Sunday, January 31, 2016

'Occupied' Norway a window into our fossil fuel addiction

Okay, I admit that the premise of Norwegian television's new political thriller series "Occupied" is far-fetched. But that premise is a window on just how addicted to fossil fuels we are.

In "Occupied" Norway's Green Party wins parliamentary elections and makes good on its (not-altogether-fictional) promise to shut down oil and natural gas production in the country as a way of addressing climate change. This fictional Green Party simultaneously builds a thorium-fueled reactor to provide electric power. The Greens promise many more reactors as they embrace the electrification of transportation to reduce Norway's need for liquid fuels.

Norway's oil and gas customers--the countries of the European Union and Sweden--object to the loss of critical fossil fuel supplies. They conspire with Russia to force Norway to restart oil and gas production. At first this involves a smallish invasion by Russian soldiers and a takeover of offshore oil and gas platforms which are restored to production by Russian work crews.

When the series was conceived, Norwegian television thought the idea was too implausible. But with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine, "Occupied" has touched a nerve in a newly anxious Scandanavian population who now see Russia as more of threat. (And, of course, there is the memory of Germany's occupation of Norway during World War II that still arouses fear and loathing in the hearts of many Norwegians.)

Coincidences aside, it does not seem surprising that the world would react strongly to a major oil and gas exporting nation deciding it will end all oil and gas production. If we were to substitute Saudi Arabia for Norway--where a partial shutdown is plausible if radical Saudi elements were to come to power in a messy coup--I can confidently predict that the United States and other Western powers would use whatever force is necessary to turn the oil spigots back on full blast.

Attempts to control the flow of oil have led to war after war. But little Norway--peaceful, democratic, white, European--could never be the target for such violence under these unusual circumstances, could it?

Of course, if Norway were to do the improbable and shut its oil and gas taps, it's more likely the Russians would be celebrating rather than assisting in opening those taps. It would mean Europe would have to import more Russian natural gas and possibly more Russian oil. Hey, maybe Great Britain would like to join Norway and shut down its production, too? The Russians could only dream of such an outcome.

Naturally, it is inconceivable that any country would voluntarily shut down production of one of the most valuable commodities in the world and the lifeblood of the world economy. No country would choose to go without the economic benefits that significant domestic oil and gas production bestow.

And, that is perhaps the point of "Occupied" after all. It shows us what we must do to prevent catastrophic climate change, and in doing so, simultaneously demonstrates that we simply won't be able to bring ourselves to do what we know we must. At least, not yet.

Despite all the rhetoric coming out of the Paris climate summit--and it was very encouraging rhetoric--any country with significant oil and gas production which decides to curtail or end such production would quickly be prevailed upon to resume that production--perhaps not today with the current glut, but surely just 18 months ago and surely in the future when the glut comes to an end. Governments around the world believe that oil is just too critical to let any country make such a decision all on its own.

Regarding "Occupied" as a piece of entertainment, once you forget about the implausible premise, you can focus on the changing allegiances and calculations of the Norwegian and Russian characters. It is a delicate and tense dance that these characters perform--the Norwegians not wanting to provoke an all-out war, a war that would surely demolish them; the Russians not wanting to resort to undue force for fear that they will get bogged down in a guerrilla conflict that could drag on for years.

Will each side get its calculations right? For the answer you'll have to watch. And, I think you will like what you see even if the most implausible part of the series is that we will someday go cold turkey to end our addiction to fossil fuels.
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"Occupied" poster courtesy of YellowBird Entertainment.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Volatility, oil and stock markets

"Down" is such a downer word. That's why when prices fall for practically anything Wall Street wants to sell you, Wall Streeters talk about volatility instead.

Volatility allows for the possibility that prices will recover soon and go to new highs. Any setback is just temporary. The market turbulence, it seems, is merely designed by invisible market gods to test your character as a long-term investor. Don't give in to panic, the investment people say, and you'll be rewarded.

Until you aren't!

A year ago I said the crash in commodity prices signaled a weak economy and that financial markets would eventually have to reflect this fact. The widely watched S&P 500 Index closed at 1,994.99 on January 30, 2015 just prior to the publication of the linked piece. Last Friday's close was 1906.90. The U.S. stock market hasn't exactly reflected the weakness in commodities, but it hasn't gained any ground either.

In addition, last August I wrote that low oil prices were also a reflection of this weakness and that all the talk about cheaper oil giving a boost to the economy was misplaced because of the immediate loss of oil-related employment and of revenues to companies and to governments which, of course, tax the oil. The S&P 500 is down about 200 points since then, but any significant adjustment still looks like it lies in the future.

Of course, starting in August stock markets around the world began to fall. Central banks reacted with words of support, and the U.S. Federal Reserve Board of Governors put off a long-anticipated interest rate hike because of weak market conditions.

Stock prices then rebounded to near their previous levels and all was forgotten...until the beginning of this year. The continuing rout in oil prices began to underline not only the weakness in the global economy, but also the unclear situation at major banks holding large energy-related loan portfolios. The Dallas Federal Reserve Bank was reported to have encouraged banks in its jurisdiction to forebear on energy loans. Essentially, the Dallas Fed was telling banks to ignore losses in their energy portfolios until further notice so as not to cause a panic. The reserve bank quickly denied any such guidance to member banks.

The truth in this particular instance may not matter since what we do know--that energy-related junk bond losses are at 2008 crisis levels--could suggest that energy-related losses at the world's banks may end up being the size associated with the subprime mortgage crisis that brought the global economy to its knees in 2008. It is worth remembering that in 2007 then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke assured the U.S. Congress that "the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained."

These and other anxieties moved stock markets and oil down sharply last week before a bounce that was in part inspired by central bankers in Europe, Japan and China who all signaled the possibility of more easing.

What many average investors don't seem to know is that rallies in bear markets tend to be steep and dramatic, while rallies in bull markets tend to be more muted, taking place over longer periods. It should also be said that corrections in bull markets are often the kind we saw in August and January, dramatic and steep. But there comes a time in the life of every bull market when the dramatic, steep corrections just keep going and turn into a crash. Just ask those playing the oil market.

Perhaps we are not yet there for stocks. Bull market psychology is very hard to dent, especially after one of the longest positive runs in history. Even though stock prices have become detached from economic realities--crashing commodities being the reality I watch closely--stocks have continued to rally back after steep losses based on investors' buy-the-dip psychology. The last recession began in December 2007, but the crash didn't come until almost a year later.

Investors in oil and other commodities and in commodity-related companies have had their heads handed to them. Stock markets in commodity-exporting countries have also fallen steeply. The central banks can't control commodity prices the way they control money and credit. For that reason, I think commodities are a better overall gauge of strength in the economy.

The question for investors this year will be something like this: Can central banks keep stock markets around the world afloat despite poor fundamentals? I'm doubtful. They didn't prevent a crash in 2001 or 2008, the first the result of a tech bubble and the second the result of a housing bubble. Both bubbles were caused by easy credit due to low-interest rate policies by central banks that stoked overinvestment. With short-term interest rates near zero for seven years in major economies, central banks are repeating the same mistake again.

Contrary to popular belief, central banks are not omnipotent. The oil and commodity bubbles they helped to blow have already burst. Most of the world's stocks markets are already in bear territory as of January 20. Before the late-week bounce, the U.S.-based S&P 500 Index was down 14 percent from its high in May last year. The Nasdaq Composite was off 16 percent. It's doubtful that any major stock market will simply continue to ignore what is happening in the real economy for too much longer.

Oversupply in the oil market may explain much of the drop in the oil price from $100 per barrel to $40. Some will say that recent additional weakness was due to the lifting of sanctions against Iran, a move that opens the way for substantially higher oil exports.

But oil traders have known about this for months, and it was already priced into futures markets. In my view, only exceptional weakness in the global economy explains oil dipping into the $20 range. In doing so, the oil market has provided a warning for anyone who is willing to see it.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The great condensate con: Is the oil glut just about oil?

My favorite Texas oilman Jeffrey Brown is at it again. In a recent email he's pointing out to everyone who will listen that the supposed oversupply of crude oil isn't quite what it seems. Yes, there is a large overhang of excess oil in the market. But how much of that oversupply is honest-to-god oil and how much is so-called lease condensate which gets carelessly lumped in with crude oil? And, why is this important to understanding the true state of world oil supplies?

In order to answer these questions we need to get some preliminaries out of the way.

Lease condensate consists of very light hydrocarbons which condense from gaseous into liquid form when they leave the high pressure of oil reservoirs and exit through the top of an oil well. This condensate is less dense than oil and can interfere with optimal refining if too much is mixed with actual crude oil. The oil industry's own engineers classify oil as hydrocarbons having an API gravity of less than 45--the higher the number, the lower the density and the "lighter" the substance. Lease condensate is defined as hydrocarbons having an API gravity between 45 and 70. (For a good discussion about condensates and their place in the marketplace, read "Neither Fish nor Fowl – Condensates Muscle in on NGL and Crude Markets.")

Refiners are already complaining that so-called "blended crudes" contain too much lease condensate, and they are seeking out better crudes straight from the wellhead. Brown has dubbed all of this the great condensate con.

Brown points out that U.S. net crude oil imports for December 2015 grew from the previous December, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. U.S. statistics for crude oil imports include condensate, but don't break out condensate separately. Brown believes that with America already awash in condensate, almost all of those imports must have been crude oil proper.

Brown asks, "Why would refiners continue to import large--and increasing--volumes of actual crude oil, if they didn’t have to--even as we saw a huge build in [U.S.] C+C [crude oil plus condensate] inventories?"

Part of the answer is that U.S. production of crude oil has been declining since mid-2015. But another part of the answer is that what the EIA calls crude oil is actually crude plus lease condensate. With huge new amounts of lease condensate coming from America's condensate-rich tight oil fields--the ones tapped by hydraulic fracturing or fracking--the United States isn't producing quite as much actual crude oil as the raw numbers would lead us to believe. This EIA chart breaking down the API gravity of U.S. crude production supports this view.

Exactly how much of America's and the world's presumed crude oil production is actually condensate remains a mystery. The data just aren't sufficient to separate condensate production from crude oil in most instances.

Brown explains: "My premise is that U.S. (and probably global) refiners hit in late 2014 the upper limit of the volume of condensate that they could process" and still maintain the product mix they want to produce. That would imply that condensate inventories have been building faster than crude inventories and that the condensate is looking for an outlet.

That outlet has been in blended crudes, that is heavier crude oil that is blended with condensates to make it lighter and therefore something that fits the definition of light crude. Light crude is generally easier to refine and thus more valuable.

Trouble is, the blends lack the characteristics of nonblended crudes of comparable density (that is, the same API gravity), and refiners are discovering to their chagrin that the mix of products they can get out of blended crudes isn't what they expect.

So, now we can try to answer our questions. Brown believes that worldwide production of condensate "accounts for virtually all of the post-2005 increase in C+C [crude plus condensate] production." What this implies is that almost all of the 4 million-barrel-per-day increase in world "oil" production from 2005 through 2014 may actually be lease condensate. And that would mean crude oil production proper has been nearly flat during this period--a conjecture supported by record and near record average daily prices for crude oil from 2011 through 2014. Only when demand softened in late 2014 did prices begin to drop.

Here it is worth mentioning that when oil companies talk about the price of oil, they are referring to the price quoted on popular futures exchanges--prices which reflect only the price of crude oil itself. The exchanges do not allow other products such as condensates to be mixed with the oil that is delivered to holders of exchange contracts. But when oil companies (and governments) talk about oil supply, they include all sorts of things that cannot be sold as oil on the world market including biofuels, refinery gains and natural gas plant liquids as well as lease condensate. Which leads to a simple rule coined by Brown: If what you're selling cannot be sold on the world market as crude oil, then it's not crude oil.

The glut that developed in 2015 may ultimately be tied to some increases in actual, honest-to-god crude oil production. The accepted story from 2005 through 2014 has been that crude oil production has been growing, albeit at a significantly slower rate than the previous nine-year period--15.7 percent from 1996 through 2005 versus 5.4 percent from 2005 through 2014 according to the EIA. If Brown is right, we have all been victims of the great condensate con which has lulled the world into a sense of complacency with regard to actual oil supplies--supplies he believes have been barely growing or stagnant since 2005.

"Oil traders are acting on fundamentally flawed data," Brown told me by phone. Often a contrarian, Brown added: "The time to invest is when there's blood in the streets. And, there's blood in the streets."

He explained: "Who of us in January of 2014 believed that prices would be below $30 in January of 2016? If the conventional wisdom was wrong in 2014, maybe it's similarly wrong in 2016" that prices will remain low for a long time.

Brown points out that it took trillions of dollars of investment from 2005 through today just to maintain what he believes is almost flat production in oil. With oil companies slashing exploration budgets in the face of low oil prices and production declining at an estimated 4.5 and 6.7 percent per year for existing wells worldwide, a recovery in oil demand might push oil prices much higher very quickly.

That possibility is being obscured by the supposed rise in crude oil production in recent years that may just turn out to be an artifact of the great condensate con.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

No post this week

Circumstances have conspired to prevent me from writing a post this week. I should be back next week Sunday, January 17.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Taking a short break--no post this week

I'm taking a short break and expect to post again on Sunday, January 10.