Carbon Capture Captures Washington’s Attention

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days, especially not where climate change is concerned. On Capitol Hill, the debate remains highly polarized: While left-wing Democrats champion the controversial Green New Deal, many Republicans still don’t believe climate change is a real problem.

But lawmakers do agree on at least one possible way to address the issue: Carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, the process of capturing man-made carbon dioxide at the source and either using or storing it underground.

Continue reading “Carbon Capture Captures Washington’s Attention”

What’s the Next Stop on Oil’s Wild Ride?

If you follow the oil markets closely, you might be feeling a bit motion sick these days. To call the path of crude oil prices over the last nine months “volatile” would be putting it mildly. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rallied at the beginning of last autumn, hitting a peak of $76.41 per barrel on Oct. 3. From there, WTI plunged, reaching a low of $42.53 the day before Christmas: A decline of 45%. Then, crude started a new rally as 2019 began, eventually zooming back up to $66.30 on April 23, for a gain of 56%. Since then, it has fallen back to about $53, for a loss of roughly 20%. Nauseous yet?

What’s been driving all these ups and downs? Two competing narratives of under- and oversupply. The first, which prompted last fall’s big rally, held that the world would soon find itself short of oil because of the strong global economy and looming U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, which would take key barrels off the market. But when Washington waived some of those sanctions, the market suddenly looked oversupplied, and oil prices tanked. Not for long, though: Anticipation of strong oil demand and concerns that oil exports from Venezuela and Libya would shrink sparked a new rally that lasted through the winter. Then, this spring, investors grew nervous that various trade disputes would weaken the global economy enough to sap oil demand, and prices once again dropped.

Even if you don’t follow the oil markets or invest in oil companies, you probably felt the effects of all these market gyrations. Retail gasoline prices soared this winter and early spring, reaching almost $3 per gallon in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day. Since then, the national average price of regular unleaded has pulled back by about 20 cents per gallon. (Though drivers in many parts of the country have been paying gas prices that start with a 3 lately, the national average price of regular unleaded hasn’t exceeded the psychologically painful $3 mark since 2014.)

So, what comes next for oil prices? As is usually the case with questions of economics, the answer is: It depends.

Specifically, the outlook for oil prices depends on the overall health of the economy and whether the longest expansion in modern U.S. history can keep going. Overseas, growth is weakening significantly in China and sputtering in Europe. Parts of Latin America look even worse. The U.S. remains in good health, but can that continue when most of the rest of the world is slowing down? A resolution to the trade war between Beijing and Washington would go a long way toward reviving overseas growth, but that is far from a given at this point.

If the economy can keep chugging along, and if the trade picture improves, I think the next move in oil prices will be modestly higher, perhaps after a further dip in the near term. Why? Several reasons.

OPEC and its partner, Russia, have been holding back their oil exports in order to boost prices. It’s not certain the cartel and Moscow will maintain that policy for the rest of this year, but there’s a lot of pressure on them to do so. Current oil prices are not high enough to fund the budgets of OPEC’s petro-state members.

Production losses remain a real concern in two troubled countries, Venezuela and Libya. Venezuela has already seen its output drop significantly in recent months as its economic crisis deepens. Libya is holding up for now, though it remains plagued by internal violence. The U.S. has imposed the previously delayed sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, which have also caused Iranian production to slip.

The latest attack on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf further complicates the picture. Two tankers transiting the narrow Strait of Hormuz with petroleum products were reportedly hit by torpedoes and damaged earlier today. It’s not yet clear what happened or who is responsible, but suspicions that Tehran was involved raise fears of a shooting war between the U.S. and Iran in the oil market’s most vital shipping route.

Here in the U.S., production is booming, but it’s probably ready to take a breather. The latest data from the Department of Energy peg domestic crude output at 12.3 million barrels per day, the highest in the world and up 1.4 million barrels per day from a year ago. That’s helped keep a lid on prices recently. But drilling activity has been slowing, which points to less production growth in coming weeks and months. According to oil-field services firm Baker Hughes, there are about 100 fewer rigs drilling new oil wells now than there were last autumn, when prices were higher.

In other words, there are reasons to believe that global oil supply is going to tighten up a bit.

Stephen Schork, editor of energy investing newsletter The Schork Report, thinks the recent sell-off will come to an end fairly soon. “I think we are at the bottom” for crude prices, he says, especially since, at current prices, many operators in U.S. shale fields will struggle to turn a profit. He’s concerned about the health of the economy right now, but believes much of oil’s recent price slide was sparked by strength in the value of the dollar this spring. (When the dollar rises, commodities priced in dollars become relatively more expensive for overseas buyers, which hurts demand.)

Whatever happens, prepare for more volatility ahead. Oil prices jumped on the news of the damaged tankers in the Gulf, but that price spike could reverse quickly if the situation calms down. Likewise, if global oil production slips a bit and stockpiles of crude in storage start to fall, prices will probably jump. So, keep your motion sickness pills handy, but watch for prices to eventually stabilize and trend higher if the economy can maintain its momentum.

Investing in Energy Efficiency

I recently gave some basic energy saving tips that may help consumers lower their utility bills. One of those tips was considering replacing conventional lightbulbs with light emitting diodes, or LEDs.

I figured advice isn’t very good if I wouldn’t take it myself, so I bought two LEDs to replace two old-fashioned incandescent bulbs in the light fixture above my dining room table. It may sound like a boring chore, but it promises to deliver a far better return on my investment than any stock or bond I’m likely to buy.

I won’t go into the physics of how LEDs work, because as a journalist who hasn’t seen the inside of a science classroom in a long time, I’m not qualified. Suffice it to say that LEDs generate light much more efficiently than Thomas Edison’s venerable incandescent bulbs do. And though LEDs were very expensive when they first hit the market, their prices have come down sharply. Plus, they have several advantages over spiral-shaped compact fluorescent bulbs, which are also quite efficient: Unlike CFLs, LEDs don’t contain toxic mercury. They can be dimmed, which CFLs generally can’t, and they can produce many different colors and hues of light, whereas CFLs tend to cast a harsh, white glow.

More importantly for the cost-conscious, LEDs can save you a bundle.

Here’s the math in my case. I bought a two-pack of dimmable LED bulbs rated to produce the same amount of light as a conventional, 60-watt incandescent. They are the same familiar A19 bulb shape as the incandescents traditionally used in many residential fixtures. (Picture the “Eureka!” lightbulb that appears over cartoon characters’ heads when they think of a bright idea.)

The LEDs I bought consume 10 watts of electricity. So, two operating together at full brightness consume 20 watts, whereas the two old bulbs used 120 watts. Thus, every hour I use them, it saves me 100 watt-hours, or one-tenth of a kilowatt-hour (the unit of power the electric company uses on your bill). I estimate I use the light an average of two hours a day, so that’s two-tenths of a kWh per day, or 73 kWh per year.

In Virginia, where I live, residential electricity rates average 11.55 cents per kWh, so my savings of 73 kWh per year works out to $8.43 per year. That is almost exactly what I paid for the two bulbs.

In other words, I’ll earn back my initial investment in a year, and then save another $8 or so every year thereafter. Granted, that’s relatively small potatoes (though I’ll take a free $8 anytime you offer it to me). But in percentage terms, it’s hard to beat an investment that repays your upfront cost in a year and then pays you that amount again each year afterward. (The maker of the bulbs I bought estimate they’ll last more than 22 years at three hours per day, though cheaply made LEDs have been known to fail much sooner.)

The savings really add up if you replace more bulbs with LEDs, and/or use a given light for more hours per day. Multiply my $8 per year by a few high-use fixtures and you’re talking about some meaningful savings. That’s especially true if you live in a region with high electricity rates. The national average residential cost was recently about 12.9 cents per kWh, according to the Department of Energy. But consumers in New England pay more than 19 cents on average. In California: 18.3 cents. In Hawaii: An eye-watering 29.5 cents. The higher the rate you pay, the more potential savings you can realize.

One downside of switching to LEDs is the additional choices you’ll have to make. LEDs can be dimmable or not, and the dimmable kind often work best on a dimmer switch designed for LEDs. Their light output is measured in lumens, which is not a unit of measurement most consumers are familiar with (though LEDs are also generally marketed as having the light equivalent of conventional bulbs: 40 watts, 60 watts, 75 watts, 100 watts, etc.). You must decide what sort of light you want, such as soft white or daylight (the soft white bulbs I chose look like regular incandescent bulbs to me; they cast a pleasant, yellow glow). And if you’re installing the bulbs in an enclosed light fixture, you’ll want LEDs that are rated for that.

Luckily, all the specs are spelled out pretty clearly on the bulbs’ packaging. And many home improvement stores show different bulbs in display cases that let you see the difference between, say, soft white and daylight.

To me, those extra considerations seem like a small price to pay for a lower electric bill. Saving money doesn’t get much easier than screwing in a new light bulb.

You Don’t Need the Green New Deal to Save on Energy Costs

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the implications of the Green New Deal, a proposal backed by several congressional Democrats that would essentially ban all fossil fuel use by the year 2030. Since then, a resolution outlining the GND’s principles has been introduced, and has generated plenty of debate, even though it’s a non-binding resolution—meaning it’s just a commitment to ideas, not actual legislation.

One of the idea’s more overlooked provisions is a commitment to “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency.” Like most of the rest of the plan, this idea would be extraordinarily expensive. The resolution has no chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has no plans to bring it for a floor vote.

But if you’re interested in the idea of saving some money on your utility bills, you don’t need to wait for a sweeping law overhauling the country’s energy sector. There are practical steps you can take now. Continue reading “You Don’t Need the Green New Deal to Save on Energy Costs”

What’s the Deal with the Green New Deal?

Freshman House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and some of her colleagues have made news recently by calling for a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change. Hearkening back to President Franklin Roosevelt’s aggressive countermeasures designed to pull the country out of the Great Depression, the Green New Deal sounds bold and dramatic. Speaking at a town hall meeting in December, Ocasio-Cortez called the plan “the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil rights movement of our generation.”

A draft bill calls for “meeting 100% of national power demand through renewable sources … eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure … [and] eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries.” What’s more, the bill calls for achieving these goals by the year 2030. Continue reading “What’s the Deal with the Green New Deal?”

Making Sense of Energy Market Turmoil

I don’t know how else to say this: Energy markets are going a little crazy. First, crude oil prices plummeted, turning an earlier autumn rally into a bear-market rout. From its high of about $76 per barrel on Oct. 3., benchmark West Texas Intermediate plunged to about $55 in only five weeks. Then, natural gas prices went haywire, with the benchmark gas futures contract leaping from about $3 per million British thermal units to nearly $5 in a span of days, only to plunge back to $4 today. What exactly is going on? Continue reading “Making Sense of Energy Market Turmoil”

Can Trump Make Coal Great Again?

After more than a year in the works, President Trump’s proposal for regulating carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants is out. His plan, dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, would impose far less stringent standards on coal-fired power plants than President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which Trump put the brakes on. Last year, when announcing several executive orders aimed at easing government regulation of the coal industry, the president declared that “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal” – a reference to his predecessor’s regulatory approach.

First, a quick rundown on Trump’s power plant regs and how they differ from what Obama tried to do:

States would be responsible for regulating their power plants’ carbon emissions, whereas Obama’s CPP would have given each state a target for reducing emissions consistent with a nationwide goal.

Owners of coal-fired plants could improve plant efficiency to keep them running longer and get more electricity from each ton of coal burned. The CPP would have encouraged utilities to use less coal and more natural gas and renewable energy.

Carbon emissions wouldn’t decline by nearly as much as they would under Obama’s plan, but are projected to decrease modestly. Trump’s EPA projects CO2 emissions will decline by between 13 million and 30 million tons in 2025, or 1.5% of the current level, compared to no regulatory action being taken.

Coal industry supporters cheered Trump’s proposal while environmentalists jeered it. National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn stated that the plan “respects the infrastructure and economic realities that are unique to each state, allowing for state-driven solutions, as intended by the Clean Air Act, rather than top down mandates. It also embraces American innovation, by encouraging plant upgrades.” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, was rather more succinct, calling Trump’s proposal “a sham” that doesn’t address the risks posed by climate change.

I’ll leave those arguments to others. But what about the practical effects of Trump’s plan, assuming it survives the inevitable legal challenges?

There’s no question that the coal industry has been hurting for a long time. Back in 2005, according to Department of Energy data, coal-burning power plants supplied 50% of the nation’s electricity. Last year: Just 30%, mostly because of mounting competition from natural gas, which has become the top fuel for power generation. In 2005, the U.S. burned a massive 1.1 billion tons of coal. Last year: Just 717 million tons, the lowest figure since the early 1980s. According to the feds, in 2005 coal mining employed about 80,000 workers. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 52,000.

Coal’s struggles significantly reduced energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. Shifting from a coal-heavy fuel mix to one more reliant on natural gas, which emits less CO2 than coal to produce the same amount of power, has caused the utility sector’s emissions to fall by 28% since 2005, according to the EPA.

Will Trump’s regs revive the ailing coal industry? I put that question to Joe Aldina, Director of U.S. Coal Analytics at S&P Global Platts. “In the short term, this doesn’t move the needle at all” for boosting coal demand, he says, because of the competition posed by cheap natural gas. In other words, just because utilities can more easily burn coal now doesn’t mean they will if it isn’t the most economical choice.

But Trump’s rule change “will have a modest impact in the long term” because coal usage will decline by less than what would have happened under Obama’s CPP rules. Aldina thinks that coal’s 30% share of the electricity market will decline further, but only gradually over the next several years. He also notes that while the ACE regs make it easier to upgrade existing coal-fired plants to run more efficiently and generate more power, federal regulations still effectively bar building new coal plants. And there is little sign that utilities want additional coal plants, anyway.

That means that the nation’s fleet of coal power plants will likely keep shrinking. Many were retired because of Obama’s more-stringent CO2 and air quality rules, plus the competition from natural gas. The Department of Energy expects almost 10% of the nation’s remaining coal-fired generating capacity to shut down between now and 2020. Utilities can’t build new plants (even if they wanted to), so U.S. coal consumption will probably continue slipping.

Booming Energy Output to Shrink U.S. Trade Gap

As you may have heard, international trade has become something of a heated issue. President Trump left last weekend’s G7 meeting in Canada angry over the protectionist policies of some of America’s closest allies, which he emphasized by refusing to endorse the group’s written statement on shared economic, trade and environmental aspirations. Leaders of the other G7 members – the world’s seven most advanced economies – were none too pleased themselves, blaming Trump for what they viewed as undue hostility and breaches of diplomatic protocol.

It’s a fight I’ll leave to others. Reasonable people can disagree over how fairly or unfairly U.S. exports are treated by other countries. But I will note that, when it comes to foreign sales of U.S. energy products, the future looks very rosy. Continue reading “Booming Energy Output to Shrink U.S. Trade Gap”

Your Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip Just Got More Expensive

If you’re hitting the road this holiday weekend, buckle up for the highest gas prices in several years. AAA’s website reports that the national average price of regular unleaded gas has climbed to $2.96, the highest level since late 2014. (Of course, some parts of the country are already paying quite a bit more. The national average encompasses a wide range of prices.) A year ago, the price at the pump averaged a much more wallet-friendly $2.37 per gallon, according to AAA.

And prices probably aren’t done climbing. Last month, I warned that the national average was likely to reach $3 this spring. That likely will hit Memorial Day weekend. Crude oil prices continue edging up, but such increases generally don’t reach the pump until a week or two later. Continue reading “Your Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip Just Got More Expensive”

Gasoline Prices Nearing Multiyear Highs

If you fill up your car’s gas tank with any regularity, you don’t need me to tell you that prices at the pump are on the rise. AAA reports that the national average price of regular unleaded now stands at $2.72 per gallon, up from $2.54 a month ago and $2.41 this time last year. (That national average contains a lot of regional variability. In California, for instance, regular sells for $3.55. In South Carolina, just $2.49.)

Will the run-up keep going? And just how high will prices get? Continue reading “Gasoline Prices Nearing Multiyear Highs”