1. Production and prices

For yet another week, hopes for an economic recovery and the course of the dollar continued to overshadow oil market fundamentals. Despite rising inventories, higher OPEC production, and weak demand, oil prices continued to gyrate between $70 and $72 a barrel in accordance with the latest economic headlines and movements in currency markets.

Gasoline prices have started to rise again after a drop in July when crude prices briefly fell by over $10 a barrel to circa $60. The end of the summer driving season is only three weeks away so higher gas prices will be difficult to sustain without a major, and unlikely, economic turnaround.

Robust production and a lack of demand have led to a very weak natural gas market. On Friday natural gas fell as low as $3.62 per million BTUs following a relatively steady decline from over $8 last summer. Natural gas inventories are on track to fill existing storage to capacity by the beginning of the winter heating season Gas currently in storage is 23 percent above last year and 19 percent above the five-year average. The possibility is increasing that natural gas producers may have to cut back on production as there soon will be insufficient demand and storage capacity for the gas that is being produced.

OPEC continues to fudge on its production caps, increasing output by 100,000 barrels a day during July. Some of this increase clearly is going into growing OECD stockpiles and the rest may be going to China.

Beijing announced that its crude stocks are falling from record highs as Chinese refineries increased production in June to a record 7.77 million b/d. China also announced that seaborne oil imports increased by 26 percent last month as their stimulus package pushed GDP growth closer to 9 percent.

2. The FTC Rules

Last week the US Federal Trade Commission issued a new rule designed to block manipulation of the oil market. Violation of the new rule could bring fines of as much as $1 million a day. The new rule sets definitions of actions that would constitute manipulation of the oil markets such as false public announcements about pricing or output decisions, releasing false statistical data, and engaging in “wash sales” to disguise real market liquidity.

Some believe the new rule simply increases the penalties for actions that are already illegal and will have little effect on prices. Regulation of the oil markets is caught up in the wider question of increased regulation of the financial markets which is currently being fiercely debated in Washington.

Still to come are new rules from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that would impose limits on speculating in the oil markets.

3. Peak Coal in Appalachia

Last month the Geological Survey published a new study that attempts to quantify US coal reserves. An important part of the study was an effort to determine how much of the nation’s coal resources can be mined at current prices and how much sulfurous coal can be legally sold to users that are not equipped with the necessary scrubbers.

Although not using the term “peak coal,” USGS officials project that the key Appalachian Basin which produces the bulk of coal used in eastern power stations may reach peak output in as little as 10 years. Production of low and medium sulfur Appalachian coal has been increasing steadily as the favorite source for generating electricity after nuclear power went out of favor 30 years ago. About 40 percent of the remaining coal in the Appalachian basin is high sulfur coal that is not useable without EPA waivers or expensive modifications to coal plants.

With some sort of restrictions on carbon as well as tightened sulfur emissions in the offing, the future of coal production in the Appalachian and Illinois basins is very much an open question.

One of the key issues is whether to proceed with very expensive carbon sequestration at coal fired electrical generating stations or to put the resources into increasing the production of power from renewable sources. Last week the Chinese weighed in by saying that the cost of carbon sequestration was prohibitive and that China can obtain larger emission reductions by investing in efficiency of vehicles and buildings and alternative power sources.

Briefs (clips from recent Peak Oil News dailies are indicated by date and item #)

  • Across Nigeria, the consistent rise in the cost of diesel fuel to power electric generators is alarming. The effect on the cost of doing business is particularly severe. Unreliable power supply has meant that many businesses and homes which have for long relied on diesel generators are in despair. (8/8, #6)
  • The Niger Delta crisis – which has dealt a heavy blow to Nigeria’s oil income and crude production – is finally threatening to consume the country’s foreign currency reserves which had been the saving grace in the current global financial meltdown. (8/5, #8)
  • In Angola’s offshore waters, Chevron Corp. said Friday it has made a “significant” oil discovery, underscoring the West African nation’s rising stature as an energy producer. Oil discoveries pegged as “significant” by major oil companies often imply crude and gas resources of at least 500 million barrels. Chevron currently produces around 500,000 barrels a day in Angola, up sharply from earlier this decade. (8/8, #7)
  • Secretary of State Clinton shifts to economic statecraft this week on an African tour that stops in major oil and mineral exporters as she seeks advantages for U.S. investors in a market where China is making inroads. (8/5, #9)
  • Companies from Norway, Spain, India, China, Russia and Brazil have signed exploration agreements with Cuba and the Bahamas that could mean drilling south of Key West this year. (8/8, #10)
  • OPEC may decide to maintain current crude output levels when it meets next month in Vienna, Kuwait’s oil minister was cited as saying by state-run KUNA news agency. (8/6, #3)
  • The worldwide rig count for July 2009 was 2,080, up 93 from the 1,987 counted in June 2009 and down 1,356 from the 3,436 counted in July 2008, according to Baker Hughes. (8/8, #14)
  • As Saudi Arabia’s Khurais mega-project added 1.2 million bpd of oil to the Kingdom’s energy stream, the Southern Area Production Engineering and Production Services Departments prepared more than 400 wells required to bring the project on line. (8/5, #6)
  • Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil company, will struggle to meet its 2009 domestic oil production target and spend the next three years wringing output from mature wells before new fields come on line. Petrobras is relying on fields that have been in production for as long as 60 years to maintain output before the new projects start in 2013. (8/5, #10)
  • Kuwait expects oil prices to stay between $70 and $80 a barrel until the end of this year on optimism about a global economic recovery, the country’s oil minister said. (8/5, #5)
  • Britain’s North Sea gas supply peaked in 1999. Since then the flow has fallen by half; by 2015 it will have dropped by two-thirds…With no official energy policy, Britain’s power firms look sure to go for the easiest option—building more gas plants, which are cheap, relatively clean and quick to build. Britain’s dependence on gas for its electricity seems set to rise from just under half today to three-quarters in a decade. (8/7, #14)
  • Recent drilling results have strengthened earlier estimates of 10 bcf of ultimate gas recovery from individual horizontal wells in the Horn River basin shale gases of Northeast British Columbia, said Apache Corp. (8/4, #11)
  • The global recession and low energy prices put the brakes on much natural gas exploration, but Anadarko Petroleum and Chesapeake Energy are sinking dollars into the Marcellus shale, the companies said last Tuesday. (8/5, #12)
  • Ninety-eight US House Republicans urged Interior Sec. Ken Salazar to end a 6-month delay early and move ahead with a 2010-15 federal offshore oil and gas leasing plan he halted on Feb. 10. (8/4, #6)
  • Fitch Ratings, Chicago, expects further credit-quality weakening for US oil and gas companies and service firms as low commodity prices continue to batter industry financial performance. (8/4, #8)
  • When methane began bubbling out of kitchen taps near a gas well in Pennsylvania last winter, a state regulator described the problem as “an anomaly.” But at the time he was investigating a similar case affecting more than a dozen homes near gas wells halfway across the state. The problem stems from a bad cementing job around the core of the well. In Bridgeville, two homes exploded when a well casing failed and methane seeped into their basements. (8/7, #12)
  • Carbon dioxide levels are rising at a faster rate than the worst-case scenario envisaged by United Nations experts, with the planet heading for “catastrophic” and “irreversible” climate change by 2040, a new report claims. (8/3, #4)
  • China, the world’s biggest carbon- dioxide polluter, is balking at the cost and effectiveness of extracting greenhouse gases from hundreds of coal plants and storing them underground. China can achieve larger emissions cuts instead by spending money improving the energy efficiency of buildings and vehicles and investing in alternative power sources such as wind and solar. (8/6, #4)
  • The economic downturn continued to weaken demand for air travel. Passenger traffic dropped 7.9 percent in the quarter. (8/8, #15)
  • US airlines say speculation contributes to huge swings in oil prices and financial losses for airlines — not just when prices go up but also when they plummet and carriers are stuck paying higher prices due to hedging contracts. (8/6, #8)
  • Under Germany’s cash-for-clunkers program, up to 50,000 clunkers have made it past the automotive graveyard and found new life, mostly in Africa and Eastern Europe. (8/8, #16)
  • Nissan says its all-electric LEAF will go 100 miles under real world conditions on a 24 kWh, 120 HP motor that can propel the vehicle to a top speed of over 90 mph and carry 4-5 people. The LEAF is scheduled to be on the market during 2010. (8/8, #20)
  • GM Executive Bob Lutz, who spearheaded the Volt’s development, noted its preliminary retail price tag, believed to be in the high $20,000s, has turned out to be significantly more…around $43,000. Chevrolet may likely find it very difficult to sell its expensive Volt in the face of new, cheaper competition. (8/8, #21)
  • Electric vehicle recharging: The Department of Energy is awarding billions of dollars to companies developing next-generation batteries that can power cars. But one crucial element is in short supply: stations where electric vehicles can recharge. (8/6, #7)
  • LG Chem will have the capacity to build car battery cells that could power up to 250,000 electric vehicles in the United States when its first US plant becomes fully operational in 2013. (8/8, #12)
  • The proposed Calico solar farm –34,000+ solar dishes on 8000+ acres in the Mojave Desert — is one of dozens of industrial-scale solar farms planned for the Southwest that have divided environmentalists over the need to promote renewable energy while protecting fragile desert ecosystems. (8/6, #13)
  • President Barack Obama’s push for wind and solar energy to wean the U.S. from foreign oil carries a hidden cost: overburdening the nation’s electrical grid and increasing the threat of blackouts…The lack of transmission lines forced T. Boone Pickens to shelve a $10 billion Texas wind farm last month. (8/7, #9)
  • Companies seeking to do business in the areas of wind power, solar power and electric vehicles say that banks remain tight-fisted, underscoring the role played by government subsidies in propping up the industry. (8/7, #10)
  • Closing Utah state offices on Fridays has resulted in a 13 percent reduction in energy use according to analysis of the nation’s most expansive four-day workweek program. (8/8, #13)
  • In 2008, US freight trucking was the second greatest user of petroleum products. Trucks consume 2.4 million barrels a day, and greenhouse gas emissions from trucks have risen more than 50 percent since 1990. (8/4, #9)
  • US utilities are struggling against weakening demand for electricity that is forcing them to trim spending and explore new rate structures. Already, the slump looks like the worst since 1950. (8/3, #12)
  • Quote of the Week

  • “If the physical scientists who warn about limits to growth are right, confronting the global economic meltdown implies far more than merely getting the banks and mortgage lenders back on their feet. Indeed, in that case we face a fundamental change in our economy as significant as the advent of the industrial revolution. We are at a historic inflection point—the ending of decades of expansion and the beginning of an inevitable period of contraction that will continue until humanity is once again living within the limits of Earth’s regenerative systems. But there are few signs that policy makers understand any of this. Their thinking appears to be shaped primarily by mainstream economists’ assurances that growth can and must continue into the indefinite future, and that the economic contraction the world is currently experiencing is only temporary–a problem that can and must be solved.”
    — Richard Heinberg, author and commentator