Tuesday, April 22, 2014

ExxonMobil Confronts the Carbon Bubble

  • Companies and investors are squaring off over the potential impact of government climate policies on asset values, particularly in the fossil fuel industry.

  • ExxonMobil gave its shareholders data and assurances of asset resilience under various policies but dismissed the scenario of greatest interest to sustainability investors.

Last fall I devoted a lengthy post to the notion that future policies to address climate change expose investors in companies producing fossil fuels to a potential bubble in asset valuations. So although I am not an ExxonMobil shareholder, I was particularly interested when the company issued a report last month responding to specific shareholder concerns along these lines. Although the term “carbon asset bubble” did not appear in the report, its references to carbon budgets and the risk of stranded assets in a low-carbon scenario were aimed directly at this emerging meme.

Unsurprisingly, ExxonMobil’s management reassured investors that, “none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded’.” Wisely avoiding past tendencies to question interpretations of climate science, their analysis appears to be grounded in mainstream views of climate change. It focuses on the costs and achievability of an extreme low-carbon scenario, and on the resilience of the company’s portfolio under various climate policies.

Exxon's analysis is based on the company’s latest Outlook for Energy, an annual global forecast broadly similar to the main “New Policies” scenario of the International Energy Agency (IEA). It has fewer similarities to the IEA’s “450″ scenario that underpins carbon bubble claims. The company expects energy demand to grow at an average of about 1% annually over the next three decades–faster than population but much slower than the global economy–with increasing efficiency and a gradual shift toward lower-emission energy sources: Gas increases faster than oil and by more BTUs in total, while coal grows for a while longer but then shrinks back to current levels. Renewables grow fastest of all, producing about as much energy in 2040 as nuclear power does today. As a result of these shifts global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions peak around 2030 and then decline gradually.

That forecast won’t impress those advocating prompt and aggressive changes in the global energy mix to head off serious climate change, but it is not very different from the most recent global forecast of the US government’s Energy Information Administration. If anything, Exxon expects slower growth of energy and emissions than the EIA.

Ultimately, ExxonMobil's argument that it isn’t running outsized carbon asset risks depends heavily on its estimate of the implicit costs of achieving a much deeper and more rapid transition to renewables, compared to its--and others’--forecasts. It gauges this on the intensity of governments’ future climate policies, expressed in terms of their effective cost per ton of CO2 abated, and on the affordability of such measures to energy consumers, especially in the developing world, where emissions are increasing rapidly.

Without directly disputing the technical feasibility of achieving such large and rapid emissions cuts, the company's management essentially questions whether any government would or could impose the extraordinary costs necessary for that to occur. Their proxy estimate of $200/ton of CO2 for such policies is sobering. Even if the sums that would raise were all efficiently recycled by those governments–a heroic assumption–the resulting diversion of investment and increase in energy costs would adversely affect overall economic development.

The sustainable investor groups that raised this issue with ExxonMobil were apparently disappointed with the answer they got. That's not surprising, but having participated in similar exercises at Texaco, Inc., I think ExxonMobil went well beyond the kind of perfunctory reply the investors might have expected. In particular, it has provided enough data to support a more serious dialog with investors on this subject.

For example, Exxon indicated that it “stress tests” its projects and acquisitions at proxy costs of up to $80/ton of CO2, compared to current levels of $8-10/ton in the EU’s Emission Trading System. Implicit in that is the question of whether investors would reasonably expect them to test projects at $200/ton., which would equate to around $100 per average barrel of oil--roughly today's price--based on the nifty “seriatim” chart at the end of the report.

The document also includes information addressing the resiliency of the company’s assets and operations under a lower-carbon future, with their emphasis on natural gas and a global average cost of production under $12 per oil-equivalent-barrel (BOE). Climate policies would have to raise those costs and shrink the associated revenues very significantly to jeopardize current production, nor are low oil prices generally consistent with a low-carbon world. Investments in future production are another matter, though Exxon refers to the IEA’s 450 scenario to demonstrate how much additional oil and gas development would still be required in the next 20 years, even in a world that was determined to constrain global temperature increases to no more than 2°C.

ExxonMobil’s response to investors will not end the debate over the carbon bubble. While providing a lot of information, the company essentially argued that the extreme low-carbon scenario associated with the risks of a carbon bubble is irrelevant, because it can’t be achieved any time soon, irrespective of the risks associated with current emissions levels. That is close to my own view, but it is unlikely to resonate with those who are more focused on the risks of climate change than on the nuts and bolts of what it would take to avert them.

Interestingly, the company’s report on carbon risks was issued on the same day as the latest iteration of the predicted consequences of further warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In a sense each report provides context for the other, so that investors who accept the IPCC’s analysis can weigh the potential costs of global warming against the cost and scale of the changes that would be required to put the world on a crash program to avert the worst climate-change-related outcomes. They can then buy or sell accordingly.

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


  • Current debates over LNG export often ignore its primary benefits, such as enabling gas to be produced for sale to markets beyond the realistic reach of pipelines.
  • It also allows gas to compete with petroleum liquids where energy density is important, such as in powering ships, trains and land vehicles.  
The international reaction to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula has put a spotlight on liquefied natural gas (LNG), which was already under debate in the US as a mechanism for exporting increasingly abundant shale gas. Meanwhile, LNG is emerging as a fuel in its own right, rather than just a means of transporting gas from source to market. What links these trends is LNG's capability to enable natural gas to approach the convenience and energy density of petroleum.

The big driver for this is economic: UK Brent crude is currently over $100 per barrel, while natural gas in the US Gulf Coast trades at the energy equivalent of around $25 per barrel. That creates a significant incentive to build LNG plants, despite the recent escalation in their cost. Even after adding the equivalent of $20-30/bbl in expenses for liquefaction, shipping, and regasification to convert the LNG back into pipeline gas at its destination, the opportunity is significant. In Asia, where LNG sells for $14 or $15 per million BTUs, that's still less than $90 per equivalent barrel. And because gas can only be produced if it can be connected to a market, LNG enables more gas to compete in more markets, while providing customers a cleaner and cheaper fuel.

This is not a new technology. Early demonstrations in the 1940s and '50s were followed by commercial-scale plants built to export LNG from Alaska, Algeria and Indonesia, establishing what has since become a global industry. Every LNG plant is designed to take advantage of the fact that at atmospheric pressure natural gas becomes a liquid at -259 °F ( -161 °C)--about 60°F warmer than liquid nitrogen--shrinking by a factor of 600:1 in the process. As long as it is kept below that temperature, it can be stored and transported as a liquid.

That has important advantages over the alternative of compressing natural gas to create a denser fuel. For example, a gallon of LNG has around 2.2 times as much energy (based on lower heating values) as the same volume of compressed natural gas (CNG) at 3,000-3,600 pounds per square inch (psi). A gallon of LNG also has 98% of the energy of ethanol, and 64% that of gasoline. This makes LNG dense enough to transport economically over long distances, unlike CNG.

These differences have a practical impact on the gradual penetration of the transportation fuel market by natural gas. While most natural gas passenger cars are based on the simpler CNG approach, LNG is gaining a foothold in trucking, particularly where the combination of low emissions and denser fuel--yielding longer range--is important.

LNG is also emerging as an option for transportation modes that have had few viable alternative to oil-based fuels, such as in shipping and even rail where electrification is impractical. Replacing ships' bunker fuel with LNG could be a key strategy for responding to increasingly strict international regulations on sulfur and nitrogen oxide pollution from ocean-going vessels.

The environmental benefits of LNG can be significant, when it replaces higher-emitting fuels like coal and fuel oil. Even after accounting for the energy consumed in the liquefaction process-- equivalent to 8% or less of the gas input to a new LNG plant--and in storage and transportation, lifecycle emissions from LNG in power generation are 40-60% lower than those from coal. Its advantage in marine engines is smaller, but still positive at around 8%, while reducing local pollution significantly.

LNG isn't without drawbacks, including "boil-off", the gradual tendency of LNG in storage to evaporate due to heating from the environment outside the insulated tank. In stationary facilities the resulting gas can either be re-liquefied or delivered to meet local gas demand. In vehicles, it is vented after a specified holding time of around a week or more. That makes it more suitable for vehicles that are used frequently, rather than sitting idle for extended periods.

It's worth noting that while LNG is increasingly linked to shale gas in North America, nearly all the LNG currently marketed around the world is produced from conventional gas reservoirs, such as the supergiant North Field in Qatar, or the gas fields of Australia's North West Shelf. That would also be the case for a new LNG plant based on Alaskan North Slope gas, as described in a post here in 2012.

Only a few years ago, government and industry forecasts were unanimous in projecting a large and growing US LNG import requirement, as domestic gas production declined. The number of US LNG import facilities expanded to meet this new demand, but the combination of the recession and the shale gas revolution has resulted in imports shrinking substantially since 2007. The Energy Information Administration now expects the US to become a net exporter of LNG in 2016, including exports from repurposed import facilities. They will join a market that now supplies around 10% of global natural gas consumption and accounts for a third of global gas trade.

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

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Fuel Cell Cars and the Shale Revolution

  • Although fuel cell cars have perpetually seemed to be the technology of tomorrow, carmakers’ persistence with them could still pay off, as a dividend from shale gas.

  • Significant obstacles remain, including inadequate hydrogen infrastructure and competition from greatly improved vehicle batteries. However, the race is far from over.

As I was working off my reading backlog, I ran across an article in the Washington Post’s “Capitol Business” edition on “Are We Ready for Hydrogen Cars?” Published in conjunction with this year’s DC Auto Show, which I missed, it mentioned a new fuel cell model from Hyundai for the California market, while providing some background on a technology that looked much more like the next big thing a decade ago than it does to many, now.

Any evaluation of the prospects for fuel cell cars to become practical requires discussing the cost of fuel cell components, the infrastructure to deliver H2 to vehicles, and the suitability of various options for storing it safely onboard. However, I was surprised the article failed to mention a new factor that might do more than anything else to improve the odds for this technology: shale gas.

In the mid-1990s, when fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) first appeared on my radar, they seemed like an ideal alternative to the gasoline engines in most passenger cars, offering zero tailpipe emissions and very low lifecycle, or well-to-wheels emissions of all types. Onboard hydrogen (H2) storage, whether as a gas, liquid or chemically adsorbed in another material, enabled higher energy density than then-current batteries, giving an FCV significantly greater potential range than a comparable electric vehicle (EV). And like electric cars, they also provided a useful pathway for bringing energy from a wide variety of sources into the transportation market, which was and still is dominated by petroleum products. Cost and technology readiness were big barriers, along with non-existent retail H2 infrastructure.

Energy remains the key to FCVs, because H2 is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Standing up a competitive fleet of FCV models thus requires plentiful and preferably low-cost energy sources from which sufficient H2 can be produced and distributed. As recently as just a few years ago, this looked like a very tough challenge.

Most H2 used industrially is generated by chemically reforming natural gas. Until recently, US gas production was in decline, resulting in high and volatile gas prices. Generating H2 from electricity looked even worse, because power prices were climbing and seemed likely to increase steadily in the future, as natural gas prices rose and higher-cost renewables were phased in. And with US electricity generation dominated by coal, H2 from electrolysis–cracking water into its components using electricity–looked like a recipe for merely shifting, rather than reducing vehicle emissions.

Like many other aspects of the North American energy scene, this picture has changed radically in the last several years, mainly due to the shale gas revolution. We now have abundant gas at reasonable prices, and this is holding down electricity costs. (Renewables are also reducing wholesale electricity prices, though not necessarily the full cost of electricity, because they still depend on subsidies and mandates that don’t show up in wholesale prices.)

These developments create the potential for cheaper H2 sources than fuel cell developers expected. Moreover, US natural gas prices have diverged from oil prices and are now at a significant discount to oil. Wellhead gas today trades for the equivalent of $25 per barrel, compared to oil at over $100. Gas-derived H2 could end up with advantages in both cost and end-use efficiency over gasoline.

Of course the availability of natural gas isn’t the only thing that has changed for fuel cells in the last decade, from a competitive perspective. Automakers such as GM, Toyota and Honda have introduced various new fuel cell models. The most recent one I had an opportunity to drive was a fuel-cell version of the Chevrolet Equinox compact SUV in late 2007. In the meantime, though, EV models are proliferating.

Unfortunately for fuel cell developers, H2 distribution has had a somewhat checkered history, as the Washington Post article notes. Providing fuel for FCVs is a much more involved and expensive undertaking than setting up a network of recharging points for EVs. How many H2 stations will suppliers build before FCVs appear in large numbers, and how many FCVs can carmakers sell before sufficient infrastructure is available to serve them? California still has just a handful of public H2 stations, after years of development.

Energy trade-offs dominate the competition between FCVs and EVs. The former have longer ranges between refueling than moderately-priced EVs–the Tesla Model S has excellent range–and can be refueled in much less time than even high-voltage EV recharging can achieve. However, FCVs are much more dependent on refueling infrastructure than EVs, which can recharge at home. And thanks to robust federal support for battery R&D and production, including from the 2009 stimulus, along with extremely generous federal and state EV tax credits, EVs have gained significant awareness and initial market penetration since the current administration took office and scaled back federal support for fuel cells.

EVs may have an edge over fuel cell cars, for now, but EV sales remain disappointing and they must compete with more convenient, mainstream hybrid cars, with and without plug-in capability. They must also compete with conventional gasoline and diesel cars that are becoming more efficient every year, reducing EVs’ advantages in operating costs and lifecycle environmental impacts. Given all that, there’s still ample time for another technology like FCVs–or natural gas vehicles (NGVs)–to scale up, if they can reduce costs quickly enough and overcome infrastructure hurdles. Those are big ifs.

Nor is it the case that EVs and FCVs are mutually exclusive in the automotive market. Fuel cell cars are fundamentally electric vehicles, too, and most will likely be offered as hybrids, with regenerative braking and traction batteries. So advances in EV architecture, battery capacity and cost, and safety also benefit FCVs. That makes it seem even likelier that our future vehicle mix will be quite diverse, with EVs and FCVs coexisting with NGVs, various hybrids, and much more efficient gasoline and diesel models than today’s.

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

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Environmental Groups Gear Up to Stop US LNG Exports

  • The Sierra Club and other groups are taking on US LNG exports just when LNG is gaining support as a key response to Russia's aggressive behavior in Ukraine.

  • The science behind their claims does not withstand scrutiny, and their timing couldn't be worse, geopolitically.

A collection of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and 350.org recently wrote to President Obama, urging him to require a Keystone-XL-style environmental review--presumably entailing similar delays--for the proposed Cove Point, Maryland liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal. Given the President’s explicit support for wider natural gas use and the administration's new commitment to our European allies to enable LNG exports, the hyperbole-laden letter seems likelier to rev up the groups’ activist bases than to influence the administration’s policies.

Either way, its timing could hardly be coincidental, coming just as opinion leaders across the political spectrum have seized on LNG exports as a concrete strategy for countering Russian energy leverage over Europe in the aftermath of President Putin’s seizure of Crimea. If, as the Washington Post and energy blogger Robert Rapier have suggested, the Keystone XL pipeline is the wrong battle for environmentalists, taking on LNG exports now is an even more misguided fight, at least on its merits.

Referring to unspecified ”emerging and credible analysis”, the letter evokes the thoroughly discredited argument that shale gas, pejoratively referred to here as “fracked gas”, is as bad or worse for the environment as coal. In fact, in a similar letter sent to Mr. Obama one year ago, some of the same groups cited a 2007 paper in Environmental Science & Technology that clearly showed that, even when converted into LNG, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of natural gas in electricity generation are still significantly lower than those of coal, despite the extra emissions of the liquefaction and regasification processes.

The current letter also implies that emissions from shale gas are higher than those for conventional gas, a notion convincingly dispelled by last year’s University of Texas study, sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, that measured actual, rather than estimated or modeled, emissions from hundreds of gas wells at dozens of sites in the US.

It’s also surprising that the letter’s authors would choose to cite the International Energy Agency’s 2011 scenario report on a potential “Golden Age of Gas” in support of their claims. That’s because the IEA’s analysis found that the expanded use of gas foreseen in that scenario would reduce global emissions by 160 million CO2-equivalent tons annually by 2035, mainly through competition with coal in power generation in developing countries, addressing the principal source of global greenhouse gas emissions growth today.

The groups take another wrong turn in suggesting that President Obama increase support for wind and solar power instead of supporting gas. The contribution of new renewables to the US energy mix has grown rapidly, thanks to significant federal and state support, but it remains small. Despite record US wind turbine and solar power additions, shale gas and shale oil added more than 20 times as much energy output on an equivalent basis in 2012, and last year’s gains look similarly disproportional. Simply put, the US isn’t enjoying a return to energy security or becoming a major energy exporter because of renewables. It is counterproductive for renewables to pit them against gas as they have done here.

Experts disagree on how much and how quickly US LNG exports can influence gas markets in Europe and elsewhere. Yet while none of the currently permitted or proposed LNG facilities will be ready to ship cargoes until at least late next year, the knowledge that they are coming will inevitably have an impact on traders and contracts, including contracts for Russian gas in the EU. Whether or not US natural gas molecules ever reach Europe, they can serve a useful role in the necessary response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Attempting to block this for spurious reasons puts opponents in jeopardy of becoming what Mr. Putin in his previous career might have called “useful idiots.”

It’s tempting to speculate on what this new campaign says about the participating groups’ perceptions of how the Keystone XL fight is going. Win or lose, they might soon need a new cause, or face the dispersal of the protesters and financial contributors it has galvanized. Blocking LNG may look conveniently similar--even if similarly mistaken--but I can’t help feeling these groups would gain more traction with their fellow citizens by focusing on what they are for, rather than expending so much energy in opposition.

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