US energy trading and implications for Asia and Philippines

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last November 16, 2017.

bw ener

Among the global leaders who attended the ASEAN Summit 2017 this week in Manila were the leaders of the US, China, Russia, Australia, and India. These five countries are also the top five in having the world’s biggest coal reserves and top five biggest coal producers.

US President Trump in particular emphasized his desire for “reciprocal trade” with Asian countries. Energy trading is a growing sector in the US as it is now the world’s biggest oil and natural gas producer (overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia in oil and gas output, respectively, since 2014) but not yet the world’s biggest exporter of these two commodities.

The subject of Trump’s energy policies was well-discussed by many scholars, researchers, and some players during the “America First Energy Conference” in JW Marriott Houston, Texas last Nov. 9, organized by the Heartland Institute and co-sponsored by many other US-based independent think tanks and research institutes.

I attended that meeting and it seems I was the only Asian in the big conference hall. I went there from a different perspective compared to American participants — to further understand how the evolving US climate and energy policies would impact Asia in the short to long-term, the Philippines in particular.

In his breakfast plenary lecture, Joe Leimkuhler, VP for drilling of LLOG, a deepwater exploration company, discussed whether the US can dominate energy as articulated by President Trump.

“Energy dominance” is defined as being able to meet all US domestic demand and export to markets around the world at a level where they can “influence the market.”

He showed lots of very interesting tables and charts including the usual Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats (SWOT) analysis of current US energy environment. Among his conclusions are the following:

  1. Oil, natural gas — The US can have energy dominance in the short-term but to make it long-term, the shale revolution should be sustained and supported, and if more gas reserves are discovered.
  1. Coal — Supplies can meet domestic demand but may be unable to provide for short-term exports. There are no coal exporting facilities on the West Coast to cater to the biggest coal customers in the world, Asia. The states of Washington, Oregon, and California have passed laws preventing the construction of such facilities or delaying the permits. US coal is cheaper to produce and its quality is higher than other suppliers can give.

Many sessions in the conference provided extra information about the current weaknesses of the US coal industry despite its huge reserves.

In the session on “Peace Dividend: Benefits of Ending the War on Fossil Fuels,” Dr. Paul Driessen, Senior Fellow at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), showed these data on electricity prices, 2017, in US cents/kWh: (a) Germany: residential 35, business and industry 18; (b) California: residential 19, business/commercial 18, industry 14.5; (c) Indiana-Kentucky-Virginia average: residential 11.7, commercial 9.5, industry 6.5. Germany, Denmark, South Australia and California have the highest concentration of wind-solar farms and they have the most expensive electricity prices in the planet.

The US has the largest coal reserves in the world estimated at 381-year supply, shown in the Reserves/Production (R/P) ratio. Russia has the highest R/P ratio because its production and consumption is smaller compared to the US. China has the second biggest reserves but its R/P ratio is small because of its huge production and consumption in million tons oil equivalent (MTOE). In 2016, half of global coal consumption was made in China alone (see table).

Coaltable_111617

Once the US can build those coal export facilities in the West Coast and various anti-coal policies in the Clean Power Plan (CPP) and CO2 Endangerment Findings are finally reversed, Asia will have more options of cheaper and higher-quality coal, aside from what they currently get from Australia, Russia, Indonesia, South Africa, and others.

The Philippines is a small player in the global coal market — very small reserves, negligible production (mostly from Semirara), and meager consumption. Yet many environmentalists seek to further restrict, if not actually prohibit Philippine coal power plants and force us to depend on undependable, unstable, unreliable, erratic, intermittent, and expensive wind-solar energy.

Governments should not pick winners and losers via legislation and multiple regulations, taxation, and selected subsidies. They should allow consumers to realize higher consumer surplus via competition and more choices in energy sources that are cheaper, stable, predictable, and dispatchable.

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