Will Natural Gas become a Geo-Political Tool or a Modern Weapon?

When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, he had over 100,000 army troops mobilized to the region. It was a formidable maneuver that launched a 10+ year conflict with questionable outcomes. Today, President Obama is on the verge of another conflict in the Ukraine that involves Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Unlike Bush, however, Obama and Congress are eyeing natural gas exports as their weapon of choice to rein in Vladimir Putin from reclaiming territories along the perimeter of Russia. A geo-political tool to enable a global energy transformation or a modern weapon to settle disputes, natural gas has truly evolved.

Cleaner to burn but messy to legislate, natural gas from shale holds great promise for the US and the world. This relatively clean energy source has miraculously become the ideal bridge-fuel that society desperately needs to wean itself off its addiction to dirty coal and oil. Already there are positive signs that society is moving in the right direction. For example, utility companies no longer build new coal-fired power plants to produce electricity. Also, transcontinental transportation fleets are converting their trucks to natural gas. These and many more initiatives to replace conventional fuels have helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US to levels not seen since 1995.

The rapid expansion of wells drilled since 2006 has given engineers plenty of valuable field data to improve upon yields and safety standards. From these field trials, amazing, breakthrough technologies have emerged. However, none of these achievements could have happened without the perfect storm scenario that came together in the last few years; …where favorable property rights laws in the US made it easier to select drilling sights, …where the availability of exceptional talent in the oil industry globally was ready and able and …where the consistently high market prices for oil (above $100) was sufficient to ‘fuel’ the funding needed to keep the engines of this perfect storm humming along.

Now into its eighth year, the US natural gas bonanza is no longer a nascent business for wild cat investors. Its unprecedented success has placed it front and center on the global stage. Presently at the helm, is the US who practically overnight, has gone from being a net importer that was often subjected to the whims of OPEC, to a net exporter. For a long time, Americans have always been taught to loathe their dependence on oil-rich countries. They often accused these oligarchs of using US oil payments to wage war against the same US freedom-fighting armies that protect their regions. With this recent change of the guards, however, Americans and their leaders are finding themselves in uncharted territory. The improved situation favors the US significantly but also leaves its leaders facing a tough dilemma.

To Prohibit or To Allow Exports – a tough dilemma
While the US can boast having the cheapest natural gas on the planet and the best technology to extract it, elected leaders in Congress must deal with two opposing issues: either to prohibit the export of US natural gas so US manufacturers can create more American jobs or to allow exports to threatened US allies whose economies are constantly challenged by volatile energy prices. Already, the US’s offer to export natural gas to the Ukraine in response to Putin’s invasion of Crimea has prompted a strong reaction between both sides. Seen in this manner, one might contemplate the following question:

Could natural gas become the US enabler for global sustainable economic growth and world peace? …and if so, should it be implemented as a tool or a weapon?

There are three key benefits the US could gain from exporting its natural gas. First, the US could stabilize energy prices globally for a long time. Stable energy prices would help remove a fundamental uncertainty that concerns investors. Keeping investors happy is important since they are instrumental in relieving government coffers of additional financial burdens. A second benefit focuses on building global awareness on climate change. Just as the US has done to limit the use of their coal-fired power plants, other countries could be further encouraged to adopt similar environmentally friendly laws and best practices. Finally, for countries seeking a free trade agreement with the US, natural gas exports could earn valuable trade concessions that could lead to integrated capacity-building among government institutions, a critical component toward establishing sustainable democracies worldwide.

These lofty expectations may be too high for even the US, considering that every new encounter will introduce more complexities and unknowns. If left unchecked, however, this dominating role could awaken the Bush-era American arrogance that caused much damage among US allies in the last decade. We can only hope that US elected officials will recognize this once in a millennium opportunity and use natural gas as a tool rather than a weapon to steer the world toward a sustainable energy transformation strategy that follows a common set of internationally vetted guidelines and best practices.

To its credit, the US is quite adept at writing policies based on extensive research that can serve as effective connectors between funding sources and companies. Leaders would do well to study the success of these domestic policies and use their findings as a guide for dealing with international conflicts. One good example, I came across, is an institution called NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
At a recent MIT Energy Conference in February panelists from NREL described what they do for the solar and wind energy. For these two industries, NREL devises standardized contracts (i.e. between developers and investors), catalogs best practices, creates a massive dataset for investors called SPA  and even generates a mocked up filing for rating agencies. Their work is available to anyone over the web.  No one is forced to adopt their recommendations but since they work so closely with industry, most do. US government policymakers use their data to design tax subsidy programs and special financial mechanisms (i.e. MLPs – Master Limited Partnerships and REITs – Real Estate Investment Trusts) to attract private sector investors. Since the process is allowed to work under free market conditions, successful outcomes are only a matter of time. Players who are allowed to adapt together naturally align their better interests on their own terms.

One of NREL’s key objectives is to help these two young industries adopt to a structured and comprehensive outline that can fit easily into the most current legal, financial, and policymaking world that currently govern US multinationals. The process allows for give and take from all sides, which leaves some wiggle room for new ideas and progress. This overlay is the ledge where young creative and nimble companies can push the envelope for new ideas and pathways. At the conference, we got a glimpse of what awaits NRELs future considerations.

There is Energi, a risk management company based in Massachusetts that sells insurance on the expected realized energy savings for a renewable project. In Energi’s world, if a project fails to meet an agreed benchmark of savings after an allotted time, investors are made whole according to their insurance policy. Essentially Energi found a way to treat money saved as money earned. Other companies that profit from realized savings include Opower, which gets paid by a home resident’s utility company for kilowatts of energy saved and First Fuel, which uses big data and data analytics to help office building developers lower their energy bills. On the pure concept play there is TeraCool, a young startup currently soliciting investors to build a first-of-its-kind data center at a Singapore LNG port. The data center would be air cooled from the flow of unloaded liquid natural gas. The company does not generate any revenue for its clients but instead seeks to be paid from the estimated annual energy savings it claims to generate to the tune of $70 million dollars.

As seen with the example from NREL, the US is quite capable of managing multi-sector projects to achieve game-changing results.  However, it remains to be seen if US leaders will be equally successful managing multi-country agendas with the same level of confidence. Obama and Congress will soon find out that natural gas may be the catalyst of choice, but it is still highly flammable.

© 2014 Tom Kadala

Aviation Biofuels, Leading the Way to a New Global Economy

If you are wondering what our future holds with an economy subjected to political gridlock, an overview of an emerging industry called aviation biofuels could offer some interesting insights. 

Airlines today operate on razor thin profit margins with an industry average of less than one half of one percent, largely due to soaring fuel prices that gobble up about 30% of ticket revenues. Many factors are to blame and ultimately the traveling consumer is unwilling or unable to pay the higher ticket prices airlines need to offset their mounting losses. Merger mania among top airlines has played itself out leaving fewer options on the table.  Aside from shaving off more capacity than they have already, airlines are looking elsewhere to stay in business. One area that remains unexplored is the diversification from a one fuel source model to multiple fuel sources, which would include biofuels.

At a recent Aviation Biofuels Development Conference in Washington DC organized by FC Business Intelligence based out of London, thought-leaders, investors, government officials, and private sector industry leaders spent two days evaluating the growing prospects of aviation biofuels. So nascent is this industry that not even the US Government had a handle on its realistic potential and implications. However much they differed in their respective opinions, conference participants did agree on the pressing need to stabilized jet fuel prices through the production of alternative jet fuels. Their target production for 2015 was 600 million gallons per year, which amounts to a mere fraction of the 36 billion gallons per year mandated by Congress for ground transportation fuel blending. What impressed me most between the many animated discussions was the underlying dynamics among so many capable players that for whatever their reasons had been thrust together into the uncharted territory of aviation biofuels.

By the second day, the conference reminded me of the knocking sounds of an engine running with the wrong type of fuel. Was it the engine design or the fuel mismatch that was at fault? …and then it occurred to me. It was neither.  The aviation business model, which in my example would represent the engine, was being forced to change its fuel sourcing strategy from a single fuel pathway (from ground to gas pump) to multiple fuel pathways. Both the engine in my example and the fuel type were up for a complete redesign and eventual realignment, hence the ‘knocking’ sounds.

To appreciate the tectonic impact from a transition to multiple fuel pathways, imagine for a moment what life would be like if every home in the US had its own oil well and processing plant in its ‘backyard’ that could easily produce optimal grade fuel at a price well below today’s market price. “That scenario is absolutely ridiculous!”, you might say under your breath.  …and yet, the emerging aviation biofuels industry speaks directly to this end.

Instead of purchasing fuel from traditional fuel brokers, airports are planning to produce their own fuel at a lower and more stable price using feedstocks and a processing facility located adjacent to the airport’s existing storage tanks. Under this arrangement, airlines would no longer be subjected to volatile energy prices caused, for example, by a political event in the Middle East. Also, by positioning biofuels production facilities in their ‘backyard’, airports can eliminate shipping and port handling costs. Once more, if airports succeed in producing their own fuel source, what would prevent industrial parks around the world to do the same?

The resounding significance from producing fuel at the point of consumption will give both companies as well as groups of companies a far greater and sustainable edge over their competitors.  Just how an energy-decentralized economy will play out in the end will be anyone’s guess.  One thing is for sure. The base of wealth and power both politically and economically will shift significantly.

Considering this new perspective, one can better understand the industry’s current frustrations. On the one hand the US Government is hesitating with its renewable energy strategies not knowing if an untested policy might eliminate entire industries (i.e. fuel transportation), reduce existing business tax revenue streams, and increase unemployment. In the meantime, the DOE (Department of Energy) continues to invest in biofuels R&D and to develop incentives for private investors willing to scale biofuel productions.

The progress in the aviation biofuels industry can be measured by the rapidly growing number of fuel-production pathways.  In fact there may be too many pathways and efforts are underway to standardize a comprehensive evaluation process. Also in play are efforts to improve efficiencies within each pathway such as increasing the energy yield per acre of feedstock. But despite all of these efforts, the price of biofuels per gallon remains well above that of most conventional fuels.

With Republicans unwilling to pay more for energy than the lowest cost fuels available, the future of biofuels remains potentially entangled in a political gridlock. However, as the real threat to the airline industry continues to grow, aviation biofuels may force opposing members of Congress to reconsider their positions.  If and when they do, the production of aviation biofuels may unintentionally trigger the decoupling of crude oil prices globally. When that day arrives, businesses will learn to compete not only on price, but also on their respective ready access to ‘backyard’ biofuels energy.


Appendix – Conference Overview
The conference organizers did an excellent job of presenting an interactive forum that offered new pathways from the traditional one-pathway strategy discussed in the article.  This section was written for readers with an advanced background in the industry.  New interconnected pathways discussed included:

Investment Strategies, presented by Baker & McKenzie (bakermckenzie.com), focused on parsing project risk into tradable financial instruments to attract diverse groups of investors. For example, project assets would be pledged to a lender using a Special Purpose Vehicle or SPV. The DOE (Department of Energy – energy.gov) spoke of Master Limited Partnerships (MLP’s) where project assets can be assigned to an LLC, tax free, and later IPO’ed to raise cash to finance newer projects.  They are also working on redefining the definition of REIT’s to include biofuels investments.  These changes will qualify more investment funds including foundations and make it easier for private sector participation.

Fuel Processing, presented by GEVO (gevo.com), compared the differences between processing techniques using biology (i.e. enzymes) or chemicals (i.e. catalyst). Their catalyst category included a clever building block platform of iso-butanol a C-4 carbon molecule that like lego pieces can combined to produce not only ethanol but also other lucrative chemicals (i.e. C-8 for gas and C-16 for diesel). As demand shifts for each chemical, the plants daily production can be calibrated to optimize profits. Another company, Byogy Renewables (byogy.com), also a chemical processing company has developed technology to extract 80% of oxygen content in biomass to produce a 100% replacement to jet fuel (no blending required). They are currently partnered with Qatar Airlines.

Feedstock, presented by Paradigm Energies (paradigmbioaviation.com), reminded us that feedstocks or the raw materials used to process biofuels represents 80% of the cost of the biofuel produced. However, in the case of corn ethanol, for example, one of its byproducts can be sold for animal feed at a price close to the corn itself, hence, creating an offset revenue.

Paradigm Energies is in the waste-to-energy business. They source municipal landfills, ‘garbage’, for feedstock and supply a clean jet fuel called syngas that can be liquefied for blending or used to produce electricity. Cities are willingly pay a ‘tipping fee’ to have their waste removed, since landfills are unsightly and expensive to manage. The overall benefits to a city from a social and economic point of view are noteworthy, while the ‘tipping fees’ offer an offset revenue similar to corn. Potentially perceived as a ‘dirty business’, operators of similar waste-to-fuel schemes are mindful of potential negative public opinion for eliminating trash removal jobs, rezoning landfill areas, and other eventualities such as a plane accident that involves the use of a blended biofuel produced from ‘garbage’.

Another company, Solena Fuels (solenafuels.com) is building waste-to-garbage plants adjacent to city refineries in the UK. Cities with a population greater than 1.5 and 2 million can produce the 700,000 tons of garbage needed to operate one of their processing plants. One of its partners, British Airways, has recently placed an order for 5 plants to meet 2% of its annual fuel consumption.

Patents presented by Boeing (boeing.com) has become big business for this conglomerate. In the interest of helping its customers buy more airplanes, Boeing is actively redesigning its engines in an effort to move away from a one fuel model. They see their role as a catalyst to accelerate commercialization of biofuels and are aggressively taking a stake in new IP’s produced. The company uses its brand and influence to advocate policies and other related matters.