The Oil and the Glory

The Weekly Wrap: Oct. 8, 2010

Tianjin climate talks get underway — but does anyone care? A new round of international climate talks opened on Monday, as delegates from 177 countries met in the northeastern city of Tianjin for preliminary discussions on a carbon emissions agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012. The talks are ...

Tianjin climate talks get underway — but does anyone care? A new round of international climate talks opened on Monday, as delegates from 177 countries met in the northeastern city of Tianjin for preliminary discussions on a carbon emissions agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012. The talks are to be followed by a more formal climate summit in Cancun set to open on November 29, and the Tianjin meeting was a chance for delegates to discuss the complex legal framework and cost estimates that will come with instituting a global emissions reduction scheme. The finger-pointing that plagued the abortive Copenhagen talks last December resurfaced, as Chinese officials accused developed countries of not doing enough to reduce their own carbon emissions and argued that those countries should accommodate the growth of emerging economies such as China. The conference stalled as Beijing repeatedly refused to discuss a global emissions reduction scheme, favoring a system of varying individual commitments. Although China has great ambitions in clean energy development, it has long been reluctant to adopt any globally-binding set of carbon reductions for fear of curbing its economic growth.

Shale gas boom could turn U.S. into exporter. The U.S. is continuing to experience a shale gas boom, as companies sunk $21 billion into the shale gas investments for the first half of 2010, according to a report by consultancy Wood Mackenzie. High-profile investments in gas have also come this week, as Barclays paid $1.15 billion for some of Chesapeake Energy’s shale assets and General Electric announced its $3 billion acquisition of Dresser, which makes gas engines used in natural gas production. As new extractive technologies have made shale gas commercially viable, U.S. gas supplies have continued to grow ever larger, pushing prices down to some of their lowest levels in the last decade. But despite the adverse pressures of a domestic gas glut and low prices on U.S. gas production, companies are eager to enter the market for what they see as a potential growth prospect. As Sheila McNulty reports in the Financial Times, that growth could come increasingly from U.S. natural gas exports, as some companies are already looking to refit expensive liquefied natural gas import terminals for export. Natural gas exports would give a boost to U.S. gas producers by raising the price slightly at home and thus discouraging cutbacks in production. While natural gas prices in Asia remain high thanks to strong demand, U.S. gas exports could join those from Russia, Qatar, and Australia in bringing down world natural gas prices for years. The upside from this domestic gas glut? Lower prices could see gas continue to become a highly attractive and cleaner alternative to coal and oil as a power source, though admittedly, as McNulty writes on the FT’s Energy Source blog, U.S. energy policy and infrastructure have a way to go before that happens. So for now, look for exports to be the path to profitability for U.S. gas producers.

First U.S. wind farm finally moves forward. The Cape Wind development off the coast of Massachusetts, the first U.S. offshore wind farm project, cleared the last regulatory hurdle this week nine years after it was submitted for approval, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the federal lease for the project on Wednesday. The project is expected to generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes, but it had faced stiff opposition from wealthy landowners and local businesses on Cape Cod and neighboring islands. The Obama administration is expecting news of the project’s green light is shore up its commitment to green energy, particularly after an accompanying announcement this week that the Interior Department has approved the first solar power plants to be constructed on federal land.

How the Senate energy bill was lost. Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker has a detailed and comprehensive piece out this week chronicling the failure of the Senate’s climate change bill. According to Lizza, the Senate and the Obama administration had a golden opportunity to pass a comprehensive climate change bill in 2009 and early 2010, especially as bipartisan support in the Senate seemed likely. Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham had formed a working partnership to getting a bill passed. But the bill foundered as the administration’s commitment to climate change took a backseat to healthcare reform, and the White House repeatedly gave up concessions — such as an easing of offshore drilling restrictions in March — that the three senators had planned on using as bargaining chips to attract Republican support. The bill was further strained by the influence of utility special interests, and as the political atmosphere ahead of the midterm elections turned increasingly partisan, the partnership at the heart of the bill ultimately disintegrated.

Oil continues rally to new highs this week. Crude oil remained above the $80 mark this week, reaching five-month highs above $83 a barrel on Wednesday and Thursday before declining late Thursday. Crude rebounded on Friday, currently trading at $82.56 per barrel in New York. The price climb has been driven primarily by a weak dollar, which hit a 15-year low against the Japanese yen this week. Contributing to the dollar’s decline was speculation that the Federal Reserve would act soon to print more money in order to bolster the economy, a procedure known as quantitative easing. The release of the Labor Department’s jobs report on Friday, which detailed no change in the unemployment rate for September 2010, only fed that speculation, lessening the appeal of the dollar and boosting the appeal of crude, which are denominated in dollars and become attractive when the currency weakens. As OPEC prepares to meet next week in Vienna, the cartel is unlikely to respond to the recent price rise by increasing production quotas.

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