Gas

Pakistan is being urged to cut its energy subsidies in order to resolve supply problems that have led to chronic electricity shortages. But the debate on reducing energy spending touches upon a more fundamental failing of the Pakistani state: a near total inability to get the population to pay either tax or energy bills.

Theoretically, maintaining artificially low prices for electricity should see the proportion of paid bills rise. But PEPCO, the national power company, has seen collected revenue fall over the past year.

BP, solar, De Beers, Centrica

In this week’s podcast: Interim results from BP fail to please investors; solar power – how economic is it? We ask CEO of Canadian Solar, Dr Shawn Qu; diamond company De Beers gets a new chief executive; and, Centrica – what should we expect from its results?

Presented by Sylvia Pfeifer with Vincent Boland, Pilita Clark, William MacNamara and David Blair.

Produced by LJ Filotrani

Energy subsidies in Pakistan are contributing to “severe supply problems” according to a report from the country’s Petroleum Institute.

Power consumption has grown by 80% over the last 15 years, but a failure to keep up with demand has led to crippling electricity shortfalls.

Turkmenistan has started to sell gas to China through the world’s longest natural gas pipeline as it continues to develop an international export market for its vast energy reserves.

Israel may be considering its energy options after a pipeline bringing gas from Egypt suffered four attacks in the space of five months.

This link provides Israel with 40 per cent of its gas and the most recent explosion, which took place at a monitoring station near the Egyptian town of Al-Arish, was the second incident in as many weeks.

Sheila McNulty

Jim Mulva, chief executive of ConocoPhillips, has been in a hurry to establish his legacy. In the beginning, it was going to be as the head of one of the world’s biggest international oil and gas companies. And he got there, boosting Conoco into 5th place, in terms of production.

But then the economic downturn hit, and the weaknesses in his grow-through-acquisition strategy were exposed. It was no longer enough to be big, and Conoco was forced to slash capital spending, lay off staff and sell billions of dollars in assets.

Pakistan is to become a key buyer of Iranian natural gas at a time when relations with Washington are at their most strained in recent years.

Work on extending the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline will begin in the next six months and is set to be complete by 2014, according to Asim Hussain, the Pakistani natural resources minister. Some 1,100 km of the 2,700 km pipeline has already been completed on the Iranian side of the border, stretching from the South Pars field to the frontier with Pakistan.

Sheila McNulty

The weekend oil spill by ExxonMobil  into Yellowstone River gives environmentalists more ammunition in their long-running battle against granting the oil industry increased access to US oil resources.

While only the final investigation will prove whether Exxon failed to do some maintenance or take other measures that could have prevented the spill, one thing is certain: the US continues to have an unacceptable number of spills on both oil and natural gas pipelines.

Indeed, one of the key reasons raised by environmentalists to block the Keystone XL pipeline from bringing oil sands fuel from Canada’s tar sands across the US to Texas is the high number of spills on the first stage of that pipeline – the Keystone - in its first year of operation. The company says they are not significant. And Exxon might well be able to contain this spill so that it is not a massive environmental disaster.

But why does it seem regulators tend to wait until disaster strikes before taking appropriate action? There had long been signs that the Gulf of Mexico offshore was not being sufficiently regulated, yet the issue of permits continued at a rapid pace until Macondo struck.

The bottom line is that the US has had a number of red flags this past year on the need to improve pipeline safety. Perhaps the biggest of these was the fatal explosion of a gas pipeline in a California residential area.

But, less than a year later, Exxon is the latest to suffer a spill. Its reaction:

No cause has been identified for the release of oil from the pipeline, which met all regulatory requirements and has undergone inspection most recently in December. A field audit of the pipeline’s integrity management program was undertaken by US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in June.

So if regulators just inspected the pipeline, the question is whether they missed something? 

Ray LaHood, US secretary of transportation, late last year sent Congress proposed legislation to provide stronger oversight of the nation’s pipelines and increased  penalties for violations of pipeline safety rules.

Congressman Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in June signalled his committment to updating and improving US pipeline safety:

Pipeline safety is a serious matter of protecting human life and our environment.  Our nation’s nearly half a million miles of pipeline infrastructure play a critical role in delivering vital energy supplies to southwest Michigan and the rest of the country.  Disasters like last summer’s Enbridge pipeline rupture underscore the unacceptable costs of failure and the need for meaningful updates to our current pipeline safety laws.

Representative Ed Markey, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, called on Tuesday for investigative hearings to be held into the Exxon spill and related safety and environmental issues:

 

ExxonMobil has turned parts of the Yellowstone River black with their spilled oil. Just as BP was held to account for their accident in the Gulf of Mexico, ExxonMobil should appear before Congress so that we can examine the holes in oil pipeline safety that led to this incident and how we might prevent another spill in the future. Several aspects of pipeline safety regulations may need review based on this disaster.

Mr Markey noted that Exxon had said that the pipeline had been examined within the five-year increments as required by law. He said that timeline may need to be reduced, in light of this accident and the others over the last few years. 

On top of that, higher penalties would help pay for better enforcement.  Surely, given all its budget issues, Congress can see the benefit of this?

Sheila McNulty

Alaska’s decision to host the largest oil and gas lease sale of any US state this year is good news for the oil and gas industry, which has been pressing for more access. And while the resulting exploration and production certainly will be good for the overall economy – creating jobs and boosting activity – it is a pity that it is not against a backdrop of better news on the environmental front.

By this I mean concerted steps by the US government to reduce the use of oil as part of a larger effort to curtail carbon emissions. This issue has long disappeared from the political radar, despite being a key platform on which President Barack Obama was elected.

Sheila McNulty

The issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has taken on a life of its own. But with so much misinformation, it is hard for the general public to know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. The truth is – as with any polarising issue – somewhere in the middle. New York appears to have accepted that and decided to move forward to permit fracking in all but the most sensitive areas of the state.

But even as New York is poised to lift its moratorium on fracking, New Jersey’s legislature has moved to impose one. What this illustrates is just how divisive this issue has become.

Let us look at some of the pros: Hydraulic fracturing in a series of stages, combined with horizontal drilling, has given the US oil and gas industry a new lease of life. After years of declining production, the technology has enabled the country to grow not only natural gas but oil production. And with a country that consumes so much energy and has yet to make any serious attempt to scale back its usage, this can only be a good thing. It means more domestic supply to meet demand, which translates into less money leaving the country for imports and heightened energy security. And more drilling, of course, means more jobs and more economic activity.

Now here are the cons: if drillers are irresponsible about how they use the technology – and with far more than 1,000 operators drilling and producing across the country there will always be some who are – it hurts everyone. The damage to the environment and people could be very real. One only needs to think of Macondo, BP’s well at the centre of last year’s accident in the Gulf of Mexico.

As the EPA investigates the environmental risks associated with fracking, the industry must ensure it has no Macondos. By proving the industry can safely and responsibly develop the US’ domestic resources, companies eventually win over the public, and politicians, who are so afraid of the technology they are banning it outright.

But the industry cannot do this if it is not permitted to frack at all. Take New Jersey, which has just  passed a ban on fracking this week. While New Jersey is not a major gas producer – and does not seem to have the geology ever to be – this is, nonetheless, a symbolic gesture that might well ensure that what it does have is never developed.  That leaves the burden to other states, such as Texas, to continue producing the gas used by those in New Jersey.

While this is not fair, the industry will say it would rather deal with states individually than have a restrictive federal law passed down that might, in the end, restrict the use of fracking in industry-friendly places such as Texas.

Certainly there are risks of that happening, but it seems to make the most sense for the US to approach this issue on the federal level. If a fair, science-based investigation can be conducted, and the industry be given an opportunity to defend itself against the charges of environmentalists, perhaps a workable solution can be found - one that permits fracking to continue across the country with the necessary safeguards to prevent a disastrous onshore event, such as Macondo was to the offshore industry.

That way states like New York – which was among the first of a string of places to put a temporary ban on fracking - and New Jersey will not scare off the public and politicians in other states from permitting something that might well be done safely  – and limit imports and grow energy security as much as possible. For a country that consumes so much energy and cannot seem to get its arms around a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon emissions with a real committment to renewables and energy efficiency, this seems the best course to take.

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