Category Archives: Natural Gas

Overestimating Natural Gas Reserves Results in Bad Investments & Stranded Assets

Natural gas is viewed by many as a cost effective way to produce power that will be an important stepping stone as we move away from fossil fuels. Coupled with reports from government and industry claiming significant recoverable reserves, natural gas seems like a viable option for the future. So what’s the catch? As it turns out, gas companies are financially motivated to issue the most optimistic reports of their reserves, and overestimation of proved reserves grants a false (and dangerous) sense of security in the fossil fuel sector. This sense of security threatens to undermine the purportedly bright future of natural gas, and accurate reserve reporting education and strict implementation is the only way to avoid economic downfalls, as well as preserve our slow-but-steady transition away from fossil fuels.

When companies log proved reserves, they are claiming that they are at least 90 percent certain that they can produce that amount of energy at today’s prices. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which regulates this process, allows companies to count quantities of gas and oil as part of their proved reserves as long as they plan to drill them out within the next five years; these undrilled resources are referred to as proved undeveloped reserves (PUDs). The company is allowed to count the entire expected lifetime amount of gas for a specific drill site as part of their reserves – long before they break ground, much less understand how fast/slow flowing or dense the shale reservoir may be.

Investors and pipeline companies see proved reserves as the key ingredient for investments, so oil and gas companies are overtly incentivized to produce the rosiest reports possible. Since about half of industry’s proved reserves are undeveloped, this overstatement of ‘proved’ reserves becomes important economically for investors and pipeline companies. Companies such as Shell, El Paso, Stone Energy, and Repsol YPF, among others, have already found themselves in the spotlight, and courtroom, for overstatements of oil and gas reserves. See page 73 here for continued reading on these case studies.

Issues that arise from overestimating proved reserves are complicated, but generally result in stranded assets which can be expensive for rate payers and other companies.  When a gas company touts a large shale gas reservoir, a pipeline company then builds a huge well and pipeline infrastructures to collect and transport this resource and utilities scale up dependence on gas fired power plants (see here). If the gas company overstated the size of the reserve, or it was more complicated and costly to maintain than was initially reported, this will ultimately result in expensive stranded assets.

SEC regulations regarding accurate reserves reports are already in place and significant corporate and/or employee penalties have been issued. Only through rigorous education and ethical enforcement of these regulations can we hope to avoid the economic downfalls caused by overreliance on a limited fossil fuel resource such as stranded assets, financial penalties, and/or lawsuits.

Overestimating Natural Gas Reserves Results in Bad Investments & Stranded Assets

Natural gas is viewed by many as a cost effective way to produce power that will be an important stepping stone as we move away from fossil fuels. Coupled with reports from government and industry claiming significant recoverable reserves, natural gas seems like a viable option for the future. So what’s the catch? As it turns out, gas companies are financially motivated to issue the most optimistic reports of their reserves, and overestimation of proved reserves grants a false (and dangerous) sense of security in the fossil fuel sector. This sense of security threatens to undermine the purportedly bright future of natural gas, and accurate reserve reporting education and strict implementation is the only way to avoid economic downfalls, as well as preserve our slow-but-steady transition away from fossil fuels.

When companies log proved reserves, they are claiming that they are at least 90 percent certain that they can produce that amount of energy at today’s prices. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which regulates this process, allows companies to count quantities of gas and oil as part of their proved reserves as long as they plan to drill them out within the next five years; these undrilled resources are referred to as proved undeveloped reserves (PUDs). The company is allowed to count the entire expected lifetime amount of gas for a specific drill site as part of their reserves – long before they break ground, much less understand how fast/slow flowing or dense the shale reservoir may be.

Investors and pipeline companies see proved reserves as the key ingredient for investments, so oil and gas companies are overtly incentivized to produce the rosiest reports possible. Since about half of industry’s proved reserves are undeveloped, this overstatement of ‘proved’ reserves becomes important economically for investors and pipeline companies. Companies such as Shell, El Paso, Stone Energy, and Repsol YPF, among others, have already found themselves in the spotlight, and courtroom, for overstatements of oil and gas reserves. See page 73 here for continued reading on these case studies.

Issues that arise from overestimating proved reserves are complicated, but generally result in stranded assets which can be expensive for rate payers and other companies.  When a gas company touts a large shale gas reservoir, a pipeline company then builds a huge well and pipeline infrastructures to collect and transport this resource and utilities scale up dependence on gas fired power plants (see here). If the gas company overstated the size of the reserve, or it was more complicated and costly to maintain than was initially reported, this will ultimately result in expensive stranded assets.

SEC regulations regarding accurate reserves reports are already in place and significant corporate and/or employee penalties have been issued. Only through rigorous education and ethical enforcement of these regulations can we hope to avoid the economic downfalls caused by overreliance on a limited fossil fuel resource such as stranded assets, financial penalties, and/or lawsuits.

Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan “Stipulation” – Another Xcel “Deal” That is Not a Deal At All

In late August 2017, Xcel-Colorado (Public Service Company of Colorado or “PSCo”) submitted a plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (“PUC”) which it named the Colorado Energy Plan or “CEP.”  The Colorado Energy Plan was submitted to the PUC as a “Stipulation” in Docket 16A-0396E and the CEP is sometimes referred to as “The Stipulation.”  While Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan includes moving up the retirement date for two coal plants—Comanche 1 and 2 in Pueblo, Colorado—the Plan also contains a number of adverse provisions including:

  • Reducing Xcel’s Renewable Energy Standard Adjustment which is supposed to be used to support renewable energy additions and using the “head room” created by that reduction to pay off the undepreciated portion of Comanche 1 and 2.
  • Paying Xcel their full level of profit (known as “return at the WACC” or Weighted Average Cost of Capital of about 7 %) on the now stranded coal plants.
  • Establishing ownership targets for Xcel ownership of replacement generation, potentially reducing the competitive nature of Colorado’s energy market.
  • Including natural gas in the replacement generation and potentially constraining the analysis of the over 50,000 MW of very cost-effective wind, solar and storage bids that Xcel received in November 2018.  The CEP would consider adding about 2000 MW of wind and solar to Xcel’s Colorado system, leaving over 90% of the wind, solar and storage bids “on the table.”

Clean Energy Action Board member Leslie Glustrom submitted extensive comments on the “Stipulation” and a final statement.

Photo Courtesy of Alan Best

In addition, Clean Energy Action hosted several trainings on the CEP/Stipulation in late January 2018 and numerous citizens that attended the trainings testified at the Colorado PUC on February 1, 2018 in Docket 16A-0396E.  Many citizens pointed out that Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan “deal” was not as good a “deal” as Xcel wanted the Commission to believe it was.

On Wednesday March 14, 2018 the Colorado PUC allowed Xcel to bring forth a plan that retires Comanche 1 and 2 early, but did not accept many other parts of the Colorado Energy Plan “Stipulation.”  The decision is here.

Unfortunately the Colorado PUC did not specify that Xcel should develop a plan that no longer uses “must-run” requirements for Xcel’s Colorado coal plants, but it did require a “least-cost” modeling run which should begin to show the vast potential for lowering utility costs by incorporating low-cost wind, solar and storage onto Xcel’s Colorado system.  Importantly, the sensitivity runs with lower discount rates should show even greater savings from adding wind, solar and storage resources.  The modeling report is expected in late April 2018.

The mission of Clean Energy Action is to “accelerate the transition to the post-fossil fuel world,” and we are strong supporters of retiring coal and natural gas plants, but we will also advocate for a “just transition” that does not unduly burden utility ratepayers. The Colorado Energy Plan, while containing some admirable proposals, transfers too much accountability for stranded fossil fuel assets from Xcel to its customers.

U.S. Energy Information Administration Projections Far from Accurate

EIA projections missed unprecedented growth in solar PV installations and a sharp downturn in coal production over the last decade.

For a more detailed analysis of inaccuracy in the EIA’s projections, see CEA’s white paper on the topic here.

Policymakers, utility commissions, investors, and energy companies rely on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) data for a wide range of energy analyses and while the historical data provided by the EIA has been extremely useful in many arenas, the EIA’s projections of future trends are often far from accurate. Our research summarizes a few examples of previously reported inaccuracies in EIA projections (for example, here, here, and here), but also provides what we believe to be the first look at the EIA’s inaccurate projections of U.S. coal production in almost a decade.

The projections published in the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) have invariably overestimated the cost of renewable electricity generation and fallen sadly short of predicting new additions of wind and solar capacity. For example, Figure 1 shows that the projections published in the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook repeatedly underestimated U.S. utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity from 2011 to 2015 and continue to predict that solar installations will largely stall through about 2025.

In reality, however, solar PV capacity is growing at an unprecedented rate. The Solar Energy Industries Association reported that by the third quarter of 2016, the cumulative U.S. utility-scale solar PV capacity (including capacity which was under contract but not yet operating) exceeded the AEO2015 projection for capacity in 2039. Accounting for planned capacity which had been announced but was not yet under contract by Q3 2016 indicates that utility-scale solar PV capacity will soon far surpass all AEO projections for 2040.

Solar PV Capacity and Projections
EIA reference case projections of U.S. utility-scale solar PV capacity and historical data (black, bold) as well as points which include planned capacity under contract in Q3 of 2016 and announced but pre-contract installations as of Q3 2016. Projection data taken from the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook, historical data taken from Solar Energy Industries Association’s U.S. Solar Market Insight Reports.

In addition to missing the sharp rise in solar photovoltaic installations, EIA projections also missed a dramatic downturn in coal production over the last decade. They failed to pick up on the trend year after year and still predict flat or rising coal production through 2040, as shown in Figure 2.

History (black, bold) and annual EIA projections of U.S. coal production from 1997 to 2040. Note that the vertical axis starts at 950 million short tons for clarity. Data taken from: the EIA's Annual Energy Outlook.
History (black, bold) and annual EIA projections of U.S. coal production from 2006-2015. Note that the vertical axis starts at 950 million short tons for clarity. Data taken from: the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook.

Disruptive innovations tend to precipitate new market trends that are notoriously difficult to predict. Just as the invention of the personal computer led to an abrupt decline in the typewriter industry in the late 1900’s, a massive transition toward renewable resources is transforming U.S. energy markets and so far EIA projections have failed to keep up with this transition. Every year, EIA forecasts predict a return to the trends of the 90’s, but the technological and political landscapes surrounding the U.S. energy industry are changing rapidly and historical precedent suggests that energy markets may never return to those of past decades.

For more details, readers are encouraged to download the full CEA White Paper here.

9th Annual Schultz Lecture

9th Annual Schultz Lecture: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Electric Power Sector

Paul Joskow, MIT professor of economics

Thursday, September 22nd
5:30 pm
University of Colorado School of Law
Wold Law Building, Wittemyer Courtroom

 

This event is free and open to the public. You must be registered to attend. More information and registration available here.

 

Electricity generation accounts for about 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. While emissions have declined by about 20% in the last ten years, much of this reduction is due to the fortuitous availability of cheap natural gas which
has provided incentives to substitute less CO2 intensive natural gas for coal as a generation fuel. The sector faces many challenges to meet long run 2050 goals of reducing emissions by as much as 80% from 2005 levels. These challenges include the diversity of federal, state and municipal regulation, the diverse and balkanized structure of the industry from state to state and region to region, the failure to enact policies to place a price on all carbon emissions,
the extensive reliance on subsidies and command and control regulation to promote renewables and energy efficiencies, uncertainties about aggressive assumptions about improvements in energy efficiency beyond long-term trends, pre-mature closure of carbon free nuclear generating technologies, integrating renewables efficiently into large regional grids, methane leaks, and transmission constraints. The lecture will discuss these challenges and suggest policies to reduce the costs and smooth the transition to a low carbon electricity sector.

Paul L. Joskow became President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation on January 1, 2008. He is also the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics, Emeritus at MIT. He received a BA from Cornell University in 1968 and a PhD in Economics from Yale University in 1972. See full biography here.