Big Oil and Big Data

December 1, 2013 1 comment

In the past one year, the media buzzword is Big Data. Big Data is the deluge of data that arrives in 3 V’s – volume, variety and velocity. The widespread uses of smartphone, sensors and the internet have seen this phenomenon repeated in almost all industries.

The oil industry is none the exception, with exploration and production activities being key beneficiaries of the productivity from Big Data. Oil exploration and production has come a long way with use of new techniques like fracking and horizontal drilling, and new resources in the deep seas, shale and oil sands. Oil companies now use distributed sensors, real-time communications and data mining techniques to monitor and fine-tune these in-coming data. In Chevron’s case, this traffic alone exceeds 1.5 terabytes a day. The increase in efficiency from these data uses can make production economical in otherwise costly productions. In a recent talk by Pattern Discovery attended by the author, he learnt that the company data mining solutions have reduced production costs of tar sands in Alberta by an impressive $5/ bbl!

The coming revolution in Big Data for Big Oil however comes not in remote E&P activities but in something much closer to home – that of cars! 

Back in 2012, Google launched its first driverless car. And in 2014, (yes that is a month away!), 3 car companies are expected to jump into the bandwagon as well – Volvo, BMW and Mercedes. One can ask what an internet search engine is doing with producing cars? These cars are no ordinary cars – with a variety of sensors, radars, cameras that makes it driver-less and autonomous. These autonomous cars interact with one another and with central controls like in geospatial Google maps – optimising routes, controlling traffic, avoiding accidents, computing fuel usage etc. Imagine this being multiplied for the thousands of cars in a grid city sending information real-time – the deluge of Big Data!

New engine technology has increased vehicle mileage efficiency and decreased American gasoline consumption over the past few years. The use of Big Data technology in ‘driving cars’ will be the next game changer. Already, this is happening as McLaren attributes the predictive SAP Hana as a key factor in it winning the F1 race amidst fast real-time data coming from its car sensors.

Fast forward to 2020 for the collision between Big Oil and Big Data.

2012 in review

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 20,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 5 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

Categories: Uncategorized

Energy independence – divergent European and American paths meet

July 25, 2012 2 comments

In recent months, many have touted that the United States is on the road to energy independence. Citibank pointed in the early part of the year that the emergence of shale oil and shale gas and increased vehicle efficiency may make USA the new Middle East of Oil, whilst Philip Verleger, a famed American economist argued that the US will be energy independent in that it will export more oil than it imports by 2023. In March 2012, the United States exports of petroleum products exceeded imports for the first time since six decades.

Whilst the Americans satiate their energy appetite with advanced lateral and horizontal drilling for tight oil and gas, the Europeans are pursuing their own energy agenda via a different route.

Divergent paths to energy independence

The use of gas instead of coal in power generation has reduced American carbon emission by 450 mt over the past 5 years. At the same time, lower energy costs have resulted in a renaissance of industry in the States, with thousands of jobs created and the relocation of petrochemical and fertiliser industries back to the States.

In Europe, countries are adopting a renewables approach towards energy independence instead. Germany’s adoption of Energiewende – an energy turnaround or transformation – faces hurdles to meet all its targets. The Irish targets renewables to be 20% of all energy sources by 2020. These targets are made more arduous by European countries phasing out nuclear power, whilst shale gas lumbers with environmental and geological obstacles in the continent.

Divergent paths meet on transportation

Even as renewables growth accelerates over the next 5 years and natural gas increase its share as an energy source, energy independence in both continents hinges on the key transportation sector. The transportation sector unlike the power sector is made up of disparate millions of vehicles which face inertia to fuel type change relative to more concentrated power stations.

Both continents’ success hinges on reducing the use of gasoline (for America) and diesel (for Europe) in vehicles. The Europeans will largely depend on electric vehicles to wean off oil. However a recent IEA report highlighted the muted impact of electric vehicles – only 5 million of vehicles sold in 2020 or 5% of total vehicles production. It may take another 30 years for electric vehicles to make a material impact, during which re-charging stations and the mileage range of electric vehicles are improved.

The greater abundance of natural gas for the Americans may see it adopt natural gas (CNG / LNG) vehicles as an interim solution for energy independence. However, similar issues arise for this type of vehicles – re-fuelling stations and the mileage range. In the case of natural gas though, prices are not likely to remain at present depressed levels. Advancing renewables technologies on the other hand are likely to see a decrease in unit costs of production over time.

A blighted dawn in the Straits of Hormuz?

May 21, 2012 Leave a comment

In early 2012, the US and its allies imposed crude oil export sanctions on Iran for alleged infringement of its nuclear activities. The market reacted in turmoil. The sanctions were met with a flurry of analysis. Possible scenarios were drawn on the blockage of the Straits of Hormuz and if Saudi Arabia has sufficient capacity to make up for the lost crude – in a worst case scenario up to 12mmpbd of crude. Prices were predicted to rise to $200/bbl derailing the world economic recovery.

Since then, European countries including Italy and Greece which import substantial Iranian crude highlighted the crippling effects of the sanctions at a crucial stage of the debt crisis. Several Asian countries including Japan, India and China too commented on the difficulties of replacing light sour Iranian crude in the existing tight market. The sanctions were delayed to July 2012 to allow countries look for replacement crudes.

Three months later in May 2012, the IEA reported that the Iranian production has decreased by 200kb/day and is expected to decrease by 1mmbpd by mid summer. Iran used to export 2.5 mmbpd before sanctions were imposed. Most of the reduction in crude exports (500kbd) is coming from European compliance, whilst Asian countries (including China, India, Sri Lanka) seek waivers. Meanwhile, a 1.5 mmbd pipeline from the UAE oil fields will be completed in mid 2012 to bypass the Straits of Hormuz for export via the Fujairah terminal.

Over the past few decades sanctions have proved to be an ineffective weapon against erring nations. The emergence of a multi-polar world has further weakened the sanctions. Emerging growth economies with a voracious appetite for oil provide alternative markets for exports. It did not help that the developed economies themselves have been preoccupied with restorative measures for their ailing economies. In France and the USA, presidential elections are held this year, which would have made any punitive measure on Iran likely. Early in May, Monsieur Hollande displaced Sarkozy as president. Sarkozy had been known for his hardline stance against the Iranian regime.

These reconciliatory stances appeared to defuse the tension due to the sanctions. This even as the frequent rhetoric of war in the media desensitized public reaction to it. Has a false sense of dawn and peace then set in the Straits of Hormuz? Will the looming sanctions actually impact the bargaining stance of the nations?

The Iranian oil minister recently predicted a rise to $160/ bbl if sanctions take effect – an increase of $70 from today’s $90 prices. At this price, Iranian oil revenues are estimated at $240 million (1.5 mbbls x $160/bbl) whilst pre-sanctions, oil revenues are estimated at $232 million ( 2.5 mbbls x $93/bbl). Depending on the amount of export loss and the resulting gain in crude price, the Iranians may actually ‘profit’ from the sanctions. The table below has export bbls lost on one axis and the export revenue gain on the other axis. Green cells indicate a net revenue inflow whence the gain in price outweighs the loss in crude, while the red cells indicate the opposite. Interestingly, the $70 price gain postulated by the oil minister corresponds to a positive revenue flow for a loss of 1mmbd in throughput.

Table showing effects of oil price change and export loss on revenue

It remains to be seen then if a surprise springs up. Afterall the weather is capricious. Nations are too. What the analysis above shows though, it will not be the sanctions that will provoke a reaction.

What can international climate treaties do (and not do) actually?

April 5, 2012 Leave a comment

The last few Conferences of the Parties COP have resulted in impasse among the developed and developing countries. Notably the less developing countries highlighted common but differentiated responsibilities amongst the developed countries on carbon dioxide emissions. Whilst developing countries acknowledged the need to curb their carbon dioxide emissions, they also emphasised that it was the economic and industrial development of the developed countries that have brought emissions to its present high level. Developing countries (including the likes of China and India) would not sacrifice the economic development and well being of its populace to reduce carbon emissions. On the other hand, developed countries highlighted the growing emissions of the developing nations (China is now the biggest emitter in the world). Whilst Europe is willing to go it alone, the same commitment cannot be said of other developed countries. Notably the USA would not go agree to any legally binding target without the participation of the developing countries.

Legally binding targets: the be all and end all?

That makes legally binding targets and enforcement – a key objective of international treaties hard to achieve. Negotiations lumbered on with the last COP 17 in Durban hailed as a breakthrough just for a ‘roadmap’ to an agreement in 2015. The difficulties are obvious – the recent EU unilateral move on an airlines tax on carbon emissions invoked threats of trade war and retaliation by China, India, Russia and the USA, with the latter even commenting that it was an infringement on their ‘sovereignty’. Given the nations do not even agree to economic payments of ~$10 million, how likely they will agree on more holistic international agreements?

In an ideal scenario, the international treaties sought to achieve legally binding caps on carbon emissions amongst the nations. These caps would preferably be linked via a global cap and trade agreement as a carrot and stick incentive for nations to reduce their emissions. The objective of a global market for a cap and trade is to assign a price on carbon and thence incentivise carbon abatement programs like renewable energies and carbon sequestration and storage (CCS). Much contention arises on the level of cap for each nation. Too low a level and at which base year would impede its economic growth.

This makes it difficult for carbon intensive countries like Canada to agree to binding agreements. Canada with its vast resources of heavily pollutive tar sands has already backed out of the Kyoto Protocol it originally was a signatory to. Other countries like Venezuela (Orinco heavy oils) and OPEC would have found it equally hard on any agreement. Even Japan with the recent closure of its nuclear plants in exchange for fossil fuels generation will find it hard to replace them in time with renewable energies to meet targets.

Market economics and technological drivers:

What international treaties fail to achieve – that of an equitable carbon price and incentives for carbon abatement projects and development are already been driven at national levels and on bilateral agreement levels. This is more the result of corporate entrepreneurship in response to rising oil prices than environmental conscientious governments.  The EU ETS – a result of the multi-lateral Kyoto Protocol has seen its carbon price fell to a record low of €6.05 in early April 2012.  This was the combination of record corporate investment into renewable energy generation and warm weather that caused an over-allocation of EUAs – a flaw of the cap and trade system that artificially assigns emissions permit quota. Present political discourse is ongoing to reduce the emissions quota so has to increase the EUA price. A higher carbon price is needed to send a strong signal to companies to invest in costlier carbon abatement technologies.

A cost-benefits study of climate change policies recommends a carbon price that slowly increases through the next decade. An initial low price would enable it to pick low-lying fruits (of low marginal abatement benefits). This is increased through the 2020s when more advanced abatement technologies become more economically feasible. A too high an initial price set would create large opportunity costs to other measures of social and economic welfare.

Recent technological advances and economies of scale have however made in some cases –carbon abatement technologies competitive. For example, onshore wind generation in some cases have reached grid parity. Solar PV generation costs have also been drastically reduced and projected by experts to be competitive with conventional electricity by 2015. Generally, on levelised costs of generating electricity basis, onshore generation of electricity costs between $70-225/ MWh. Solar PV electricity costs $200-$300/MWh. Coal generation and gas-fired levelised costs of electricity have cost between $40-$120/ MWh depending on the costs of fuel. See the 2010 IEA electricity generation costs by fuel. Over the past decade, renewable generation of electricity have benefited from subsidies and feed-in tariffs, which provided it initial consumer acceptance and lower costs. It is a victim of its own success now with a cut of the solar installation subsidy in Germany by as much as 29% from 1 Apr ’12 while the tax breaks for wind manufacturers in USA may not be extended beyond end of this year.

Other economic factors are at work in growing renewable generation. With spiralling growth in fuel consumption due to a youthful population, many Middle East countries have seen its crude export volumes drop. Notably Saudi Arabia saw its crude consumption increase from 1.2 in 2001 to 2.6 mb/d in 2011. Several Middle East countries still use expensive fuel oil/ crude oil for electricity generation. If this trend continues, Saudi Arabia may even turn to be a net importer of crude oil however unlikely it is in 2035. The Middle East governments recognise this and are building wind farms and exploiting its sunny conditions for solar power. A recent growth spurt has seen Abu Dhabi establishing Masdar city – an envisioned zero emissions city. See the article Middle East countries have reasons to back renewable energies. Other countries like Egypt and UAE are taking marginal steps towards non- fossil fuels generation (including nuclear generation). Another key reason that OPEC countries are backing renewable energies is that oil is still expected to retain its place as a main primary energy supplier till 2030s as assured by all outlook reports by IEA, BP and Shell.

What incremental benefits of international treaties?

Given the inexorable costs reduction of renewable technologies and its deployment, what will be the incremental benefits of legally binding emissions targets and the artificial market conditions created by international treaties ? It will hasten the development of certain backstop technologies -in particular carbon sequestration and storage (CCS). The CCS has been recognised by IEA as a lever technology to lower world carbon dioxide emissions from 2020s. An estimated carbon cost of €40-50 per tonne will make it economically feasible now, when present price is only €6. However, existing CCS technology is still at a research stage for fixed electricity installations. The only economic use of CCS is in enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The World Coal Association updates a current map of CCS projects.

Another backstop technology that may be promoted is electric vehicles – notwithstanding technologies/ measures like – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass and energy efficiency programs that are already growing without multi-lateral treaties. Electric vehicles however source their power from power generation facilities. Only if the latter power is from renewable generation will carbon emissions be reduced. Further, due to existing vehicle life span – only 20 million electric vehicles (source IEA) out of 1 billion vehicles is expected to be on the roads. This may reduce an estimated 0.2 Gt of total 30 Gt annual emissions (with transportation contributing ~30% emissions) – not much incremental benefit.

Does oil storage increase prior to rainy days?

March 31, 2012 Leave a comment

It is old wisdom that one should save for rainy days. Somehow in the economics sense, this adage was lost, especially in the modern context of optimising between saving for the future, or investment and consumption in the present. With the existing low interest rates environment, there is much less incentive to store and save for the future.

Supply disruptions are rainy days:

In the oil markets, do players store for rainy days? This is especially pertinent with the overhang of geopolitical tensions in the Middle East – what with Iranian sanctions planned for the middle of year and a much debated but never concluded Iranian threats in the Straits of Hormuz. Obviously, the governments do not agree as the US, UK and France contemplate a strategic oil release. Critics write it is politically motivated with the coming Presidential elections in November. The release can be construed for smoothing price increases or for discouraging speculators away. Even more so, the timing and size of its release remain suspense to market players. My game theory lessons on incomplete information equilibrium taught me it is a wise act to prolong its intended deflating effect. Speculators anticipate its release and dare not go long, whilst governments leverage on the information asymmetry to its full effects.

The original intent for oil storage is to buffer against surprise supply shocks so that users (the refiners) can maintain operational effectiveness. This must be seen in the different interests of the commercial players (oil producers and trading houses) and governments that store strategic petroleum reserves (SPR) though. Whilst commercial players seek to maximise profits, governments seek to minimise supply disruptions from inexorable events.

Commercial and strategic storage:

A look at the graph of the crude stocks by the EIA shows negligible storage by the US DOE over the past few years. In fact, spring of 2011 shows a SPR IEA coordinated release in response to the Libya civil war disruptions. An increase occurred in the spring of 2009 to take advantage of depressed prices in the financial crisis. A plateau has since occurred for the last year in 2011. A similar inspection of commercial storage showed the same market behaviour during the financial crisis in the second half of 2008 and spring of 2009, with an increase of inventory by almost 50 million barrels over half a year.

The author hesitates to draw any conclusion during 2011 when Cushing tanks were full. This was a period when WTI started to lose its importance as an international benchmark. Noticeably though since the beginning of the year 2012, commercial storage has increased by 25 million bbls. Was this in anticipation of the Iranian sanctions looming in June?

source: EIA, DOE

Contango and backwardation:

An analysis of oil storage is not complete without examining the forward curve contango and backwardation. Historically, commodities markets are in backwardation norm as producers willing pay a spot premium for their operations.  For the crude oil markets, this will be for the continued operations of refineries. After 2004, the oil markets begin to be ‘financialised’ and ‘globalised’ with more market players, and become more volatile with rising prices. The market structure flipped into contango seen in the graph below. The huge spikes above $10 in the second half of the 2008 and early spring 2009 during the financial crisis were periods mentioned when commercial storage increased greatly.

WTI M4-M1 : source EIA

Post 2004, major investment banks decided to enter into physical storage play alongside existing oil trading houses (like Vitol and Glencore), realising there were profits to be made. For storage to work, these entities long the spot cargo and short the forward curve a few months out to lock in their arbitrage profits with the higher contango. In the process, they lease out storage tanks and pay a leasing fee ranging from $0.15-$0.50/bbl per month.

Oil speculation or storage? A conclusion.

These storage plays account for major profits among so called ‘speculators’ or non commercial players classified by the CFTC1. Back to the original question if oil storage increases prior to rainy days? Oil storage occurred not due to some prudent mind saving up for the rainy days, but for an invisible hand of the market. Investment banks and trading houses invest in storage plays and in the process sold down the forward curves a few months out. Although storage plays increase spot prices, this potentially helped to smooth future price increases. The present contango to June ’12 out is about +$1.5o as of end March –  a result perhaps of the storage plays shorting and depressing the forwards. It would not be conceivable with the upcoming sanctions in June, the market ascribes only such a small premium from that month.

A re-look at the first graph on storage shows that actual oil storage has not changed much beyond the 1990s. In fact, storage was much higher during the 1990s, before the oil markets became ‘financialised’. This needs to be seen in context as oil prices were in the $10s and $20s back then and the opportunity and capital costs for storage were much lower. There was also a higher spare capacity of oil production.


1 – Other strategies are geographical arbitrage plays where physical players ship oil from one region to another to take advantage of regional price differences. An excellent example of geographical occurred during the Hurriance Katrina and Rita, when gasoline shortages in USA were quickly remediated with imports across the Atlantic. Physical blending or the undesirable pure flat price punt are other strategies.

Nuclear energy – it isn’t dead yet

March 15, 2012 Leave a comment

The Fukuskima nuclear accident took place exactly a year ago with a death toll of 19,000. After the accident, Governments around the world shelved new nuclear generation plans, and inspected safety regulations of existing plants.

This proved however only to be a temporary blip in the nuclear industry. Only Japan and Germany have enacted legislation to dismantle existing power plants. In most developed countries, existing nuclear plants are allowed to run till the end of their life spans. A number of developing countries in the Arab gulf, Africa and Asia have also indicated interest in nuclear power generation. Notably, in the USA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) just approved the first nuclear plant since 1978 in Georgia. For an excellent note on nuclear energy post Fukushima, see the IAEE article for a summary.

In this article, the author writes that nuclear energy will still remain an integrated part of the energy portfolio of the future. In fact un-tellingly, it is still important in projected energy scenarios of the future.

Nuclear remains part of the energy portfolio

In the BP energy outlook to 2030 (this was done post Fukushima), nuclear energy share of world primary energy is expected to remain constant at ~7%, even though power consumption is expected to increase 50% from 22,000TWh now. A public website of the IAEA indicates 63 nuclear power plants presently under construction after 13 plants were shut-down during the 2011 accident.

 Growth of world power generation

Growth of world power generation

Key reasons underpin the continued importance of the nuclear energy. Firstly, as a baseload generator of electricity, it complements renewable generation intermittent nature. Advances in technology are also reducing the size and costs of nuclear plants set-up. Notwithstanding that it doesn’t have carbon emissions is also an advantage although the concerns over environmental waste far outweigh this.

Electricity demand during the night and winter is generally higher than during the day and summer in the temperate regions. The former peak load generation accounts for much of the capacity generation which are not well utilised during base load generation. This leads generally to power plants being used at generally low capacity factors of 30-50%, and with consequential higher construction and efficiency costs. The intermittent nature of solar and wind energies do not fit into these electricity usage patterns generally, and need to be supplemented by base load nuclear generation, which operates continuously.

In fact, it is this mismatch in generation and consumption that necessitate energy storage. The latter is presently under much research, with promising advance in hi-tech batteries and hydro-electric storage. Energy storage together with distributed electricity resource systems (DER) are instrumental to the much hyped smart grid technology being employed in future. DERs are small modular energy generation and storage facilities that adjust to the electricity consumption patterns.

Small modular reactors (SMR) may hold the promise of nuclear energy being used in DERs. SMRs are typically 1/10th to 1/3rd of a typical nuclear power plant with ~1 GW. These SMRs have the advantages of lower turn-around time and costs, and being custom built for specific industrial / municipal uses. These come in useful in the uncertain regulatory climate for nuclear energy with approvals often spanning years and costing billions of dollars. A 1GWe of nuclear plant for example costs an estimated $2b. SMRs embed best safety practices used in conventional nuclear plants but has smaller potential hazards with its ‘smaller size’.

Nuclear energy has its past setbacks with the Cherboyl and the Three Mile Island accidents. Lessons were learnt but nuclear energy will stay on in spite of the recent Fukushima accident. The author ends the note with a youtube video on the Fukushima nuclear accident as a testament to its devastation and the loss of lives.


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