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FOSSIL FUELS

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IMO 2023 – Shipping Industry Sailing towards a Greener Future but Unsure of the Route

The shipping industry plays a vital role in global trade. The majority of goods are transported by sea, and most shipping vessels currently rely on marine fuels such as Marine Diesel Oil (MDO), Marine Gas Oil (MGO), and Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO). One of the main reasons is that these fuels are cheaper and readily available, however, they are not environmentally friendly. The shipping industry discharges a significant amount of carbon emissions, therefore, decarbonization and eventually reaching zero carbon emissions in this sector has become imperative. The United Nations agency responsible for regulating shipping, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), aims to reduce ocean-vessel emissions to half by 2050. To meet the target, the shipping sector is looking to switch to alternative fuels, however, the feasibility of this change still remains to be assessed.

The shipping industry accounts for a vast proportion of global trade as a result of rapid growth in cargo transportation due to increased globalization and e-commerce. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, 90% of global trade is transported by sea, hence perpetuating carbon emissions in the shipping industry. According to a study published by the European Parliament, the shipping industry could be responsible for up to 17% of global carbon emissions by 2050. In comparison, in 2021, the sector contributed to about 3% of worldwide greenhouse gases. This significant increase in carbon emissions by the sector is resulting in increased pressure on the shipping industry to reduce its carbon footprint.

In an attempt to reduce emissions, IMO has adopted the Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index (EEXI) and the Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII) rating regulations. While the EEXI is a rating system that assesses the energy performance of existing ships based on speed, power, and engine size, the CII rating uses a ranking system to monitor the efficiency of individual ships. Under the CII rating system, each vessel will receive a ranking from A (good) to E (poor) starting in 2023. Ships receiving grade D for three years or Grade E for one year will have to put a corrective action plan in place. These new sets of regulations have been in effect since January 2023 and are a part of IMO’s Greenhouse Gas Strategy (GHG) that aims to reduce the carbon emissions from international shipping by 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050 compared with 2008 levels.

Shipping is a highly capital-intensive industry with a great dependence on fossil fuels. Most vessels are still dependent on traditional marine fuels and would require significant investment in infrastructure to transition to zero-carbon emission fuels. A 2020 study by the University of Massachusetts estimated the total cost of decarbonization efforts would be about US$1.65 trillion by 2050 to create apt infrastructure to support zero carbon emission fuels. With shipping being the backbone of international trade, trade volumes are expected to grow continuously, resulting in an increase in carbon emission, which will further push industry players to invest in alternative carbon-efficient fuel.

IMO 2023 – Shipping Industry Sailing towards a Greener Future but Unsure of the Route by EOS Intelligence

Alternative fuels have limited availability and cost restrictions

Currently, there are three primary fuels that are used in ships – MDO, MGO, and HFO. All three fuels are made from crude oil and emit carbon when burnt. Hence, the sector is actively looking for alternative fuels to replace these fuels with the introduction of IMO 2023 regulations.

Methanol could be a suitable alternative, but availability could be a challenge

In pursuit of sustainable and greener fuel, the shipping industry is moving towards using other fuels – one of which is methanol. As per a Finland-based technology company Wärtsilä, methanol usage in ships, when compared to HFO, dramatically reduces carbon emissions and is easy to store. Considering this, the shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk, headquartered in Denmark, has ordered 19 methanol-powered vessels. The company estimated that they would require about one million tons of green methanol per year to run these vessels, which will generate annual carbon emission savings of about 2.3 million tons. Another shipping company based in Beijing, China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), has ordered 12 container ships worth US$2.87 billion, which use methanol as a fuel.

However, the availability of methanol is also to be considered while assessing it as an alternative fuel. As per the world’s largest methanol producer, Methanex, the shipping industry would require about three million tons of methanol annually to fuel vessels. Therefore, it is not enough to build vessels that run on methanol but also ensure its availability to fuel the vessels.

Keeping such requirements in mind, Maersk has partnered with six companies across the globe to source at least 730,000 tons of methanol annually by the end of 2025. The six companies are CIMC ENRIC (China), European Energy (Denmark), Green Technology Bank (China), Orsted (Denmark), Proman (Switzerland), and WasteFuel (USA). Additionally, in 2018, COSCO partnered with the US-based IGP Methanol and China-based and Jinguotou (Dalian) Development to construct two methanol plants in IGP Methanol’s Gulf Coast Methanol Park. The plants are planned to have a capacity of 1.8 million tons of methanol per year each. COSCO is ensured to fuel its 12 newly ordered vessels through these two partners

Most methanol produced today is derived from fossil fuels. There are primarily three kinds of methanol – grey or brown methanol derived from natural gas, green methanol made from biomass gasification, and blue methanol derived from natural gas combined with carbon capture and storage technology (CCS). With the help of CCS technology, the carbon emitted is captured and later transported and stored deep underground permanently, hence reducing carbon emissions.

Both green and blue methanol are considered to be the most environmentally friendly. However, most methanol available and used currently is either grey or brown. The availability of blue and green methanol is estimated to be less than 0.5 million tons annually in 2022, which is considered to be severely inadequate to power the current fleet of vessels. While Washington-based Methanol Institute estimated that renewable methanol production might increase to over 8 million tons annually by 2027, it is still unlikely to be sufficient to replace diesel as the go-to fuel.

Methanol as a fuel also has its challenges in terms of cost. Depending on the type of methanol consumed, traditional bunker fuels can be up to 15 times more expensive. Assuming the limited availability of methanol, the cost is likely to increase. Further, industry players need to ensure methanol availability and feasibility before switching away from traditional marine fuel.

LNG – most likely a transitional fuel

While some players are looking at methanol as an alternative fuel, other players are considering LNG. LNG is 20-25% less carbon intensive than HFO and emits fewer nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides.

Rio Tinto, a mining company based in London, announced plans to add nine LNG dual-fueled Newcastlemax vessels in their fleet that transport bulk cargo, such as coal, iron ore, and grain, in 2023. The company started a one-year trial and is already seeing a reduction of about 25% in carbon emissions.

The main driver to convert to LNG fuel is the reduction in fuel costs. According to S&P Global, an energy company based in the UK, LNG prices vary from US$213-$353 as compared with MGO prices, which vary from US$550-$640. While LNG is cheaper, bunkering LNG to the vessel could be a challenging operation as there is a lack of LNG bunkering infrastructure. Another significant drawback in the usage of LNG is methane slip, which is the discharge of unburned methane from an engine that could poison aquatic life.

As per the World Bank, LNG as a marine fuel is most likely to play a limited role, given its drawbacks. However, a combination of lower prices and the increasing number of LNG dual-fueled vessels might support bunkering demand in the future.

Ammonia at the nascent stage of adoption

Unlike LNG, ammonia is turning out to be a viable option as infrastructure is already taking shape. As per a 2020 report by Siemens, a German industrial manufacturing company, 120 ports are already dealing with the import and export of ammonia worldwide. However, even with the infrastructure, only green ammonia is a zero-carbon fuel and it is not produced anywhere at the moment.

Looking at the fuel as an alternative option, Grieg Maritime and Wärtsilä (Norwegian and Finnish shipping companies, respectively) are jointly running a project to launch an ammonia-fueled tanker producing no greenhouse gas emissions by 2024. The project is also being supported by the Norwegian government with a funding of US$46.3 million. The partnership aims to build the world’s first green ammonia-fueled tanker. The partners plan to distribute green ammonia from a factory based in Norway to various locations and end-users along the coast.

There is a wide range of alternative fuels that are yet to be examined from the point of sustainability. Hydrogen is also one of the fuels that is considered an option for shipping vessels.


Read our related Perspective:
 Hydrogen: Future of Shipping Industry?

Other synthetic fuels combining hydrogen and carbon monoxide are also present and are already used extensively in other industries such as agriculture. However, their viability is yet to be tested in the shipping industry. Moreover, transitioning to alternative fuels is not easy. Several factors need to be considered before switching. To be a practical replacement for diesel, it needs to be readily available and price-competitive with traditional fuels.

EOS Perspective

The global shipping sector was already on its toes since the IMO’s 2020 sulfur regulation that limited sulfur content in a ship’s fuel oil to a maximum of 0.5% (from the previous 3.5%). After the IMO’s sulfur regulation, players started to gradually switch to other fuels and phased out high-sulfur fuel oil from their operations. The new 2023 regulation again brings the shipping industry to heel. The key challenge the marine industry faces in decarbonization is the limited availability and high cost of alternative fuels. Additionally, infrastructural changes are also required while adapting to these new fuels. Ship modifications require major capital investments, while construction of new vessels takes several years.

MGO is shipping’s primary fuel today and is hard to match in terms of existing scale and commercial attractiveness as it already is a well-established fuel and has been in use for decades. Other viable fuels, such as methanol, LNG, hydrogen, and ammonia, although present themselves to be better options for achieving IMO’s 2050 target, are likely to be costly and would require a much higher supply to meet the demand to power the vessels. Future fuel scenarios are likely to be determined by both supply and demand side dynamics.

For now, the key question for the players remains the availability of cleaner fuels at a cost that is acceptable and has the potential to replace traditional fuels. This further opens up the scope for partnerships between the players and fuel producers to jointly build a roadmap to ascertain fuel availability and bunkering infrastructure. With the players already moving towards adopting cleaner fuels, it is safe to infer that more partnerships between the fuel producers and the players are likely to be seen in the sector in the years leading towards meeting IMO’s 2050 target.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Biofuels: From Crest to Trough?

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For the past decade biofuels have been contemplated as a sustainable source of energy that could alleviate global warming problems. The biofuel industry has experienced rapid growth driven by strong government support resulting in policy mandates and subsidies. However, the bucolic scenario of biofuels may soon be overshadowed considering the ecological toll on farm land and food crops from its production. The question still remains if we are ready to imperil food crops to grow energy crops.

The biofuel buzz sparked in the 2000s when several governments across the world offered subsidized ethanol and biodiesel to make it cost competitive with gasoline and diesel, and investors acquired lands to produce feedstock, particularly in emerging economies.

Biofuels are promoted as alternatives to fossil fuels, however, it seems that this green energy facade is impinging on our food and environment needs. Turning plants into fuel or electricity comes across as an inefficient strategy to meet the global energy demand. Irresponsible farming practices — to grow corn to suffice biofuel needs — in countries such as the USA are likely to result in adverse temperature and precipitation conditions due to climatic changes that will shrink corn and wheat yields in coming 10-20 years.

Biofuel development certainly creates employment opportunities in economies, improves vehicle performance, and reduces dependence on crude oil imports. However, this comes at the expense of higher food prices as biofuels compete with food production by using crops and lands. Moreover, biofuel production does not generally result in reduced greenhouse gases, as emissions still occur causing pollution.

Further, biofuels are less cost effective than fossil fuels. For example, biomass costs about 20% more than coal. Also, biofuels have lower energy content as compared with fossil fuels, which allows vehicles running on biofuels to travel shorter distances than on the same amount of fossil fuel. The energy content of biodiesel is approximately 90% of petroleum, while ethanol is 50% that of gasoline. Consequently, travelers would require higher amount of fuel, if running on biofuels, which will increase their expenditures. With the government laws supporting blending of ethanol in petroleum, motorists in the UK (for example) are likely to pay about £460 million annually due to higher fuel cost at pumps and lower energy content of biofuels.

While the disadvantages of biofuels has been widely known, in the past couple of years, bioethanol and biodiesel production has grown rapidly in several countries, supported by various policies and government subsidies. Currently, some of the leading biofuel producing countries include the USA, Brazil, and Argentina. It is interesting to look at the socio-economic and ecological impact of biofuel production on these countries.

Impact of Biofuels on Top Producing Countries
Biofuels


A Final Word

To choose biofuels over fossil fuels is like entering into a race between food versus fuel. Countries such as the USA use 40% of corn harvest for fuels — devoting farmlands to energy needs instead of feeding people. With crude oil extinction almost 10 million years away, it is quite inappropriate to contaminate environment to yield economic benefits from biofuels. Biofuels have not lived up to the expectation and have ceased to provide lower carbon footprint, as they cause indirect emissions by ruining the farming land and vegetation. At a time, when demand for land is likely to grow 70% by 2050 to meet global food demands, it is highly wasteful to use the same land to suffice energy needs.

In April 2015, Renewable Energy Directive of the EU announced a cap of 7% on the contribution of food crops in biofuel production. Such initiatives will help to sustain a balance in food supply chain. In order to establish appropriate carbon footprint accounting, the European Commission has approved indirect emissions to be considered as part of a holistic picture of biofuel harmful effects. Moreover, the European Commission is likely to prohibit the use of first generation biofuel post 2020.

So, what’s the alternative to biofuels, or at least another source of energy that is more sustainable?

A sustainable solution to the problem could be clean renewable fuels like cellulosic ethanol, which is manufactured from inedible parts of plants. Greenhouse gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol are 86% lower than from petroleum sources. Companies such as DuPont are investing to build bio-refineries to manufacture cellulosic ethanol. The refinery is located in Nevada, USA and will produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually after commencing operations in 2016. Other avenues such as energy efficient batteries, fuel cells, and solar and wind energy for powering vehicles and factories should also be pursued. Companies such as Tesla, a US-based automotive and energy storage company, have made groundbreaking progress in manufacturing low-cost solar powered batteries that discharge to generate electricity for homes, businesses, and utilities. Solar and wind energy investments are at an all-time high, both across advanced and emerging markets.

Perhaps, the need of the hour is for governments to look at diverse sources of renewable energy as a whole, and invest in a way that is most effective and sustainable for the economies and the environment. Clearly, biofuels (as was perhaps once expected) is not the ideal solution to global energy needs.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

China’s Green Energy Revolution

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China is widely criticized as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Less noticed, however, has been the fact that the country is also building the world’s largest renewable energy system. China plays a significant role in the development of green energy technologies and has over the years become the world’s biggest generator and investor of renewable energy. As China heads towards becoming the global leader in renewable energy systems, we pause to take a look at the major drivers behind this development and its implications on China as well as on the rest of the world.

Reducing CO2 emissions has become one of the top priorities and the Chinese government has set its eyes on developing sustainable energy solutions for its growing energy needs. To support this objective, China has set forth aggressive policies and targets by rolling out pilot projects to support the country’s pollution reduction initiatives and those which reflect the strategic importance of renewable energy in country’s future growth.

Why has China suddenly become so environmental conscious and investing billions on renewable energy?

  1. Air and water pollution levels have become critical, causing tangible human and environmental damage, which lead Chinese authorities to rethink on the excessive use of fossil fuels. Considering current and potential future environmental hazards of burning fossil fuels, China decided to decrease the use of coal and is actively seeking for greener energy solutions. While serious concerns about climate change and global warming are key drivers towards expanding the use of renewable energy for any country, for China, the motives are well beyond abating climate change; they are creating energy self-sufficiency and fostering industrial development.

  2. China is witnessing a dramatic depletion of its natural gas and coal resources and has become a net importer of these resources. China’s increased dependency on imported natural gas, coal and oil to meet its growing energy demands bring along some major energy security concerns. The current political volatility in Russia, the Middle-East and Africa pose serious challenges not only for China, but, for other countries as well to secure their energy supplies for the future. Not to mention the risks associated with energy transport routes.

Taking into account these geo-political risks and in order to achieve a secure, efficient and greener energy system, China started its journey towards developing an alternative energy system. A new system that reduces pollution, limits its dependency on foreign coal, natural gas and oil was envisioned.

China’s Ambitious Renewable Energy Plans

According to RENI21’s 2014 Global report, in 2013, China had 378 gigawatts (GW) of electric power generation capacity based on renewable sources, far ahead of USA (172 GW). The nation generated over 1,000 terawatt hours of electricity from water, wind and solar sources in 2013, which is nearly the combined power generation of France and Germany.

The country has now set its eyes on leading the global renewable energy revolution with very ambitious 2020 renewable energy development targets.

China’s Renewable Energy Development Targets













In May 2015, we published an article on the solar power boom in China, in which we presented the revised, higher solar power generation targets.

To achieve the 2020 renewable energy targets, China has adopted a two-fold strategy.

  1. Rapidly expand renewable energy capabilities to generate greener and sustainable energy.

    It has significantly expanded its manufacturing capabilities in wind turbines and solar panels to produce renewable electricity. As per data from The Asia-Pacific Journal, China spent a total of US$56.3 billion on water, wind, solar and other renewable projects in 2013. Further, China added 94 GW of new capacity, of which 55.3 GW came from renewable sources (59%), and just 36.5 GW (or 39%) from thermal sources. This highlights a major shift in energy generation mix as well as China’s commitment towards cleaner energy technologies.

  2. Reduce carbon footprint.

    The government has banned sale and import of coal with more than 40% ash and 3% sulphur. Government’s Five year plans have stringent targets on reducing coal consumption as well as CO2 emissions. It is expected that environmental and import reforms will become more stringent along with greater restrictions, which would help accelerate China’s migration to a green economy.

The government has also announced a range of financial support services, subsidies, incentives and procurement programs for green energy production and consumption. Solar PV and automotive industries are good examples.

  1. By supporting domestic production and providing export incentives, China has become the global leader in solar panels. Over the last few years, the government has also financed small-scale decentralized energy projects, deployed and used by households and small businesses, in order to make them self-sufficient in their energy needs

  2. China has also positioned itself as the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles globally. According to Bloomberg, China is mandating that electric cars make up at least 30% of government vehicle purchases by 2016. To achieve this target, the government has started investing on essential infrastructure and providing tax incentives for purchasing of electric vehicles.


China has laid the foundations for a future where renewable energy will play a vital role. The advancements in technology and changes in policies will further enhance the country’s renewable energy landscape and will drive affordable, secure and greener energy. How the Asian giant achieves to balance between its economic, industrial, regulatory and environmental goals with sustainable renewable energy investments will, however, only become clear in the next few years.

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Mongolia – Mining in China’s Backyard

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MongoliaMining

Mongolia, uninteresting and perhaps almost forgotten to the rest of the world until just recently, has turned out to become of the world’s largest untapped mining centers. The country houses minerals worth over US$ 1 trillion, thanks to which it has the potential to become one of the most prosperous economies in the East. We take a closer look at Mongolia’s potential, its background, most relevant advantages, and challenges that continue to put a brake on the country’s development. Read Our Detailed Report.

 

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Will Shale Gas Solve Our Fuel Needs for the Future?

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At first glance, shale gas might look too good to be true: large untapped natural gas resources present on virtually every continent. Abundant supplies of relatively clean energy allowing for lower overall energy prices and reduced dependence on non-renewable resources such as coal and crude oil. However, despite this huge potential, the shale gas revolution has remained largely limited to the USA till now. Concerns over the extraction technology and its potentially negative impact on the environment have hampered shale gas development in Europe and Asia on a commercial scale. However, increasing energy import bills, need for energy security, potential profits and political uncertainty in the Middle East are causing many countries to rethink their stand on shale gas extraction development.

How Large Are Shale Gas Reserves And Where Are They Being Developed?

An estimation of shale gas potential conducted by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 2009 pegs the total technically recoverable shale gas reserves in 32 countries (for which data has been established) to 6,622 Trillion Cubic Feet (Tcf). This increases the world’s total recoverable gas reserves, both conventional and unconventional, by 40% to 22,622 Tcf.


Technically Recoverable Shale Gas Reserves

Continent
Shale Gas Reserves and Development
North America Technically Recoverable Reserves: 1,931 Tcf
Till now, almost whole commercial shale gas development has taken place in the USA. In 2010, shale gas accounted for 20% of the total US natural gas supply, up from 1% in 2000. In Canada, several large scale shale projects are in various stages of assessment and development. Despite potential reserves, little or no shale gas exploration activity has been reported Mexico primarily due to regulatory delays and lack of government support.
South America Technically Recoverable Reserves: 1,225 Tcf
Several gas shale basins are located in South America, with Argentina having the largest resource base, followed by Brazil. Chile, Paraguay and Bolivia have sizeable shale gas reserves and natural gas production infrastructure, making these countries potential areas of development. Despite promising reserves, shale gas exploration and development in the region is almost negligible due to lack of government support, nationalization threats and absence of incentives for large scale exploration.
Europe Technically Recoverable Reserves: 639 Tcf
Europe has many shale gas basins with development potential in countries including France, Poland, the UK, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden. However, concerns over the environmental impact of fracturing and oil producers lobbying against shale gas extraction are holding back development in the region with some countries such as France going as far as banning drilling till further research on the matter. Some European governments, including Germany, are planning to bring stringent regulations to discourage shale gas development. Despite this, countries such as Poland show promising levels of shale gas leasing and exploration activity. Several companies are exploring shale gas prospects in the Netherlands and the UK.
Asia Technically Recoverable Reserves: 1,389 Tcf
China is expected to have the largest potential of shale gas (1,275 Tcf). State run energy companies like Sinopec are currently evaluating the country’s shale gas reserves and developing technological expertise through international tie-ups. However, no commercial development of shale gas has yet happened. Though both India and Pakistan have potential reserves, lack of government support, unclear natural gas policy and political uncertainty in the region are holding back the extraction development. Both Central Asia and Middle East are also expected to have significant recoverable shale gas reserves.
Africa Technically Recoverable Reserves: 1,042 Tcf
South Africa is the only country in African continent actively pursuing shale gas exploration and production. Other countries have not actively explored or shown interest in their shale gas reserves due to the presence of large untapped conventional resources of energy (crude oil, coal). Most potential shale gas fields are located in North and West African countries including Libya, Algeria and Tunisia.
Australia Technically Recoverable Reserves: 396 Tcf
Despite Australia’s experience with unconventional gas resource development (coal bed methane), shale gas development has not kicked off in a big way in Australia. However, recent finds of shale gas and oil coupled with large recoverable reserves has buoyed investor interest in the Australian shale gas.

What Are The Potential Negative Impacts Of Shale Gas Production?

Despite the large scale exploration and production of shale gas in the USA, countries around the world, especially in Europe, remain sceptical about it. Concerns over the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, lack of regulations and concerns raised by environmental groups have slowed shale gas development. Though there is no direct government or agency report on pitfalls of hydraulic fracturing, independent research and studies drawn from the US shale gas experience have brought forward the following concerns:


Shale Gas Challenges

Will Shale Gas Solve Our Future Energy Needs?

Rarely does an energy resource polarize world opinion like this. Shale gas has divided the world into supporters and detractors. However, despite its potential negative environmental impact, shale gas extraction is associated with a range of unquestionably positive aspects, which will continue to support shale gas development:

  • Shale gas production will continue to increase in the USA and is expected to increase to 46% of the country’s total natural gas supply by 2035. USA is expected to transform from a net importer to a net exporter of natural gas by 2020.

  • Despite initial opposition, countries in Europe are opening up to shale gas exploration. With the EU being keen to reduce its dependence on imported Russian piped gas and nuclear energy, shale gas remains one of its only bankable long-term options. Replicating the US model, countries like Poland, the Netherlands and the UK are expected to commence shale production over the next two-five years and other countries are likely to follow suit.

  • Australian government’s keenness to reduce energy imports in addition to the recent shale gas finds has spurred shale gas development the country. Many companies are lining up to lease land and start shale gas exploration.

  • More stringent regulations from environment agencies are expected to limit the potential negative environmental impact of shale gas exploration.

  • Smaller energy companies that pioneered the shale gas revolution in the USA are witnessing billions of dollars worth of investments from multinational oil giants such as Exxon Mobil, Shell, BHP Billiton etc. are keen on developing an expertise in the shale gas extraction technology. These companies plan to leverage this technology across the world to explore and produce shale gas.The table below highlights major acquisitions and joint venture agreements between large multinational energy giants and US-based shale gas specialists over the last three years.

Major Deals in Shale Gas Exploration

Company

Acquisition/Partnership

Year

Investment
Sinopec Devon Energy January 2012 USD 2.2 billion
Total Chesapeake Energy January 2012 USD 2.3 billion
Statoil Brigham Exploration October 2011 USD 4.4 billion
BHP Billiton Petrohawk July 2011 USD 12.1 billion
BHP Billiton Chesapeake Energy February 2011 USD 4.75 billion
Shell East Resources May 2010 USD 4.7 billion
Exxon Mobil XTO Energy December 2009 USD 41.0 billion
Source: EOS Intelligence Research


Shale gas production is expected to spike in the coming three-five years. Extensive recoverable reserves, new discoveries, large scale exploration and development and technological improvement in the extraction process could lead to an abundant supply of cheap and relatively clean natural gas and reduce dependence on other conventional sources such as crude oil and coal For several countries including China, Poland, Libya, Mexico, Brazil, Algeria and Argentina, where the reserves are particularly large, shale gas might bring energy stability.

The need for energy security and desire to reduce dependence on energy imports from the Middle East and Russia (and hence to increase political independence), are likely to outweigh potential environmental shortfalls of shale gas production, and some compromise with environment protection activist groups will have to be worked out. Though the road to achieving an ‘energy el dorado’ appears to be long and rocky, it seems that with the right governments’ support, shale gas could become fuel that could significantly contribute to solving the world energy crisis over long term.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Australia – Stepping on to the Mine Field

While most developing countries have been negatively impacted by the significantly deteriorated economic conditions in the US and European markets, Australian economy appeared to be largely shielded from the impact of the global economic slowdown thanks to its mining industry. Following the onset of the 2008 crisis, when most developed economies slowed down, China continued on its path of infrastructure development and investment. This boosted its demand for minerals and resources, large part of which continue to be imported from mines across Australia.

Thanks to the Chinese economy growth sprint, Australian mining industry has been in a boom mode since 2006, and consequently witnessed soaring levels of capital investment in mining and related logistic infrastructure. The industry growth was significant enough to have resulted in higher dependency of Australian economy on this sector, with the mining and mining-related service industries accounting for about 20% of GDP in 2011-12, compared with only 10% a decade earlier.

The industry is still on a roll, yet the situation might change soon. With the Chinese economy showing signs of slowing down in 2011 and 2012, the Australian government and business executives can no longer be certain of the continuous inflow of Chinese orders for Australian mining output. But the decline in orders is just part of their worries, as mining companies operating across Australia are faced with other challenges as well, which question their ability to remain competitive in the global market.

The Challenges

While currently it is estimated that the strong performance of the Australian mining sector will continue till at least 2014, there are already growing challenges in the industry. Slackening demand, particularly from the Chinese infrastructure sector, has lead to a global drop in commodity prices of coal and iron. This decline in prices, coupled with higher operating costs due to rise in employee wages and energy costs, makes it less economical for Australian ore extractors to trade in global markets.

Skills shortage and union pressures further drive the operational costs upwards. A shortfall in skilled personnel is likely to result in employees being available only at a premium, leading to further increase in costs. A shortage of truck drivers in mining sector has seen employees of large companies, such as Rio Tinto and Xstrata, receive as much as three times their base salary. The insufficient talent is also witnessed in more skilled and experienced jobs, including mine planning engineers, geologists, metallurgists and mineral processing engineers. This skill shortage also gives employee unions an upper-hand when it comes to negotiating perks.

The rise in costs is further multiplied by the introduction of additional taxes, including the Carbon Tax and the Mineral Resource Rent Tax, all of which contribute to the rising cost burden of the Australian mining companies.

At the same time, mining productivity has resurfaced as an increasingly relevant issue. According to 2012 estimates by the Mineral Council of Australia, productivity in mining industry has reduced by about 30% since 2003.

These challenges are a visible sign that Australia’s mining sector is likely to have an increasingly harder job to compete with mining companies in other emerging resource-rich countries, such as Indonesia, whose proximity to important Asian customers results in lower shipping costs to the client. This could result in a considerable decline in Australian mineral exports, and thereby, have a negative impact on the Australian economy as such.

The Way Out

Both the government and mining companies are devising ways to overcome the challenges posed by these increasingly pressing issues.

Expecting that the current peak in mining investment boom will soon be followed by the sector’s decline, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) announced cuts of cash and lending rates in December 2012. Concerned by the fact that the non-mining industries in Australia continue to struggle, RBA has introduced these cuts to support the underperforming non-mining sectors, such as housing, construction, and retail. While the short-term outlook for non-resources investment is likely to remain subdued, these cuts are expected to provide impetus for investment in these sectors over a long term.

Mining companies face a tougher task to remain competitive in the global market. In the short-term, several Australian mining companies are looking at temporary shelving of investment projects to deal with the deteriorating demand and decline in commodity prices. For instance, BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, shelved its Olympic Dam and Bowel Basin projects after witnessing a decline in profits.

However, putting investment projects on hold is not enough and mining companies will have to continue to undertake initiatives to tackle the problem of increase in cost per ton of output.

  • Initiatives to raise employee productivity are being put in place. In 2012, a contracting company overseeing work on Chevron’s $52 billion Gorgon gas project banned sitting during working hours to improve operational productivity.

  • Companies are trying to explore alternatives to tackle skill shortage. Rio Tinto has started employing driverless trains and trucks to cart iron ore from its mines in order to tackle the premium wage demands, caused by the shortage of drivers in mining operations.

  • Companies are cutting employee perks to lower wage costs and offset lower returns. In 2012, Fortescue Metals Group scrapped weekly staff barbecues, and removed free coffee and ketchup from the canteens.

While these initiatives might attract negative publicity, particularly with labour unions, these steps have become increasingly necessary for mining companies to get back on the path of competitiveness and profitability over a long run. But will this be enough? Will cutting weekly employee get-togethers, and making workers stand at work take care of 30% productivity decline witnessed over the past decade? These measures definitely appear disproportionate to the problem’s weight. Or do the Australian mining executives have some more tricks up their sleeves that will actually matter in prolonging the mining sector golden years?

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