shale gas helped bring about. Ultimately, the price of natural gas lies at the heart of both the concerns raised in Sunday's story and the worries of many environmentalists that cheap gas could delay the shift to renewables by many years--although I would remind them that gas-fired power also looks very helpful for enabling the grid to accommodate more renewables.

If I thought that natural gas prices were likely to remain at their current level of roughly $4 per million BTUs indefinitely, I might share some of those concerns. I'd also be even more vocal than I have been in highlighting the opportunity for gas to displace imported oil at an energy equivalent of under $25 per barrel. However, there are good reasons to believe that today's prices aren't just the result of abundant shale gas, but also of a weak US economy. It's no coincidence that they fell precipitously as the recession was starting to bite in the second half of 2008, in tandem with oil prices. Stronger growth is likely to bring more demand from existing users, along with new demand of the type I highlighted in Monday's posting. If the futures market reflects the current consensus on prices in the future, then that consensus expects a fairly steady increase in gas prices in the next few years, reaching $6/MMBTU by late 2015.

By itself that would resolve many of the concerns of environmentalists about competition between gas and renewables, as long as renewables like wind and solar continue on their recent cost-reduction trajectories. It would also negate many of the notions in Sunday's article, because at $6 the project economics of most of the shale plays the Times considered would be cash-positive or at least cash-neutral. That means a driller could finance development without having to bootstrap into it by selling reserves, a practice that appears to have inspired the Times' references to shale gas as a form of Ponzi scheme.

Meanwhile, at an average of $6 per MMBTU the price of natural gas would still be lower--and possibly less volatile--than in the boom years of the last decade, while remaining cheap enough to eventually displace a lot of imported oil. The resulting $35 per oil-equivalent barrel would have looked expensive as recently as 2003, but it would be a bargain in today's world.

In its larger context Sunday's article, by making a case that the future output of shale gas could be much lower than has been assumed, lays the groundwork for opponents of shale development to claim that it is both too risky and not material enough to be worth the risks they attribute to it. After studying this issue carefully, I am convinced that neither aspect of that proposition is correct. Shale can be developed safely, particularly when following guidelines such as the Operating Principles for shale and tight gas that Shell just put out. And shale certainly looks big enough to make a significant difference in the energy balances of entire countries, including both the US and China. Not every company producing shale gas will be financially successful, but that's been true in the oil patch since Col. Drake drilled his first well in 1859. In the unlikely event that shale gas turned out to be a bubble, it wouldn't be the first one in the history of oil and gas exploration. However, if it were a bubble, like previous ones it would leave behind a large number of wells that will be producing vitally important energy for many years to come, whatever the fate of the companies that originally drilled them.