The federal government’s natural gas R&D breakthrough

Michael Giberson

In the recent edition of The American magazine, the on-line journal of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus write in defense of the President’s State of the Union address claim of federal government credit for the shale gas revolution. (For those of you not keeping score at home, (1) I commented on a related Shellenberger and Nordhaus op-ed in two posts back in December 2011, here and here, and then (2) followed with a comment in response to the State of the Union remark in late January 2012, here.)

Shellenberger and Nordhaus begin this recent article:

In his State of the Union address, President Obama invoked the 30-year history of federal support for new shale gas drilling technologies to defend his present day investments in green energy. Obama stressed the value of shale gas—which will create thousands of jobs and billions in profits—as part of his “all of the above” approach to energy, and defended the critical role government investment has always played in developing new energy technologies, from nuclear to solar panels to wind turbines.

The president’s remarks unsurprisingly sparked a strong response from some conservatives (hereherehere, and here), who have downplayed and even attempted to deny the important role that federal investments in hydrofracking, geologic mapping, and horizontal drilling played in the shale gas revolution.

This is an over-reaction. In acknowledging the critical role government funding played in shale gas, conservatives need not write a blank check for all government energy subsidies. Indeed, a closer look at the shale gas story challenges liberal policy preferences as much as it challenges those of conservatives, and points to much-needed reforms for today’s mash of state and federal clean energy subsidies and mandates.

Note that the first of their “here” links is to the first of my two December 2011 blog posts in response to their op-ed, as it appeared at The Energy Collective site (where some of our KP energy-related posts get a second life). As it happens, after the President’s address, the Master Resource blog republished the post as a commentary in response to the President’s natural gas research claim, appending to my title “(December 20 post becomes part of a national debate).”

I want to object to a couple of pretty minor points below, but before I object let me emphasize my agreement with part of what they say about much-needed reforms to today’s state and federal clean energy policies. As they point out late in their article, they’d like to see a reduction or even an end to most current renewable energy production subsidies and direct some of that funding to energy research and innovation. I would completely support such a move, even though I wouldn’t defend the change on the same grounds that they do.

And now two petty objections, both in response to the sentence “The president’s remarks unsurprisingly sparked a strong response from some conservatives (here, ….”

  • First, I am not a conservative. I am pro-dynamism, pro-market, pro-experimentation in many matters both economic and social, and pro-freedom. I don’t want to belabor the point, they probably didn’t mean to offend me, but I am libertarian not conservative.
  • Second, my December 20, 2011 response was not directed at President Obama’s State of the Union address in January 2012, but rather at the mid-December 2011 op-ed by Shellenberger and Nordhaus. (For what it’s worth, I find their arguments more thoughtful and more worthy of a thoughtful response than the President’s  remarks on the topic. So even though my first response to their piece started in somewhat flippant tone, I did try to engage with what they were saying.)

My less minor objections to this new article by Shellenberger and Nordhaus will require a bit more explanation, so I’ll defer them for now. In brief, I still object to how they characterize the significance of the federal role in drilling technology and especially to some of the policy inferences they want to make. In addition, I will want to explain how and why I would support the kind of renewable energy policy reforms they propose even though I disagree with the reasons they give for the reforms.

I should add that their article goes far beyond the first three paragraphs quoted above. You should read the whole thing.

Congressman Markey still worries about U.S. natural gas exports

Michael Giberson

A few weeks back Congressman Ed Markey asked the U.S. Department of Energy whether exports of natural gas might not be in the public interest (see prior note here, related note) as exports would tend to push U.S. gas prices higher.

The USDOE’s response apparently didn’t mitigate Markey’s concern; today the Congressman introduced two bills intended to impede the export of natural gas. (See here and here.) One bill would prevent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from approving any new LNG export terminals until 2025. Another bill would require natural gas produced from federal lands be sold only to American consumers. (Shall we require hotels on federal lands to only rent to American consumers as well? Those foreign tourists visiting the Grand Canyon are just driving up the cost for American tourists, right Congressman?)

I’m neither for or against the prospect of exporting LNG, but I’m entirely for letting companies finding the best offer for their products. If the product is natural gas and the best offers come from customers outside the United States, then by all means I’d want them to export.

I continue to wonder why the Congressman from Massachusetts is singling out natural gas exports as an object of concern, since any big growth in such exports is a few years from reality and the United States remains a net importer of natural gas. At the same time, Massachusetts producers are exporting billions of dollars worth of goods and services each year – over $26 billion worth of goods and services in 2010 – which by the Congressman’s crabbed logic is contributing to higher prices for U.S. consumers and therefore harmful to the public interest.

Congressman, why are these Massachusetts exports okay, but natural gas exports are not?

Art Berman spots distress in the natural gas industry

Michael Giberson

Apparently I’m just a hot-headed, temperamental guy unwilling to sit still and listen to a patient explanation of a contrary point of view. I’ve only read the first paragraph of Art Berman’s new post at the The Oil Drum and already I’m arguing with my computer screen and searching around for data to illustrate my rebuttal.

Here in the first paragraph in question, from a post entitled “After The Gold Rush: A Perspective on Future U.S. Natural Gas Supply and Price”:

On January 23, 2012, Chesapeake Energy announced that it would curtail drilling in shale gas plays in the United States. Subsequently, other operators have followed suit. While the outcome of this announcement is unclear, it is a signal that the industry is in distress. One can argue that this distress stems from a lack of discipline as market price began to decline.

Distressed? Chesapeake Energy is in the oil and gas business. The ratio of oil prices to natural gas prices is at historic highs. Chesapeake announces they are shifting their drilling activities away from natural gas resources and toward oil resources. Since when is responding to incentives a sign of distress?

Jump back six years ago and oil prices (quoted in barrels) were about 6 times the price of natural gas (quoted in million BTU), a ratio that happens to be near the relative energy contents of the two energy resources. Prices of both went up and then down together in 2007 and 2008, oil a little more than gas, but beginning in 2009 oil prices resumed an upward path while gas prices have drifted downward. The current oil-to-gas price ratio is an astounding 40 to 1.

The following EIA chart is from May 2011, but it shows that the oil and gas industry as a whole has been quite reasonably switching from natural gas drilling to oil drilling as the relative price differences began to change. The trends shown have continued over the last several months.

U.S. oil rig count overtakes natural gas rig count (Chart)

U.S. oil rig count overtakes natural gas rig count. Source: EIA (Link to EIA analysis and supporting data.)

If anything, to the extent Chesapeake stayed with natural gas drilling even as the oil-to-gas price ratio was shifting against gas, it signals one of three things: (1) their gas operations were exceptionally profitable, at least relative to their oil opportunities, but now prices have tipped their calculations toward oil, (2) they had contractual obligations that kept them in gas drilling longer than they would have preferred, given the way prices developed, or (3) they irrationally stuck to natural gas drilling well after incentives should have pushed them to oil, but they’ve recently regained their senses. Which of these three options reveal an industry in distress?

The reality is simpler. A few moments searching Google news turns up stories from 2011, 2010, and 2009 in which Chesapeake has said it was shifting from gas to oil drilling. Chesapeake has been slowly shifting from gas to oil drilling over the past few years just like the rest of the industry, perhaps the only change in the most recent announcement is that the company is increasing the pace of its shift.

Okay, later today I’ll have time to read the rest of Berman’s post. Maybe reading the rest of his reasoned analysis will enlighten me, will calm me down a bit.

Will the gas boom go bust?

Michael Giberson

Over at the Oil Drum appears an article under the heading, “Gas Boom Goes Bust.” The author compiles many data charts – big picture, close-up, long run and short, etc. – quotes a few other writers and a few headlines, and eventually arrives at this conclusion:

The bottom line is that natural gas is a cyclical industry which recently enjoyed a very large boom. As night follows day, a bust is sure to come. Based on the information presented above, I would humbly submit that it has just arrived.

Among all of the charts and graphs, I take the essential points to be that some natural gas developers, including some important ones, have employed financial strategies enabling them to avoid the harmful consequences of low gas prices so far, but gas prices are now so low and projected to stay low for so long that these strategies are no longer available. The author expects to see some developers in bankruptcy court this year – evidence of the bust.

But this diagnosis seems to confuse the fortunes of a few (or even many) businesses with the outlook for the market. The natural gas boom was never about the fortunes of individual natural gas developers, it was about the ample supplies of natural gas coming into the market.

Companies may well go bust, but the gas boom itself continues.

Presidents, policies, prices and production

Michael Giberson

Robert Rapier posts this chart:

U.S. Oil Production under Bush and Obama [Chart]

Via Robert Rapier and R-Squared Energy Blog

Rapier noted that last week Obama observed the energy production trends:

“Under my administration, domestic oil and natural gas production is up, while imports of foreign oil are down,” Obama added in his statement. “In the months ahead, we will continue to look for new ways to partner with the oil and gas industry to increase our energy security … even as we set higher efficiency standards for cars and trucks and invest in alternatives like biofuels and natural gas.”

Notice that Obama doesn’t directly claim credit – he just observes the correlation without asserting causation. (I imagine the phrase “we will continue to look for new ways to partner with the oil and gas industry” generated a few eye rolls among energy producers.)

It takes four to six years, Rapier says, for policies or higher oil prices to bear fruit. So Carter saw a boost in domestic oil production largely due to the Nixon’s push for an Alaskan oil pipeline and the sustained oil price increases that began in 1973. Similarly, he said, current increases in production are largely due to higher prices over the last several years which led companies to green light projects that were sub-marginal at lower prices. (I’d only add to the story a brief nod to technological improvements that are bringing down the cost of drilling and enhancing recovery.)

Does a public good argument justify subsidizing private energy production?

Michael Giberson

Yesterday I disputed the analysis by which the Breakthough Institute wanted to claim credit on behalf of the federal government for the shale gas boom; today I dispute their claimed broader implications for federal energy R&D policy.

Late in their op-ed, the Breakthrough folks shift emphasis from a narrow drilling technology story to a broader examination of energy R&D policy:

Giving the federal government credit where it is due takes nothing away from Mitchell, who was determined and tenacious. But the lesson of the shale gas revolution is that we should not be so quick to judge government investments in energy technology. Between 1978 and 2007, the Energy Department spent $24 billion on fossil energy research. Billions more were spent through the Gas Research Institute and non-conventional gas tax credits. Those investments were widely panned as a failure during the ’80s and early ’90s, when gas was plentiful and cheap.

Whatever one thinks about shale gas today — we worry about its environmental consequences — there’s no denying the extraordinary economic return on taxpayer investments.

This last point is interesting, but undeveloped in the article. If one were to calculate the “economic return on taxpayer investments,” would one have to conclude they were extraordinary?

The essay ultimately wants to argue against claims that the Solyndra episode proves governments can’t pick winners and the shale gas boom proves private enterprise can. Defenders of subsidies for solar power projects claim critics are too focused on a single failure, Solyndra, when reasonably critics should be assessing the overall portfolio of projects supported. It is a fair observation, but it may turn against their conclusion. If we are to consider the return on “taxpayer investments” in energy R&D, we’d reasonably need to survey the full portfolio of energy technology concepts funded by the federal government. We’d have to count the winners and losers both, based on the best current understanding, and again (as yesterday) we’d want to work out some idea of what would have happened in the energy technology space without federal government intervention. Further, we wouldn’t just worry about the environmental consequences, we’d have to compute some estimate of the costs and include it in the analysis.

The article goes nowhere close to presenting the relevant case. Near the end of the article they claim federal credit for “nuclear power, natural gas turbines, solar panels, and wind turbines — pretty much every significant energy technology since World War II.” Hmmm, notice they don’t mention the other big selectively-cited-by-critics failure: the Carter-era launch of an$88 billion effort to make oil from coal. Like the Solyndra and Synfuels Corp. complainers, the Breakthrough Institute wants to draw policy implications for an uncertain future based on a selective invocation of history.

It is further a kind of mistake to invoke Solyndra in an essay all about energy R&D policy. Much recent taxpayer-extracted support for energy shows up in the production tax credit, the investment tax credits, the Section 1603 Treasury grants and miscellaneous other subsidies that are directed to help promote the fortunes of companies building renewable power components or producing power via renewable sources. While some of these companies are pursuing technological developments, these subsidies are not tied to research in any substantial way and yield very little in the way of publicly available research results. Try gathering detailed data on production from a wind farm or solar power plant benefiting from millions of dollars in taxpayer-supported subsidies – their lawyers will likely tell you it is commercially-sensitive information and not publicly available. And by the way it isn’t just renewable energy, the lawyers for subsidized production from low-output oil and gas wells will likely say the same thing.

There is a respectable public good argument that can be made in support of subsidizing at least some research. The “extraordinary economic return” that the Breakthrough Institute wants to claim on behalf of government subsidized research into oil and gas drilling technology is this kind of an argument. If Breakthrough wants to drag Solyndra and the full range of energy production subsidies into this argument, an economist looking for a respectable public good argument has got to ask: where is the public good in subsidizing private energy production from projects that hide publicly useful information from public review?

A good non-technical introduction to shale gas

Michael Giberson

Paul M. Barrett, for Bloomberg, has written up a pretty good introduction to natural gas from shale. The article delves a bit into the history and geology of the subject, but focuses more on the business efforts that turned a modestly interesting rock into a significant economic resource and the environmental politics that have risen in response. Highly recommended if you want to know where the natural gas that is changing the world’s energy outlook has come from.

A few things are left out of this “introduction.” Of course we could dig deeper into each of the topics mentioned. The next step in the story is the international angle – shale gas is being developed in Argentina, the United Kingdom, Poland and elsewhere – with significant implications for national and international trade and public policy. Among other things, as examples, central and western Europe will likely become less reliant on Russian gas supplies, and the United States and Canada probably don’t build a natural gas pipeline from Alaska through Canada and into the Midwestern U.S. for at least thirty or forty years.

The complete story of shale gas would also delve a bit into the controversy over the size of the the resource, would go a little deeper into the particular efforts of Devon Energy, and talk about the spillover of the shale gas boom into a boost for unconventional oil. One might wrap up the story by casting it into the big picture “cornucopians vs. Malthusians” debate.

So Bloomberg doesn’t do everything in this introduction, but it is a pretty good introduction to the shale gas issue.

NOTE ALSO: For a bit more on the environmental politics of shale gas, in September the journal Nature carried a pair of articles under the heading “Should Fracking Stop?” The case for stopping was written by Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, both of Cornell University; the case for continuing was written by Terry Englander of Penn State University. Neither piece gets very close to a complete policy analysis, but both highlight a bunch of the relevant issues.