Friday, July 4, 2014

The Crazy Economics and Infrastructure of the Global Energy Industry

Fortune, describing how Kinder Morgan transports condensate from the Eagle Ford play:
The challenge is in getting this light oil, known as condensate, to market. The local refineries can’t use it all because many of the facilities in and around Houston are built to run heavier crude. So finding new outlets has created something of a reverse scavenger hunt. Kinder Morgan’s part of the solution illustrates the reach of its distribution system and the value added when all of the company’s far-flung parts work together. First, the company spent $220 million to convert a redundant El Paso gas pipeline to run oil back to terminals along the Houston Ship Channel, among other places. Eventually, much of the condensate will go to a low-end refinery, known as a splitter, that Kinder is building on BP’s behalf at a cost of $360 million. That will turn the oil to low-sulfur diesel and other products, with an eye toward export markets.
Much of the rest will head north — way north. First it will move to Kankakee, Ill., joining a propane line that Kinder Morgan ran out of Canada. That business is being abandoned because U.S. propane production has boomed. (We can now grill with American pride.) Kinder Morgan will spend $310 million to convert that line to run the Eagle Ford condensate north to Edmonton, Alberta. There, the oil will be used to thin out the viscous Canadian crude that is extracted from the Alberta sand mines. Some of that blended oil will move through Kinder Morgan’s Canadian pipeline to ports in British Columbia for export to Asia and West Coast markets. And if the Keystone XL pipeline is ever built, there’s a good chance that the condensate-Canadian blend will wind up back in Texas, where refineries are eager to get their hands on more of the Canadian crude. It’s a 5,200-mile roundtrip — i.e., one big toll road.
That is just crazy.  I really don't understand the economics of energy.  Also, I've questioned the lack of investment in pipelines to transport gas from the Bakken play, but it's obvious that Kinder Morgan is putting their money into infrastructure to deal with the shale boom:
In the ship channel alone, Kinder Morgan is spending $1.5 billion on terminals and related improvements. The crown jewel is a $500 million terminal for black oil and other residuals, built as a joint venture with TransMontaigne Partners TLP , an operator of oil and gas terminals that is controlled through Morgan Stanley MS 0.40% . But the expenditure goes beyond oil and gas and also includes bulked-up terminals for exporting coal and petcoke, the ├╝ber-polluting leavings from oil refining. Global demand for both, particularly coal, is up, a development that has been a bright spot for U.S. coal companies as utilities keep shifting to natural gas. Kinder Morgan isn’t investing just on land; its newest pipeline essentially moves on water. Late last year it spent $962 million to buy five tankers, each capable of carrying 330,000 barrels of oil.
The build-out is enormous, and not just for Kinder Morgan. The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America said in a report this year that U.S. companies need to build more than $600 billion of pipeline, storage, and related equipment during the next 20 years. Much of the construction radiates from the Marcellus, centered in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. There is the need to build more gas lines north and east into New England, where this winter’s brutal cold sent prices soaring on the spot market. But there are also more gas and gas liquids coming from the Marcellus than the local markets can use. The result is a dance between producers and the pipeline companies over the terms to ship the fuel back to the Gulf and the gas-hungry petrochemical industry.
 The article does mention how hard it is to plan where the pipelines should go, because the energy market is in such a state of flux.  Remember all the LNG import terminals which were being planned and constructed just a few years ago?  Kinder Morgan may end up fine, but there will be defaults in the energy sector when the boom goes bust.

Independence Day Weekend Reads

Links for a long weekend.  Have fun this Fourth of July.  Try not to blow off any appendages with fireworks.

 Sixty-nine Days - The New Yorker. The rescue of the Chilean miners.

WWII Hero Louis Zamperini Dies at 97 - Wall Street Journal

Jobs Charted by State and Salary - Flowing Data (h/t Kaye).  Mailmen are overpaid.

The Broken Thread of Culture - The Archdruid Report. Merle Haggard: "Are the good times really over for good?"  Money quote:
In point of fact, for the lower 80% of Americans by income, the zenith of prosperity was reached in the third quarter of the 20th century, and it’s all been downhill from there. This isn’t an accident; what the rhetoric of progress through science misses is that the advance of science may have been a necessary condition for the boomtimes of the industrial age, but it was never a sufficient condition in itself.

The other half of the equation was the resource base on which industrial civilization depended. Three centuries ago, as industrialism got under way, it could draw on vast amounts of cheap, concentrated energy in the form of fossil fuels, which had been stored up in the Earth’s crust over the previous half billion years or so. It could draw on equally huge stocks of raw materials of various kinds, and it could also make use of a biosphere whose capacity to absorb pollutants and other environmental insults hadn’t yet been overloaded to the breaking point by human activity. None of those conditions still obtain, and the popular insistence that the economic abundance of the recent past must inevitably be maintained in the absence of the material conditions that made it possible—well, let’s just say that makes a tolerably good example of faith-based thinking.
An American Fourth of July, made in China - Wonkblog

Joey Chestnut is America's greatest, most American athlete - SB Nation.  One of my Fourth of July traditions, along with listening to the Declaration of Independence being read on Morning Edition, and drinking beer and grilling out, is watching the Godawful hot dog-eating contest.  It is the quintessential American event.  Gluttony and crass commercialism merged with hype and the sense of significance.  It is worth an hour of your life to watch the carnival barker/announcer introduce a bunch of competitive eater/freaks who will "compete" to eat the most processed pork snouts and rectums. You may be dumber for having watched it, but you will better understand the United States. God bless America.

The 25 cities nobody wants to live in - Vox.  Actually, the cities with the fastest shrinking populations. Youngstown is the only city in Ohio to make the list.  Beats the six in Michigan.  The real question is, what about the metro areas?

Cotton Boom Goes Bust as Rain-Soaked Texas Crop Sets Glut - Bloomberg.  "In the cotton belt of West Texas, the biggest U.S. growing region, rainfall over 60 days through June 23 was as much as 8 inches (20 centimeters), double the amount from a year earlier and the most during the planting season since 2007, according to World Weather Inc. Texas has been mired in drought for much of the past four years, which helped cut the state’s cotton output in 2013 by 17 percent."

"Counter-Revolution of 1776": Was U.S. Independence War a Conservative Revolt in Favor of Slavery? - Democracy Now.  Historian tries to rain on your Fourth of July.

Inside Monsanto, America's Third-Most-Hated Company - Businessweek.  What was the cosmetic company tagline? "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful?"

On N.C.’s Outer Banks, scary climate-change predictions prompt a change of forecast - Washington Post.  When science is against you, legislate it away.  Bought and paid for by Art Pope.  But see The ocean is swallowing up Virginia so rapidly that its leaders are forgetting to bicker about climate change - Quartz

How the South is becoming a solid band of poverty: One in three live in poor neighborhoods - Daily Mail. The Republican playbook is to make the rest of the nation like the south.

Texas Set To Overtake Iraq In Oil Production - Oil Price.  I propose an invasion of that shithole.

Lone Star Crazy: How Right-Wing Extremists Took Over Texas - Rolling Stone.  More like how even crazier loons did it.
Canada's Big, Ugly Environmental Problem - Pacific Standard.  Prime Minister Harper is a bigger oil tool bag than Rick Perry, and that's saying something.

Map Shows When Summer Heat Peaks In Your Town - Scientific American.  Map below.  Shows Western Ohio peaking in the first two weeks of July.  Almost covered.  I would've guessed the Dog Days.

Happy Independence Day

For Pete:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Isle de Jean Charles

Hoosiers Still Can't Figure Out Clocks

Pacific Standard:
So what makes certain parts of Indiana likely to dissent? The state’s refusal to adopt a single time zone is easier to explain: Much of the state wants to be on Eastern Time, the time zone of Wall Street and of nearby Louisville and Cincinnati, but its western corners are metropolitan areas that draw on neighbors (Chicago and the Evansville tri-state area) who observe Central Time, so it splits the difference.
DST, though, is more complicated. The way that DST messes with time is to take the summer months and dislocate their noons from the sun: The “springing forward” pulls noon an hour (or more, depending on your location) before the sun’s highest point, whereas the “falling back” restores the natural match. This can mean that, come June, if you’re far West in a time zone, the sun won’t reach its highest point until, say, 2:00 p.m. If you’re a farmer, that distortion robs you of good working time. And one of the farming regions that’s farthest west in a U.S. time zone, and so most likely to lose the most agricultural working time to DST, is the Eastern Time part of Indiana.
For Indiana farmers like Laverne Stoll, who plants beans and makes hay in Loogootee while also working part-time at Graber Post Supply in nearby Montgomery, a 2 p.m. solar noon can throw off the whole system. “It can be a certain time on the old Standard Time, and we think we should be putting up hay,” Stoll says, “but the dew’s still on the ground, and it just throws us back and throws off the whole schedule of things.” And it was because of objections like Stoll’s that, through 2005, much of Indiana declined to participate in DST.
That whole argument that farmers get screwed by daylight savings time makes farmers sound really dumb.  I mean, without daylight savings time, sunrise would be at about 5:20 am, instead of 6:20, while sunset would be at 8:15 pm instead of 9:15.  There is no loss of working time.  My old neighbor Woodie used to frequently bitch about daylight savings time screwing farmers (he also claimed that Allis-Chalmers gas tractors were more fuel efficient than John Deere diesels).  I never pointed out that it didn't make any difference.  Does it matter if I get into the house at 9:00 or 10:00, or if the alarm goes off at 4 or at 5?  No, so please pipe down, or tell the reporter that daylight savings time makes it really hard to go snipe hunting or cow tipping.  Don't make farmers sound ignorant of basic arithmetic.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Changing Landscape

The Texas Panhandle, from the Landsat program:

These images show a portion of the Texas Panhandle where it meets the western border of Oklahoma. The area is part of the "Granite Wash" region, which contains over 3,600 wells that mine oil and natural gas from as deep as 17,000 feet (5,182 meters) underground.
When comparing Landsat imagery from 1986 (left) and 2014 (right), many changes can be seen on the landscape. The large number of white spots in the second image indicates an overall increase in the number of oil wells. The reduced overall greenness (vegetation) in the second image was caused by several recent years of drought. Other visible changes include additional center-pivot irrigation systems (dark circles). There are also several new burn scars from wildfires that occurred in March 2014.
It looks like those wildfire scars are running in opposite directions.  That seems odd.

Scientists Contemplate Forests Without Ash Trees

Location of emerald ash borer invasion

Back in 2002, when the borers were first discovered in North America — in Windsor, Ontario — experts thought it might be possible to eradicate them. But after about six months, researchers realized that the insects had been here for years, probably decades, and had already started spreading across the upper Midwest.
Despite a few moments of optimism since, hope has faded quickly.
“Ninety-nine percent of the ashes in North America are probably going to die,” said Andrew M. Liebhold, a research entomologist with the United States Forest Service.
Nobody was really studying the ecology of ash forests until the borers began destroying them. But now scientists are beginning to see what that change might look like.
A 2009 study in the journal Biological Invasions listed 43 native insect species that rely on ash trees for food or breeding. Those insects are the food supply for birds, including woodpeckers.
“You end up with a different ecosystem that different species prefer and where the old ones can’t do as well,” said Kathleen Knight, a research ecologist with the Forest Service.
Ash trees around here are getting wiped out.  We've got a couple dozen dead trees along the creeks, in fence rows and in my yard.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

North Dakota To Tighten Flaring Regs

Wall Street Journal:
For cattle rancher Vawnita Best, the struggle by North Dakota regulators to keep up with the oil boom strikes close to home: She can see the natural-gas flares of an oil well from her front porch.
"It's been flaring for nearly a year," she said amid the rolling hills of her Elkhorn Creek Ranch. "It's absolutely ridiculous to be so wasteful," she said. "They're flaring gas and using diesel to fuel the pumps—it's like something Homer Simpson would do."
The well is one of thousands dotting the landscape and producing gas as a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for oil in the Bakken Shale. Because North Dakota lacks adequate infrastructure, drillers are forced to burn off whatever they can't capture and ship to market. In April alone, such wells burned 10.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the state, valued at nearly $50 million.
As flaring wells spread like a prairie fire, North Dakota's regulations have struggled to keep pace. Beyond being an eyesore, burning off natural gas degrades air quality. Critics also say producers aren't paying all the royalties and taxes owed on the gas that is flared. Energy companies lose out on gas revenue, too, but that is offset by what they generate from Bakken crude oil.
"It's a failure of regulation. There was an opportunity to do this the right way, but you can't unring the bell," said Matt J. Kelly, a lawyer at a Bozeman, Mont., law firm representing Bakken mineral-rights owners claiming unpaid royalties for flared gas.
Stung by criticism that it has allowed oil producers to flare wells indefinitely, the North Dakota Industrial Commission on June 1 adopted rules requiring that gas-capture plans be submitted for companies to get a new drilling permits. The rules require producers to identify gas-processing plants and proposed connection points for gas lines but don't affect permits that already had been issued.
The commission, which promotes as well as regulates the drilling industry, on Tuesday is expected to announce measures to limit flaring of existing wells. The federal government also is considering new limits on flaring.
With natural gas prices depressed due to gas production in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, and with oil prices over $100, the economics push for pumping oil as fast as you can and not waiting for, or investing in gas infrastructure.  So the companies aren't investing in the required infrastructure to collect the gas, and they aren't paying royalties on the flared gas, even though they are supposed to.  Now I have a few inherent biases toward the shale plays, and there are explanations for each action thatplay right into those.  For one, is it worth investing in the gas infrastructure if the well field is going to peak relatively quickly?  Why not flare off the low-priced gas and pump as much high-priced oil as you can?  It is apparent that the state of North Dakota is mainly interested in as much oil production with as little environmental protection as possible. Might as well flaunt the rules as long as they do nothing.  As for the royalties, there are two very plausible explanations for that. 1. Oil companies will screw over landowners every chance they get. 2. The companies are pumping as much as they can to keep rolling their debt and getting the cash to drill more, so they don't have the free cash flow to pay the gas royalties.  Considering the price of oil, number 1 seems more likely, but this story might point toward number 2.  Whichever it is, we'll be finding out in the near future whether the shale oil is as good as its proponents claim, or whether it was a temporary blip on the long slow decline of the oil era.

Happy Birthday, Canada

Enjoy your poutine and your Molson.  Sorry about the butterscotch topping at Dairy Queen (I preferred it).

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Man Who Turned Paper Into Pixels

The Man Who Turned Paper Into Pixels from Delve on Vimeo.

Land Prices Still Outrageous in Northwest Iowa

A farm sale in northwest Iowa is again making headlines as 80 acres of truly prime cropland passed under the gavel for $20,400 an acre June 9. At a time when farmland sales are soft and prospects for gains in farmland values seem slim due to lower commodity prices, the ability for a block of land to top $20,000 an acre is certainly headline making.
The tract of land involved consisted of 80 acres two miles east of Boyden in Sioux County. It offered 78.3 tillable acres and excellent soils. It carried a Corn Suitability Rating (CSR) of 76.2 (maximum 100), which is quite extraordinary in northwest Iowa. The county CSR average is 64.8, so the soils are some 18% better than average. Iowa is switching to a new CSR rating system called CSR2, which updates the CSR rating system developed in the early 1970s. That system, too, maxes out at 100. This farm's soils offered a CSR2 of 99.5!
The Boyden area of Sioux County has been a hotbed of high farmland prices due to deeply entrenched, multi-generational, well-financed livestock and grain farm family operations in that area.
$20,400 an acre to grow under $4 corn?  That better be some amazing soil.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

NASA Photo of the Day

June 22:

Persistent Saturnian Auroras
Image Credit: J. Clarke (Boston U.) & Z. Levay (STScI), ESA, NASA
Explanation: Are Saturn's auroras like Earth's? To help answer this question, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini spacecraft monitored Saturn's South Pole simultaneously as Cassini closed in on the gas giant in January 2004. Hubble snapped images in ultraviolet light, while Cassini recorded radio emissions and monitored the solar wind. Like on Earth, Saturn's auroras make total or partial rings around magnetic poles. Unlike on Earth, however, Saturn's auroras persist for days, as opposed to only minutes on Earth. Although surely created by charged particles entering the atmosphere, Saturn's auroras also appear to be more closely modulated by the solar wind than either Earth's or Jupiter's auroras. The above sequence shows three Hubble images of Saturn each taken two days apart.

Giant Kansas Tax Cut Slows Economic Growth


Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal last month to tout the success of his economic program, particularly several rounds of income tax cuts amounting to the largest in the state's history. "We supported small business by taking away all income taxes on small businesses," Brownback wrote, "allowing them to reinvest in their businesses, creating jobs and growth. ... By giving these companies more money to reinvest in their businesses, we are enabling them to hire more people and invest in needed equipment."
The only problem? That job growth hasn't exactly materialized. In fact, as Josh Barro notes in a must-read over at The Upshot today, job growth in Kansas has actually lagged behind the U.S. average, especially in the years following the first round of Brownback tax cuts in 2012.
Earlier this year, my colleague Niraj Chokshi reported on a Center and Budget Policy Priorities study of Kansas' cuts. In an unusually frank assessment from the nonpartisan think tank, the study's authors concluded that "Kansas is a cautionary tale, not a model. As other states recover from the recent recession and turn toward the future, Kansas’ huge tax cuts have left that state’s schools and other public services stuck in the recession, and declining further — a serious threat to the state’s long-term economic vitality. Meanwhile, promises of immediate economic improvement have utterly failed to materialize."
 It's not just the CBPP that has criticized the Kansas tax cuts. Even the Tax Foundation has criticized the exemption for "pass-through" entities which was copied by John Kasich in Ohio. But this is just the obvious result of Republican policy that coddles folks who have way more than they need, and puts giving away government revenues above funding essential services. To make things worse, the tax cuts were offset by increased sales taxes, which hit regular folks much harder than the well off. Whocouldanode this wouldn't work out well. 

Farmers Worry About Proposed EPA Water Rule. Again.

Des Moines Register:
Now, a rule being proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency outlining which bodies of water the agency would oversee under the Clean Water Act has again rattled the agriculture industry. The EPA says it is necessary after recent court rulings to clarify the 1972 law. Many farmers fear it amounts to nothing more than a land grab that could saddle them with higher costs, more regulatory red tape and less freedom to run their farms and ranches.
"This, in my career of farming, is the most scary and frightening proposition that I have witnessed," said Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation who farms 1,750 acres of corn and soybeans with his son in Milo. "Even though they say this doesn't affect farmers, but you read this rule and you are not convinced at all. That's why it's so dangerous. And that's why we have such a lack of trust."
The proposed water regulation, better known as the "Waters of the U.S." rule, is the latest measure that's symbolic of the growing fissure dividing the EPA and agriculture producers....
Despite assurances from the EPA, farm groups contend the Waters of the U.S. rule would expand the scope of so-called "navigable waters" protected by the Clean Water Act to include not only rivers and lakes but ditches, stream beds and self-made ponds that only carry water when it rains.
Hill and other farmers fear they would have to pay for costly environmental assessments and apply for permits allowing them to till soil, apply fertilizer or engage in some conservation practices because of the impact they might have on waterways that would be newly regulated by the EPA.
Hill said that under the proposed water rule if he wanted to build a pond or terrace for soil retention, he would have to apply for a permit, a process that can take two years and cost tens of thousands of dollars — a prohibitive price tag that would likely force farmers and ranchers to abandon such projects.
In remarks before farm trade groups and agricultural reporters, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has repeatedly said the proposed rule does not increase regulation and would not add to or expand the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act. She also said it is "not a land grab" and added that current exemptions in place for the Clean Water Act that do not require permits for "normal farming, ranching and agricultural practices" such as plowing, planting seed or minor drainage would be kept in place.
Based on my personal experience with the "Waters of the U.S." rule, this is a very confusing issue.  It isn't just the EPA (especially with the Section 401 permit) that makes it confusing, but also the Army Corps of Engineers with their Section 404 permitting process.  However, I think farmers are delusional in their fears of EPA.  EPA is right that court decisions have clouded the definition of "Waters of the U.S.," which, when I was working on 404 and 401 permits, pretty much matched the description which farmers fear.  However, reworking waterways for conservation purposes, along with many agricultural activities were exempt.  Never were farmers required to apply for permits to conduct tillage or fertilizer application activities, and they won't be required to in the foreseeable future, in spite of obvious water quality issues caused by fertilizer and manure runoff. 

Natural Foods Fad Gives Butter a Bump


Americans this year are expected to eat an average of 5.6 pounds of butter, according to U.S. government data—nearly 22.5 sticks for every man, woman and child. That translates to 892,000 total tons of butter consumed nationwide, an amount not seen since World War II.
Americans in 2013 for the third straight year bought more butter than margarine, spending $2 billion on products from Land O'Lakes Inc., Organic Valley and others, compared with $1.8 billion on spreads and margarines, according to IRI, a market-research firm.
The revival flows in part from new legions of home gourmets inspired by celebrity chefs and cooking shows with butter-rich recipes. Butter makers have encouraged the trend, using food channels and websites to promote what they say is their products' natural simplicity.
Butter's shifting fortunes also reflect the vicissitudes of thinking on healthy eating that rattle the national diet. Families for decades opted for vegetable spreads because of concerns about butter's high concentration of saturated fat, only to be told more recently that the trans fats traditionally contained in margarine are just as unhealthy. Many Americans also have altered their thinking on how important reducing all fat is for controlling weight.
 Personally, I'm not seeing the same trend that is being reported in the article.  Until about 1995, combined use of butter and margarine ran between 15-20 pounds a year, but after that, margarine use has dropped precipitously, and butter has increased some, so that now combined use is 9.1 pounds.  Sounds to me like folks have found a substitute for both.  Olive oil, maybe? In the quaint downtown of our county seat we now have an olive oil store.  Really.  I like seeing butter use increase, but I'm not seeing the dramatic rise the article is telling me about.  However, I do want to highlight a little history:
Humans have been eating butter for millennia, valuing its ability to store longer than most meat and its utility as a flavoring. In the early 1900s, U.S. butter consumption averaged more than 18 pounds a person per year.
A French chemist invented margarine in 1869 in response to Napoleon III's call for a butter alternative. Initially it used fat from slaughtered animals that was cheaper than milk used for butter. Modern varieties using plant oils arose in the first half of the 20th century, when brands like Blue Bonnet and Parkay flourished. It gained more popularity around World War II, when butter was rationed.
It would be interesting to lay corn prices across the chart of margarine use.  Sure, the decline recently isn't due to higher corn prices, but I'm sure much of the rise in margarine use was due to cheap corn.

Hard Winter Leads To Increased Water Levels in Great Lakes

NY Times:
But after reaching historic lows in 2013, water levels in the Great Lakes are now abruptly on the rise, a development that has startled scientists and thrilled just about everybody with a stake in the waterfront, including owners of beach houses, retailers in tourist areas and dockmasters who run marinas on the lakeshore.
Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior are at least a foot higher than they were a year ago, and are expected to rise three more inches over the next month. Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are seven to nine inches higher than a year ago....
Scientists say the reversal of fortunes for the lakes is partly a result of the most bone-chilling winter in memory for many Midwesterners. The thick and long-lasting ice cover on the lakes kept the water colder and slowed evaporation. Heavy snowfall and a rainy spring allowed the lakes to make even more gains.
“We’ve had a rebound that we haven’t seen in many, many years,” said Gene Clark, a coastal engineer with the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute in Superior, Wis. “We’ve been historically below average, and now we are finally back to above-average water levels. At this time last year, I was talking to Wisconsin state legislators about what was happening, why the levels were so low and what could the State of Wisconsin do about it. It was very much a crisis.”
The International Joint Commission, a group with members from the United States and Canada that advises on water resources, completed a five-year study in April 2013 concluding that water levels in the lakes were likely to drop even farther, in part because of the lack of precipitation in recent years brought on by climate change. The low lake levels in the last decade or more caused a host of frustrating and expensive problems: shoreline erosion, parched wetlands and disruptions to marinas along the Great Lakes.
Well, that is good news, although I can already hear my high school classmate, the Libertarian Letter Carrier, pointing to this to say that scientists are wrong about climate change. Not sure how things have been in the Great Lakes watershed, but we've had tons of rain so far this year.  If they've had anything comparable to our weather, the lakes will continue to rise.