Social costs of oil and gas leasing on federal lands, carefully considered

OVERVIEW: A report filed with the US Department of the Interior recommended that terms governing the leasing of federal land for oil and gas development be updated to reflect social costs associated with such development. While such costs may be policy relevant, I suggest social costs are smaller than the report indicates and the recommended policy changes are not well focused.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (“Interior”) has begun an effort to update financial terms for oil and gas leases on federal lands. These financial aspects – royalties, minimum acceptable bids, annual rental rates, bonding requirements, and penalty rates – are collectively referred to as “government take.” One issue raised in the effort concerns social costs associated with oil and gas development on federal lands. (As noted earlier, Shawn Regan and I have filed a comment with Interior on the issue.)

THE HEIN REPORT

Social costs of such development are also among issues addressed in a report filed in the Interior rulemaking docket by Jayni Foley Hein of New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity. The report provides an overview of the legal requirements governing government take and recommends Interior’s regulations be revised to reflect option value and social costs. Here I focus on social costs.

Hein said social costs are imposed by oil and gas development on federal lands both during development and during production. She wrote:

America’s public lands offer millions of people a place to hike, camp, hunt, fish, and enjoy scenic beauty. They provide drinking water, clean air, critical habitat for wildlife, sites for renewable energy development, as well as natural resources including timber, minerals, oil, and natural gas. As soon as energy exploration begins, competing uses of federal land such as recreational enjoyment, commercial fishing, and renewable energy development are impaired, and continue to be foreclosed for the duration of production.

Hein listed the following social costs of oil and gas activity on federal lands*:

  • Loss of use values (including loss of recreational value, renewable energy development potential, timber value, scenic value, and wildlife habitat)
  • Local air pollution (local effects of methane leakage, emissions from diesel or gas-fueled pumps and other engines)
  • Global air pollution (methane leaks, carbon dioxide)
  • Induced earthquakes from disposal of hydraulic fracturing wastewater
  • Potential oil or wastewater spills and subsequent water contamination from wastewater stored in pits and tanks
  • Noise pollution
  • Increased traffic (wear and tear on roadways, traffic-related fatalities).

She recommended increasing rental rates and royalties to reflect social costs associated with development and production of oil and gas on federal lands.

GETTING SOCIAL COSTS RIGHT

Naïve application of Hein’s list would likely produce significant over-counting of social costs. Regan and I described social costs as “the sum of all future benefits foregone by one or more persons due to oil and gas development activity on federal lands.” We were imprecise. We cannot simply sum up all possible future foregone benefits, but rather we should focus on the difference in benefits between two specific cases: one case with oil and gas resources leased for development, and a second case in which the land is not leased.

The social costs of oil and gas leasing is the sum of the specific incremental differences in the stream of future benefits associated with the land leased for oil and gas development as compared to the best alternative use. Specification of the second case is key. Assume, for example, that if the property is not leased for oil and gas development, then it would be leased for PV solar power development. Leasing the land for PV solar power also involves some loss of timber value, wildlife habitat, recreational value, and so on. In counting the social costs of oil and gas leasing associated with, say, wildlife habitat, we need to focus on just the difference in wildlife habitat between the two cases. If recreational use is impaired equally, the loss of recreation value is not properly counted as a cost of oil and gas leasing.

Consequences, or rather, the differences in consequences beyond the property itself matter too. It is likely holding a specific tract of property out of oil production has no effect on total world oil production and consumption, and therefore there would be no difference in total air pollution, traffic, potential for oil leaks, and so on. Withholding a particular property out of development primarily would affect the location, not the total amount, of these costs. Location can matter: we likely do not want to increase traffic and local air pollution in already crowded areas. But location does not always matter: the greenhouse gas implications are the same whether a methane leak arises from development on federal land or elsewhere.

SUMMING UP

A careful identification of the social costs of oil and gas leasing associated with specific federal properties would reveal these social costs to be smaller than a naïve application of Hein’s list may suggest. Federal oil and gas policies governing the government take primarily affect the distribution of social costs, not the total amount. Most relevant social costs are highly localized to the area of development, a feature which should make them easier to manage.

Other issues arise with Hein’s proposal to increase rental rates and royalty rates to account for social costs. While charging a higher royalty rate, for example, would discourage development of federal lands at the margin, it would not encourage operators to minimize social costs on properties that are developed. Other policy levers may be more useful.

*NOTE: The list of social costs is my summary drawn from Hein’s report. We might dispute aspects of the list, but for purposes of this post I am more interested in the social cost concept rather than the particular items listed.

How can the market price of oil fall so far so fast?

If the oil market is reasonably efficient, then the price of a barrel of oil should reflect something like the cost of production of the highest-cost barrel of oil needed to just satisfy demand. In other words, the market price of oil should reflect the marginal cost of production.

The price of oil on the world market was about $110 per barrel in June 2014 and now sits just under $50 per barrel. Can it be possible that the marginal cost of producing oil was $110 per barrel in June 2014 and is only $50 per barrel in January 2015?

Yes.

Here is how: in the first half of June 2014 oil consumption was very high relative to the then-existing world oil production capability. In addition, existing oil production capability is always declining as producing fields deplete. The marginal cost of a barrel of oil under such tight market conditions has to cover the capital cost of developing new resources as well as the operating costs.

Toward the end of 2014 additions to world oil production capability exceeded growth in consumption, meaning additions to production capability were no longer necessary, meaning the marginal cost of producing the last barrel of oil no longer needed to cover that capital cost. Sure, some oil company somewhere had to make the capital investment necessary to develop the resource, but most of those costs are sunk and competition in the market means they cannot make some consumer cover those costs. The market price under today’s looser market conditions only needs to cover the operating costs of production.

Given the large sunk cost component of investment in developing oil production capability, it is quite possible that the oil market was efficient at $110 per barrel and remains operating efficiently today with prices under $50 per barrel.

NOTE: Related data on world oil production and consumption is available in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Short Term Energy Outlook. Commentary prompting this explainer comes from the UC-Berkeley Energy Institute at Haas blog.

Should governments raise the cost of water used in fracking?

Michael Giberson

In dry Texas, water use has been one of the bigger of the policy complaints tossed into the policy whirlwind surrounding hydraulic fracturing. A number of water quantity related bills are currently circulating in the Texas legislature and the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulated oil and gas drilling in the state) has considered a number of water related issues. At least a few of the bills aim at limiting disposal options for wastewater or promoting the use of wastewater recycling.  In effect, most of the bills would raise the cost of freshwater used in oil and gas drilling.

A general theme is much of Texas is still suffering the lingering effects of a drought, so we need to conserve freshwater. But if this is true, why focus so much attention on such a small slice of water use? Less than one percent of water in the state goes into oil and gas drilling. Recycling may be able to squeeze that one percent down a little, or at least keep usage under one percent as the number of wells drilled increases, at an estimated 50 percent increase in water costs.

Policies that selectively increase resource costs for some users and not others are almost certainly creating inefficiencies. Perhaps, to use an obvious example, irrigation could be reduced by 1.5 percent. Or maybe more cities should detect and repair leaks in their municipal supply systems. Or maybe more homeowners should xeroscape their yards. Or powerplants could buy water reclaimed and recycled from oil and gas drilling instead of requiring drillers to reuse it. I don’t know what the most efficient allocation of water uses is going to be, but I’m also sure that policymakers don’t know either.

So why not pursue policies that creates the wide-range of incentives and information needed to promote many low-cost conservation adjustments instead of policies that impose much higher costs on one particular kind of water use?

NOTE: The above prompted in part by Kate Galbraith’s article, “In Texas, Recycling Oilfield Water Has Far to Go,” part of a series on water and fracking in The Texas Tribune.

Promoting cooperation instead of conflict on public lands

Michael Giberson

A few days ago Shawn Regan and I had an op-ed that appeared in the Denver Post‘s Idea Log online section, “Promoting cooperation instead of conflict on public lands.” We begin:

Energy and the environment are often at odds. As America’s energy production reaches record levels, controversies over the environmental impacts of energy development dominate the headlines. More often than not, the result is costly litigation and lengthy political battles.

The debate is particularly intense on Colorado’s public lands. In the past five years, nine of every 10 acres proposed for oil and gas leasing in the state have been formally challenged. Plans to sell leases in the North Fork Valley and the Dinosaur area of Western Colorado provoked waves of protest this month. In response, the Bureau of Land Management deferred the sale of the controversial leases.

Although some conservationists celebrated the delay, many remain wary. During his State of the Union address last week, President Obama proposed to accelerate oil and gas permitting on federal lands. It’s clear that battles over energy development and environmental protection are not going away any time soon.

Recent agreements between energy developers and environmental groups suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way. Competing groups are increasingly working together to avoid costly litigation and reach compromises over energy and environmental values.

We continue with a few examples from Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. We take these examples as indicating interest in alternatives to litigation and conflict, but the ad hoc nature of these actions are less than ideal ways of implementing policy. Shawn and I are working on a project to provide a more consistent policy foundation for such efforts.

Shawn Regan is an economist with the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, MT, where this op-ed has been reproduced.

The most profitable oil field in the world

Michael Giberson

The Eagle Ford shale in South Texas is the most profitable oil field in the world says Michael Yeager of BHP Billiton Petroleum.

“Eagle Ford wells cost $7 million to $10 million, but Yeager said they pay back within half a year.”

More at the link.

Before getting too excited about the IEA’s forecast of US oil production leadership…

Michael Giberson

Earlier this week the International Energy Agency released their annual World Energy Outlook, and new is a forecast that the United States would surpass Russian and Saudi Arabia to once-again become the world’s largest oil producer, sometime around 2020. The news set off a wave of happy press, i.e. the Wall Street Journalmore WSJ, Fox Business, Oil and Gas JournalReuters, and this odd warning from OPEC that said the report could lead to higher prices. Mark Mills offers a slightly tempered view of the IEA report at Forbes

Many of the news reports, if you get beyond the headline and first few paragraphs, do provide a bit of context. The projection depends on a host of factors, not the least of which is the price of oil over the next few years. If oil prices drop much below $60 bbl., the U.S. oil boom will slow much more quickly than Saudi or Russian output. U.S. regulatory changes, the pace of pipeline construction, and numerous other factors will also affect how quickly U.S. production can grow.

More generally, such long term forecasting exercises are regularly wrong. Indeed, the news here is exactly the change in the forecast, i.e., the IEA view that their earlier forecasts were wrong. The obvious question is “why we should believe the new view?” Of course changing views when the facts change is a most reasonable thing to do, but we ought not believe that the facts can’t change again.

I recommend we all go read Vaclav Smil on the “Perils of Long-Range Energy Forecasting” (Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 65:3, 2000).

Natural gas “expectations were rewritten in the last decade”

Michael Giberson

A brief mention, for those of you keeping track of Giberson media appearances at home, of a brief appearance in a brief story on natural gas supply issues on last Friday’s Marketplace radio news program.

As the story says, natural gas industry expectations were rewritten in the last decade. (But of course you already know all about that.)