No Energy Behind Empowering States

12 Oct

Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate last month entitled, “Empower States Act of 2012,” (S.3573) calling for the recognition of the states’ primacy in certain matters pertaining the management of hydraulic fracturing operations.

Introduced by Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D, and co-sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, the bill is intended to ensure a states-first approach to managing hydraulic fracturing operations and promote fair and effective regulation.

The bill was read and referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works. In light of a Democratic Senate, it has no chance of becoming law.

The preamble recognizes that states, such as North Dakota that regulates oil and gas production, have comprehensive laws and regulations ensuring safe operations and protecting drinking water. Furthermore, the EPA already gives states that maintain regulations protecting human health and the environment the right to control hydraulic fracturing. So, why this bill?

Proponents of the bill, including the American Petroleum Institute, contend that it merely restates the authority of the states to regulate this drilling activity and provides “certain, effective, and fair” rules for hydraulic fracturing.

Those who oppose it claim the bill is intended to fence the EPA out of the oil patch by erecting barriers such as the submittal of a “statement of energy and economic impact” before enacting new regulations and directing that judicial review be done “de novo” with preference to district courts within the state or the District of Columbia.

These are the classic arguments in the debate of federalism. On the one hand, those closer to an activity are best able to regulate it. Alternatively, activities affecting the greater public interest are best overseen at the federal level.

I’m ambivalent regarding this legislation.  Clearly, I support increased domestic energy production undertaken in a responsible manner. Yet, I believe that the nature of energy production, along with similar activities such as infrastructure development, is characterized by broadly dispersed public benefits and localized impacts.

States with a history of supporting extractive energy production have developed a solid track record of regulation. There is little outright reason to fear that they will neglect or abuse laws protecting our health, safety, and the environment. Yet, energy is also a national issue affecting our economy and security. The Balkanization of energy matters, including this legislation, is not in our best interest.

Unfortunately, a solution lies somewhere in the middle. Currently, our greatest national deficiency is that we have no guiding energy policy. Worse yet, we don’t have a bipartisan political environment to effect one. As a result, Congress spends time and resources drafting legislation having virtually no chance of passage and neither adding to our energy supplies, nor protecting our health and environment. We must do better.

Plentiful, Affordable, Reliable, but especially Reliable

29 Sep

Reliability is one of those things we don’t notice until it’s not there.

There was an interesting article published last week in The New York Times by James Glanz entitled, “The Cloud Factories: Power, Pollution and the Internet.” While the story line revolves around the vast amount of energy that modern data centers consume and the pollution associated with it, the story also highlights an issue most folks outside the industry do not  usually think about.

We turn on a light, switch on the stove burner, or jump on the internet and expect it to work. Service is there, 24/7, without fail — usually.

Our energy delivery systems, especially the electric grid, are designed and operated to be highly reliable. The electric grid is designed and operated to ensure system integrity. Ancillary services spread throughout the generation, transmission, and distribution systems keep it up and running nearly without fail. But, when it does fail, it’s a newsworthy event.

One of the tools used to provide this flawless delivery is reserve capability. The power grid is built with excess capacity over and above what the operators expect the maximum demand to be. (called “peak demand”) This backup capacity is used when a primary power source fails, or if demand exceeds the planners estimates of peak demand. It’s an effective “belt and suspenders” approach.

In the U.S., the electric transmission grid and wholesale sale of electricity in interstate commerce (sales that cross state borders) is regulated the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”). FERC, in turn, certified the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (“NERC”) to ensure the electric network’s reliability by developing and enforcing reliability standards and assessing the grid’s adequacy.

NERC divides the U.S power grid into 14 regions and makes reliability assessments three times each year. With the exception of Texas, every region has a positive reserve margin. That is, there is excess capacity in 13 of the 14 regions. Due to its operating and commercial structure, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, (“ERCOT”) faces some unique challenges. As a result, ERCOT has experienced rolling brownouts and blackouts over parts of Texas during recent peak summer and winter periods.

The point of all this, however, is that the data centers examined in the NY Times article are not as unique as the author seemingly implies. Maintaining a high degree of reliability demands that redundant systems that sit idle a good deal of time be in place. Whether its Google, your bank, a hospital, or the power grid, standby capacity is essential if the system is going to operate without a hitch.

As our legislators and regulators develop new energy policies and make choices about how best to generate, transmit, and deliver plentiful and affordable electricity, reliability issues will be front and center. Studies by both industry and academic institutions have shown that if intermittent renewables (particularly wind and solar) become a significant portion of our electricity generation, it will increase the need for backup generation (especially natural gas) to provide the reserve margin.

Of course, reserve capacity that sits idle most of the time is expensive. The trade off between spending more money on reserve capacity and risking reliability is a judgement call. How much is enough? Just as important is the question of how to create incentives for investors to build such expensive, seldom used, but essential facilities. Certainly, there may be room for efficiency offsets, but as the NY Times article points out, infrastructure is needed to support these operations.

Whether it’s using the cloud for computing or smart grid technology to deliver our electricity, large scale infrastructure remains a necessity.  Just as with reliability, most of us will never notice it except when it’s not there.

Why not a “Lewis and Clark Project” for Energy?

19 Sep

It amazes me to hear people talk about “drill here, drill now, pay less” or support an “all of the above” energy strategy, yet when asked, “drill where to find what?”, the response is oftentimes a blank stare or a generic, “on federal lands.”

Many people would be surprised to know that regarding our “frontier” regions, those outside of the traditional oil and gas production areas of the Gulf of Mexico, southern offshore California, and onshore continental US, we have precious little actual geological and seismic data to precisely estimate the extent of our resource base.

Although, the U.S. Geological Survey, a scientific bureau within the United States Department of Interior, does a remarkable job assessing domestic energy resources, much of its analysis and assessment is based upon scant, decades old data that possesses a high degree of uncertainty.

The complicated scheme of describing our estimated resource base combines statistical assessment, technological capability, and the economics of production only to baffle the public and confuse government officials tasked to divine an energy strategy.

If we are going to make sound decisions about our energy future, we sorely need credible, scientifically reliable data about the country’s resource base. The data gathering should not only include oil & gas, but also coal, uranium, water, wind, and geothermal resources.

That’s why Governor Romney’s proposal to conduct a comprehensive survey of America’s energy reserves makes so much sense. It should be promoted as a “Lewis and Clark Project” to gather much needed technical information about what lies beneath our onshore and offshore property.

In the closing days of the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte began maneuvering to restore France’s territories in North America. By late 1802, Spain transferred its territory west of the Mississippi along with the shipping rights through New Orleans back to France. American access to the port’s warehouses became a critical commercial issue for the United States.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Secretary of State, James Madison, to join U.S. Minister to France, Robert Livingston, in negotiations to purchase New Orleans along with all or part of Florida.  Their ultimate objective was to secure U.S. rights to access the Mississippi River and the port. They were authorized $10 million for the purchase.

As conditions changed and war with the British appeared likely, Napoleon reconsidered France’s place on the continent.  When Madison arrived in France in April, 1803,  the deal the French presented was for the sale of all of Louisiana – 827,000 squares miles, twice the area of the U.S.  Although taken aback, by April 30th, Madison and Livingston reached an agreement to purchase the Louisiana territory, including New Orleans, for $15 million — well in excess of the initial authorization.

The official announcement of the Louisiana purchase was made in Washington on July 4, 1803. The Senate ratified the treaty sale on October 20th and the U.S. took formal possession of the territory in December, 1803.

What is most fascinating, however, is the fact that in January, 1803, before he even knew how the French would react to Madison’s misson, Jefferson was preparing for the future. In a confidential letter to Congress, dated January 18, 1803, Jefferson requested an appropriation of funds for the exploration of the continent “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States” and to “incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent.” That letter secured $2,500 from Congress to cover the costs of the venture we now know as the, “Lewis & Clark Expedition.”

Modern parallels can be drawn between the Lewis & Clark Expedition and our current need to survey our energy resources today. As in the early 1800’s, we have a notional understanding of our frontier regions. We are in the early stages of assessing those resources, especially regarding federal offshore properties. Development and production in most of these regions is many years, if not decades, away. However, paraphrasing Mr. Jefferson’s letter to Congress, today we must “advance the geologic knowledge of our own continent.”

A “Lewis and Clark Project” managed by the USGS to evaluate our nation’s energy resources is long over due.  If we are going to address our energy situation and craft a rational energy policy, we need to have reliable information about our options. This includes credible data about our energy resource base: oil, gas, coal, uranium, geothermal, water, and wind. Putting off this important survey program will not only delay our ability to access these resources when we need them, but also drive up the cost because the risks associated with investments made on highly uncertain assessments is greater than those made on high quality assessments. Likewise, revenues to the government generated from bids on federal production leases would likely be higher if bidders had better knowledge about what the lease may contain.

The “Lewis and Clark Project” may also assist in determining where we should not proceed with energy development. For example, a National Marine Sanctuary System with 14 established sanctuaries exists today. Geologic and seismic data collection from “Lewis and Clark” could be coordinated in partnership with ongoing NOAA activities surveying met ocean and benthic environments to identify highly sensitive areas or support protective zones to avoid or mitigate impacts from possible future development activities. Understanding where and how to develop resources is as important as knowing what lies below the surface.

An initiative such as the “Lewis and Clark Project” should be something everyone can agree to support. This country faces tremendous challenges in deciding how to pursue energy development. A rational, well conceived energy policy is long over due. Adding to our knowledge in order to guide sound policy decisions should be a bipartisan priority.

Energize the Presidential Campaign

28 Aug

It’s late-August and we’ve entered two weeks of national party conventions with no hope of redemption from presidential politics during the next 70 days. Both sides are desperately trying to define the other through massive expenditures on attack ads, legions of surrogates, and talking heads spouting profundities regarding the other candidate’s treatment of a family pet or use of marijuana back in high school.

Too bad that, “we the people,” know so few details of either candidate’s proposals to lead us through the next four years. This is especially true regarding energy. Granted, this past week has seen both Messrs. Obama and Romney offer some time on the stump to energy, but neither has articulated a well-defined proposal for a national energy policy.

Energy affects every aspect of our lives. Plentiful, affordable, reliable energy supplies are fundamental for a healthy, growing economy, job creation, mobility, and national security. If combined with intelligent, cost-effective efficiency standards and innovative, long-term policies promoting private investment in new energy infrastructure and research, we could find ourselves on the path to real energy security.

The energy proposals of both campaigns, however, are discouraging. President Obama, not surprisingly, combines the issue under the banner of “Energy and Environment.” Governor Romney offers a more focused series of energy proposals under three broad categories: “Regulatory Reform,” “Increasing Production,” and “Research and Development.”

President Obama’s position is a series of grand, sweeping remarks about clean energy, clean jobs, and the, “All of the Above” energy strategy. More lines of text are devoted to environmental protection, including something called, “America’s Great Outdoors,” than to energy.  The positions are underscored with a pronouncement to, “make sure we never have to choose between protecting our environment and strengthening our economy.”

Governor Romney highlights his energy initiatives in 14 succinct bullets. They range from reducing regulatory delays, expanding resource production on federal property, to funding long-term energy research. It’s a fairly good smattering of short-term strategies until he succumbs to political temptation and includes the hackneyed slogan “energy independence” by 2020.

As a result, both candidates offer little more than poll tested, political positions reflecting the will of their respective base. Neither side has posited a serious, clear-eyed vision of an effective national energy policy. Sadly, a vote for either candidate is simply going to ensure the status quo.

The nature of our energy challenges dictate that the policy be bold, well reasoned, and long-term in perspective. In other words, no politically expedient, short-term gimmicks.

Energy is a complex topic. There are no quick and easy fixes. “Drill baby drill,” “all of the above,” or “energy independence” are politically charged chants that don’t begin scratch the surface of the energy enigma. Sadly too, the political arena is probably the worst place to attempt to craft effective, long-term solutions.

Energy is international in scope. All nations, to varying degree, are interdependent. Whether it’s in the form of liquid petroleum products, natural gas, coal, uranium, renewables, or electric power, energy is fundamental to every nation’s existence and capability to thrive. In one form or another, energy is bought, sold, or traded in open international markets every day.

Considering our country’s energy demand, its supplies, and all of the economic, physical, and self imposed restrictions associated with them, we can only aspire to energy “stability” or “security.” Absent the introduction of a disruptive technology, we cannot truly be “independent.”

Our energy policy must support the economic and security interests of the nation. It must be an unambiguous, broadly inclusive, high-level pronouncement to guide, not prescribe, how we meet our energy needs.

It must be based upon clear, scientific logic and the application of sound engineering principles. While many technologies may be possible, only those that are operationally and financially sustainable and can deliver the desired results will ultimately be accepted in the market. Intermittent renewables certainly have their place, but are in no way substitutes for our existing carbon and nuclear fueled technologies used to meet base load demand.

The massive scale of energy dictates long planning and utilization timeframes. Whether it is the liquid fuels providing our mobility, solid and gaseous energy supplies for heat and power generation, or the infrastructure to deliver them all, decisions made today will be with us well into the latter half of this century.

Finally, it must recognize that there is absolutely nothing in this world that is risk free. Choices and trade offs are inevitable. Rational, fact-based decisions of policy makers supported by the analysis of subject matter experts is required.

It’s likely too late in the silly season to expect that either presidential campaign would embrace this reality. Even more unlikely that the political hacks would allow them to publicly admit it. But, wouldn’t it be refreshing if they did? That would energize the electorate this year!

The case for a National Energy Policy

4 May

To remove any and all doubt of the urgent need for a rational energy policy, watch this clip.

iframe>

Enough said.

Searching for a silver bullet; never firing the gun.

29 Jan

Maybe I’m cynical, but while I was heartened to learn that President Obama highlighted domestic natural gas in his State of the Union address, his campaign to promote an “All of the Above” strategy with the tag line, “Built to last,” appears eerily reminiscent of the last thirty years of Presidential initiatives to address our energy situation.

Presidents and their staffers are very good at crafting an image or brand around their energy policy. Jimmy Carter had his cardigan sweater. George W. Bush lamented our, “addiction to oil.”  Mr. Obama, until last week, was the “green” President: green economy, green jobs, green investments…until they turned red. Now, he is for “all the above” under a “blueprint for an economy that’s built to last.” (I guess speaking in automotive slogans is an aftereffect of the GM bailout.)

Unfortunately, it’s clear that we still lack a rational energy policy, just as we have over the past three decades. To be fair, energy is not a simple issue. It has implications throughout our daily lives, business and the economy, the environment, and national security. Compounding this complexity, energy is by definition, remarkably political in nature. On one side sit the pro energy interests (“drill baby drill”), on the other, the green movement fervently convinced energy is causing worldwide destruction. The majority in middle simply want a stable job and a decent living along with gasoline prices that don’t necessitate a second mortgage.

So what’s a politician do when he has to maneuver between such a political Scylla and Charybdis?  First, deflect the issue by identifying an expedient target. Be certain to be seen standing up for your constituents and publicly denounce the bad guy (think CEO’s of energy companies).  Next look for a silver bullet, no matter how ineffective, to calm fears and give the impression that you’re solving the problem. Finally, coin a catchy slogan so people will remember you in the voting booth.

The public flogging of energy company CEO’s feels good, but that’s been done so often recently that it’s loosing populist appeal. Silver bullets rise and fall faster than GOP presidential contenders. Ethanol, first and second generation cellulosic biofuel, algae derived bio-diesel, electric battery vehicles. Each an interesting concept, but none even remotely capable of addressing our challenges.  Silver bullets are attractive, but notorious for misfiring.

All this leads me to wonder, ” Will be ever get to actually fire the gun?” Why aren’t we defining our energy strategy by means of a classical engineering or business decision model, just as we did to develop the existing pipelines and utilities, our electric transmission grid, and cellular phone and internet access?  That is, let  government lay out the problem, clearly define the rules, and identify the objectives.

Our national energy policy should be defined in three broad parameters. It must lead to plentiful, affordable, reliable energy. Do so in compliance  with all applicable regulations, codes, and standards to protect our health, safety, security, and environment. Continue to support basic research that will lead to new applications, but don’t allow government to play venture capitalist and attempt to pick winners and losers.

Let’s stop trying to identify the silver bullet. Unleash the power of industry and this country’s innate  entrepreneurial spirit to generate multiple options. Test them and let them compete and in the marketplace. The choice of options that best meets our objectives will soon be clear.

A national energy strategy that guides the development of a bandolier of bullets–oil, natural gas, clean coal, nuclear, renewables, efficiency, etc.–will support a gun capable of firing well placed rounds that actually hit the target.

Really, Mr. President?

25 Jan

Last night, I participated in an annual civic duty activity–watching the State of the Union address. It’s not that I’m a political junky or even remotely subscribe to more than a handful of the President’s political views. Neither did I tune into the talking heads segments after the speech to listen to erudite analysis of each measured phrase or opinions about which member of Congress or Judiciary clapped with the most enthusiasm.  However, as an American, I believe it’s important to spend an hour or so each year listening to what the country’s chief executive has to say, especially when the country faces so many daunting issues.

On the surface, it was a well-delivered address.  I expected nothing less from President Obama. If for no other reason, you have to admire his ability to deliver a prepared speech as well as Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, sans a bit of empathy. But as state of the union speeches go, other than it may well be Mr. Obama’s last, depending upon what happens this November, it wasn’t particularly memorable.

Ostensibly, it’s the sitting President’s opportunity to showcase leadership, providing an honest assessment of the nation’s state of affairs, and setting forth his vision and plans for the upcoming year. Budget to follow. Unfortunately, most are too long, short on specifics, and colored by the political agenda of the President’s party.

Of course, I was most keenly interested in what he had to say about energy. Not only is energy my vocation, it’s a common thread running through many of the challenges our country faces today. Energy is a fundamental aspect of any society.

We need it to cook, keep warm, and provide the security of light at night. It allows us to achieve incredible mobility.  It’s also the cornerstone of every developed society’s economy. Yet for all it’s importance, energy is ignored, taken for granted, treated with contempt, held in awe, sought out, used with impunity, politicized, and misunderstood more than any national issue.

After the speech, I couldn’t help but think that President Obama had once again added credence to Jon Stewart’s, “An Energy Independent Future” skit. If you aren’t familiar with the segment, watch it and you’ll agree. Sadly, it would be hysterically funny were it not so true.

President Obama spoke in grand terms about doubling down on domestic sources of energy, especially natural gas from shale. Opening more federal lands for drilling and embracing an, “All of the Above” approach to energy. Really, Mr. President?

What does ‘All of the Above” mean to you? You talked about encouraging responsible fracking to produce new gas supplies, but what about oil? In your 2008 campaign, you said you wanted to promote clean coal technologies, but nearly four years later, coal is a pariah within your administration. The same goes for nuclear energy which was seemly ignored well before Fukushima once again raised the level of nuclear anxiety. Finally, as we downsize the military, where is the money going to come from in the budget for constructing and paying the premium utility bills for those renewable energy sources on base?

Just one week after your administration rejected the Keystone oil pipeline, saying that you now embrace, “All of the Above,” stretches the limits of credulity. Politics once again reigns supreme over any prospects for a rational debate on a long-term energy strategy this year. My sincere hope is that Jon Stewart doesn’t need to add a ninth President to his skit next year.