Thursday, December 16, 2010

Resources, Reserves - the EIA - coal gas and oil for the future.

One of the significant issues that can get folk argumentative, is the role that price plays in determining whether a fuel source still buried in the ground is called a resource or a reserve. For example I have exchanged opinions several times with David Rutledge on his view of the declining reserve base for coal. Most recently he has written in The Oil Drum pointing to the latest paper he has written on the topic, which is available at his website. Part of my rebuttal comment inferred that as the price of the product increased (likely through the lack of other reserves to be able to sustain the energy supply need of countries around the world) so coal will be recognized more and more as a reserve, which will be used, rather than a resource that will not.

The argument is also made that as price goes up the viability of resources that would cost too much to produce would change a significant volume of those resources back into reserves. That holds true for crude oil, in just the same way as for coal, except that with so much of the world’s cheap crude having already been produced, the availability of the resource volume that will convert over as price rises is not necessarily that great. I bring this up because in this week’s TWIP, from the EIA, they address this problem in regard to how much increasing the price of crude in 2009 increased the amount of crude (including condensate). Their answer was 9% for crude and 11% for natural gas.
(And as 1 of 2 UPDATES to the story, Russia has stated - whether because of exploration or increased value is not clear - but that it fully replaced its oil and gas reserves this year (h/t Leanan).)

Gain in Oil reserves (EIA)

Gain in Natural gas reserves (EIA)

The gas gain, as the EIA note, occurred at a time where gas prices were suffering from the additional volumes made available from the shale deposits of the country.

Domestic production of crude has stabilized at around 5.6 mbd, while imports are running at around 8.5 mbd, and refinery input within the US continues to rise. Gasoline production continues to mirror, roughly, last year at this time, while demand is running around 300,000 bd more than last year. This time last year distillate production was reducing, this year it continues to increase, although demand, which dropped precipitately for the last month, is now stabilizing at about last year’s level. And ethanol production continues to creep upward.

Biodiesel production is a little harder number to come by, there is a plot through 2008:

Biodiesel production (National Biodiesel Board)

There are reported to be `173 companies engaged in producing biodiesel (from a number of sources and in a number of ways). If all of them ran at full production it would generate an average of around 175,000 bd, which is not yet much of a significant figure. Additional companies planning to get into production might raise production by 15% but this remains still only a small fraction of what is going to be needed.

UPDATE: I have been pointed to the note earlier this year that the EPA had slashed the cellulosic ethanol mandate for next year:
Cellulosic biofuel was 250 million gallons, now 6.5-25.5 million gallons
Biomass-based diesel was 800 million gallons, and stays there
Advanced biofuel was 1.35 billion gallons, and stays there. . . . . .

“We first considered whether it appears likely that the required biomass-based diesel volume of 0.8 billion gallons can be met with existing biodiesel production capacity in 2011…we believe that the 0.8 billion gallon standard can indeed be met…Of the remaining 0.15 bill gallons, up to 0.026 bill gallons would be met with the proposed volume of cellulosic biofuel. Based on our analysis as described in Section II.C, there may be sufficient volumes of other advanced biofuels, such as imported sugarcane ethanol, additional biodiesel, or renewable diesel, such that the standard for advanced biofuel could remain at the statutory level of 1.35 billion gallons.”
(end of update)

Which brings me back to my original point which is that a change in the perceived selling price of the product (I say that because of the gas situation) has led to significant investment that has raised the reserves of a commodity that is recognized to be getting into short supply.

However, to put this in perspective, the gain in oil reserves was 3.69 billion barrels. The United States uses around (rough number) 20 mbd of oil, or 7.3 billion barrels a year. The gain in reserves will thus provide the equivalent of a 6 months supply, and while production will be spread over a number of years, it really doesn’t change the arithmetic that much. What is forgotten in the discussion, however, is that the equivalent change in reserve size is also occurring in other parts of the world. And while many of these places are, like the United States, in an era where their fields are now depleting, the increased value of the product is likely to slow that decline somewhat.

Coal, which is also where the discussion started, is in an even more robust situation. Coal price is still driven by the cheapest producer to the world market. It is not practical to consider opening a new mine in, for example, Montana, if the power companies around the country are already being adequately served by local deposits and by trains from the Powder River Basin. No-one will put up the investment capital to open new mines without a market, and with the current transient switch to natural gas, that incentive does not exist in the United States.

However the rest of the world is somewhat different. Bear in mind that the prices that oil and gas will reach, in the non-too-distant future, will be significantly above what many nations can pay. If they have indigenous sources of energy – vide coal – and enough of it then they will start building coal-fired power stations. They don’t have to play games with taxing one form of energy to encourage another, they need the cheapest possible source of power. And at the moment we know what that is!

And just to emphasise that, here is the most recent projection for future demand from the EIA.

I will forgo a comment on the assumption at the top of the plot.