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Renewable diesel boom highlights challenges in clean-energy transition

EU Reporter Correspondent

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For 17 years, trucker Colin Birch has been hitting the highways to collect used cooking oil from restaurants. He works for Vancouver-based renderer West Coast Reduction Ltd, which processes the grease into a material to make renewable diesel, a clean-burning road fuel. That job has recently gotten much harder. Birch is caught between soaring demand for the fuel - driven by U.S. and Canadian government incentives - and scarce cooking oil supplies, because fewer people are eating out during the coronavirus pandemic, write Rod Nickel, Stephanie Kelly and Karl Plume.

“I just have to hustle more,” said Birch, who now sometimes travels twice as far across British Columbia to collect half as much grease as he once did.

His search is a microcosm of the challenges facing the renewable diesel industry, a niche corner of global road fuel production that refiners and others are betting on for growth in a lower-carbon world. Their main problem: a shortage of the ingredients needed to accelerate production of the fuel.

Unlike other green fuels such as biodiesel, renewable diesel can power conventional auto engines without being blended with diesel derived from crude oil, making it attractive for refiners aiming to produce low-pollution options. Refiners can produce renewable diesel from animal fats and plant oils, in addition to used cooking oil.

Production capacity is expected to nearly quintuple to about 2.65 billion gallons (63 million barrels) over the next three years, investment bank Goldman Sachs said in an October report.

Rising demand is creating both problems and opportunities across an emerging supply chain for the fuel, one small example of how the larger transition to green fuels is upending the energy economy. A renewable diesel boom could also have a profound impact on the agricultural sector by swelling demand for oilseeds like soybeans and canola that compete with other crops for finite planting area, and by driving up food prices.

Local and federal governments in the United States and Canada have created a mix of regulations, taxes or credits to stimulate more production of cleaner fuels. President Joe Biden has promised to move the United States toward net-zero emissions, and Canada’s Clean Fuel Standard requires lower carbon intensity starting in late 2022. California currently has a low-carbon standard that provides tradable credits to clean fuel producers.

But the feedstock supply squeeze is constraining the industry’s ability to comply with those efforts.

Demand and prices for feedstocks from soybean oil to grease and animal fat is soaring. Used cooking oil is worth 51 cents per pound, up about half from last year’s price, according to pricing service The Jacobsen.

Tallow, made from cattle or sheep fat, sells for 47 cents per pound in Chicago, up more than 30% from a year ago. That’s boosting the fortunes of renderers such as Texas-based Darling Ingredients Inc and meat packers such as Tyson Foods Inc. Darling shares have about doubled in the last six months.

“They’re spinning fat into gold,” said Lonnie James, owner of South Carolina fats and oil brokerage Gersony-Strauss. “The appetite for it is amazing.”Slideshow ( 4 images )

Clean fuels could be a boon for North American refiners, among the pandemic’s hardest-hit businesses as grounded airlines and lockdowns hammered fuel demand. Refiners Valero Energy Corp, PBF Energy Inc and Marathon Petroleum Corp all lost billions in 2020.

Valero’s renewable diesel segment, however, posted a profit, and the company has announced plans to expand output. Marathon is seeking permits to convert a California refinery to produce renewable fuels, while PBF is considering a renewable diesel project at a Louisiana refinery.

The companies are among at least eight North American refineries that have announced plans to produce renewable fuels, including Phillips 66, which is reconfiguring a California refinery to produce 800 million gallons of green fuels annually.

Once new renewable diesel production capacity comes online, feedstocks are likely to become more scarce, said Todd Becker, chief executive of Green Plains Inc, a biorefining company that helps produce feedstocks.

Goldman Sachs estimates that an additional 1 billion gallons of total capacity could be added if not for issues with feedstock availability, permitting and financing.

“Everybody in North America and around the world are all trying to buy low carbon-intensity feedstocks,” said Barry Glotman, chief executive of West Coast Reduction.

His customers include the world’s biggest renewable diesel maker, Finland’s Neste. A spokesperson for Neste said the company sees more than enough feedstock supply to meet current demand and that development of new feedstocks can ensure supply in the future.

Renewable diesel producers are increasingly counting on soybean and canola oil to run new plants.

The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) is forecasting record-high soybean demand from domestic processors and exporters this season, largely because of soaring global demand for livestock and poultry feed.

Crushers who produce oil from the crops are also scouring Western Canada for canola, helping to drive prices in February to a record futures high of C$852.10 per tonne. Soybeans reached $14.45 per bushel in the United States last week, the highest level in more than six years.

Rising food prices are a concern if the predicted demand for crops to generate renewable diesel materializes, said USDA Chief Economist Seth Meyer. U.S. renewable diesel production could generate an extra 500 million pounds of demand for soyoil this year, Juan Luciano, chief executive of agricultural commodities trader Archer Daniels Midland Co, said in January. That would represent a 2% year-over-year increase in total consumption.

Greg Heckman, CEO of agribusiness giant Bunge Ltd, in February called the renewable diesel expansion a long-term “structural shift” in demand for edible oils that will further tighten global supplies this year.

By 2023, U.S. soybean oil demand could outstrip U.S. production by up to 8 billion pounds annually if half the proposed new renewable diesel capacity is constructed, according to BMO Capital Markets.

That same year, Canadian refiners and importers will face their first full year complying with new standards to lower the carbon intensity of fuel, accelerating demand for renewable diesel feedstocks, said Ian Thomson, president of industry group Advanced Biofuels Canada.

Manitoba canola grower Clayton Harder said it is hard to envision a vast expansion of canola plantings because farmers need to rotate crops to keep soils healthy. Farmers may instead have to raise yields by improving agronomic practices and sowing better seed varieties, he said.

British Columbia refiner Parkland Corp is hedging its bets on feedstock supplies. The company is securing canola oil through long-term contracts, but also exploring how to use forestry waste such as branches and foliage, said Senior Vice President Ryan Krogmeier.

The competition to find new and sustainable biofuel feedstocks will be fierce, said Randall Stuewe, chief executive at Darling, the largest renderer and collector of waste oils.

“If there is a feedstock war, so be it,” he said.

Energy

Kazakhstan will continue to increase oil production under OPEC+ agreement

Astana Times

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Kazakhstan will continue to increase oil production in May, June and July of 2021 following the 15th meeting of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and non-OPEC ministers meeting that took place virtually, the Kazakh Ministry of Energy press service reported, writes Abira Kuandyk in Business.   

“On 1 April, a ministerial meeting of the countries participating in the OPEC+ agreement took place. Collectively countries decided to increase the current production level of OPEC+ countries by 350,000 barrels per day in May and June and by 450,000 barrels per day in July,” said the Kazakh Ministry of Energy in a press statement. 

Kazakhstan’s obligation under the OPEC+ agreement states that oil production will amount to 1.46 million barrels per day for May and June and 1.47 million barrels per day for July. 

The data on the trading platform illustrates that the cost of Brent crude oil has risen in price by almost 3.6 percent and rose to US$65 per barrel. 

The Meeting welcomed the positive performance of participating countries. “Overall conformity reached 115 per cent in February 2021, reinforcing the trend of aggregate high conformity by participating countries,” said OPEC in a press statement.  

On 4 March, Kazakh Energy Minister Nurlan Nogayev participated in the 14th meeting of OPEC and non-OPEC ministers after which Kazakhstan and Russia were allowed to increase oil production to 20,000 barrels per day and 130,000 barrels per day, respectively, in April. 

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Energy

Azerbaijan unearths first gas condensate in Shafag-Asiman

Energy Correspondent

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Azerbaijan’s SOCAR has made the first gas condensate discovery in Shafag-Asiman fields, the company reported.

According to the statement: “As we reached a depth of 7,189 metres in an exploration well drilled in the Shafag-Asiman block, part of the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea, the first gas condensate was found. That meant the successful completion of the drilling of the Fasila formation in the gas field. At the same time, to fully grasp the extent and size of the reserves, appropriate technical design will be needed to drill an extra lateral appraisal well towards the structure’s arch.”

Exploration at the Shafag-Asiman block is underway as part of the SOCAR-BP venture. In accordance with the Production Sharing Agreement (PSA), the well was drilled by BP at a depth of 623 meters, using the Heydar Aliyev semi-submersible rig operated by the Caspian Drilling Company (CDC). The drilling kicked off on January 11, 2020.

Shafag-Asiman, a complex of offshore geological structures that was discovered in 1961, lies 125km south-east of Baku and covers an area of 1,100 square meters. Here the water depth ranges from 650 to 800 meters. On October 7, 2010, SOCAR and BP entered into a 30-year agreement on exploration, development and production sharing of the Shafag-Asiman offshore block in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea. Under the contract, BP conducted a 3D seismic survey at the Shafag-Asiman block in 2012. Having examined the data, the two partners identified the location of the first exploration well and spudded it in 2020.

SOCAR is involved in exploring oil and gas fields, producing, processing, and transporting oil, gas, and gas condensate, marketing petroleum and petrochemical products in domestic and international markets, and supplying natural gas to the industry and the public in Azerbaijan.

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Energy

The world still needs coal

Guest contributor

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In the Asia-Pacific region, coal consumption has been going up for many years now, and the Asia-Pacific countries plan to keep this trend going in the next decade. (Researchers at China’s Tsinghua University argue that coal is the prime source of energy production in East and South Asia, where the countries are building new coal-fired plants,) writes Fridrich Glasow, PhD, MMM and O&G expert

There is a great deal of discussion now going on in the world about the development of decarbonized energy. At the same time, Moscow is once again mulling the prospects of developing the coalmining industry, which looks somewhat paradoxical amid the rapidly "greening" European energy sector. On the other hand, it was interesting to compare the evolution of the coal industry in Europe and Russia. After all, pertinent reforms have been introduced in both of them.

However, looking closer at the subject one will realize that these reforms took place in completely different ways. First, the reform that took place in Europe can be called routine as it lasted for decades and was initiated by the state, concerned about the shrinking segment of the coal industry in the energy sector of the economy. Secondly, just tens of thousands of people were released from working in the most difficult conditions and reassigned to other sectors of the economy.

A closer analysis shows that the reform carried out in Russia was absolutely one of a kind. One should bear in mind the sad legacy that the young Russian Federation inherited from the Soviet Union: the collapse of all economic indicators (with an automatic drop in coal consumption), and mounting social tensions. The coal industry was falling apart across the board in terms of technology, labor safety, etc. Labor productivity and production efficiency were extremely low too.

In addition, coal was being “squeezed out” of the economy by natural gas (although back in the early 90s, even in Moscow there was a large segment of anthracite generation). The Russian coal industry (100% subsidized by the state) was no longer competitive on the world market.

To make things worse, the social crisis in Russia was nothing short of catastrophic with the living conditions in the mining towns and cities being extremely harsh. The number of people working in the coal sector stood at 900,000 and taking into account their family members, about 3 million people had found themselves in an incredibly difficult situation. The industry itself was in a real fix both when it comes to coal production, sale, underfunding and dim prospects for the future.

It was against this background that the reforms were launched with a program of restructuring the coal industry developed by the Ministry of Fuel and Energy, led by Yuri Shafranik. The program was three-pronged: closure of hazardous and unprofitable industries (with the withdrawal of all government subsidies, provision of social protection for laid-off workers and technical re-equipment of enterprises, along with measures to encourage new viable projects.

Results of the restructuring in figures

Due to increased labor productivity, the number of people employed in the coal industry fell from 900,000 in 1992 to 145,000 in 2018. The volume of production in 1990 was 395 million tons, and in 2019 - 439.2 million. Coal exports in 1990 stood at 52.1 million tons, while in 2019 they spiked to 217.5 million tons. Foreign currency earnings from exports increased fourfold, reaching $16 billion in 2019. This means that the Russian coal industry is now fully efficient, money earning and competitive. By the way, as a result of privatization, private companies now account for 100 percent of the total volume of coal mined in the country (the state has developed mechanisms of working with the private industry, regulating, helping and creating conditions for development).

However, just like in the case of the "gas problem," as soon as Russia entered foreign markets with more and higher quality coals (and cheaper too), it started facing complaints from Old and New World competitors that it was ignoring “green energy."

Well, in the first ten days of February 2021 alone, Germany increased the purchase of Russian gas by 47.8 percent compared to the same period in 2019. In January 2021, Italy had increased its purchases from Gazprom by 221.5 percent, Turkey - by 20.8 percent, France – by 77.3 percent, the Netherlands - by 21.2 percent, and Poland - by 89, 9 percent. Clearly, Europe does not want to freeze. The surprises that the process of global warming can hold for us can hardly be predicted by definition, so no one knows just how much natural gas the EU countries may need at the end of the day.

Coal remains very much in demand with low temperatures and rising gas prices putting Europe’s coal-fired power plants back to work and Russian coal exports going through the roof. And Europe is not the only one to face such problems. It is no coincidence that, speaking at a meeting dealing with the development of the coal industry, President Vladimir Putin said: “As for the long-term prospects of the global coal market beyond the current decade, I know that there are different forecasts to this effect. It is no secret that some of them imply a significant contraction of the market, including due to technological changes in the global fuel and energy complex and the extensive use of alternative fuels. What is happening we know all too well: Texas froze up during the cold season, and the windmills had to be heated in ways that are far from environment-friendly. Maybe this will also introduce its own adjustments."

P.S. - When I delved into this topic, I was surprised by how little I knew about it, and now I’m sure that 99 out of 100 European energy specialists were unaware of the fact that  Russia had succeeded in effecting such a phenomenal reform with such incredible results. Therefore, I firmly believe that Russia will not just give up its share of the world coal market.

We are often guided by political and economic clichés, but we must never forget just how efficiently the Russian people managed to mobilize in the most difficult moments of their country's history - Fridrich Glasow, PhD, MMM and O&G expert.

                                           

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