The Frackers – the Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters (a reprise from 2014)

The following piece is a reprise from a post in 2014. It is important to read the concerns of six years ago about this industry. Fortunately, the renewable energy industry continues to make huge strides.

I recently completed a very interesting book written by Gregory Zuckerman, a Wall Street Journal reporter called “The Frackers – the Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters,” published by Portfolio/ Penguin Press in 2013. Zuckerman is also author of “The Greatest Trade Ever.” I highly recommend this book as it is as entertaining as it is informative, in multiple ways. It gives you a clearer picture of the risks and rewards of fracking, but also shows how hard it is to both glean the fossil fuel you are seeking and to be so highly leveraged in debt as you do.

The successful fracking companies, usually bucked the odds and the more measured risk takers in the larger companies who had much more capital to withstand some of the risk. As a result, even the ones who had success, usually failed before, after and sometimes during their success, due to the need to be land rich which came at a highly collaterized cost of debt. When some went public, they also had to contend with impatient shareholders. These wildcat developers made and lost huge sums of money, oftentimes with their egos getting in the way of knowing when to stop.

Zuckerman does an excellent job of telling the story of people like George Mitchell, who has been called the “father of shale fracking,” Aubrey McClendon, Tom Ward, Harold Hamm, Charif Souki, Robert Hauptfurher and Mark Papa, among countless others who were key to the success of gleaning natural gas and oil from places that were perceived too difficult to crack. He also defines why methods and strategies are so secretive, as companies will follow suit to leverage off your success. These men and their companies, Mitchell Energy, Oryx Energy, Chesapeake Energy, Continental Resources, Chenier Energy and EOG Resources, were truly the path finders in this process called fracking. They led the US to become more energy independent, yet in so doing, understated or overlooked the risks that came with those rewards.

As I read this entertaining book, I found myself convinced of a preconceived notion, that the main mission of these guys was to make a lot of money, as well as proving others wrong. Some even took delight that their hypothesis was true, even if they had not benefitted as greatly as the company that bought out their rights. Yet, what I also found this lust for money also was an Achilles Heel, and there seemed to be less consideration of what fracking was doing to the environment. They were more content to let the problems be handled by someone else and often belittled the complaints and complainers.

Zuckerman addresses these concerns from the frackers viewpoint earlier in the book, yet does devote an Afterword to the environmental risks that are real. But, before doing so, he notes that George Mitchell, late in life continued to buck convention. Per Zuckerman, Mitchell “gave millions to research clean energy even as he, along with his son and Joe Greenberg, invested in a new shale formation in Canada.” But the quote that interests me most, is by Mitchell who responds to those who contend how safe fracking is:

“Fracking can be handled if they watch and patrol the wildcat guys. They don’t give a damn about anything; the industry has to band together to stop isolated incidents.”

This dovetails nicely with a well-worn phrase I gleaned early on. Even if fracking were safe, it is only as safe as its worst operator. Mitchell, the father of fracking is more than acknowledging the bad operators. His son Todd, who was also in business with his father, said “his father’s work will have had a negative impact on the world if it forestalls progress on renewable energy, instead of giving innovators time to improve wind, solar and other cleaner energy sources.”

Let me close with an even-handed quote from Zuckerman, which frames the issue, yet also notes a caution. He answers the question “Is fracking as bad as activists say, and what will its impact be as drillers continue to pursue energy from shale and other rock formations?” His conclusion is as follows:

“The short answer: Fracking has created less harm than the most vociferous critics claim, but more damage than the energy industry contends. And, it may be years before the full consequences of the drilling and fracking are clear.”

With my reading I would agree with both of these sentences, yet not place the fulcrum in the middle of the scale. I would be more on the side of vociferous critics as the evidence continues to mount and as non-industry scientists are revealing issues. The massive water usage, the seepage of the poisonous slickwater fracking fluid into the environment, the particles that are blasted into the atmosphere which are causing breathing difficulty, and the degradation to the surrounding environment just to get vehicles and equipment into frack are compelling arguments by themselves.

But, the great caution in his last sentence is where we need to focus. “And, it may be years before the full consequences of the drilling and fracking are clear.”This is the bane of any environmental group fighting for people and the environment. Oftentimes, it takes years for the true damage to be seen and felt. Some show up in shorter order, yet when the companies making the money do not want to stop a mission, they can afford to fight people who cannot clearly make a connection. The developers want to settle with each complaint at minimal outlay and move on. Unfortunately, the people exposed to the problem, remain in harm’s way.

Coal energy risk is very human as well as planetary

The following paragraphs come from an article today called “Coal mine accident in China’s Chongqing kills 23” by Reuters.

“Twenty-three people died after being trapped in a mine in China’s southwestern city of Chongqing, the official Xinhua news agency said on Saturday, the region’s second such accident in just over two months.

The dead were among 24 people trapped underground by excessive levels of carbon monoxide gas at the Diaoshuidong coal mine, the agency said, adding that one survivor had been rescued, after more than 30 hours of search and rescue efforts.

Friday’s incident, which occurred at about 5 p.m. (0900 GMT) in a mine shut for more than two months as the company dismantled underground equipment, is being investigated, it added.”

Coal-mining accidents are not new, even though they have lessened over the years with greater precautions and fewer coal miners. Most of the coal stories are around the used up coal ash leaking into water reservoirs or the diminishing role coal plays in energy in the US.

I highlight this story as coal-mining remains a dangerous job and one that is not life lengthening due to the exposure to inhaled dust. When a wind mill system or a solar farm fail, people do not tend to lose their lives. Not only are these sources of energy helpful to our planet, they are less risky to the workers.

As the cost of renewable energy has fallen, the use of coal has declined further. Natural gas development put the first nail in the coffin of coal and renewable energy sources like wind, solar, tidal, hydro, geothermal, etc. are adding the other nails. In Texas, coal is being surpassed this year by renewables as the second largest source of electricity behind natural gas.

As oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens noted early last decade, natural gas will buy us time until wind energy takes over in the plains states. That time is now, with Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas getting 1/3 of their combined electricity from wind energy and Texas getting over 1/6 of its electricity from wind, as the largest producing state.

I am saddened by the loss of life. Maybe, these lives won’t be lost in vain and efforts to migrate to renewable energy will hasten.

Coal mine accident in China’s Chongqing kills 23 (msn.com)

Commercial electric vehicle company opens microfactory near Charlotte in Rock Hill, SC

Per WCNC, a television news station in Charlotte, a report called “Electric vehicle microfactory promises to bring 240 jobs to Rock Hill” was aired. Rock Hill is part of the Charlotte Metro area just across the border in South Carolina. Here are the salient points per a MSN write-up of the piece:

Arrival, a company that produces electric vehicles around the world, announced Tuesday its plans to build a ‘microfactory’ in York County. The factory is part of a $46 million investment in the region and is Arrival’s first American microfactory. The company expects to bring 240 new jobs to the Rock Hill area. 

Arrival, which was found in London in 2015, creates zero-emission vehicles for commercial transportation. The South Carolina facility will utilize a new cell-based assembly method to produce vehicles, rather than the traditional assembly line. This will give Arrival the flexibility to produce any vehicle in its portfolio at the factory, according to a press release from the company.”

This is just more evidence of where future growth will occur. It is good to see our area embracing new technologies to make zero emission vehicles. The train (or in this case, the bus) toward renewable energy has left the station. Communities that are embracing this will see more growth and better cost models going forward, as well as help the environment.

This is is not an outlier story. Solar energy jobs have averaged annual double digit growth and dwarf coal energy jobs. Wind energy is also growing in the US, especially in the plain states with Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma combined getting more than 1/3 of their electricity from wind energy. And, Tesla has branched into electric delivery trucks on top of their cars.

These news stories should be more widely communicated to show the path forward is being taken by states, cities and companies.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/autos/news/electric-vehicle-microfactory-promises-to-bring-240-jobs-to-rock-hill/ar-BB19ZdCG?ocid=msedgdhp

There she blows

Per an article in Power Technology in April, 2019 by Jack Unwin called “Top ten US states by wind energy capacity:”

“Donald Trump’s well-known hostility towards wind power and what he believes is its cancer-causing abilities wind energy is a well-established source of power in the US.

In fact, the US is the second largest producer of wind energy in the world with an installed capacity of over 96GW, and it has six of the world’s top ten onshore windfarms. But progress still needs to be made as a number of states in the southeast from Arkansas to Florida don’t have any wind turbines installed at all.”

Using updated statistics at the end of 2019, the top five states for wind energy are:

Texas (28,843 MW)*
Iowa (10,201 MW)
Oklahoma (8,172 MW)
Kansas (6,128 MW)
California (5,973 MW)

It should be noted, since they are smaller states, the top three by percentage of electricity generated by wind energy are: Iowa (41.7%) Kansas (36.4%) Oklahoma (31.7%). Saying it differently, more than 1/3 of the electricity produced in these three states combined come from wind energy.

The upside remains huge, especially referencing the two states that have no wind mills. The cost of wind energy is compelling and it is does not have the environmental degradation and cost of coal or does not leak methane or use water to acquire like natural gas. And, this does not reflect the huge growth in solar energy that has occurred and will occur.

I take pride that we are moving forward in spite of the efforts of the US president to play up fossil fuel. I would listen to the counsel of deceased oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, who said almost ten years ago, natural gas will buy us time, but the future of energy in the middle of the country is wind energy. It should be noted, Exxon Mobil was just removed from the Dow Jones as its capitalization has fallen.

Please remember Pickens’ words as he noted the wind blows across the plains states. And, the sun also shines across the country. More on that source later.

Note: Oil rich Texas has made a concerted effort to build wind energy. The following paragraph comes from wfaa.com’s website earlier this year.

“In Texas, the wind blows hardest in the West side of the state. But most people live in the central and eastern parts. So, Texas built 3,600 miles of electric transmission lines to carry power out of the most remote parts of the state. The legislature called it Competitive Renewable Energy Zones.Feb 16, 2020”

Fossil fuel energy may have seen a global turning point

Earlier this week, Reuters in the UK posted an article called “Fossil fuels for power at turning point as renewable surged in 2019 – data.” A link to the article is below. A few excerpts from the article are telling:

“The use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil for generating electricity fell in 2019 in the United States, the European Union and India, at the same time overall power output rose, a turning point for the global energy mix. Those countries and regions are three of the top four largest producers of power from fossil fuels. The declines suggest the end of the fossil fuel era could be on the horizon, said Tomas Kaberger, an energy professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, who provided the power generation data to Reuters.

Kaberger, who is also the chair of the executive board for Japan’s Renewable Energy Institute and a member of the board at Swedish utility Vattenfall AB, provided data covering more than 70% of the world’s power generation that showed for most of 2019 the amount of power sourced from fossil fuels dropped by 156 terawatt hours (TWh) from the year before. That is equal to the entire power output of Argentina in 2018.

The data also indicates that renewable power generation increased at a faster rate than the overall growth in power output for the first time, rising by 297 TWh versus 233 TWh for overall output, Kaberger said.

‘It is economics driving this as low-cost renewable electricity outcompetes against fossil and nuclear power plants,’ said Kaberger.”

The last quote from Kaberger is extremely important. The economics of renewables relative to their fossil fuel counterparts are driving the movement. The argument that renewables cost more is not relevant any more. And, when you factor in the present value of all costs – acquisition, transport, environmental degradation, production, water loss, health, storage, maintenance and litigation – renewables beat the pants off fossil fuel energy.

So, when you hear fossil fuel arguments such as cost, use the above example. When you hear fossil fuel arguments such as jobs, solar and wind energy jobs are growing at double digit rates. The big picture question is if we can use a non-polluting, renewable energy at the same or better cost, and create jobs, is that not the best path forward?

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-electricity-fossilfuel-decline/fossil-fuels-for-power-at-turning-point-as-renewables-surged-in-2019-data-idUKKBN20R0I6?feedType=RSS&feedName=worldNews

Coal can’t be made great again says conservative economist

Walter Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans and a Libertarian. He recently penned an op-ed piece in The New York Times called “Coal can’t be made great again.”

Block sets the context for free-market thinking using more basic purchases – shoes, clothes, restaurant meals. This “leave it to the market forces” is a mantra for free-market Republicans. Yet, as Block notes “One would think that Republicans would apply that same logic to our fuel industry.”

He adds while government has a “legitimate role” in ensuring the safety of nuclear and other plants, “it should not favor, or oppose, nuclear power, gas, oil, coal, wind, water, solar, or any other source of energy over any other.”

He also notes a couple of observations of data points which reveal “the market is moving away from coal.” First, he writes “In 2016, American reliance on coal had dipped to 30% of total electric energiy expenditure, from about 50% in 2000. In contrast, natural gas and even wind, solar and water power are becoming less expensive, and will likely take on a greater share of the overall energy industry.”

Second, he notes “For the first time, as predicted by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analytsis, in April, renewables generated more electricity than power plants fueled by what was once called ‘King Coal.'”

It is through these lenses, he views the efforts to subsidize coal use and place tariffs on imported solar panels as a political attempt to “pick winners.” We should not be “propping up coal” at the expense of alternative energy sources.

In my view, we are passed the tipping point on coal. New plants are too costly to build and the present value cost of acquiring, transporting, burning, storing the ash, health and environmental degradation and litigation of coal exceeds other sources. Further, the solar energy jobs are 4x the number of coal jobs. And, wind energy is soaring in growth, especially through the plains states.

This is not a US-centric result. Renewables are growing rapidly abroad with Germany now getting more energy from renewables than coal. China has been heavily investing in solar panels. But, my favorite global example is southern Australia is now solar powered using American Elon Musk’s battery storage and a French company’s installation of solar panels. Three continents came together to forge a renewable future.

While I agree with Block for the most part, government can play a role to help move forward cleaner energy initiatives, at least temporarily. So, the temporary 30% tax credit for solar power installation makes sense, especially when our Department of Defense continues to cite climate change as a significant threat to national security, even under the current president.

But, as the renewable costs have become more on par from a production standpoint, they can stand on their own without the tax subsidy. Embracing future technologies that will drive the economy is essential. As an example, yesterday, Toyota announced the movement from 2030 forward to 2025 when 1/2 of their vehicle sales will be electric cars, with batteries being made in China. So, if our leaders look backwards too much, we might get passed by.

 

 

 

 

Kudos to Scotland

Last weekend on PBS Newshour, a two-part series called “Scotland is betting on tidal energy” was presented. Per the series, Scotland “is nearly 70% powered by renewable sources already, with the goal of reaching 100% by 2020, 10 years ahead of schedule.” Let that quote sink in a little – by 2020. Their focus has been on offshore wind energy, but the true wave of the future is tidal energy.

A project in the Pentland Firth is called MeyGen which includes three tidal wave turbines each with three thirty foot blades, the apparatus weighing 150 tons. The turbines provide a very predictable amount of energy powering over 1,000 homes each. “As the tide ebbs and flows, the turbines spin between 7 and 15 times a minute generating power to a wind turbine.”

Tim Cornelius, the CEO of SIMEC Atlantis said the tidal turbines have been expensive at first and have required half the cost to be subsidized by the Scottish government. But, he said the costs are coming down and after one year the cost of production is 50% of the year before. The turbines also build off existing technology used in the oil and gas energy, with cranes, ships and equipment to position a new turbine.

Scotland has been the leading edge implementer of these tidal turbines and others are taking notice. Cornelius says SIMEC plans to deploy 250 additional tidal turbines in the next several years. Other coastal countries are taking notice and creating their own pilots. The US is behind others, but will be investing in a testing facility off the Oregon coast.

As discovered with solar and onshore and offshore wind energy, the production costs decline over time so as to be more on par with fossils fuel production costs. But, in my view, when all costs are factored in – maintenance, litigation, environmental degradation, transportation, water loss and health – renewables are far cheaper than fossil fuel. For example, maintaining coal ash is a cost that never goes away.

While good things are happening with renewables in the US, we can all learn from countries like Scotland. We have a few cities like Burlington, VT, Georgetown, TX and Greensburg, KS which are 100% renewable energy powered. And, while California is a solar power and Texas a wind power champion, we have far more ways to go.

So, kudos to Scotland!

 

A Portugese Energy Company knows about US Growth

An article in Reuters earlier this week noted a Portugese energy company that knows first hand where energy growth is occurring in the United States. It may be surprising to the current White House, but not the market, the growth is not in the coal energy sector.  Per Timothy Gardner’s article “EDP bullish on US renewable power despite Trump’s support for coal” in Reuters, the following quote is compelling.

“‘U.S. renewables represent the growth engine of our company,’ António Mexia, who since 2006 has run the power utility EDP (EDP.LS), one of Portugal’s biggest companies, said in an interview on Tuesday.

U.S. wind and solar power projects represented 65 percent of new investments last year at EDP’s renewables arm EDPR (EDPR.LS), and are expected to continue at that rate in 2018 and in 2019, Mexia said. EDPR operates renewable projects in 11 other countries in Europe and the Americas.”

This is not inconsistent with other measures in America as solar and wind energy growth have risen with the continual fall in pricing. And, it is showing up in recurring double digit job growth in solar and wind energy.

I have cited the significant increase in wind energy across our plains states, but this is following the forecast of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, who appeared on “60 Minutes” more than five years ago. He noted that natural gas expansion is a bridge to wind energy. It is just buying us time to get the infrastructure ready and prices to get more effective. It should be noted that several states get over 10% of their electricity from wind energy, with Iowa  at just under 33% leading in percentage of total and Texas at 16% producing the most wind energy due to its size.

In California, North Carolina, Florida and other southern states in the east and west, solar energy is growing significantly. California, by itself, would be one if the most prolific solar countries. And, Tesla is more of a battery storage company than car company. Elon Musk went live with a massive battery storage site to help a French company power southern Australia with solar energy. It truly is a global industry, so seeing a Portugese company invest here in the US is not unusual.

The growth in energy jobs are in renewables. It would be nice if this was more publicly recognized by all of our elected leaders, not just the ones who are not funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Three More Renewable Energy Tidbits

In an effort to highlight continuing good news on the renewable energy front, here are three new stories. First, Google has now invested more than twice the nearest company or organization in renewable energy. Google can claim that they generate enough power through renewable energy to cover 100% of their global electricity needs in data centers and offices. Amazon does a lot as well, but they are in a distant second.

Second, Elon Musk’s Tesla Company is primarily a battery company parading as an electric car company. Last week, forty days ahead of schedule, Tesla switched on a 100 MW lithium ion superbattery storage facility in Southern Australia, which will help power 30,000 homes through renewable wind energy provided by French company Neoen. Musk said in the spring if they could not deliver on the promise in 100 days, the batteries and installation would be free.

Third, last week in Miami, the second annual conference on Companies vs. Climate Change was held. Companies like Ford, GM, Walmart, and Mars, e.g. were in attendance. While all regret the President announcing the US pull out of the Paris Climate Change Accord, they are not letting that stop their movement down the path of battling climate change.

It would be nice if the President supported global efforts, but he cannot stop the significant progress that is occurring. And, as one climate scientist has said, Trump did everyone a favor by the announced withdrawal, as it has heightened the urgency and brought even more attention to the problem.

Let’s keep up the momentum.

The Renewable Energy Train continues to board former skeptics

I have written before the renewable energy train has left the station. The current White House incumbent’s position on climate change and promoting more fossil fuel development, can slow the train, but he cannot stop the market forces that are driving it down the track.

A newspaper story reprinted today supports this thesis and illustrates how more unlikely folks are getting on board the train. An editorial from the Fayetteville (NC) Observer entitled “Solar turning a corner in NC?” noted the opening of the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi. But, a new solar farm in NC is not news, as NC trails only California in solar energy.

What I found newsworthy beyond the size is the attendance at the grand opening of at least two Republican politicians – US Representstive Robert Pittenger and State Senator John Szoka. Szoka had spearheaded a renewable energy support bill, which is ironic since he was a previous skeptic. He noted “What changed my opinion is facts. Facilities like this are drawing down the cost of energy.”

But, these folks are not alone. There are groups like Conservatives for Clean Energy that are helping to propel the train. There is the work in several red states that have developed wind energy into a sizable part of their energy portfolio. These plain states like Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, e.g. are investing heavily in this increasingly cheaper source, with Iowa getting 1/3 of its electricity from wind energy.

I highlight the Conservatives who are jumping on the train, as unfortunately, climate change and renewable energy have been made a political issue. The people who have made it so are the fossil fuel companies who continue to wield their powerful influence to garner more profits. The White House incumbent and his cabinet are perpetuating this influence, but fortunately they are on the wrong side of the tracks and market forces and other political, business and citizen leaders are moving the train forward.