Tag Archives: reserves

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.

In Good Company: A Look at Global Coal Reserve Revisions

In my last post, I recounted some of the indications that have surfaced over the last decade that US coal reserves might not be as large as we think.  The work done by the USGS assessing our reserves, and more recently comments from the coal industry themselves cast doubt on the common refrain that the US is “the Saudi Arabia of coal” and the idea that we have a couple of centuries worth of the fuel just laying around, waiting to be burned.  As it turns out, the US isn’t alone in having potentially unreliable reserve numbers.  Over the decades, many other major coal producing nations have also dramatically revised their reserve estimates.

Internationally the main reserve compilations are done by the UN’s World Energy Council (WEC) and to some degree also the German equivalent of the USGS, known as the BGR. Virtually all global (publicly viewable) statistics on fossil fuel reserves are traceable back to one of those two agencies. For instance, the coal reserve numbers in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) 2011 World Energy Outlook came from the BGR; the numbers in BP’s most recent Statistical Review of Energy came from the WEC.

Of course, both the WEC and the BGR are largely dependent on numbers reported by national agencies (like the USGS, the EIA and the SEC in the case of the US), who compile data directly from state and regional geologic survey and mining agencies, fossil fuel consumers, producers, and the markets that they make up.

Looking back through the years at internationally reported coal reserve numbers, it’s surprisingly common to see big discontinuous revisions.  Below are a few examples from the WEC Resource Surveys going back to 1950, including some of the world’s largest supposed coal reserve holders.  In all cases, the magnitude of the large reserve revisions is much greater than annual coal production can explain.

Continue reading In Good Company: A Look at Global Coal Reserve Revisions

A Long Time Coming: Revising US Coal Reserves

In my previous post I highlighted the recent, quiet admission by the US EIA (in a fine-print footnote to Table 15 of their 2012 Annual Coal Report) that they do not know what fraction of our nation’s large store of coal resources might be economically accessible, and thus potentially classified as reserves.

CEA has long highlighted indications that a revision like this might be in the works, including in our most recent round of coal reports issued last fall (see: Warning: Faulty Reporting of US Coal Reserves).  But we’re not the only ones.  Plenty of other people have pointed out the same thing over the years.  Including…

Continue reading A Long Time Coming: Revising US Coal Reserves

US EIA on the Economics of Coal: No Comment

At the end of 2013, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) acknowledged that it does not know whether the vast majority of US coal can be mined profitably.  If coal mining isn’t profitable, then barring some grand socialist enterprise the black stuff is probably going to stay in the ground where it belongs.

You might think this kind of revision would have warranted a press release, but the EIA’s change of heart was buried in a fine-print footnote to Table 15 of their 2012 Annual Coal Report, which tallies up all the coal resources and reserves in the US, state by state.  The new footnote says:

EIA’s estimated recoverable reserves include the coal in the demonstrated reserve base considered recoverable after excluding coal estimated to be unavailable due to land use restrictions, and after applying assumed mining recovery rates. This estimate does not include any specific economic feasibility criteria. [emphasis added]

This stands in contrast to the footnotes for the same table in their 2011 Annual Coal Report, and many prior years:

EIA’s estimated recoverable reserves include the coal in the demonstrated reserve base considered recoverable after excluding coal estimated to be unavailable due to land use restrictions or currently economically unattractive for mining, and after applying assumed mining recovery rates. [emphasis added]

Continue reading US EIA on the Economics of Coal: No Comment