I only recently became aware that the 2009 Energy Conference put on by the Energy Information Administration has posted the audio and transcripts of all of the sessions. You can hear the audio or download the transcript from my session – Energy and the Media – here. I summarized the overall conference in two posts right after the conference:
My fellow panelists were Steven Mufson from the Washington Post; Eric Pooley from Harvard, (and the former managing editor of Fortune); and Barbara Hagenbaugh from USA Today. The panel was moderated by John Anderson of Resources for the Future (and a long-time reporter and editorial writer for the Washington Post).
There were questions on the oil price run-up of 2008 (and how the media handled the coverage), false balance in reporting, scale of biofuels versus petroleum usage, peak oil, and the role bloggers are playing now with respect to reporting news.
I will extract portions of my comments below, correcting the transcription as needed for clarity. (For instance, when I said I also write for The Oil Drum, it was transcribed as “aldrum.”)
Mr. Anderson: …subject of energy of the media, a rich subject if ever there was one. My name is John Anderson. I’m joined here by four people who are in the midst of that subject. From my left, Steve Mufson, who writes on this for the Washington Post, and incidentally was also a Beijing Bureau Chief of the Post for several years which turns out to have relevance to our subject. Eric Pooley, who had a long career at Time Incorporated. He was national political correspondent among other things, and managing editor of Time, and has recently been at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Robert Rapier, who resides over the R-SQUARED Energy blog which I and I suspect many of you pay attention to, and Barbara Hagenbaugh who covers economics and energy for USA Today.
I would like to start off by going around the table and asking about a piece of recent history clear in everybody’s minds — four dollar gasoline last summer, $147 oil. That was a huge story for several months. In retrospect, how did we do? Did we get it roughly right? Did we have the causes and consequences roughly right? And in retrospect, what could we have done differently?
My response to that one:
Mr. Rapier: I’ve got a stat counter on my blog, and it tells me what brought people in there and where they came from. “Why are oil and gas prices rising?” is probably the number one keyword search that brings people in. Sometimes ironically from the media, they want to know why oil and gas prices are rising.
I’m an inventory watcher, and I use the EIA data religiously every week when they put out the statistics. On Wednesday I go in and I look to see what oil inventories are doing, what gasoline inventories are doing because we have a pretty good idea of what the gasoline inventory situation is.
So in 2007 we had, I think it was ten or eleven weeks in a row, that gasoline inventories fell, and they fell well below the average range just as we were going into summer driving season. And I got in a little bit of a friendly banter back and forth with Doug McIntyre who wrote This Week in Petroleum at that time, he works for the EIA, and I said I think we’re heading for record gas prices by Memorial Day. He said that generally prices pull off before then and level off. And I said, “Yes, but look at the trend here. The gasoline inventory trend was like this.” I said, “Something has got to give here because demand is just about to pick up.” And sure enough, that’s when we hit $3.00 gasoline by Memorial Day.
In the world oil markets it’s a little bit more murky because we don’t always have good inventory data. Again, we do in the U.S. We’ve got pretty good data in the U.S., but gasoline — if you want to know what gasoline prices are going to do, pay attention to inventories, and the time of year. I mean, if gasoline inventories are low in the fall; it’s not such a big deal. Gasoline inventories low going into summer driving season, that’s something you better watch out for.
Hurricane season. Going into hurricane season you better have good inventories. And we didn’t last year, and that’s again — when the hurricanes started to come in, I warned people we’re going to see some gasoline shortages. And we did because the refineries went down. We didn’t have enough inventories on hand, and suddenly spot shortages.
I was then asked about peak oil:
Mr. Anderson: I hope the EIA is listening. There may be someone from the EIA here for all I know. Robert, you have dealt recently in your blog with the interesting question are we running out of oil? This is one that all reporters constantly have to deal with. How do you deal with that?
Mr. Rapier: It’s obviously a very controversial subject. And often I see very frequently media stories dealing with peak oil as we’re actually not running out of oil. We’ve still got a trillion barrels in the ground. So the issue is not running out of oil. We will never be running out of oil. We will have oil for one hundred more years. It’s can we get it out of the ground fast enough to keep up with demand growth? And that’s where the problem is going to lie in my opinion and forward.
We may see an oil production peak in the next three to five years. There are a lot of very authoritative people who believe that that’s the case. There are some people that would believe that renewables are going to come in and fill that void. I’m not one of those people. I believe it will — there will be a contribution, but if we have a world oil production peak in the next three to five years we’ve got a serious problem.
But again, it’s not about running out of oil. And that’s the most common misconception I see about peak oil when people write about peak oil. They want to debunk that by showing how much oil is left in the ground, and that’s what we’re talking about, issues like one trillion barrels of shale in Utah. The trillion barrels doesn’t help if it takes more than one trillion barrels worth of energy to get it out. In that case it’s useless. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to get that oil out. So we don’t have a trillion barrels of recoverable reserves, maybe a very small fraction of that because the energy balance on that is very marginal.
On the issue of there not always being black and white answers to some of the questions:
Mr. Anderson: Barbara, how does a reporter working from day to day deal with the problem of editors and readers who want sharp clear answers to questions like this that are very much in controversy and very often as Robert suggests aren’t even quite the right questions?
Ms. Hagenbaugh: It’s complicated, and you know, USA Today a lot of times, I’ve got this much space to do all that. So I mean, the most important thing is like Robert just said, there’s two sides to this story and this is always to try to bring that out. I sometimes — editors get frustrated with me because I don’t come out and say this is how it is and this is what the answer is.
On the question of false balance:
Mr. Rapier: I put the question to my readers on my blog and also at The Oil Drum where I write—I said, “Energy in the media, what do we need to talk about?” False balance, probably the most popular answer. One reader gave the example: “scientists discover that the earth is round: flat earth society disagrees.”
The problem is it’s not always clear who the flat earth society is especially in the new biofuels technologies. Algae into biodiesel, is that flat earth thinking that we’re going to be doing that on a grand scale within five years? I can’t even tell for sure early on. I have to really dig and dig.
Steve (Mufson) interviewed me about three or four years ago. It was very early on whenever I was writing about ethanol. He interviewed me for about an hour and one tiny snippet showed up in that story. And I thought, boy, that was a lot of work, but I understand why he did it now. Steve is one of the best writers out there on energy. He does his homework. It really takes a lot of discussion to determine whether I’m credible or a complete nut, and that’s what you have to do. And not everybody does that. And so you get some of this false balance reporting; lazy reporters who simply want quotes from both sides. It’s important for the reporters to really do research. And the good ones do, and the good ones don’t take the false balance approach.
Then came an exchange that was longer than I remembered it being:
Mr. Anderson: Robert speaks with some authority. He’s the one person on the panel, and one of the few people writing on this subject who has a technical background. He’s a chemical engineer, unlike most reporters. Steve, did you want to add anything to that?
Mr. Rapier: That means I can get away without wearing a tie, though, and people forgive me for that.
Mr. Anderson: What about ethanol? How should a reporter approach the future of ethanol? What are the questions he should ask?
Mr. Rapier: Energy in and energy out is very important, but it’s not the only important thing. And I give an example. Some people say that if it takes more than a BTU of a fuel to make a BTU of ethanol that’s a no go. It’s not really because coal, for instance, is quite cheap. So if you took two BTUs of coal to make a BTU of liquid fuel ethanol, from an economic standpoint maybe that’s doable. So the energy in and energy out is not the complete story.
Unintended consequences — I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about what can happen here. What are the things that can happen? Cellulosic ethanol -we turn all this biomass into cellulosic ethanol. What are the implications?
There was a story a while back. Michigan, they figured out they might not have enough trees to fuel this cellulosic ethanol plant because cellulosic biomass in general has a very low energy density. And that’s what I call the logistical problems of cellulosic ethanol. You have to go out farther and farther to fuel this plant. Do the calculations of a mid-size cellulosic ethanol plant; it is going to consume the equivalent of about one million mature trees a year. So think about a 20-year lifetime, 20 million trees, that’s a lot of biomass. And as you get out to the edges of that you’re burning up all your energy getting it back into the plant.
So, those are the kind of things I would question. Your logistics. How are you going to logistically pull this off? How many trucks in and out of days is that? And how in the future are you going to fuel this? A lot of the biofuel options we have are really recycled fossil fuel because they’re entirely dependent on fossil fuel. If fossil fuel prices go up —they have to go up because that’s what they are. They’re fossil fuel. And we really need to go to something — and I talk about the Brazilian ethanol example.
I’m a fan of Brazilian ethanol. I was in India last year, and they do the same thing. I went through a plant. They end up with a waste material at the plant that they have to dispose of bagasse It’s free fuel. Now we don’t have something — in Louisiana and Florida they could potentially do something like that, but the economics of selling molasses and sugar are better than turning it into ethanol, but they do the same thing. They’ve got all the bagasse, and they use it to fuel their plant. A model like that will work. And people sometimes say — and this is some of the false balance that we discussed earlier. Dan Rather, Frank Sesno out there saying, “I was in Brazil. I saw what they did. We can do the same thing.” The problem is we’ve got a higher population than Brazil. We use six times the per capita energy of Brazil. It’s completely apples and oranges.
So, no way can we emulate Brazil, but I see person after person saying the ethanol miracle in Brazil was done because the government set the mandates and they set the standards. What they don’t tell you is that the ethanol miracle really is about 90-percent oil. Ninety percent of their energy comes from oil, and Brazil makes a lot of oil per capita, and they’ve got a lot of oil reserves. That’s how the ethanol miracle in Brazil happened.
On the question of trying to sort what is and isn’t credible:
Mr. Rapier: It’s like Eric said, there’s a lot of garbage out there. And the thing is you can find an argument for any position you wish to make. I can support the flat earth position by things I find on the internet. I can go edit Wikipedia and then use that to support the point that I’m trying to make. So you really have to be careful and you have to know what’s credible, what’s not credible. It’s like drinking from a fire hose. There’s just so much information.
When I’m researching a story, I could take either side and I can support it.
It then went into Q&A from the audience:
Mr. Hall: Yes, Chris Hall, independent oil and gas producer from California. I enjoyed the discussion on ethanol because I think as an industry we spent $135 million to fight Proposition 87 which would have imposed a severance tax, but EIA and the country is focused on reducing our dependence on foreign oil by increasing investment in green energy. And yet the forecasts show the need as you referred to for large supplies of oil and gas and coal during the next 20 years. Meanwhile, the domestic fossil fuels are under attack in Washington, as well as state and local governments, to punish them for last year’s high prices, for polluting the environment, to raise funds to offset deficits, to pay for development of renewable resources, all of which appeal to the public. For example, the Administration 2010 budget would result in the elimination of most of the R&D budget from Department of Energy for the oil and gas industry, would increase 150 percent in oil and gas taxes and a 40 percent reduction in drilling by one account. This will only lead to less domestic oil supply for our needs. How can the media help explain the problem so that we just don’t make matters worse?
Mr. Rapier: I spend a lot of time writing about that kind of issue, and make no mistake I’m a big fan of alternative energy. I would like to see us produce all our energy domestically, but I’m a realist as well. I submitted a question to Secretary Chu yesterday. He did not take it, but it was along the lines of I find it very ironic that he is calling on OPEC to continue producing and at the same time domestic oil and gas has essentially no part in the Administration. So I agree with that. I think the reality is we’re heading down a path here where we’re likely to increase our imports because we’re going to disincentivize our domestic production.
And I know the administration is counting on renewable to fill that gap. I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I believe they will play a part. I believe we should continue to fund that, but I’d also like to see the Administration take a more realistic view of some of these forecasts. Seventy-nine percent oil and gas, maybe that’s not desirable, but that’s what it looks like it’s going to be. So we prefer to get that domestically, I think, as much to the extent possible, but I think we’re just going to be importing it more from OPEC when biofuel targets fall short. We’re going to be counting on Venezuela, and you’ll hear future energy secretaries continue to call on OPEC: “Please don’t cut us off.”
My friend Morgan Downey then asked which books I recommend:
Mr. Downey: Morgan Downey. Just written the book Oil 101. And Robert, I read in your blog this morning that a survey came out earlier this week that said that more than half of Americans could not name one alternative fuel. And is there a role for books and other slow media in improving the average person’s energy IQ and what books in oil would you recommend?
Mr. Rapier: Well, Morgan knows that I’m 250 pages into his book, which is a fantastic book, by the way. The survey you refer to, that was pretty disheartening to read that. I think 51 percent of people surveyed couldn’t name an alternative fuel. Thirty-nine percent couldn’t name a fossil fuel. Nineteen percent said I couldn’t care less. I think you’ll find and I see the same thing, interests waxes and wanes with oil prices. Oil prices are high. Gasoline prices are high. People want to know what’s going on. So the best thing for your book would be for gas prices to start setting new records this year. People will pick up the book and they want to know what’s happening? Why is this happening?
Mr. Downey: Any other books in oil you recommend, or what do you read?
Mr. Rapier: I read a lot of different view points. One of the first ones I ever read was Twilight in the Desert which I think is a good book. It has some faults, but it kind of brings attention to the potential issue with Saudi Arabia. So that was one of the early books that influenced me.
Within the industry, I’m reading technical books on refining. And this is what I told Morgan, that his refining section is incredibly detailed. I don’t think there is a popular book that exists like that with that kind of information. Within the refining industry I’ve got technical refining books, and those are the things that I read to — how do we troubleshoot the cat cracker – and you don’t go into that sort of detail, but for a lay person who really wants to be informed about energy, I can’t give your book a high enough endorsement. I think it’s a fantastic book.
Mr. Rapier: Gusher of Lies by Robert Bryce, I really like that one, too.
There was a question about fact-checking, which was the last thing I responded to:
Mr. Rapier: I have a big issue with fact checking myself. I saw that with the SPR, Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The rate of fill that was reported and picked up and reported and reported was wrong. I showed the actual numbers from the SPR. It was about half what the reported fill rate was. And those kinds of things annoy me. And I wonder why more people don’t. Somebody, somewhere calculated a number based on some monthly fill rate and extrapolated it for a year, and it was just wrong. And then everybody picked it up and just ran with it. So I sympathize.
Anyway, my contribution was only a small part of the whole, which I think went on for about an hour. I would have published this sooner, but only became aware of the transcript about a week ago.