2014 was an extraordinary year in energy, vividly illustrating both sides of the Chinese proverb about interesting times. Oil market volatility was the big story for much of the year, with the dominance of geopolitical risks finally yielding to surging supplies. Of the two energy revolutions underway, shale wields the bigger stick for now, while the growth of renewables gathers momentum. All of this has implications for 2015 and beyond.
The US remained the epicenter of the shale revolution this year, with development elsewhere still subject to uncertainties about economic production potential, infrastructure, and the rules of the road. A comparison of oil-equivalent additions to US energy supplies from oil, gas and non-hydro renewables for the first nine months of the year highlights both the significance of shale and the differences in relative scale that impede a rapid shift to renewables.
The collapse of oil prices has prompted many producers to reassess drilling plans, although it has been a boon for refiners and consumers. Refining margins look relatively healthy, at least based on the proxy of “crack spreads”, the difference between the wholesale prices of gasoline and diesel and the oil from which they are made. Some refiners also anticipate that low prices will spur demand growth, as described in a fascinating Wall St. Journal interview with Tom O’Malley, who has turned a succession of castoff refineries into profitable businesses.
We may already be seeing the demand response to lower prices. November US volumes were at a 7-year high, according to API. This is unlikely to be replicated quickly elsewhere, however, for the same reasons that global oil demand was slow to moderate when prices rose over the last several years: In many countries the influence of oil prices on consumer behavior is overwhelmed by fuel taxes or subsidies. With prices now falling, some developing countries are capitalizing on the opportunity to unwind billions of dollars in consumption subsidies, offsetting market drops. That could have important implications for future oil demand and greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile US consumers have watched retail gasoline prices fall by $1.39 per gallon since July and by over a dollar compared to a year ago. If sustained, the effective stimulus could exceed $100 billion annually, ignoring the effect of lower prices for jet fuel, diesel and other products. It’s not surprising that half of respondents in last month’s Wall St. Journal/NBC poll indicated this was important for their families.
While oil has been making headlines, shale gas without much fanfare added the equivalent of another half-million bbl/day to US production. That explains why despite enormous drawdowns of gas during last winter’s “Polar Vortex”, gas inventories began this winter much closer to normal levels than was widely expected in the spring. Gas has lost a little ground in electricity generation to coal in the last two years, but few reading the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan regulation would expect that trend to continue.
Shale gas remains controversial in some areas due to perceived environmental and community impacts. New York state is apparently making its temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) permanent, preferring to rely on shale gas supplies from neighboring Pennsylvania. Yet while shale drilling in North Dakota has led to an increase in gas flaring–burning off gas that can’t economically reach a market–the latest findings from the University of Texas and Environmental Defense Fund measured methane leakage from gas wells at an average of 0.43%. That shrinks gas’s emissions footprint and enhances its potential role in climate change mitigation.
Turning to renewables, wind energy now provides a little over 4% of US electricity. However, its growth has slowed due to uncertainty about continued federal subsidies. The wind production tax credit, or PTC, had previously been extended through 2013 in a way that allowed projects brought online later to benefit from the extension. It was just extended again through the end of 2014, along with a broad package of other expiring tax benefits. This late revival might be a gift to a few projects already under construction, but it seems unlikely to spur additional projects without further legislative action in the new Congress.
Solar power has also made great strides, with costs falling rapidly and US additions this year expected to reach 6,500 MW, likely outpacing wind additions. This is happening despite the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China over imported solar modules. Utilities are already experiencing solar’s impact on their traditional business model. Yet as important as wind and solar power are likely to be in the future energy mix, their impact, at least in the US, was still dwarfed by the growth of shale resources in 2014. Drilling is already slowing down, however, so renewables could take the lead in 2015 as shale is expected to post smaller gains.
Looking ahead, the global focus on greenhouse gas emissions will increase in the run-up to the Paris climate conference in December. It remains to be seen whether enough progress was made in the recently completed talks in Lima, Peru, to resolve the significant remaining obstacles to a new global climate agreement. And while oil supply gains trumped geopolitics in 2014, a list of risk hot-spots from the Council on Foreign Relations includes several scenarios with major implications for oil and/or natural gas prices. Meanwhile we can expect the new Congress to take up Keystone XL, oil exports, EPA regulations, and other energy-related issues. I’d bet on another lively year.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.