KeystoneXL and New Energy Strategies in an Era of Abundance

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Just over 40 years ago the US economy experienced a first: an oil embargo by (then) OAPEC that quadrupled the price of oil.  It was our first 'oil shock', to be followed by a second 'shock' in 1979.  The US response, in part, was the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).  Our national response, rational for the time, was rooted a mindset of scarcity. 

Like relics of Cold War mentality, it's time to move ourselves from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance.  SRP has the pumping capacity to bring a maximum of 4.4 million barrels/day in to the market place in a national emergency from it's maximum holding capacity of 727 million barrels.  To put that in perspective, our national fleet of ethanol plants today produce an annual equivalent of roughly one-half the total supply of what is the largest emergency oil supply in the world!!

In the past there have been Congressional attempts to manipulate the SRP for various reasons:  Democrats have sought to tap the reserve to lower prices in times of high prices, Republicans have hinted at doubling the capacity of the reserve in anticipation of continued Middle Eastern conflicts.  It all depends on what your definition of 'strategic' might be on any given day through a political lens.  One on hand, using the supply to lower prices robs the unconventional oils from market prices high enough to establish a legitimate economic model for extraction; on the other, as we are experiencing today, low oil prices are putting hundreds of millions of dollars daily in new, disposable income in Americans pockets.  Given the interconnectedness of global markets and global energy production today, our definition of 'strategic' must be increasingly understood in a more comprehensive systems approach: the economy, our national security, rural development and our soft power in international diplomacy.

Our changing climate is also proposing a new threat to the SPR: located in four Gulf states, refinery capacity for the oil is located in some of the most vulnerable areas for disruption for hurricanes and rising ocean waters.

The $4 billion invested by Congress in 1975 to create the SPR equates to $18 billion in today's dollars; that level of strategic investment by Congress in the USDA/DOE advanced biofuels programs would deliver us an abundance.  An abundance of jobs, an abundance of economic activity and a much needed new tax base in rural America.  This begs the question, "where do we go from here?".  How do we capitalize on our abundance of resources to keep the price of oil from ever choking our economy again? Our lack of a national energy policy remains problematic; the inability for Congress to get beyond end-of-year-retroactive policy borders the criminal.  It's time we put American back in the American Petroleum Institute – and it's time we recognize that today's technology and vast natural resources give American agriculture the ability to bring billions of new, liquid fuel supplies in to the marketplace.  A recently-completed study by DOE quantified that we produce in excess of 1.2 billion tons of agricultural and forest waste annually; converting just 1/7th of those resources to advanced biofuels would produce more energy than would flow down the proposed KeystoneXL.

We are no longer a petroleum nation, we are a liquid fuels nation, and Colorado is no wallflower in the research institutions and private enterprises who call our Front Range home. A new focus on the 'strategy' of the 'Strategic Petroleum Reserve' would be good for our state – and good for our agricultural communities.

It's been some time since we've seen such an opportunity. What better time to address the structural problems in our national infrastructure and non-existent energy policy than when prices are at current levels?  We can find the necessary balance – but it won't happen in a vacuum, nor by itself.  A new Congress has been seated, and with it more rural representation than ever before.  Let's hope they don't forget where they came from – and that it's time to be strategic in a very American kind of way: doubling of our strategic reserves through the establishment of a national, distributed, advanced biofuels infrastructure.


10 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. mamajama55 says:

    The new rural congress members – do they come from states with established biofuels processing plants? I looked at the map in your UCS link, and the most potential biomass resources do seem to come from southern plains, southern California, (like Darrell Issa's district), and along the Mississippi river.

    In other words, your basic red states. What is your sense of how visionary they are, how addicted to O&G production vs. biomass into conversion into biofuels?  I didn't see a map of production and biomass conversion facilities.

    I have great faith in the power of the pocketbook, and the Way of the Wallet. Are any of these conservative politicians, who live among such potential, seeing the dollar signs, or do they dismiss biofuels as treehugger nonsense?

    • MichaelBowman says:

      I didn't have time to catalog the 100+ ethanol plants and correlate those to Senators, but in the top 10 ethanol states (IA, NE, IL, MN, IN, SD, OH, WI, KS, ND) Republican Senators outweigh Dems 13:7; if you add the next five in order of production (TX, MO, MI, TN CA) the Republican advantage moves to 18:12.  I also didn't have time to compare the Senate map to the biomass study, but the bulk of the biomass falls in the southeast, which would only exasperate the R:D advantage. 

      To your point, this is an issue the R's should be focused on if they really had an interest in energy security, job creation and turning the tables on OPEC with a fuel source that doesn't need a $100 crude oil market to be viable.  Of course, all of that is tongue-in-cheek; in the last election cycle, 4 out of 5 oil industry dollars went to Republican campaigns.  Today, House members that voted in favor of the Keystone received, on the average, eight times more oil lobby dollars than those who opposed it.

      Issa makes more money on his wealth every single day than his entire, annual Congressional salary – I doubt he cares much about anything but himself and his political ascension (particularly now that Boxer has made her retirement announcement).

  2. mamajama55 says:

    Just trying to get a sense of the dimensions of the problem, Michael. I know you're a busy guy. I'm capable of researching problems that interest me – haven't really delved into biofuels use yet.

    I still think economics, not ideology or concern for the planet or future generations, is going to tilt the balance of energy investment towards renewables. That's what's happening with the Keystone pipeline, which would seem to be a non-starter now. We need to be making those economic arguments with Republican elected officials, because we know that they're not going to listen to anything that sounds too "green", unless it's dollar green.

    Even if they are all taking oil money up the wazoo, some of them must listen to other lobbyists as well.


    • MichaelBowman says:

      Didn't mean to come across as snarky…  I've been in a plane a good share of the day on flight that didn't have internet (First World problems!)  Winning these arguments on economics would be a no-brainer – if indeed we were on a level playing field.  Natural gas externalize it's costs (decrease in crop production, air, water quality and health); the coal industry gets to pretend they're cheap, even though we know, a result of a recent Harvard study, the external costs to society amount to over 16 cents/kilowatt hour.  Aromatics in gasoline (benzen, toulene and xylene), which could be displaces by advanced biofuels, is causing billions in health costs annually.  (keep in mind, EPA has had the authority for years to get BTX out of the supply). 

      Beyond the externalized costs these free-market patriots socialize, market access adds yet another layer of complexity.  For instance, Shell Oil has reserves that account for only a portion of their sales. So for them, given they make their profits on distribution and not extracting their reserves, they are more aggressive in supporting renewables.  The other side of this coin is Exxon, whose reserves account for 100% of their retail sales.  Every barrel of boifuels forced in to their system is a barrel of their own reserves that can't be developed.

      Remember, the initial 10% mandate was a grand bargain in Congress to get MTBE out of our fuel supply (a known carcinogen that had poisoned several water supplies).  The oil companies agreed to replace the MTBE with ethanol – and Congress gave them immunity on the MTBE leaks. Additionally, the oil companies got a significant 'blenders credit' to blend the ethanol in to their gasoline supply (apparently that must be a very difficult process….)  That credit amounted to billions of dollars for the oil and gas industry. 

      The industry knows that, based on several studies, that E-22 is the optimum blend for blended gasoline.  The industry has also shown that it's committed to making sure not a single new drop of ethanol gets in to the national supply.  So, not to sound like a broken record – but this has nothing to do with economics as viewed through a life-cycle analysis – and everything to do with maintaining their monopoly power in the marketplace.  They are the masters at privatizing their profits and socializing their costs.

  3. MichaelBowman says:

    A great piece by Rocky Mountain Institute's Amory Lovins:

    The Troubled Oil Business

    Like whale oil in the 1850s, oil is becoming uncompetitive even at low prices before it becomes unavailable even at high prices. U.S. gasoline (and electricity) demand has been falling since 2007 as more people drive thriftier vehicles fewer miles; the same is true in rich countries as a whole. Now major developing countries like China are shifting their energy strategy so quickly toward efficiency and renewables that global “peak oil” — in demand, not supply — could occur in this decade, not many decades in the future as the industry assumes.

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