Regs not the problem for oil business


The incoming Trump administration and the oil and gas industry like to talk about the burdens of environmental red tape. But in Deloitte’s “reality check” of the top six issues facing the oil and gas industry in 2015, regulatory burden is absent. These are mostly big companies for whom compliance is a part of doing business and a manageable cost of operations. The entrepreneurs running wildcat operations aren’t strangers to this side of the ledger, either. And keep in mind that these companies, averaged over time (it’s a cyclical business, the world’s largest industry) make money hand over fist and can afford to do their part in minimizing the environmental impacts. For every Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, there are hundreds of projects that go forward unhindered.

Industry-bought statements by the likes of the American Petroleum Institute in the wake of the joint U.S.-Canadian protection of thousands of square miles of seas from offshore drilling that talk about the importance of these places for energy security – they’re a joke. Arctic offshore today accounts for about 0.025 percent of U.S. crude production. The Gulf of Mexico offshore produces 23 percent of all U.S. crude and basically all of the offshore production.

We won’t need it long-term, either. Electrification of the vehicle fleet will drive down domestic demand, meaning less oil will satisfy it over time, obviating the need to drill sensitive areas that threaten tourism and the environment (not even getting into global warming here).

Shell abandoned its drilling plans in the Arctic, where an oil spill would be catastrophic: imaging trying to clean up after a Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, but in 40 mph winds at minus-20, with no local fishing fleets or anyone else to help out (caribou being notoriously lazy). The industry would have to self-fund the entire cleanup infrastructure, even if they found a bonanza of oil, which Shell at least didn’t.

Exxon Mobil had a “rough” year in 2016, its net incoming falling by about half – still, it made $16 billion on $260 billion in sales. God knows what their regulatory costs were, showing up in various accounting buckets all over the world. But this company’s – and most oil companies’ – profits hinge not on the relatively minor costs of doing their part in keeping the planet more livable, but on the whims of global oil production and demand.

AVs Drive Themselves Straight into a Service Model

Google AV

Google’s driverless, autonomous vehicles portend a radical chance in how we get around. (courtesy Google)

AVs (not audiovisual, but rather autonomous vehicles) are poised to change the developed world. It seems that about everyone who looks at transportation comes to the same conclusion. It takes a bit of explaining as to why, and a recent piece I wrote for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal takes a shot at. RMI is launching an AV-focused research group, led by longtime GM research executive Jerry Weiland. Weiland and colleagues the first to admit they’re not the only ones thinking about the implications of self-driving cars. But RMI’s involvement brings heavyweight intellect and a long track record in working with government and business to the party.

It’s one of those stories that was rewritten pretty heavily but came out just as well (freelance writers learn not to take these things personally). I had originally led with:

Perhaps discussions of lightweighting, electrifying and autonomizing vehicles doesn’t quite get your blood pumping. Maybe, to you, the notion of a deeply networked, multimodal mobility infrastructure optimized to move people with great efficiency, striking economy and minimal environmental footprint smacks too much of transpo-geekery.

Fine. How about the idea of slashing your annual driving costs by about 75 percent sound, then? With combined U.S. savings of a trillion dollars a year?

That’s a serious number, and it’s the bottom line of RMI’s latest transportation initiative, one riding a wave of academic and commercial recognition that our century-old, car-and-truck centric mobility system is about to be disrupted in a big way.

Where do the trillion bucks come from? We in the United States spend $1.2 trillion a year – 20 percent of our incomes, on average – for the privilege of paying 56 cents a mile to drive our personally owned, isolated, gas-powered vehicles, which the RMI team calls PIGs. (That’s not even counting the $2 trillion or so annually that pollution, sitting in traffic, roads and parking lots, and traffic accidents cost us). The idea is to shift to fleets of shared, electrified, automated, lightweight vehicles (SEALs), which would, if deployed broadly over the next 20 to 30 years, provide the same or better mobility benefits as PIGS for just 15 cents a mile, or a total of about $200 billion, the RMI team calculates. It all depends on cars going from being personal property to being fleet-based elements of networked, shared, multimodal mobility services.

When I wrote it, I was pretty sure “transpo-geekery” wouldn’t survive an editorial gauntlet of transpo-geeks. But I figured you, intelligent laypeople, and not transpo-geeks, were the true audience. And why not have a little fun?

The only line I’d like them to have kept is this: AVs drive themselves straight into a service model. To understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the story.

Denver Storm of June 24, 2015: Tornado in Lowry



Sixth Avenue and roughly Trenton St., at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sixth Avenue and roughly Trenton St., at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 25, 2015

I was going to get up and work on something entirely different, but my dusty Daily Camera reportorial instincts got the better of me and, at about 6:30 a.m., I took to the streets of our east Denver’s Lowry neighborhood to survey the destruction.

There was a reputed tornado, though the National Weather Service remained dubious as of this (6/25) morning. Former reporters with 45 minutes to spare and an easy post-disaster commute (I rode around the 1990 Specialized Hard Rock) can’t resist these sorts of opportunities. So I fed the bullying puggle and  set forth on NewsBike 7773.

I will now post another disaster picture to keep you interested. There are many more, but you’ll have to either read on or, for those in hurry, scroll down.

These folks lost about all of their trees.

These folks lost about all of their trees.

Now, some background on this storm. First, this was no hurricane, no murderous Oklahoma tornado atomizing a mile-wide swath of civilization. Denver is too close to the mountains for true, wicked-crazy tornados to develop – the storm cells that produce them haven’t quite had the time to get their shit together (a meteorological term. Look it up.).

But we to get some wild T-storms, and as a result I have become something of a NEXRAD addict. If I’m on my PC, Weather Undergound is the go-to; on the phone, it’s RadarNow! (their exclamation point).

This used to be a trampoline. It was reportedly, for a brief time, on this house's roof.

This used to be a trampoline. It was reportedly, for a brief time, on this house’s roof.

I was not on my PC during this one, but rather in the Costco Warehouse on Havana Street, there to buy a new cordless phone set to replace the one toasted in a lightning strike last Friday (garage door opener, sprinkler-timer box, and Obi200 were also killed). I had noted some clouds off to the west and had packed an umbrella.

I had chosen a nice Panasonic number and bought the requisite raspberries, unsalted nuts, Kind bars and a few other items I had not planned on buying (85 percent of Costco revenues stem from unplanned purchases. Look it up.) when my phone rang. It was my wife, in something of a panic.

On Sixth Avenue just west of Trenton Street.

On Sixth Avenue just west of Trenton Street.

“Have you seen this storm?” she said. She sounded out-of-breath.

No, I said. It’s always sunny, if in a fluorescent way, here in Costco.

She explained that she was out of breath because she’d just run outside to move the 2001 Jetta into the garage, an effort complicated by our garage door opener having been electrocuted last week. The solution involved enlisting our 12-year-old daughter to help Carol open the door. She described rain and hail like in a Weather Channel promo, quarter-sized ice balls hammering the house and shredding leaves and collecting on the patio like malignant snow.

Either that tree really wants in the house or there was a meteorological event.

Either that tree really wants in the house or there was a meteorological event.

I pushed my cart to a point I could see outside. Nearly dark, hammering rain – but no hail here, three miles south. I noted a Costco employee moving a garbage can below drips from the metal roof, the sound of rain now audible.

“I think I’ll wait it out here,” I said.

I was hoping for a doll with a severed head, but settled for a soccer ball.

I was hoping for a doll with a severed head, but settled for a soccer ball.

As I settled onto a leather couch near the open-air seafood freezers, it dawned on me that a gigantic erector-set metal box crammed with millions of untethered items (flat-screen TVs would take off like sailplanes) might not be the optimal shelter during a tornado event. I could be impaled by spears of C batteries. Or smothered by swarms of clothing one is never quite sure is fashionably acceptable or not. Or maybe greased-burned by the salty skins of rotisserie chickens. I would have to ensconce myself amid bags of cheese-caramel Chicago Mix popcorn, which could provide a sort of air-bag buffer as well as vital sustenance.

The nicer houses seemed to get the worst of this one in Lowry, I suspect Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are behind this.

The nicer houses seemed to get the worst of this one in Lowry, I suspect Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are behind this.

I opened RadarNow! to the biggest, baddest storm I’d ever seen over Denver – a bit of green (rain), a lot of yellow (wind and heavy rain) , a whole lot of red (crazy T-storm) and, in the center, a blob of fuchsia, which meant god knows what. The entire city was draped in anger. The fuchsia pixels looked to be right about where we live.

Those are brick columns.

Those are brick columns.

I called Carol back – she was surfing news on her iPad; the girls had headed to the basement.  The crowd of Costco seemed light but stable, and engaged in filling their carts. Some were in raincoats, meaning the consumption imperative had trumped the survival imperative. Evolutionary biology probably has something to say about this.

Fences, adieu.

Fences, adieu.

I waited until it was merely raining and drove home. The girls described the storm scene excitedly. Carol showed me a welt on her thigh – from a single hailstone. I took stock of the shredded vegetation and picked up inch-plus diameter hailstones, which were, for the record, agglomerations of standard hailstones frozen together. The open Royal Crest Dairy cooler on the front porch held two-plus inches of hail-water that had fallen in 35 minutes. The nuggets did a number on our window stripping and screens, and, probably roof. The tomatoes had been reduced to green sticks. But a quarter-mile south… well, the pictures tell that story. And just now a bit ago, from the National Weather Service:

June 24th East Denver/West Aurora EF-1 Tornado

On Wednesday, June 24th between 4:48pm and 5:10 pm, a tornado touched down in east Denver and west Aurora. The tornado first touched down near Quebec and 6th Ave. It then moved east-northeast across the Lowery Campus into the west part of Aurora. The tornado then lifted near Mount Nebo Memorial Park. Based on tree damage there was low end EF1 with wind speeds estimated in the 86-90 mph range. Most of the damage caused by the tornado was in the EF0 range. Some homes had minor roof damage with one former apartment building on the Lowry Campus having some higher end roof damage with estimated wind speeds in the 86-90 mph range. The tornado path length based on damage points was 2.8 miles and the width was less than 50 yards.

Tornado0624 tornado2015-06-24-NWS

And a few more from the house:

A few hailstones (45 minutes after they fell, so diminished)

A few hailstones (45 minutes after they fell, so diminished)

The tomatoes are not quite thriving anymore.

The tomatoes are not quite thriving anymore.

These were, until recently, strawberries.

These were, until recently, strawberries.

Our Royal Crest Daily cooler, keeping very cool.

Our Royal Crest Daily cooler, keeping very cool.

Electricity pricing can be interesting. Really.

Solar panel installation

Our (or technically Sunrun’s) solar panels during installation in July 2010. Little did they know they would one day anchor a feature-article lead.

I’ve  done some writing for the Rocky Mountain Institute this year, which I’ve enjoyed because a) I have a ton of respect for Amory Lovins and his organization’s work (Natural Capitalism and Reinventing Fire being a couple of good examples). My latest piece, with a big assist from RMI editor Pete Bronski, posted today.

Pete called earlier this summer and said eLab, one of RMI’s many initiatives, was coming out with a report outlining a path to more rational means of pricing electricity in the United States. One’s first reaction to the idea of writing 2,000 journalistic words on electricity pricing should always be reluctance.

But within about 30 seconds on the phone I recalled that this is an important topic. It’s also a timely one, it turns out. States around the country are legislating, or considering legislating, added fees for solar and other renewable energy, which utilities say are needed because today’s century-old pricing approaches don’t reflect the system costs of solar (transmission and distribution, the need for baseload backup and so on). Solar proponents counter that they don’t reflect the benefits, either (environmental, peak-shaving and so on). So parties with very different motivations seem to agree that the system could use an overhaul, the outlines of which an RMI team sketched out.

So please spend 11 minutes reading  the story (that’s the RMI website estimate, and RMI people are pretty good with numbers).

Sargassum as a metaphor for life

Sargassum seaweed, South Padre Island

The path of least resistance is not always the most interesting.

The in-laws are Winter Texans, as this particular species of snowbird calls itself. So every year or two, we trek down to South Padre Island and spend a week on this strip of sand. I tell my daughters it will be gone by the time they’re old enough to be Winter Texans, swallowed by the rising seas.

I run in the mornings, timing it for sunrise, which is straight out to sea. Some mornings, like today, the clouds and mist form a wall of gray, wrestling the sun to a sort of draw in which daylight presses forward with gradual luminosity and no color.

South Padre’s is a wide beach, sand like silk underfoot. Surf rolls in frothy sheets, it’s emanations hazing up the condo towers at the distant flanks. In retreat, the tight sands resist absorption, and water flows back to the gulf like rain on a window during a deluge.

In the spring, when we come down here, the sargasso joins us. This is seaweed, greenish brown and red, collecting like clumped fur across 20 or so yards of vertical beach, ad infinitum. It is to the sand what foam is to the sea, rusting, static on the gentle beige slope.

I run in the beach. I can run high on the beach, which is softer and tracked with truck tires (some narrow and auto-like, from the white trucks that drive along, policing or detritus-collecting; others thick-treaded, belonging to the bulldozers whose Sisyphean job is to shove untold tons of sargasso into dunes high on the beach). I tend to go lower, toward the water, where it’s firmer and closer to the sandpipers and gulls making their living from the moon’s twice-daily gifts.

There is lot of sargassum in the way, and when I was running this morning I noted something about the accumulated seaweed. Some of it collected in extended clumps that were from any distance clearly nonnavigable. This was higher on the beach. Closest to the water, the sargassum had scattered, orphaned clumps like tiny shrubs with tenuous desert footholds. One risks soaking one’s running shoes here. Then in between, where the sand is firm and dry — the best place to run — the seaweed looks formidable from a distance, too. But once you decision to tackle it, up close, step-by-step, paths emerge that you can’t see from afar. The running is easier than you might have imagined, and more interesting, as there are little hurdles and unexpected barriers to be dodged or hurdled, introducing variety and a bit more exercise. And so the metaphor.