Thursday, September 26, 2013

Would An Emissions Deal Break the Keystone XL Deadlock?

  • A Canadian proposal to facilitate US approval of the Keystone XL pipeline by committing to greenhouse gas reductions gets to the essence of principled objections to the project.
  • The offer provides a chance for defined, quantifiable emissions reductions, instead of the highly uncertain emissions consequences of rejecting the permit for this pipeline. 
A couple of weeks ago Bloomberg and others reported that the Canadian Prime Minister had sent a letter to President Obama, proposing to work with the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector as a way to facilitate US approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL.) It seemed an obvious way to break the current deadlock . If opposition to the pipeline is based mainly on the greenhouse gas emissions profile of Canadian oil sands crude--accurately or not--then environmentalists should have welcomed this overture. Instead, environmental groups have urged the President to reject both the offer and the pipeline.

You would never know it from protest slogans conflating all types of air pollution as if they were identical, but the characteristics and effects of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like CO2 are very different from the smog-forming emissions from automobile tailpipes or the sulfate pollution from coal power plants. For that matter, air containing 400 ppm of CO2 (0.04%) is no more harmful to breathe than pre-industrial air with 280 ppm of CO2. More importantly, the climate consequences of each ton of CO2 emitted to the atmosphere are effectively the same as for every other ton, regardless of where they are emitted or from what source. While scientists can distinguish CO2 from fossil fuel combustion from the CO2 you just exhaled, based on differences in the ratio of carbon isotopes they carry, their effect on global warming is essentially identical.

That sounds trivial, yet it has great value for expanding our options for managing the accumulation of these gases in earth’s atmosphere. Not only don’t we have to treat GHGs the way we do local air pollutants, but it can be more effective not to. In practical terms, that means that unlike the well-established approaches for mitigating smog, it isn’t necessary to tackle all GHG emissions at the source, particularly when it’s expensive or impractical to do so. Saving a ton of CO2 by preventing deforestation or improving vehicle fuel economy is exactly equivalent in its effect on the climate to reducing a ton of CO2 emitted from producing oil, which accounts for less than 20% of the emissions from the oil value chain.

Prime Minister Harper’s proposal has been greeted with skepticism by some environmental groups, including a representative of Sierra Club Canada who expressed doubt that Mr. Harper was serious. I am in no position to comment on that, other than to point out that entering into negotiations on a proposal such as this one would be an excellent test of his government’s seriousness about reducing emissions.

In fact, a proposal to approve Keystone in exchange for reducing emissions provides a test of the seriousness of all the parties involved. If the project is worth pursuing for the Canadian government and Canada’s oil sands producers, then it should be worth additional efforts on their part, over and above those already undertaken, to reduce emissions from oil sands production and to find suitable emissions offsets elsewhere. Of course it’s also a test of how serious President Obama was when he  explicitly linked approval for KXL to “whether or not this is going to significantly contribute to carbon in our atmosphere.” And because the administration’s protracted delays in approving or rejecting the project can fairly be attributed to political considerations, the proposal also tests the seriousness of “movement” organizations like that influence the politics of Keystone within the President’s political base.

Opponents of the Keystone XL project who are genuinely concerned about addressing climate change ought to at least be willing to consider a framework that links approval of this project to quantifiable and verifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on a comparable scale. Since the determination of such reductions depends on the assumptions governing the alternative state of the world against which these reductions would be compared, that would require a willingness to accept a reasonable set of baseline assumptions about what would happen if this pipeline were not permitted to cross the US border. While I don’t pretend that would be easy, I have trouble seeing how one could reject such a concept outright and still claim to adhere to sound science and consensus policies.

This strikes me as an opportunity to embrace the kind of constructive and responsible compromise, the absence of which in our government so many Americans have lamented. Or, to put it bluntly, is opposition to Keystone really about greenhouse gas emissions, or is it just about symbolism?

The beauty of this offer, if it has actually been made and depending on its details, is that it provides President Obama with a potential two-fer: a pathway for approving a project that would please a large majority of Americans, along with a way to obtain significant greenhouse gas reductions--also pleasing many Americans--without requiring the highly unlikely enactment by Congress of comprehensive climate legislation. If we can do a deal with Russia over Syrian chemical weapons, there should be no impediment to doing a deal with Canada over CO2 emissions.

A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How Falling Oil Imports Doubled the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve

  • Falling oil imports have greatly expanded the capability of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to replace oil imports in a crisis, although prices would still rise.

  • The SPR remains an imperfect backstop. Post-Syria, it is high time for Congress and the White House to address its gaps after four decades of change.

Last week's deal between the US and Russia defused the threat of an attack on Syria's military installations, along with the risks of unintended consequences for Mideast oil exports. However, we shouldn't lose sight of an important energy-related observation in the Wall St. Journal's “Heard on the Street” column as the crisis was peaking. It concerned the extraordinary degree to which reviving US oil production and weaker US energy demand have boosted the effectiveness of US oil inventories, including the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).

Without adding a drop — the SPR actually shrank a bit in 2011 — the reserve’s potential to replace daily oil imports in a crisis has soared as those imports have declined. This could prove extremely helpful should the complex talks over securing Syria's chemical weapons break down, and the US and France proceed with missile or air strikes. Longer term, it serves as a further reminder that the existing SPR was designed for another era and is overdue for a major rethink.

Having 700 million barrels of oil available in federal facilities along the Gulf Coast has tempted presidents and other politicians, who saw opportunities to benefit from using it to attempt to crush periodic gasoline price spikes. However, the recent situation came much closer to the scenarios the SPR was intended to address when it was begun during the Ford administration, to provide a backstop for our vital energy supplies in emergencies involving the physical interruption of supply. When it comes to uses of the SPR, I’ve always been a purist, perhaps because I can recall sitting in gas lines and participating involuntarily in the bizarre “odd-even” rationing-by-license-plate scheme introduced during the oil crisis following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Here’s how the benefits of tapping the SPR in an actual crisis have improved, based on the rapid recent drop in US oil imports. In 2007, the SPR could have replaced just over half of our crude oil imports from countries other than Canada or Mexico for 165 days, at its maximum draw-down rate of 4.25 million barrels per day. With its current inventory and this year’s average crude oil imports through June running at around 7.6 million barrels per day, the SPR could substitute for 100% of our non-North American imports for 163 days. The value of such an insurance policy is rarely appreciated until it is needed.

Of course in practice the situation would be more complicated, mainly for reasons that support the case for rethinking the current 1970s-vintage reserve. One problem is that the oil stored in caverns near the Gulf of Mexico wouldn’t provide much immediate assistance for east coast refineries or for the West Coast, which has become increasingly dependent on imports as production in both Alaska and California declined steadily. Then there’s the issue of quality. Nearly 40% of the SPR oil is light and sweet (low in sulfur), while much of the oil we still import is heavy and sour (higher sulfur), to match the requirements of current refinery configurations. With production of light sweet crude in Texas and North Dakota booming, releasing sweet crude from the SPR could compound regional imbalances and possibly result in reduced refinery utilization. Any redesign of the SPR should take these important shifts into account.

Oil prices jumped just at the thought of a cruise missile attack on Syria, so it’s worth recalling what a back-up supply from the SPR can and can’t do. It can buffer the US economy from the impact of a serious interruption in the flow of crude oil cargoes from the Middle East or elsewhere, for some months. US refineries would continue to operate, as would the planes, trains, trucks and ships they fuel, and on which commerce depends. However, consumers wouldn’t be insulated from the price increases that would accompany any major disruption in Middle East oil exports, because the SPR oil must be auctioned to refiners at market prices. The resulting situation at gas stations might look a lot like price-gouging, with social media rapidly spreading outrage and conspiracy theories. The fallout from that could be disruptive, too, if somewhat less so than widespread fuel shortages and “out of gas” signs.

A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Energy Projects Seem Less Urgent in A Post-Energy-Crisis World

  • Rather than being another component of an ongoing energy crisis, opposition to various energy projects points to the alleviation of a decades-long string of US energy crises.
  • The audience for concerns about pipelines and fracking would be much smaller if oil were still at $145 per barrel and natural gas over $10 per million BTUs.
To someone living in 1974, during the first energy crisis of the last 40 years, the idea of mass protests to block a pipeline for importing crude oil from Canada would have seemed incomprehensible.  Our environmental awareness has expanded in the interim, along with new channels for exchanging information, including "enduring misconceptions".  Yet the current opposition to so many different energy projects--natural gas drilling, long-distance transmission lines and even wind farms--can also be viewed as an unintended consequence of recent energy successes on a broad front.

The alleviation of what seemed to many a permanent energy crisis might not be obvious, because it has crept up on us. But consider a few of the big-picture elements that have changed:

In crisis mode, US energy security was focused on steadily rising oil and later natural gas imports, while "energy independence" was a goal embraced by politicians but rarely energy experts. Cars offering better fuel economy were available but entailed trade-offs in size and performance. Today, oil imports are falling, the US is a net exporter of refined petroleum products, and public concern about Peak Oil is waning, as measured by internet search activity. Ethanol from corn supplies 10% of US gasoline demand, while other forms of renewable energy are growing rapidly, from a small base. The big question for the federal government this summer is how many natural gas export facilities to allow. Meanwhile, the threshold for fuel-efficient cars has shifted from 30 mpg to 40 mpg, offered in numerous attractive models.

Another way to gauge the success of technologies like hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", in shifting our energy landscape is to remind ourselves how bad we thought today's situation would be, just a few years ago.  In 2005 the official US annual energy forecast projected oil imports to increase from 11 million barrels per day (MBD) in 2003 to nearly 15 MBD by this year, due to rising demand and domestic production that was expected to remain flat, at best (see below chart.)

The Energy Information Agency (EIA) also expected US natural gas imports to increase steadily, reaching 3.5 trillion cubic feet  (TCF) of LNG imports this year, on their way to 6 TCF per year by 2022. As a consequence, in 2005 the EIA forecast that coal would still generate 48% of US electricity by 2013.

Now imagine energy prices in that alternative 2013. With US natural gas suppliers importing an average of 90 LNG tankers per month, would the wellhead price of gas still be under $4 per million BTUs, or closer to the $16 price paid in some international markets? And with US refiners importing up to twice as much crude oil as they are actually on track to do this year, in the context of sanctions on Iran and turmoil in North Africa, how likely does it seem that oil would be at $105-110/bbl, instead of much higher? $100 oil is a drag on the economy, but US consumers have adjusted to gasoline priced around $3.50-3.75/gal., on average. Every $1 per gallon above that would take another $130 billion per year away from other purchases, with adverse effects on the US economy.

More to the point, in such an environment how much tolerance would there be for opposition to oil pipelines or gas drilling that had the potential to lower energy prices, or at least reduce imports and enhance energy security? If oil were above its 2008 high of $145/bbl, and gasoline flirting with $5 per gallon, it would surely be much harder for elected officials to delay approving projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, or to sustain gas drilling moratoria. Ironically then, the successful large-scale application of shale drilling techniques, which has resulted in a 29% increase in US natural gas production and 33% rise in oil production since 2004, helped make it possible for opponents of Keystone or fracking to be heard, rather than dismissed out of hand.

I was recently struck by a reported remark by a pipeline executive. "Shale is everywhere," he said, but it won't be produced everywhere because "people make choices." I agree with that insight, while recognizing that such choices are available mainly because altered economic conditions and the same technologies to which some now object have enabled us to shed an energy crisis mindset.  This situation might have future parallels for other technologies that have escaped much pushback, so far. 

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Do Crude Oil Shipments Make Rail Less Safe?

  • The movement of crude oil by rail is expanding rapidly but still represents a small fraction of the hazardous goods transported by rail in North America.
  • The devastation caused by an oil train accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec should galvanize railroads, shippers and regulators to improve rail safety for all hazardous freight. However, it does not justify banning oil-by-rail.
It’s been nearly two months since a train loaded with crude oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing an estimated 47 residents. In the interval since the accident, the relevant authorities have focused on ascertaining the cause of the accident and determining how best to improve rail safety. However, there has also been another, less-customary conversation about whether oil in general, and the specific oil on this train, might be too dangerous to transport by rail at all. That conversation would benefit from some context that appears to be absent.

Both conversations began with a tragedy in a place I recognized immediately. Ten years ago my wife and I passed through Lac-Megantic and drove along the Chaudière river that originates there, on its way to the St. Lawrence. It’s an area of natural beauty and historical significance. The images of destruction and of oil spilled in the river were gut-wrenching.

The investigation is still underway, but it seems significant that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) of the US Department of Transportation has already issued an Emergency Order banning the practice of leaving such trains unattended, pending the development of better procedures for securing them safely. Canadian authorities are reviewing their regulations and enforcement, as well as revisiting questions about the specific type of tank car in which the oil was carried. The Wall St. Journal reported that the FRA is also  looking into the testing and classification of crude oil shipments, to ensure that the tank cars used to transport different crude oils are suited to the task. Meanwhile, the rail operator involved in the accident has filed for bankruptcy on both sides of the border.

The second conversation, apparently based on a belief that it is possible to cease our use of petroleum entirely if we only have the will, is occurring in a fact vacuum. Understanding why that particular batch of crude oil was on that specific track on that day requires unpacking a nested set of factors that starts with the fact that oil still accounts for 33% of total global energy consumption, but more importantly supplies 93% of transportation energy. Numerous forecasts, including the latest from the US Department of Energy, anticipate no reduction in global oil use through 2040. Although we’ve displaced much of the oil formerly used to generate electricity and have greatly improved vehicle fuel efficiency, our most successful alternative transportation fuel, ethanol--no stranger to rail accidents--accounted for just 3% of US liquid fuel use last year, when adjusted for its lower energy content.

Although global oil movements are dominated by pipelines, tankers and barges, rail remains an important mode because of its flexibility. It’s also usually cheaper and more efficient than trucking for all but short distances--and safer, too, despite accidents like this one. Although the rapid recent growth of crude-oil-by-rail and its role in the Keystone XL pipeline debate have attracted significant attention, last year’s 234,000 tank-car loads of crude made up less than half of total US petroleum rail shipments and were dwarfed by over 1.5 million tank-car loads of chemicals hauled by rail in 2012.

Crude oil, especially light crudes like those produced from the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, is flammable, and thus constitutes hazardous cargo. However, railroads routinely carry a wide variety of flammable and otherwise hazardous materials, including propane, gasoline, benzene, ethanol, chlorine gas, sulfuric acid and a range of other chemicals. Safety is not  determined by the cargo--if it was, none of these substances would be on trains--but by the combination of the equipment used to carry it, the rules and processes that dictate how to handle it, and the people who operate these systems. It’s no coincidence that these are the areas on which the investigations and preliminary regulatory responses have focused.

Then there are the market and logistical circumstances that resulted in a St. John, New Brunswick refinery that supplies both Canadian and US consumers and normally processes oil imported by tanker, acquiring oil produced in North Dakota and shipped halfway across the continent by rail. North American oil production is expanding rapidly, with significant economic and energy security benefits. Much of this new oil is found in places not adequately served by the large network of existing pipelines. That situation may eventually be rectified, but in the meantime the mismatch between growing landlocked oil supplies and limited pipeline outlets for them has created an opportunity for rail operators reeling from the much larger shale-gas-induced decline in coal shipments. Serving that need keeps people and trains employed. And that, ultimately, is why a train carrying Bakken crude was on a track in Lac-Megantic this July.

I can scarcely imagine what the survivors of the Lac-Megantic disaster and the families of the victims have been going through for the last two months. Their lives will never be the same. But whatever the cause of the accident is determined to have been--human error, mechanical failure, aging infrastructure or something else--it was not caused by the oil in those tank cars.

In the aftermath of an accident like this, the best thing we can do is to determine why it happened and apply those lessons to make rail transport of all hazardous cargoes safer.  Attempting to use the tragedy to advance a social cause such as “ending our reliance on oil” might be alluring to some, but the communities through which such freight travels in the course of keeping our economy running will benefit much more from the former course of action.

A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider.