Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Fossil Fuel Watch: The Eye Between the Storms

by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch, Vol. 4, Number 1
September 21, 2005

On its way toward the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina cut a swath through a hydrocarbon-rich zone of the Gulf of Mexico, the largest domestic source of petroleum and natural gas. When fully operational, this offshore oil and natural gas complex accounts for about 30% of domestic oil supplies and 20% of domestic natural gas supplies.

Fueled by exceptionally warm waters, this Category 4 storm KO’ed nearly 50 production platforms and four drilling rigs. Extensive damage was reported at 20 platforms and nine drillings rigs. The force of the winds and the waves tore six rigs loose from their moorings and sent them adrift; one rig in Plaquemines Parish was found beached on Alabama’s Dauphin Island. At the storm’s peak, on August 29, more than 90% of the Gulf’s oil extraction capacity and nearly 90% of its natural gas extraction capacity was off-line.

The storm’s devastation extended beyond structures protruding above the water’s surface. Parts of the underwater piping network that collect the raw fuel and carry it to onshore processing facilities need to be rebuilt. Mobilizing all the boats, helicopters, divers, and steel needed to repair this infrastructure will be a monumental undertaking. However, until these pipelines become operational again, many of the undamaged wells will remain idle, with no place to pump the oil to.

Onshore facilities like shipyards and refineries were also hit hard. The Mineral Management Service, which issues daily bulletins tracking Katrina’s impact on the Gulf of Mexico’s hydrocarbon complex, estimates that “35% of shut-in oil is due to onshore infrastructure problems.” The rebuilding effort is bound to be slow and costly, but absolutely necessary as this region is one of the few remaining centers of (real) wealth-production in the nation.

Three weeks have now passed since Katrina landed her roundhouse blows to our energy underbelly, and more than 55% of the region’s oil capacity and about one-third of the natural gas capacity still remain off-line. So far, the reduction in output amounts to about 1.5% of expected U.S. crude oil production this year. Also off-line are four refineries with a combined daily capacity of nearly one million barrels, about 4% of total U.S. refining capacity. Expectations are that these facilities, especially the 400,000 barrel per day Pascagoula unit, are three to six months away from being restarted. In an industry where production volumes lately have averaged between 90 and 95 per cent of capacity, making up a 4% loss shapes up to be an impossible challenge. This is very bad news indeed to a country that was, before Hurricane Katrina, not producing enough gasoline to keep pace with this summer’s driving demands.

In an effort to calm panicky oil markets, the Bush Administration has pledged to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for as much as 30 million barrels of crude oil, an amount the Unites States consumes in 36 hours. Though gasoline prices have fallen 10% from the Labor Day weekend, releasing reserve oil is nothing more than a symbolic gesture when there is no spare capacity available to crack the crude into jet fuel, gasoline and diesel fuel. The nation has no choice but to import greater volumes of gasoline for the duration of this year. Even so, the supply-demand equation looks precarious. Only a nationwide slowdown in driving will keep fuel prices from heading higher. Nothing short of that will suffice.

Katrina’s path took it through the oil-heavy eastern half of the Gulf’s hydrocarbon complex. The natural gas production platforms that populate the western half were spared the flattening winds and 20-foot storm surges visited upon Bay St. Louis and Biloxi. Even so, the accumulated reduction in output so far represents 0.7% of U.S. extraction volumes expected this year. This deceptively puny number spells real trouble for Americans residing in colder climates, for unlike crude oil and its refined products, natural gas cannot be easily shipped across oceans. There are only four operating terminals in the United States where specialized tankers bearing liquefied natural gas (LNG) can offload their contents, and they are operating pretty much at full capacity right now.

Unless natural gas output from the Gulf of Mexico can be revved up to pre-Katrina levels in the next week or two, the likelihood that the United States can scramble its way out of a slow-motion supply squeeze this winter is poor. Earlier this year, several investment banking services that track energy supply-demand trends projected lower output from domestic sources this year. If the monthly production results reported by the Texas Railroad Commission are reliable guides, extraction volumes are already tailing off, compared with previous years’ results. The injection rate of gas into storage for winter use has slowed as well.

When one stops to consider all the factors at play here—a still booming housing sector, more gas-fired power stations on-line (including four new ones in Wisconsin this year), a declining resource base in North America (including Canada and Mexico), and insufficient infrastructure for importing more than 5% of domestic consumption through 2008—it’s not difficult to imagine natural gas prices, now at $12/MMBtu, ratcheting up towards the $20/MMBtu level this winter. And to think that only six months ago one could have bought a January 2006 gas contract for under $7/MMBtu.

The prospects for a rapid recovery became dimmer when a storm named Rita crossed the Florida Keys heading west toward Texas. The abnormally warm waters on which Katrina fed can easily transform Rita into a tempest of similar intensity. For the moment the very best outcome one can expect from Rita’s menacing presence in the gulf is a production interruption that lasts five to seven days followed by a full resumption of extraction activity. But if it strengthens as Katrina did, it is likely to cause even greater damage than Katrina wrought, due to its more westerly track. Texas and its coastal waters, it should be remembered, account for fully one-third of domestic natural gas output. Another hit to Gulf of Mexico hydrocarbon complex and natural gas futures will warp out of orbit.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Even more amazing than the destructive capacity of these hurricanes is the degree to which we as a nation are totally unprepared for dealing with their aftermath. The default assumption among policymakers is that the U.S. economy will grow in an uninterrupted fashion, and that high quality energy sources will magically appear in time to sustain this expansion. But how can this outcome be guaranteed when the U.S. government cannot control either the actions of foreign countries or the weather? In fact, the country does not appear able to exercise even the slightest hint of discipline or restraint over its own appetite for energy. As the nation’s energy infrastructure contracted relative to the domestic economy, the federal government’s ability to shape our energy future atrophied along with it. All of the planning functions that a healthy government is typically responsible for have been ceded to the marketplace. And the marketplace has one very powerful mechanism for allocating scarce but essential resources to a society’s constituents. It’s called price.


Author’s note: Given Hurricane Rita’s potential to add to the devastation caused by Katrina, I plan to update this article in one to two weeks.


Sources:

Center for Energy Efficiency and Resource Efficiency (CEERT), Risky Diet 2005: Global Energy Resource Adequacy. http://www.ceert.org

Minerals Management Service (U.S. Department of the Interior)
http://www.mms.gov/ooc/press/2005/press0916a.htm. See MMS web site also for daily shut-in statistics reports.

Simmons and Company: Outlook for Natural Gas: 2005 and Beyond
http://www.simmonsco-intl.com/research.aspx?Type=researchreports)

“Texas Monthly Oil and Gas Production by Year,” Texas Railroad Commission
http://www.rrc.state.tx.us/divisions/og/information-data/stats/ogismcon.html),

The Oil Drum: A Community Discussion About Peak Oil. Numerous postings on the web site from August 29 – September 21, 2005.. http://www.theoildrum.com/



Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch is a RENEW Wisconsin initiative tracking the
supply demand equation for these fossil fuels, and analyzing its effects on prices,
consumption levels, and the development of energy conservation strategies and renewable energy alternatives. For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit "The End of Cheap Oil" section in RENEW Wisconsin's web site: www.renewwisconsin.org