By Andrew Maykuth

Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted on Sun, Jan. 31, 2010

In their exuberance, oil- and gas-industry officials repeat a single refrain when describing the natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale:

A game-changer.

Tony Hayward, chief executive officer of oil giant BP P.L.C., was the latest to gush enthusiastically when he called unconventional natural gas resources like the Marcellus “a complete game-changer.”

“It probably transforms the U.S. energy outlook for the next 100 years,” Hayward said Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The breathtaking emergence of natural gas as America’s energy savior was not in the cards. Just four years ago, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Gulf Coast rigs and rattled gas markets, energy pundits forecast a bleak winter of short supplies, high prices, and low thermostats.

The vast scale of shale-gas resources has come into focus quickly, and industry officials are touting the possibility of steady supplies for decades to come.

The Potential Gas Committee in Colorado last year revised its outlook of America’s future gas supply – up 35 percent in just two years. The forecast was the highest in its 44-year history.

The Marcellus Shale is the nation’s fastest-growing producing area. Though it lies under five states, about 60 percent of its reserves are in Pennsylvania, according to Terry Engelder, a Pennsylvania State University geologist.

“In terms of its impact on Pennsylvania, this is probably without peer in the last century,” said Engelder, whose projections in 2008 alerted the public about the size of the Marcellus.

“America’s energy portfolio has undergone a first-order paradigm shift just in the last two years,” he said. “This is such an exciting thing.”

Not everyone has climbed aboard the bandwagon. Some environmentalists are uneasy about the hydraulic-fracturing process that has unlocked the shale gas. The technique requires the injection of millions of gallons of water into a well to break up the shale to initiate production.

And some analysts say they believe the gas industry’s estimates are too optimistic.

“I would look at all this with a bit of healthy skepticism,” said Arthur E. Berman, a Houston gas-industry consultant, who says he believes some operators have overstated the production potential and understated the cost of Texas shale-gas wells. His pointed criticism got him banished from one trade journal – and invited to speak at scores of investor workshops.

“Two years ago, we were talking about importing gas from the Middle East,” he said. “And now we have a hundred-year supply of domestic gas?”

Berman said he had been unable to conduct a similar analysis of Marcellus wells because Pennsylvania law allows operators to keep their production data secret for five years, unlike other states, where output is reported to taxing authorities promptly.

“If something looks too good to be true,” he said, “I need to look more closely.”

Questioning voices such as Berman’s are uncommon in the industry, which portrays natural gas as abundant, cheap, and cleaner than coal and oil – a domestically produced “bridge fuel” to ease the transition to renewable wind and solar generation.

For companies like UGI Corp. – the Valley Forge energy company that operates regulated utilities in Pennsylvania that sell natural gas to retail customers and operates unregulated subsidiaries that consume and transport natural gas – the Marcellus Shale represents a game-changing opportunity on several fronts.

“That activity in the Marcellus Shale is really a win-win, not only for our regulated business, but also our nonregulated business,” UGI chief executive Lon R. Greenberg told analysts in a conference call last week.

Officials at UGI and other Pennsylvania gas utilities say retail customers will benefit in the long run, as utilities begin buying their supplies from Marcellus sources, saving pipeline costs from the Gulf Coast.

UGI’s utilities are in a strong position because many of their 578,000 customers are in Marcellus cities such as Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Williamsport. The utility could eventually work out deals to buy gas directly from producers.

Though UGI has no interest in becoming a gas producer, the company is exploring the possibilities for investing in “midstream” pipelines that tie the Marcellus wells to the interstate pipelines that move gas to lucrative urban markets like New York. Expansion of the pipeline infrastructure is critical to opening the Marcellus to exploration.

In addition, UGI is looking at expanding its underground gas-storage operations in Western Pennsylvania, said Brad Hall, president of UGI Energy Services.

“There is a bit of a gold-rush mentality,” he said, “but in this case, there’s really gold.”

UGI may also reap some other, unintended benefits.

The company’s power-generation subsidiary last year announced a $125 million project to convert its aging Hunlock Power Station near Wilkes-Barre from coal to natural gas.

Hall said the decision was made before the Marcellus abundance was fully understood. But when the plant comes online in 2011, it is likely to find eager sellers of fuel nearby.

“It makes us look like we were really smart.”

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By JAD MOUAWAD
Published: July 5, 2009

The extreme volatility that has gripped oil markets for the last 18 months has shown no signs of slowing down, with oil prices more than doubling since the beginning of the year despite an exceptionally weak economy.

The instability of oil and gas prices is puzzling government officials and policy analysts, who fear it could jeopardize a global recovery. It is also hobbling businesses and consumers, who are already facing the effects of a stinging recession, as they try in vain to guess where prices will be a year from now — or even next month.

A wild run on the oil markets has occurred in the last 12 months. Last summer, prices surged to a record high above $145 a barrel, driving up gasoline prices to well over $4 a gallon. As the global economy faltered, oil tumbled to $33 a barrel in December. But oil has risen 55 percent since the beginning of the year, to $70 a barrel, pushing gas prices up again to $2.60 a gallon, according to AAA, the automobile club.

“To call this extreme volatility might be an understatement,” said Laura Wright, the chief financial officer at Southwest Airlines, a company that has sought to insure itself against volatile prices by buying long-term oil contracts. “Over the past 15 to 18 months, this has been unprecedented. I don’t think it can be easily rationalized.”

Volatility in the oil markets in the last year has reached levels not recorded since the energy shocks of the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Costanza Jacazio, an energy analyst at Barclays Capital in New York.

At the close of last week’s trading, oil futures fell $2.58, to $66.73 a barrel, after rising above $72 a barrel last month.

These gyrations have rippled across the economy. The automakers General Motors and Chrysler have been forced into bankruptcy as customers shun their gas guzzlers. Airlines are on pace for another year of deep losses because of rising jet fuel costs.

And households, already crimped by falling home prices, mounting job losses and credit pressures, are once more forced to monitor their discretionary spending as energy prices rise.

While the movements in the oil markets have been similar to swings in most asset classes, including stocks and other commodities, the recent rise in oil prices is reprising the debate from last year over the role of investors — or speculators — in the commodity markets.

Government officials around the world have become concerned about a possible replay of last year’s surge. Energy officials from the European Union and OPEC, meeting in Vienna last month, said that “the speculation issue had not been resolved yet and that the 2008 bubble could be repeated” without more oversight.

Many factors that pushed oil prices up last year have returned. Supply fears are creeping back into the market, with a new round of violence in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta crimping production. And there are increasing fears that the political instability in Iran could spill over onto the oil market, potentially hampering the country’s exports.

The OPEC cartel has also been remarkably successful in reining in production in recent months to keep prices from falling. Even as prices recovered, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have been unwilling to open their taps.

Top officials said that OPEC’s goal was to achieve $75 a barrel oil by the end of the year, a target that has been endorsed by Saudi Arabia, the group’s kingpin.

“Neither the organization, nor its key members, has any real interest in halting the rise in oil prices,” said a report by the Center for Global Energy Studies, a consulting group in

London founded by Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, a former Saudi oil minister.

But unlike most of 2007, when the economy was still not in recession and demand for commodities was strong, the world today is mired in its worst slump in over half a century. The World Bank warned the recession would be deeper than previously thought and said any recovery next year would be subdued.

The International Energy Agency held out the prospect that energy demand was unlikely to recover before 2014. Yet the indicators that would traditionally signal lower prices — like high oil inventories or OPEC’s large spare production capacity — do not seem to hold much weight today, analysts said.

“Crude oil prices appear to have been divorced from the underlying fundamentals of weak demand, ample supply and high inventories,” Deutsche Bank analysts said in a recent report.

Investors are betting that the worst of the economic slump may be coming to an end, and are bidding up what they perceive will become scare resources once demand kicks back again, analysts said. This uncertainty is making it difficult for companies to plan ahead, they said.

“People do not like that kind of volatility, they want to know what their costs are going to be,” said Bernard Baumohl, the chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group.

For the global airline industry, the latest price surge is certain to translate into more losses this year, according to the industry’s trade group, I.A.T.A. Airlines are expected to post losses of $9 billion this year, following last year’s losses of $10.4 billion. “Airlines have not yet felt the full impact of this oil price rise,” according to I.A.T.A.’s latest report.

At Southwest Airlines, for example, fuel accounts for about a third of the company’s costs, according to Ms. Wright, the chief financial officer. The experience of the past year, she said, “has convinced us we cannot afford to not be hedged.”

The company has currently hedged part of its fuel use for the second half of the year at $71 a barrel, and for 2010 at $77 a barrel. Hedging acts as an insurance policy if prices rise above these levels.

But last year, Southwest reported two consecutive quarters of losses, as prices spiked and collapsed — all within a few months. “Prices were falling faster than we could de-hedge,” Ms. Wright said.

To survive the slump, many airlines have cut routes and raised both fares and fees, like charging for luggage, while some of the industry’s top players have merged. For example, Delta Air Lines bought Northwest Airlines last year, and in Europe, Lufthansa of Germany bought Austrian Airlines and Air France-KLM acquired Alitalia of Italy.

Likewise, automobile showrooms emptied out as gasoline prices rose, forcing General Motors and Chrysler to cut production sharply as they wade through bankruptcy. Meanwhile, they are under pressure from Washington to improve their fuel ratings.

“Do not believe for an instant that sport utilities are making a comeback,” George Pipas, Ford’s chief sales analyst, told reporters last week.

But to Jeroen van der Veer, who retired as chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell last week, prices are increasingly dictated by long-term assessments of supply and demand, rather than current market fundamentals. He advised taking a long-term view of the market.

“Oil has never been very stable,” Mr. van der Veer said. “If you look at history, you have to expect more volatility.”

Let us know your thoughts? You may leave a comment or email george@hbsadvantage.com

By Chris Nelder | Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

A new battle is brewing over offshore oil drilling. Nine months ago, President Bush lifted a ban on new oil and gas leases off the nation’s coastlines, and the congressional moratorium on offshore leasing expired last September. 

Now Obama’s Department of Interior officials are considering reopening the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to leasing, and once again the oil industry is pitted against environmentalists, as well as California residents who remember the ugly mess that a 200,000 gallon crude spill made of the Santa Barbara coast in 1969 after an offshore rig blowout.

 I remember that mess. Some time in the mid-70s, when I was 10 years old or so, my family took a trip to California to visit relatives. After nine long hours in the car from our home in the Arizona desert, I wanted nothing except to frolic on the beach when we finally got there, and I wasn’t about to let my uncle talk me out of going there no matter how bad it was. 

It was nasty. The beach was covered in globs of black goo—so much of it you couldn’t avoid stepping in it—and the whole place reeked. (If you haven’t ever smelled crude oil, it’s smells like exactly what it is: a combination of asphalt and gasoline and everything in between.) We had our fun on the beach, but when we got home, we had to endure a good scrubbing down with turpentine (or maybe it was gasoline) to get the gunk off of our skin.

 So I have sympathy for those who don’t want to see that sort of thing happen ever again. I’ve also been an environmentalist all my life. 

On the other hand, I believe our energy predicament is shaping up to be so dire as to render all such ideology moot. Taking a principled stance on environmental grounds may soon seem like a luxury of a far-gone age. 

Outer Continental Shelf Potential 

Let’s take a look at the numbers. 

According to the EIA (2007 data rounded to billions), total US proven reserves of conventional oil are about 21 billion barrels, of which 4 billion are proved offshore reserves. 

US demand is currently about 6.7 billion barrels per year, so if we relied solely upon our proven reserves and were able to produce it as quickly as we like, we’d only have about a three-year supply. Fortunately, we are able to import more than two-thirds of our oil consumption from elsewhere. Nature limits the rate at which we can pump our domestic oil, a rate which has been in steady decline since US domestic oil production peaked in 1970.

Three years’ worth isn’t much, so we have turned to the difficult and expensive stuff that remains, some of which isn’t even oil: low-grade tar sands from Canada, thin seams of shale in the Midwest, and the OCS.

Energy and Capital readers are no doubt familiar with our articles on tar sands and the shales (Bakken, Barnett, Marcellus, and others), but an update on the OCS is probably in order.

The EIA estimates that “technically recoverable undiscovered” offshore oil in the US is in the range of 59 billion barrels—nearly three times as much as our remaining “proved reserves.” Most of it, about 45 billion barrels, is expected to lie in the Gulf of Mexico.

The remaining 31% is what was unavailable under the Congressional moratorium, but according to a testimony before the House last month by acting EIA administrator Dr. Howard Gruenspecht, only about 20% of the total technically recoverable oil in the OCS has been under moratoria.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) numbers are considerably larger, suggesting that some 85 billion barrels of technically recoverable undiscovered oil may remain offshore. (For the present article, I will avoid delving into the murky details of probabilistic reserve estimates and why they differ from source to source.)

In any case, it’s clear that the remaining oil prize in the US is offshore. So why aren’t we producing it?

Partisans like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) would have us believe that it is simply the politics of overzealous environmentalism, banging the drum loudly for offshore drilling and complaining that 85% of the OCS has been off-limits “leaving some of our greatest energy reserves untapped.” Indeed, the “Drill Baby Drill” crowd claims that if only we’d drill the OCS everywhere, we could achieve “energy independence.”

But if only 20-31% of the OCS has been off-limits, why hasn’t the rest been drilled yet?

Risky Business 

One part of the answer is that there simply isn’t any oil in some of those areas. Last July, John Hoffmeister, former CEO and president of Shell Oil’s US operations, told CNBC “The industry is pursuing the leases it has, but to be blunt, the prospective nature of many of those leases is very low. And you don’t go drill oil where you know it doesn’t exist.”

The second part of the answer is also simple: poor economics.

 Offshore oil is expensive, and deepwater oil—wells drilled in more than 1000 feet of water—is more expensive still. Leasing rates for high specification drillships able to produce oil from deepwater formations have run as high as $600,000 per day, which is why we have liked our deepwater drilling players for a long time now.

 Consider the economics of the Mars field as an example. At a water depth of 2,940 feet, it is believed to contain 500 million barrels of oil equivalent. The platform produces some 220,000 barrels per day, at a reported development cost of $100 million. Prior to the development of BPs Thunder Horse platform, it was the most advanced platform in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, where the best prospects for new US oil production are. The Mars platform was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and rebuilt by Shell at a reported cost of $200 million. Assuming those numbers are still correct, at a $300 million total cost the project would take 34 years to pay for itself at $40 a barrel. (By comparison, the Thunder Horse platform produces oil at about the same rate, but has a total cost of around $5 billion.)

Deepwater oil also remains a very risky enterprise, even with modern seismic imaging technology. This week Contango Oil & Gas Co. (AMEX: MCF) reported that it would take a $12.5 million write-off for drilling a dry hole in the Gulf of Mexico. It takes a fluid and committed credit market to sustain that kind of risk, but the world is still in the grips of a credit market freeze.

Morgan Stanley recently reported that enough deepwater projects have been scrapped in the global economic downturn to reduce future crude supplies by as much as 2.4 million barrels per day (mbpd) by 2011, a substantial chunk of anticipated supply. Since August 2008, the company reported that no new lease contracts had been awarded, but 11 orders were canceled and 46 more were delayed.

Perhaps the largest project to be delayed recently is the Manifa project in Saudi Arabia. With a $9 billion price tag and a possible 900,000 barrel per day flow rate, it would be the country’s largest offshore oil development, but progress has been delayed by six months, probably to take advantage of lower construction costs.

How Do We Reach Energy Independence?

Finally, we must also address the flow rate of any new domestic oil. True “energy independence” would mean producing 18 to 20 mbpd, not the roughly 5.5 mbpd we are producing today. Could we do that?

Through drilling alone, the answer is “not even close.” In total, I estimate that if all limits on drilling were removed, including the OCS and ANWR, we could only increase US oil production by a maximum of 2-3 mbpd. That new production would come online slowly, and the additional flow would be hardly noticeable as it compensated for the loss in conventional oil production due to sheer depletion. If it lowered prices at all, it would be by a few pennies per gallon, at best.

Now I have no doubt that Sen. Hutchison understands this, but within the parameters of politics, she must state her case as strongly as possible and try to overcome the resistance to offshore drilling.

Nor do I have any doubt that the hearts of anti-drilling environmentalists are in the right place. Why continue down the doomed path of oil dependency when renewables appear to be right around the corner? Why would the good people of Florida want to court the disaster of oil spills, or look at oil rigs in the distance of their beautiful beaches?

Both sides of the issue, unfortunately, are wrong-headed, and would lead to poor policy. If the public were successfully convinced that we could drill our way out of our energy dilemma, it would stifle development of a renewable-powered infrastructure that will survive in a future of declining oil. Conversely, large oil spills from offshore drilling are a thing of the past, and if we do not drill our remaining reserves with all possible haste we will undoubtedly find ourselves without sufficient oil at an acceptable price within just a few years.

The IEA’s warning in February should remain foremost in our minds: If oil demand recovers in 2010, global spare capacity would fall to zero by 2013. And as the world’s largest nation dependent on imported oil, we could be in for a very difficult time. The last thing we should do is pull the plug on the majority of our energy supply, which is oil, before we have new forms of energy to replace it. To do so would have terrible consequences on the economy, and hamstring our capability to continue evolving to a new energy regime.

Our only real path to energy independence is to pursue all options, within acceptable emissions limits, and gradually phase out fossil fuels as we ramp up renewables and the electric infrastructure to support them. But while renewables remain less than two percent of our energy mix, we should be careful not to expect too much of them. We will need oil and natural gas for decades to come, and in time we will need to develop our offshore resources or face the prospect of shortages.

Our perspective:

Oil is a finite fossil resource. As our demand for energy continues to increase, we must turn to alternative energy resources to support this growing demand.

There is no silver bullet.

We must look to implement multiple resources, weaning from fossil and reaching for the sun, wind, earth and water.

God placed them here, right in front of our eyes, yet we refuse to see.

Let us know your thoughts?

You may leave a comment or email george@hbsadvantage.com