The U.S. Energy-Climate World Upheaval: 2008-2014

If the recent U.S. energy-climate world seems like it’s in upheaval, that’s because it is. Amy Harder of the National Journal, just posted a good synopsis of the monumental changes in the U.S. energy-climate world with her article – The Five Biggest Energy Changes in the Past Six Years. Harder notes:

In 2008, Washington was grappling with what it thought was a scarce supply of oil and natural gas, energy prices were high, presidential candidates of all stripes embraced action on global warming, and President Obama was riding to victory on his slogan of change you can believe in.

Today, six years later, who would have thought this much change would come to the energy and climate world this fast? Here are the biggest changes over the past six years.

The changes that Harder elaborates on include:

–          America’s oil and natural-gas boom

–          The rise of EPA and the fall of climate-friendly Republicans

–          Environmental movement flipping from top down to bottom up

–          Imports and exports of fossil fuels with exports up and imports down

–          Renewable-energy growth, which is objectively significant but still relatively small

Overall, I think this is a helpful, brief summary of the U.S. energy-climate world – basically a good starting point for those interested in more detail on this area.

Natural Gas and Climate Change

The rise in natural gas production, particularly in the U.S., has unquestionably impacted the global energy equation. Fueled by the unconventional-natural-gas revolution, natural gas is now a significant factor in the U.S. and global energy mix. As Sonal Patel summarized from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2013 World Energy Outlook (WEO-2013):

By 2035, natural gas demand will outpace that of any other individual fuel and end up nearly 50% higher than in 2011. Demand for gas will come mostly from the Middle East-driven by new power generation-but also from Asian countries, including China, India, and Indonesia, and Latin America. Power generation continues to be the largest source of gas demand, accounting for around 40% of global demand over the period. New gas plants, meanwhile, are expected to make up around a quarter (or 1,000 GW) of net capacity additions in the world’s power sector through 2035.

Given the seemingly inevitable scenario of natural gas playing a significant role in the energy mix (and particularly in U.S., given the recent unconventional-natural-gas boom), how will its increased use influence climate change and future energy policies? The tenet that natural gas, being a cleaner-burning fuel, will lessen a carbon footprint has been bandied around for awhile now. Amy Harder, from National Journal, picks up this thread with:

First the aforementioned wisdom: Natural gas is unquestionably helping the United States reduce its climate footprint. Our nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped to levels not seen since the 1990s, thanks in part to this cleaner-burning fuel. Natural gas produces half the carbon emissions of coal and about a third fewer than oil. This is why everyone in the Obama administration, including the president himself, can’t talk enough about the climate benefits of natural gas.

Three disparate factors make the relationship between natural gas and climate change not so unequivocally simple and good. Concerns about methane emissions persist, but notwithstanding that challenge, two greater problems loom: First, shifting significantly away from coal to natural gas doesn’t get the planet anywhere close to the carbon-reduction levels scientists say we must reach. And second, while the natural-gas boom is great for the economy and the immediate reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, it has deflated the political urgency to cut fossil-fuel dependence, which was more compelling when we thought our resources of oil and natural gas were scarce. We have a great problem of energy abundance.

Obviously, natural gas is not the total panacea for “fueling” the transition to a carbon-negative energy mix. But given the current and predicted production/market conditions, it will be a considerable part of the future global energy equation. There is more info over at websites like cooleffect.org for those who want to see what they can do personally to help their carbon emissions be reduced.

Whose Land Is It Anyways?

The development of energy resources is typically dependent upon the availability of infrastructure such as hydrocarbon pipelines and transmission lines. Many of the issues concerning energy development and consequently infrastructure construction focus on the impact of climate change generated by a particular energy resource. The continuing controversy over the permitting of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline is a flashpoint in the debate over the development of Canada’s tar sands and its impact on climate change. Likewise, many wind- power advocates champion this use of renewable energy to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and catastrophic climate change.

The issues regarding energy resources and their impact on climate change are paramount to future energy policies. However, there is another significant concern tied to energy/infrastructure development, and that is the associated landowner-eminent domain problem. The movement of energy, whether it is hydrocarbons or electricity, involves infrastructure that is built in large part, on private property. When energy infrastructure is built by private corporations, these entities need to deal with private landowners so that infrastructure can be constructed on their lands. Ideally this is accomplished by corporations and landowners negotiating a fair price for the use of their lands. However, that is truly an ideal world scenario. The reality is that private corporations have lately pushed legislation through numerous state legislatures and court systems to gain the right of eminent domain for their infrastructure projects. The right of eminent domain has historically been used by governments to seize private property for public use and then to fairly compensate the owner for that ”taken” property. However, eminent domain usage for recent private infrastructure projects becomes one where private corporations can take private lands for their private gain. For example, the Montana 2011 legislature passed legislation via House Bill 198 that gives private corporations the right of eminent domain for projects such as nuclear generation and storage, hydro, certain transmission lines, certain major pipe lines, geothermal exploration, transportation links, pump stations and other facilities associated with the delivery of energy that receive permits through the Montana Major Facility Siting Act (see the Concerned Citizens Montana website for background on HB 198 and Geopostings.com for a review on Montana Senate Bill 180, the bill intended for repealing a part of HB 198 during the Montana 2013 legislative session).

In a needed first step for educating the Montana legal and legislative communities about the recent changes in eminent domain law, the State Bar of Montana CLE (Continuing Legal Education) Institute will convene a course on Montana Condemnation Rights on February 14, 2014, at Fairmont Hot Springs, Fairmont, Montana. A link to the course brochure is: MT Condemnation Rights.

The MT CLE course is well balanced in that it contains presentations from many sides of the eminent domain issue. More specific information on the CLE course presentations includes:

–          CONDEMNATION 101—What every real estate practitioner should know about condemnation. An overview of condemnation law in Montana, including condemnation authority, time frames, notices, rights of possession, valuation and attorney fees and expenses. [This element of the program is intended as an overview and not a detailed consideration of the latest developments in Montana law.  However, there should be a brief introduction to the US  Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London (propriety of using the power of eminent domain for economic development purposes) which placed new focus on the intended scope of the power of eminent domain as well as the Montana response.]  (1 hour presentation by Hertha L. Lund, Lund Law PLLC, Bozeman, Montana.)

–          TAKINGS AND TRANSMISSION— This presentation will explore the range of state laws governing eminent domain authority for interstate transmission lines, particularly those designed to bring renewable energy generated in one state to customers in other states.  It will focus in particular on various state approaches to granting private merchant transmission lines eminent domain authority to build transmission lines, and whether such lines are a “public use” for purposes of meeting state statutory eminent domain requirements.  In addressing these issues, this presentation will discuss the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London decision, the litigation and legislative activity surrounding the Montana Alberta Tie Line (MATL) project, some historical context with regard to state constitutional and statutory grants of eminent domain to private parties in the West, and the role of “just compensation” in eminent domain disputes involving transmission lines. (1.25 hours presentation by Professor Alexandra B. Klass, Professor of Law, the University of Minnesota Law School.)

–          THE EASEMENT:  PROCESS, TACTICS AND SUBSTANCE- How and what to negotiate to fully protect landowners’ property rights when confronted with the possibility of transmission lines burdening their land. A negotiation/drafting checklist will emerge which prove extremely helpful for any practitioner handling future utility easements. (1 hour presentation by Dennis R. Lopach, Attorney, Helena, Mt.)

–          THE MONTANA BATTLE: LITIGATION/LEGISLATION RELATING TO PRIVATE EMINENT DOMAIN FOR TRANSMISSION LINES AND OTHER CONTESTED CONDEMNATION ISSUES. A debate to highlight the opposing views by lawyers intimately involved in the process. Participants include: Hertha L. Lund (Private Landowners) Lund Law, PLLC, Bozeman, MT and John Alke (Utilities) Hughes, Kelner, Sullivan and Alke, Helena, MT. Each lawyer will be given 30 minutes to present their case in chief. (Total debate time: 1.5 hours.)

–          HOT TOPIC ROUNDTABLE-  A facilitated panel discussion including all speakers will address “Hot Topics” which have emerged throughout the day. (Facilitator:  Brian Kahn, Attorney, Helena, MT. Total Roundtable time is 1.25 hours.)

The potential use of eminent domain by a private corporation, Northwestern Energy, to build a high-voltage transmission line through a southwestern Montana community.

The potential use of eminent domain by a private corporation, Northwestern Energy, to build a high-voltage transmission line through a southwestern Montana community.

Energy Efficiency and Small-Scale Solar Power Threaten Utilities’ Bottom Lines

Power company revenue is under siege by energy efficiency and small-scale solar power, says a Fitch ratings analyst.

Rooftop solar power and energy-efficiency programs will eat into utility revenue and profit margins and discourage investment in new transmission projects within five years, a Fitch Ratings analyst said.

Utilities in stagnant or low-growth markets in the Midwest and Northeast face the biggest losses as more businesses and homeowners install their own generation systems and upgrade to more efficient appliances, said Glen Grabelsky, Fitch’s managing director of utilities, power & gas. Retirees flocking to southern states may offset some losses for local utilities.

This is serious business for utilities as Bill Howley of The Power Line notes:

Fitch is issuing this report as a warning of downgrades to come if power companies don’t step and squash rooftop solar power soon.

The demand loss for grid electricity will be significant as further remarked by Grabelsky of Fitch Ratings:

Loss of demand from customers that go solar or reduce consumption in other ways will shift more and more grid costs onto customers that do nothing. As there are more and more successful Off Grid Solar Projects, traditional grid companies will have to change with the new developments or be left behind. Power supplied by U.S. utilities declined 3.4 percent last year, largely from energy efficiency and on-site solar generation, which reduces demand for electricity from the grid, Grabelsky said.

Unless utility rate structures change, that will reduce utilities’ abilities to invest in major new projects and upgrade their transmission systems, Grabelsky said.

“It will have a negative impact on their ability to raise capital,” Grabelsky said. “Regulators will ask, ‘Do you really need all that new transmission when there’s no demand growth?’ There’s the potential for stranded assets.”

A recent study by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), “Disruptive Challenges – Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business”, basically reiterates Grabelsky’s view of the threat to utilities by energy efficiency and distributed energy generation. The report details corporate utilities’ angst regarding their customers’ shift to go solar and reduce demand for grid electricity. Many are switching over to prepaid energy plans for their grid electricity, which is a greener option and more cost-effective to manage. With fewer people deciding to have a look for certain types of grid electricity, they are less likely to be overcharged by their utility company, which is good news for the customer.

How will utilities compensate for the loss of demand? Howley, in his “The Power Line” blog, gives a good response:

This translates into: do away with net metering and charge higher rates to people who install solar panels and invest in efficiency.

John Vincent, a former Montana Public Service Commissioner (PSC), in a recent op-ed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, calls the shift away from using corporate grid electricity the “new energy paradigm”. As Vincent explains:

A new paradigm is grabbing hold in the residential, commercial and public sectors of our economy. That is: local distributed or “on site” electrical generation and consumption (wind, solar, small scale hydro, biomas, geothermal, micro turbines, combined heat and power systems etc.) conservation, efficiency and smart-grid technologies (to increase the efficiency and capacity of existing electrical transmission systems rather than of building costly new ones at rate payer expense).

But, as Vincent cautions us:

The new energy paradigm is, for obvious reasons, being met with strong resistance by those who benefit from the status quo. Unfortunately, these self interests still carry a lot of political clout, witness recent Montana legislative sessions.

The “new energy paradigm” is a model that we must embrace. We need to get people and politicians to move on this.

Blog Postscript – Former PSC Commissioner Vincent adds the following clarification on the EEI study mentioned above:

The Edison Electric Institute is Big Power’s number one ally and voice (funded and supported by Big Power) and so their own consultant has: 1. Clearly identified Big Power’s dilemma and, 2. Recommended ways to beat back the new paradigm and maintain the status quo…… at rate payers expense. I think the recommendations cited in the consultant’s report can be boiled down to raising rates (one way or another) to offset the loss of revenue brought about by on site, distributed generation and improved efficiency.

In other words, Big Power will do everything they can to make us (rate payers) pay for distributed energy and efficiency……..the new paradigm, not their stockholders.

North American Oil Supply Jolts Global Markets

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released its annual Medium-Term Oil Market Report (MTOMR) today. I doubt if it will surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the energy markets, but the report’s main assertion is that:

The supply shock created by a surge in North American oil production will be as transformative to the market over the next five years as was the rise of Chinese demand over the last 15.

IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven introduced the report at the Platts Crude Oil Summit in London by saying:

The good news is that this is helping to ease a market that was relatively tight for several years. The technology that unlocked the bonanza in places like North Dakota can and will be applied elsewhere, potentially leading to a broad reassessment of reserves. But as companies rethink their strategies, and as emerging economies become the leading players in the refining and demand sectors, not everyone will be a winner.

The IEA report makes the following prediction for the North American oil supply:

The MTOMR forecasts North American supply to grow by 3.9 million barrels per day (mb/d) from 2012 to 2018, or nearly two-thirds of total forecast non-OPEC supply growth of 6 mb/d. World liquid production capacity is expected to grow by 8.4 mb/d – significantly faster than demand – which is projected to expand by 6.9 mb/d. Global refining capacity will post even steeper growth, surging by 9.5 mb/d, led by China and the Middle East.

The rapid emergence of the rising oil supply will play havoc with the development of other energy sources such as the renewables. It will be extremely interesting to watch how the various energy markets evolve.

For an overview of the MOTR, go to – http://www.iea.org/media/news/MTOMR_2013_OVERVIEW.pdf