Speed in the Oil Patch – Automation at the Wellhead looks like Cleantech

I had a chance to wander around the Offshore Technology Conference this week and chat about some of the technologies on display.

OTC is still heavily a mechanical engineer’s conference.  Despite the high tech nature of the industry, in large part vendors are not yet leading customers, and steel still rules the day in technology.

One of the areas that interests me is speed.  Speed to find, speed to drill, speed to produce.  In every industry, speed kills.  (In the good way). Speed with more data and more controllability? That changes the way we do business.  Efficiency, speed, better, safer, cleaner.  That’s where the oil & gas industry is headed.

Superior Energy Services (NYSE:SPN) one of the largest drilling and wellhead services companies, picked up one of the technology awards with CATS, the Complete Automated Technology System.  Neat stuff.  Basically, take a small workover rig that needs half a dozen or so people and a lot of manual labor, modularize components into a truly mobile ready to use package, add more robotic material handling, soup up the control system, cut down to half the people, and automate completions.

  • Cuts labor.  They’ve got 3 people where they had 6.
  • Improves safety, now on 3 rigs running for 8 months, zero loss time incidents.  I asked how many he’d have expected in that time – 6.
  • Controllability and knowledge management.  Once automated, we can turn to a statistical management, not a black art.
  • Speed.  The units themselves are small units, so a bit slower in use if I follow correctly.  But more controllability means more predictability.  And a ready- to-use design means faster up, faster down, higher percentage of time on.

Quote: we won’t be building any more conventional ones.  These are expensive day rates, but all fully utilized.


Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHI) picked up another one of the awards with a steerable drilling liner technology called SureTrak.  Basically, same directional steering and drilling system, within liner in place, packed with logging-while-drilling and measurement-while-drilling sensors, once done, unhook the liner, and just leave it there.  Brand new, done it 8 times now, with Shell and Statoil according to one of the sales managers.  Same as before, automate and integrate a process, allow you to solve different and more technical problems, and deliver speed, less time up and down.


Eventually, we will automate our industry and move it all the way to the information age.  REALLY automate it.  Until then, one step at a time.  That sounds odd from an industry that uses seismic and ROVs and supercomputers.  But one of the guys at the Weatherford booth said it best when asked about the digital oilfield – is anyone yet using all of your digital oilfield software the way you think it should be used?  Answer, no, it’s all still very silo’d.

Top 10 Cleantech Subsidies and Policies (and the Biggest Losers) – Ranked By Impact

We all know energy is global, and as much policy driven as technology driven.

We have a quote, in energy, there are no disruptive technologies, just disruptive policies and economic shocks that make some technologies look disruptive after the fact.  In reality, there is disruptive technology in energy, it just takes a long long time.  And a lot of policy help.

We’ve ranked what we consider the seminal programs, policies and subsidies globally in cleantech that did the helping.  The industry makers.  We gave points for anchoring industries and market leading companies, points for catalyzing impact, points for “return on investment”, points for current market share, and causing fundamental shifts in scale, points for anchoring key technology development, points for industries that succeeded, points for industries with the brightest futures.  It ends heavy on solar, heavy on wind, heavy on ethanol.  No surprise, as that’s where the money’s come in.

1.  German PV Feed-in Tariff – More than anything else, allowed the scaling of the solar industry, built a home market and a home manufacturing base, and basically created the technology leader, First Solar.

2. Japanese Solar Rebate Program – The first big thing in solar, created the solar industry in the mid 90s, and anchored both the Japanese market, as well as the first generation of solar manufacturers.

3. California RPS – The anchor and pioneer renewable portfolio standard in the US, major driver of the first large scale, utility grade  wind and solar markets.

4. US Investment Tax Credit for Solar – Combined with the state renewable portfolio standards, created true grid scale solar.

5. Brazilian ethanol program – Do we really need to say why? Decades of concerted long term support created an industry, kept tens of billions in dollars domestic.  One half of the global biofuels industry.  And the cost leader.

6. US Corn ethanol combination of MTBE shift, blender’s, and import tariffs – Anchored the second largest global biofuels market, catalyzed the multi-billion explosion in venture capital into biofuels, and tens of billions into ethanol plants.  Obliterated the need for farm subsidies.  A cheap subsidy on a per unit basis compared to its impact holding down retail prices at the pump, and diverted billions of dollars from OPEC into the American heartland.

7. 11th 5 Year Plan  – Leads to Chinese leadership in global wind power production and solar manufacturing.  All we can say is, wow!  If we viewed these policies as having created more global technology leaders, or if success in solar was not so dominated by exports to markets created by other policies, and if wind was more pioneering and less fast follower, this rank could be an easy #1, so watch this space.

8. US Production Tax Credit – Anchored the US wind sector, the first major wind power market, and still #2.

9. California Solar Rebate Program & New Jersey SREC program – Taken together with the RPS’, two bulwarks of the only real solar markets created in the US yet.

10. EU Emission Trading Scheme and Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanisms – Anchored finance for the Chinese wind sector, and $10s of Billions in investment in clean energy.  If the succeeding COPs had extended it, this would be an easy #1 or 2, as it is, barely makes the cut.


Honorable mention

Combination of US gas deregulations 20 years ago and US mineral rights ownership policy – as the only country where the citizens own the mineral rights under their land, there’s a reason fracking/directional drilling technology driving shale gas started here.  And a reason after 100 years the oil & gas industry still comes to the US for technology.  Shale gas in the US pays more in taxes than the US solar industry has in revenues.  But as old policies and with more indirect than direct causal effects, these fall to honorable mention.

Texas Power Deregulation – A huge anchor to wind power growth in the US.  There’s a reason Texas has so much wind power.  But without having catalyzed change in power across the nation, only makes honorable mention.

US DOE Solar Programs – A myriad of programs over decades, some that worked, some that didn’t.  Taken in aggregate, solar PV exists because of US government R&D support.

US CAFE standards – Still the major driver of automotive energy use globally, but most the shifts occurred before the “clean tech area”.

US Clean Air Act – Still the major driver of the environmental sector in industry, but most the shifts occurred before the “clean tech area”.

California product energy efficiency standards – Catalyzed massive shifts in product globally, but most the shifts occurred before the “clean tech area”.

Global lighting standards /regulations – Hard for us to highlight one, but as a group, just barely missed the cut, in part because lighting is a smaller portion of the energy bill than transport fuel or generation.


Biggest Flops

US Hydrogen Highway and myriad associated fuel cell R&D programs.  c. $1 Bil/year  in government R&D subsidies for lots of years,  and 10 years later maybe $500 mm / year worth of global product sales, and no profitable companies.

Italian, Greek, and Spanish Feed in Tariffs – Expensive me too copycats, made a lot of German, US, Japanese and Chinese and bankers rich, did not make a lasting impact on anything.

California AB-32 Cap and Trade – Late, slow, small underwhelming, instead of a lighthouse, an outlier.

REGGI – See AB 32

US DOE Loan Guarantee Program – Billion dollar boondoggle.  If it was about focusing investment to creating market leading companies, it didn’t.  If it was about creating jobs, the price per job is, well, it’s horrendous.

US Nuclear Energy Policy/Program – Decades, massive chunks of the DOE budget and no real technology advances so far in my lifetime?  Come on people.  Underperforming since the Berlin Wall fell at the least!


The Geopolitics of Energy

“The Geopolitics of Energy”:  that was the title of a talk given at the Opportunity Crudes conference in Houston last week by Guy Caruso of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  It’s an endlessly fascinating and urgent topic, as very few sectors of the economy shape the world in which we live as much as energy — and particularly, oil — does.

Highlights of Caruso’s presentation — many of which are not novel or unique, but are worth restating:

Oil is currently inseparable with transportation:  virtually 100% of mobility — whether by car, truck, rail, boat or plane — is fueled by petroleum-based products.  Demand is flat or even shrinking in the U.S. and Europe, but this is more than offset by explosive demand growth in the developing world — especially China, but also India, and the Middle East.  “The center of gravity of the oil industry is moving East.”

Most of the lowest-cost endowment of oil resources on the planet are concentrated in the Middle East, subject to great political instability.  A scary thought:  many leaders, especially in the lynchpin Saudi Arabia, are over 80 years old — what happens when they die?

Reliability of delivery is threatened by geogrpahic chokepoints.  For instance, over 15 million barrels per day — nearly 20% of world oil supply — passes through the Strait of Hormuz.  Although most of the oil passing through goes to Asia, the U.S. military remains the key protector of this vital trade route.

Meeting global demand growth in the face of declining conventional resources means two things:  a shift towards unconventional resources (which are more expensive to produce, and face significant environmental/technical challenges) and an almost insatiable need for ongoing additional capital investment.

Although technological leadership may remain with the “supermajors”,15 of the 20 biggest oil companies in the world (i.e., the ones with the most reserves/resources) are now state-owned enterprises, such as Saudi Aramco and PDVSA.  While some of these companies like Lukoil (LSE:  LKOD), PetroChina (NYSE: PTR) and Petrobras (NYSE: PBR) do have minority stakes that float on stock exchanges, make no mistake:  they are not being managed for the purposes of shareholder value maximization.  These companies trade on stock exchanges solely to access global capital markets so as to finance immense expansion programs.  Otherwise, their motivations are far different than profit-maximization as expressed so effectively by the supermajors:  these organizations are arms of nationalistic pursuits.  In other words, the oil game of the future will be driven less by money and more by geopolitical moves on the global chessboard.

There are more upward pressures on oil prices than downward pressures.  Note that the oil industry is running at over 95% of capacity — there’s almost no spare or excess capacity to cope with any perturbations.  Even so, most companies are using $60-80/bbl as the reference price in determining long-term capital investments:  big bets require conservative assumptions. 

Shale gas is a game-changer — not just in the U.S., but in many parts of the world.  More gas will be used for power generation, which will displace coal.  Indeed, without carbon capture and sequestration, coal will be under threat for both economic and environmental reasons in most places of the world.  (Exception:  China, which is growing so fast that it will build as much as possible in a true “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.)

Caruso closed by noting, humbly, that in his 40 years in forecasting the energy sector, there was a consistent tendency to underestimate the impact of technological advancement, which in turn renders long-term predictions subject to big errors.  Not only will the finer points of his analysis be inaccurate, but some of the overarching conclusions — which seem so obvious today — will no doubt be wildly off a few decades from now.  The key is figuring out which ones will be right and which ones will be wrong.  Black swans are hard to see when they haven’t yet flown to the horizon.

The World According to BP

On January 18, BP (NYSE: BP) released Energy Outlook 2030, its official corporate view of the future of energy.  Every year, BP releases its Statistical Review of World Energy that serves as an excellent compendium of historical and current data on a host of energy-related issues, but rarely does BP present its projections of trends and the associated implications on the energy markets.

At the release event in London, BP’s CEO Bob Dudley made a brief speech covering the highlights of the Outlook.  It’s an easy and good read, which I will summarize here.

Dudley began by reciting what he termed “five realities”.  In reality, these so-called “realities” are nevertheless anticipations of events to come.  However, they do seem like pretty safe bets as playing out as described:

  1. Global energy demand will increase by 40% by 2030.  As Dudley notes, “that’s like adding one more China and one more U.S. to the world’s energy demand by 2030.  Nearly all that growth – 96% in fact – is expected to come from the emerging economies with more than half coming from China and India alone.”
  2. Fossil fuels will supply roughly 80% of global energy demand in 2030.  Dudley continues, “renewables will grow rapidly, but from a very low base.”  In other words, while renewables will be a great growth industry for the next few decades, the enormous head-start in market share that fossil fuels enjoys from more than 100 years of development, along with continued demand growth, means that energy markets and the energy industry will be dominated by fossil fuels for the lifetime of anyone who reads this blog post.
  3. Oil will continue to be essential for transportation, with 87% of mobility based on petroleum.  While increased fuel efficiency, hybrid vehicles, and expansion of biofuels will reduce needs for petroleum, the explosive growth of the developing economies and their voracious desire for vehicles means that oil demand will continue to grow.  Dudley notes that oil demand growth will be less than 1% annually, which “doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up to an additional 16 million barrels per day by 2030.”
  4. To supply this increasing demand, new frontiers will continue to be tapped.  This will be oil from deep water – what should be a sticky subject for BP, given the Deepwater Horizon debacle from less than two years ago – heavy oil such as the oil sands in Alberta (which Dudley noted needed to be “produced carefully and responsibly”), and unconventional gas plays such as shale gas and tight gas.
  5. Global CO2 emissions will rise by almost 30% by 2030.  Dudley emphasized that “this is a projection, not a proposal.  BP supports action to limit emissions including a carbon price and transitional incentives that encourage renewable energy to become competitive at scale.”  The last two words – “at scale” – are critical, not just for cleantech advocates and for the planet, but also supermajors like BP, who by their sheer size can only be bothered with energy phenomena that represent more than niches.

It’s a daunting picture.  As Dudley states, “this is not an outlook for the world as we wish to see it,” but nevertheless “it should be important input for policy-makers.”  And, it should be added, for participants and advocates in the cleantech space.

From this sober perspective, Dudley outlines “five opportunities” surfaced in the Outlook:

  1. Energy efficiency gains will be critical to the world of the future, as they simultaneously reduce consumer costs, improve energy security and cut emissions.  Frankly, this is “motherhood and apple pie” that just about all observers of the energy sector point out – nothing new here.
  2. Technology advancement will be crucial.  Dudley notes that BP thinks “the efficiency of the internal combustion engine is likely to double over the next 20 years” – an extraordinary possibility for a technology that’s over a century old and ought to be quite mature.  Innovation is not only imperative for efficiency gains but also for supply expansion to meet worldwide demand growth even netting out improvements in efficiency.  New energy supply technologies are not just in the realm of renewables but also in the realm of hydrocarbon production as well, increasing the economic access to fossil fuels on the frontiers described above.
  3. Competitive forces are an essential stimulant of capturing efficiencies and pursuing innovation.  Although Dudley doesn’t exactly say so, I think this is code for “expect increasing energy prices”, thus driving efficiency and new technology.  (Also unsaid:  “Don’t blame us or accuse us of gouging when energy prices are high.”)  I think these comments are also a soft unobtrusive plea for more access by private sector companies, and correspondingly fewer obstacles thrown up by governments, to developing new energy resources.
  4. Natural gas will be a very big thing.  Dudley calls natural gas a “sustainable option being deployed at scale”.  The latter claim of scale is inarguable, though the former claim of sustainability is semantically dubious.  Even so, it is true when Dudley says “gas typically generates fewer than half the emissions of coal” – notably, the one and only time that the word “coal” is uttered by Dudley in his entire talk.  (Admittedly, BP doesn’t have any coal business, but coal remains a sizable piece of the global energy economy, and to mention the role of coal just once is telling.)
  5. Biofuels show great potential.  According to Dudley, BP has “an optimistic view on the future of biofuels,” but “the world needs to focus on biofuels that do not compete with the food chain and are produced in a sustainable way.”  Thereafter follows some touting of second-generation biofuels (e.g., cellulosic ethanol), which still remain tantalizing but commercially-unavailable.  To me, this fifth “opportunity” is the most speculative of the bunch.

Dudley closes his comments by discussing BP’s obviously very substantial place in the world of energy. 

He acknowledges the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and BP’s activities in expanding production of the controversial oil sands in Alberta.  No doubt, he had to, in order to avoid allegations of “greenwashing” BP’s record.

However, he tries to counterbalance this by extolling $7 billion of investments in renewables since 2005, “focused on creating large-scale commercial businesses that are not dependent on subsidies,” and BP’s emphasis on improving energy efficiency – in part because BP requires “all new projects to calculate the impact of future carbon pricing on their operations”, planning for “a future where carbon does have a price.”

Perhaps this is the most optimistic item in Dudley’s synopsis of BP’s future view of the energy sector over the next 20 years.  Hopefully, not unrealistic.

Shale gas is starting to affect markets….

The oil gas ratio hit a new record high December 27th with gas trading at $3.11/mmBtu and WTI going for $101.25/bbl yielding an energy ratio of 5.61.   In simple terms this means gas is  trading at the equivalent of $18.05/bbl crude.

The market is starting to notice this rapid shift in natural gas economics.  Back on Dec 10 I mentioned a few of the sectors, such as chemical processing, that would be likely winners due to lower priced gas.  Companies are now starting to announce their plans to build new plants.  Royal Dutch Shell PLC is planing an ethylene plant in the Appalachian region, Nucor is building a gas fired iron plant in Louisiana, Dow Chemical Co. is planning two new chemical facilities in the Gulf coast, and CF Industies is planning to boost its ferterlizer production made from gas.  (WSJ, 12/27/2011, A3) .  All due to relatively low gas prices.  If LNG importers are not able to “reverse to flow” and turn into LNG exporters, then the price of gas can stay low until domestic consumption has a chance to absorb these lower cost supplies.

One of the other sectors that should benefit from the relatively high oil/gas ratio is the CNG (compressed natural gas) transportation buisness.   In October I analyzed Clean Energy Fuels’ [CLNE] stock performance relative to the energy ratio and couldn’t really see any coorelation between the fundamental driver of their business (the oil/gas ratio) and their stock price.   Checking back today I’m still not seeing any sustained improvement in the company’s stock price.  So I’m still looking for the breakthrough in the transportation business.

In other news, shale gas is certainly affecting the price of electricity, both spot prices and prices offered for term contracts for renewables.   In the western US, on-peak spot prices in southern California today were $30.37 $/MWh….lower then they were 30 years ago in 1981 when our company ( started producing power.  And the natural gas based market reference price (MRP) used by the California PUC for evaluating renewable projects is off about 15% from the last MRP posted by the CPUC.

While this is happening the solar sector is having problems with oversupply and a softening market.  The oversupply is drivien by the rapid increase in Chinese production (including two IPOs in October and November – Changzhou Almaden and Sungrow Power).   Coupled with  German demand for 2011 reported to be 29% below 2010 levels two German producers, Solar Millennium and Solon SE filed for insolvency this month.  The supply/demand combination is also driving layoff such at those reported at SMA, Suntech, and First Solar.   And stock prices for solar companies, as measured by the solar ETFs KWT and TAN, have dropped by over 60% YTD and their market cap has fallen below the $70 million level that was related to me as a break-even size for an ETF.   In fact, all of the sponsors of sector specific ETFS –  KWT, TAN, FAN, PWND, GRID –  are losing money on their offerings if this is still the break-even number.  Which one will close up first like the progressive transportation ETF did in 2010?

How much of the market woes facing solar producers stems from gas competition?  I’m not aware of any analysis of the relationship of subsidies and RPS mandates to gas prices in the US, but reason tells us there must be some connection beyond a mere correlation of gas prices and solar woes.

I think this is just the start of the disruptions caused by low gas prices.  On a very small scale our company is affected in contract renewals and the prospects of lower electric prices/subsidies for new project development.  Many other businesses will be forced to adapt and potentially sooner then anyone expects.

Originally posted here .

Disclosures – no postions in any securites mentioned.


The Great State of Uticana

Last week, at the stunning student union of The Ohio State University, Battelle convened a meeting entitled 21st Century Energy & Economic Summit on behalf of Ohio Governor John Kasich, who both opened and closed the conference with some observations.   The agenda covered a wide spectrum of energy issues facing Ohio, and didn’t lack for interesting moments.

One of the hot issues in Ohio energy policy is whether the renewable portfolio standard and energy efficiency provisions of the last major energy act, SB 221 from 2008, are vulnerable.  Indeed, some of Kasich’s fellow Republicans in the Ohio Senate recently released SB 216, a bill to completely eliminate the renewable and efficiency requirements of SB 221 — although it is widely viewed that the bill has no chance of passage.  Acknowledging this, as reported by The Columbus Dispatch, Kasich said in his introductory remarks that several parties are “trying to get me to say we don’t need renewables here.”  But, he continued, “of course we need renewables.  Of course we need solar and of course we need wind.”  In his concluding remarks at the end of the two-day event, he reiterated that “I believe in renewables.  My kids believe in renewables.”

Kasich also had a kind comment for his predecessor, noting that the Strickland Administration had done “a number of good things on energy efficiency for the state” that needed to be built upon.

Nevertheless, expect some retrenchment that will not fully please renewable and efficiency advocates:  in his closing remarks, Kasich circled back and noted that he thought SB 221 would probably benefit from some tweaking, using as an example his exasperation that cogeneration hadn’t been given appropriate eligibility.  All signs point to hearings in the Ohio Assembly later this year to re-evaluate SB 221, although the Governor’s stated position providing some cover to renewables and efficiency seems to indicate that SB 221 at least won’t get entirely discarded or thoroughly trashed.  Stay tuned.

Indeed, one of the central themes of Kasich’s comments was that all players in the energy sector need to get along, that there’s a place for everyone, albeit maybe not to the degree that any one segment would ideally like.  As the Dispatch termed Kasich’s comments, “company executives in gas, solar, coal and other energy sectors needed to agreed to give up some turf as his administration crafts its policy.”  In kicking off the event, Kasich asked for “natural gas to work with coal, and coal to work with natural gas, and renewables to work alongside fossil fuels, and for the utilities to get along — well, that might be too much to ask,”  a perfect segue into the electric utility panel.

Attendees got to see some pretty feisty verbal jousting between Tony Alexander, CEO of First Energy (NYSE:  FE), and Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric Power (NYSE:  AEP), who differed strongly on whether competitive markets or regulated rate-base recovery mechanisms led to the best outcomes for electricity prices to consumers.  Not surprisingly, First Energy favors competitive markets — as they’ve spun off all their generation into an unregulated subsidiary and can earn attractive margins on their deeply-amortized powerplants — and is therefore unenthusiastic (to put it mildly) about renewable energy and energy efficiency requirements.  On the other hand, AEP believes that only regulation can provide enough price certainty and stability to ensure investments in new generation capacity that are both prudent for investors and customers alike. 

Keith Trent of Duke Energy (NYSE:  DUK) tried to split the difference, arguing for competitive energy markets to induce operational efficiencies and regulated capacity markets to foster capacity investment decisions that avoid boom-and-bust cycles of tightness-and-glut.  Perhaps even more striking was the different stance of American Municipal Power (AMP), the generation and transmission cooperative serving several municipal utilities in the Midwest.  To be sure, they do have a significant reason to have a different perspective:  as a non-profit corporation, they are exempt from regulatory oversight by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and not subject to any of the requirements of SB 221.  AMP’s CEO, Marc Gerken, indicated that his customers — the municipal utilities — were driving AMP to invest more in renewables such as hydro and wind, in large part to insulate themselves against the likely prospect that wholesale power prices will only increase due to rising fuel prices, more stringent environmental requirements and tightening capacity markets.  

Regarding coal, which the Dispatch article referred to as “long a driver of the state’s energy economy that is still subsidized with state taxpayer dollars,” Kasich noted that “we’re not going to walk away from coal.”  I remember Kasich also saying that “we’ll be using coal for the rest of my lifetime.”  However, Kasich said that we also “have to be mindful of the downside of it.  And we’ve got to think about cleaning it.”  In a subsequent interview with ClimateWire, as reported in The New York Times, Kasich acknowledged climate change as a legitimate concern, not taking the skeptical or denial positions so common to the beliefs of many of his fellow Republicans:  “there isn’t any question that the activities of humans have an impact.  As to what the extent of it is, I don’t know.”  

So, while he’s keeping the door open for coal, and supports its continued use, he’s also not blindly defending it to the death either.   I wonder if Kasich was amused or embarrassed by the impassioned rant of Robert Murray, President and CEO of Murray Energy Corporation (a privately-held Ohio-based coal mining company), in which he loudly called for the defeat of “Barack Hussein Obama”. 

All of this was preamble to the clear centerpiece of the event:  the discussion of opportunities afforded by the Utica Shale resource underneath much of Ohio.  And, the star of the show was Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:  CHK), by far the most visible cheerleader for shale gas exploration and production in the U.S.

As reported by BusinessWire, McClendon stated that their early test drilling results indicate that the Utica shale opportunity was likely to be very large — as large or larger as the most productive shale plays in the U.S., such as the Bakken, Barnett, Eagle Ford and (closer to home) Marcellus.  Also, it appears that it offers the potential for a three-prong play:  natural gas, gas liquids and oil.  When pressed to give a sense of magnitude of the Utica prize in Ohio, McClendon offered that he thought it could be worth $500 billion — “I prefer to say half a trillion dollars, it sounds bigger”.

McClendon restated what he had claimed in an early August appearance on Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money” CNBC show:  that he can foresee $20 billion of investment per year in Ohio for the next 20 years to pursue Utica opportunities.  Coinciding with the event, the Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP) released initial results of an economic analysis that estimated about 203,000 jobs in Ohio to be created by 2015 — just three years from now! — associated with pursuit of Utica shale gas.

Of course, these kinds of incredible (non-credible?) numbers being thrown around cause officials in economically-challenged Ohio to salivate.  According to the New York Times, Kasich said that “we’re sort of experiencing a gold rush.”   

The only pushback to unfettered pursuit of Utica is the rising chorus of concern from a wide range of environmental advocates about the use of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly-known as fracking, to produce gas from shale.  Among other places, New York, New Jersey and Maryland have issued moratoriums on fracking, primarily due to worries that the process will lead to water contamination, and secondarily due to fears that the activity may lead to ancillary emissions of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and may increase prospects for earthquakes.

In the New York Times account, Kasich was adamant:  “There’s no problem with fracking.  I dismiss that.”  One of the reasons Kasich feels so confident:  under the prior Strickland Administration, the state of Ohio passed SB 165, a set of laws concerning oil/gas production that are claimed to be among the most stringent in the nation, including strong requirements for triple-casing all drilled holes to mitigate the potential for contamination or leakage to seep into other strata or release to the surface.

It appears that the Kasich Administration is bending over backwards to clear the path for Utica shale development, recently reassigning David Mustine from being the head of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to a position that Kasich called “Shale Czar” in the newly-created privatized economic development agency JobsOhio.  From being invisible a year ago, Chesapeake has become a high-profile sponsor of Ohio State football — probably the most-scrutinized activity in Ohio — and McClendon has been known to meet frequently with top officials from Ohio.

Personally, I worry that the Utica shale is being viewed by the Kasich Administration and by certain segments of the government and private sector as the answer to all of Ohio’s issues.  Based on what I’m seeing, the state may soon be renamed “Uticana”.

I have no problem with environmentally-responsible fracking, which I believe is in fact doable, and endorse the pursuit of shale gas as long as it is truly “done right” (a phrase used often during the two-day event).  However, I fear that the Utica shale opportunity will be less spectacular than claimed — and if so, then putting all of Ohio’s eggs in that basket will have been a mistake.  McClendon and others on the shale panel noted frequently, as a disclaimer, that the drilling test results were still preliminary.  And, as the experience in other shale basins indicates, decline rates from shale production have been very steep — much more so than from conventional gas wells.

For the U.S. has long been insufficiently diversified:  we have an energy system that depends way-too-much on oil for transportation and coal for power generation.  As a result of that long over-reliance, we’re now painted into a challenging corner on a variety of environmental, geopolitical and economic fronts.  I don’t believe that any one energy solution — even those I have advocated for in Ohio, such as the offshore wind efforts being undertaken by the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) and its partners — is the cure-all for our current challenges, or the road to future successes. 

Betting the farm on any one thing, even something as seemingly-compelling as Utica shale, will just paint us into another corner a few years from now.  To avoid this outcome, we need a more resilient and robust energy system — one that only diversification can provide.  In turn, this will require regulatory innovation, technological innovation and capital.

If I have a criticism of the two-day summit, it is that the last two input factors — technological innovation and capital — were mainly excluded from the proceedings.  There was literally no discussion of financing of the energy sector in the coming deacdes.

As for technology, the master of ceremonies, Joe Stanislaw, helped frame the conference at its outset with some big-picture remarks, including his provocative observation that “energy represents the new Great Game for the 21st Century”:  there is an intense global competition not only for the energy resources of the world, but the technologies to enable continued access to affordable energy to fuel economic growth.  Alas, the discussion panels never picked up on Stanislaw’s point.

If Ohio is to be something more than Uticana, not only does it need to pursue other energy options with some degree of vigor, it must also commit to creating an environment conducive to cleantech innovation and entrepreneurship — the font of much job-creation and wealth-creation in the 21st Century.  Surely, this is something that should be well-appreciated by Mark Kvamme (Kasich confidante, head of Jobs Ohio, and long-time venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital) and Wilber James (Kasich confidante, long-time venture capitalist at RockPort Capital, and planner of the agenda for this two-day event).

Notwithstanding the potential riches associated with the Utica shale, we cannot allow Ohio to become primarily a resource-extraction economy.  While some degree of resource-extraction is inevitable in modern society, examples near (West Virginia) and far (Nigeria) suggest that overreliance on this segment of economic activity is a path towards massive inequities and injustices, environmental degradation, low standards of living, and a wide variety of social ills.

Gas Pains

The natural gas market has always been a roller-coaster.  It’s a very seasonal fuel, typically experiencing price spikes during the winter heating months.  So, it’s important to begin any discussion about natural gas with a statement of the obvious:  natural gas prices are very volatile.

A few years ago, natural gas prices exceeded $12/mmBtu (as measured at the market’s reference point, Henry Hub).  Since then, of course, the national economy has collapsed, with sharp declines demand from many major gas-consuming industries, so that gas prices even during peak months have fallen below $6/mmBtu — less than half their recent peaks.

One of the reasons for prices falling so low has been the opening of shale gas reserves across the country that had heretofore been beyond economic reach.  With the development of horizontal drilling techniques and hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”), a series of geologic basins — starting with the Barnett in Texas, and now the Marcellus in Pennsylvania — are being tapped to extract large quantities of natural gas that were known to exist but previously uncompetitive absent technological advancement.

The opening of these resources has led many observers, with only one example being the American Clean Skies Foundation, to make the case that natural gas should be the central platform for American energy policy and main leg of the American energy industry stool for the foreseeable future. 

The basic premise is that natural gas is much more plentiful under our own lands than formerly thought possible, while also being much cleaner than coal or even petroleum, so we should be using natural gas not only for power generation, but also for increased deployment of natural gas vehicles to displace the need for so much imported oil.  Since gas is so plentiful, it will be cheap to use natural gas as the primary fuel of choice in our economy.

I’m not against natural gas in any way.  It is plainly a much cleaner-burning fuel than oil or coal.  It is not subject to mountaintop mining practices that are devastating coal producing regions in Appalachia, as profiled in this recent story in the New York Times.  It does not produce the wastes or the worries that nuclear energy does, as evidenced so clearly of late at Fukushima in Japan.

But, I do worry that the forecasts of long-lasting natural gas abundance — and low gas prices — in the U.S. are wildly over-optimistic.  For instance, the most recent edition of the Powers Energy Investor analyzed production from the Fayetteville shale in Arkansas and concluded that its production levels had peaked and “natural gas demand will soon substantially outstrip supply and prices will skyrocket.  All the pieces are in place for substantially higher natural gas prices, however Mr. Market will recognize the incredibly strong fundamentals of the natural gas market only when he is ready and not a second earlier.”

In short, the concern is that shale gas resources may be subject to much steeper decline curves in production than is the case for gas from conventional wells.  Many industry cheerleaders are touting decades or hundreds of years of domestic natural gas supply, but may be doing so by extrapolating a few years of production from the seeemingly-abundant shale gas reserves and applying conventional decline curves that are not nearly so severe as real-world experience from the Barnett and Fayetteville shale resources have indicated.

Also, some of the environmental concerns about production of gas from shale formations via the use of fracking are likely to have some justification.  Last week, the New York Times reported that House Democrats have discovered substantial risk of carcinogens being dumped into water as a result of the use of fracking chemicals — very closely-held industry secrets by such oilfield service companies as Halliburton (NYSE: HAL) and Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB).

Defenders of the natural gas industry have claimed that the New York Times has performed a hatchet job on the shale gas industry in their reporting on environmental issues associated with water contamination from fracking.  Perhaps. 

However, I have recently talked with someone with direct business involvement in the fracking activity in the Marcellus — a self-avowed Republican — who was unequivocally damning in noting that environmental standards regarding water quality associated with fracking are essentially non-existent in Pennsylvania.  “They take the wastewater, put it in tanker trucks, and on rainy or snowy nights, they roll the trucks and dump the water on the road.”  The annual volume of wastewater — however clean or contaminated — that’s disposed of in this manner or otherwise without any control or oversight?  According to my contact, about three-quarters the volume of Lake Erie.

Between dealing with the environmental challenges seemingly associated with fracking, the probably overblown estimates of ultimately-recoverable shale gas reserves, and the push for more natural gas adoption in the transportation and power generation markets, it’s far from obvious to me that natural gas prices will remain at these levels for very long.

In the end, we must remember that natural gas markets have long been subject to booms-and-busts.  Note that, before natural gas prices broke the $10/mmBtu level in the mid-2000s, they had lingered below $2/mmBtu for much of the 1990s, and the natural gas industry was in a state of deep and enduring pessimism.  Then, in just the space of a few years, gas surpluses evaporated as demand steadily grew, and prices quadrupled.  What makes us think that another increase of $5-10/mmBtu couldn’t happen again?

I remember a cartoon from the late 1980s depicting a homeless man at a stoplight holding a cardboard sign that stated “Will Predict Natural Gas Prices For Food”.  Forecasting the future of the gas market is clearly a perilous game, and far be it from me to suggest I know what will happen.  But, as the history of the natural gas market has shown again and again, the future need not look anything like the present, and blindly assuming a continuation of current pricing levels and supply adequacy in the natural gas markets is by no means certain.  In fact, over the long-run, I’d bet against it.

The Two Names in Cleantech You Have to Know

Cleantech has a very short history, and an even shorter memory.  I’ve written over and over again about how it’s all about policy, and that there is no disruptive technology in cleantech.  Now I’m telling you that’s not quite true, the exception proves the rule.

I’d like to ask you to do some reading on two men from very different worlds.  One recently passed away, the second in his 90s.  Both passionate about the earth and people in it.  Both lightening rods for criticism.  And for the record, one taught at Texas A&M, the other graduated from there.

Both drove the development of technology that changed the world in profound ways.  Doing so in part with deep connections to both technology and policy.  They are household names in the worlds they lived in.  They are largely unknown in the cleantech world.

If we are to survive and thrive in a world with a lot more population and a lot more demand on our natural resources that it had when Norman Borlaug and George Mitchell started, we’re going to need to mint more of these guys like water.  It’s good to know it can be done.

Norman Borlaug

Father of the green revolution.  Nobel peace prize winner, credited with saving 1 billion people through better food production.  American agscientist, working all over the world from Latin America to Asia, responsible for the development and proliferation of high yield, resistant wheat.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the Nobel committee said in presenting him with the Peace Prize.

His obituaries tell it all.  He taught and researched at Texas A&M from 1984 on.

The green revolution has often been slammed for causing severe environmental damage.  But tell that to the masses of people around world who are alive today because of it.

“Gary H. Toenniessen, director of agricultural programs for the Rockefeller Foundation, said in an interview that Dr. Borlaug’s great achievement was to prove that intensive, modern agriculture could be made to work in the fast-growing developing countries where it was needed most, even on the small farms predominating there.

By Mr. Toenniessen’s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.” – Italics from the NYT obituary.

George P Mitchell

Texas oil man and sustainability?  George Mitchell can lay claim to doing both, in a big way.

He developed the fabulously successful Texas community The Woodlands, the only successful development of the original HUD funded communities of the 1970s.  Now The Woodlands is a thriving energy, biotech and technology economy founded on sustainable and environmental best practices, showing the world what can be done.  

But his big contribution to cleantech was way beyond one town. It was in pioneering the shale gas revolution through combining horizontal drillling and fracking at Mitchell Energy.  But don’t believe me.  Ask the Times Online and Forbes who the father of shale gas is.

And for those of you who missed the shale gas buzz, try this Wall Street Journal Article called Shale Gas Will Rock the World.

Like Dr. Borlaug and the Green Revoluation, shale gas and fracking have been ripped apart in the press for their environmental impact.  And like in the Green Revolution, I’d suggest you ask those whose houses are heated, and whose bills manageable because of shale gas.  Or ask just where you think we’d be without gas post nuclear accidents in Japan and food strikes in the Middle East forcing us to rethink our fuel supply chain?  Gas:  that compromise fuel of the future that everyone loves to hate, but makes up a critical part of every low carbon energy plan.

And then remember who these innovations helped the most, and who will benefit the greatest from cheap abundant food and fuel?  Not the rich in Manhattan or London.  The poorest of the poor in every corner of the world.

As I said before, if we are going to continue growing our economy and not destroying the world while we do it, we’re going to need to mint a lot of guys like these, and realize that every decision big enough to matter in food and energy involves real trade-offs taht we’ll have to face.

PS One final note:  notice that neither of these guys ever took a lick of venture capital 😉