Energy Brief: Blizzard Prompts 60-Fold Increase in Natural Gas Prices

Government Brief

  • Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt rescinded several Obama-era climate change and conservation policies, saying they were “inconsistent” with President Donald Trump’s energy independence agenda. The order, issued Dec. 22, wiped away four directives and policy manuals and directed agency officials to reinstate and update guidance issued during the final year of former President George W. Bush’s second term. (The Washington Post)
  • Environmental Protection Agency officials are considering using a formal climate science critique to re-examine the endangerment finding that underpins greenhouse gas rules. Bill Wehrum, head of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants reassurance for the finding’s scientific basis, and that the agency doesn’t have “any current plans” to repeal the endangerment finding, which would involve a lengthy regulatory process. (E&E News)
  • A bipartisan group of governors along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts spoke out against the Interior Department’s proposal to open almost all U.S. waters to oil and natural gas drilling, citing threats to tourism and other coastal economies. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), who has said he wants offshore drilling, was the lone dissenter. (Washington Examiner)

Business Brief

  • Natural gas that’s used to heat homes and generate power surged to 60 times the going rate as a blizzard stoked fuel demand in Northeastern states. The spot price for natural gas reached a record $175 per million British thermal units. (Bloomberg)
  • Coal companies in the United States boosted fuel production by 6 percent last year, reversing a two-year decline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Wyoming, the largest coal-producing state, saw an 8 percent rise in production, with gains of 13 percent in West Virginia, 10 percent in Illinois and 8 percent in Pennsylvania. (The Associated Press)
  • Administrative law judges recommended that five Oklahoma utilities use any savings received from the new federal corporate tax rates to issue as much as $100 million in rebates to customers. The judges recommended that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission grant Attorney General Mike Hunter’s request that consumer rates be reduced to reflect the lower tax rates. (The Associated Press)

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Interior rescinds climate, conservation policies because they’re ‘inconsistent’ with Trump’s energy goals
Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post

The Interior Department’s number-two official quietly issued a secretarial order just before Christmas rescinding several climate change and conservation policies issued under the Obama administration, saying they were “inconsistent” with President Trump’s quest for energy independence. Secretarial Order 3360, signed Dec. 22 by Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, wipes away four separate directives and policy manuals aimed at showing departmental employees how to minimize the environmental impact of activities on federal land and in federal waters, and calls for the review of a fifth one that applies to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Washington state readies carbon tax push
Amy Harder, Axios

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, will unveil a carbon tax proposal in his address to the state Tuesday, local media reported Thursday. The debate, while unique to the Evergreen State, is also emblematic of the struggles any effort to push a federal carbon would face. Washington state voters opposed a ballot measure that would have created a carbon tax in 2016.

Oil Slips After Hitting Three-Year High
Christopher Alessi, The Wall Street Journal

Oil prices fell Friday as some investors cashed in on the week’s strong gains and others mulled ambiguous U.S. inventory data. Brent crude, the global benchmark, was down 0.8% at $67.53 a barrel on London’s Intercontinental Exchange.

Oil and Natural Gas

Blizzard Triggers a 60-Fold Surge in Prices for U.S. Natural Gas
Naureen S Malik, Bloomberg

Natural gas surged to 60 times the going rate as howling blizzard conditions stoked demand for the furnace fuel across the U.S. Northeast. Spot prices for the fuel used to heat homes and generate power reached a record $175 per million British thermal units in New York, according to Consolidated Edison Inc.

Coastal governors oppose Trump’s offshore drilling plan
Josh Siegel, Washington Examiner

Governors along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are opposing the Trump administration’s proposal to open almost all U.S. waters to oil and natural gas drilling. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican and ally of President Trump, quickly said no thanks to Zinke’s plan, citing drilling as a threat to the state’s tourism industry.

Lawmakers sending letter to Zinke to oppose offshore drilling
John Bowden, The Hill

Two Florida lawmakers are teaming up to oppose the Trump administration’s proposed plan to expand offshore drilling around the state, citing the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) announced Thursday evening on Twitter that she would join Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-Fla.) letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke opposing any expansion of offshore drilling in Florida after the administration said it would sharply expand offshore drilling.

GAO finds inconsistencies in processing offshore oil testing
Timothy Cama, The Hill

Federal regulators under the Obama administration were inconsistent in how they processed applications to conduct seismic research for offshore oil and natural gas, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found. Auditors found in a report released Thursday that, depending on the regional office, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) took as much as 340 days to review seismic applications, or sometimes approved them the day they were complete.

Without fanfare, oil companies just received a tax break on New Year’s Day
Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni, The Washington Post

Congressional Republicans allowed a tax on oil companies that generated hundreds of millions of dollars annually for federal oil-spill response efforts to expire this week — a move that amounts to another corporate break in the wake of lawmakers’ sweeping tax overhaul late last month. The tax on companies selling oil in the United States generated an average of $500 million in federal revenue per year, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Utilities and Infrastructure

Judges Recommend Rebates for Utility Corporate Tax Savings
Tim Talley, The Associated Press

Administrative law judges recommended Thursday that five Oklahoma utilities use any savings they receive from new federal corporate tax rates to issue rebates totaling as much as $100 million to their customers, a deputy state attorney general said. The rulings were handed down following legal arguments before administrative law judges appointed by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to hear Attorney General Mike Hunter’s request that consumer rates be reduced to reflect lower tax rates that went into effect on Monday.

Connecticut utilities keep busy during storm despite lower than expected outage levels
Luther Turmelle, The New Haven Register

The snow storm on Thursday that blanketed much of the Northeast failed to produce large scale power outages that many had been expecting, but that didn’t stop Connecticut’s energy utilities from trying to enlist customers in taking preventative measures. Despite winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour or higher around the state, outage levels for Eversource Energy and The United Illuminating Co. were comparatively low.

How the ‘bomb cyclone’ could impact the US power grid and electric bills
Tom DiChristopher, CNBC

Utilities have been girding for the “bomb cyclone” that’s sweeping through the eastern United States, but analysts say Americans shouldn’t expect the same impacts that strained the power grid and drove up prices during the 2014 “polar vortex.” Power outages have already hit thousands of customers in Florida and the Southeast because of the massive storm.


Big Alabama Solar Project Now Serving Walmart
Michael Sznajderman, Solar Industry Magazine

After months of construction, one of Alabama’s largest solar energy facilities, built in partnership with utility Alabama Power, is up and running in Chambers County. Most of the renewable energy attributes from Alabama Solar A are going to serve Walmart through a long-term contract in order to help the retailer meet its renewable energy goals.

Tesla rules the electric roost, but Chevy Bolt shows surge
Nora Naughton, The Detroit News

Tesla Inc. reported sales of 101,312 vehicles in 2017, a 33 percent increase over the previous year, remaining the top seller of all-electric vehicles even as competitors move in. But August’s nationwide roll-out of the Chevrolet Bolt EV finally delivered Tesla CEO Elon Musk a true competitor, and the numbers show it.

Transition to renewable power sources too slow, Massie says
Katie Lannan, Massachusetts State House News Service

Saying the state is stuck with an “economy of the past” because of a lack of insight and expertise to challenge a “broken” electrical system, Democrat for governor Bob Massie on Thursday released a 22-point energy plan that calls for a carbon pricing system, the full transition to renewable power by 2050 and reform of the state’s utility regulation. Massie, a longtime environmental advocate, said energy policy reform is not the only reason he’s seeking the corner office — social justice issues are also a priority, he said — but it is a key plank in his platform and one he feels resonates with voters.


Coal mining saw 2017 boost but long-term outlook still shaky
The Associated Press

Coal companies in the United States boosted production of the fuel in 2017 to reverse a two-year decline. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Thursday that companies mined 771 million tons of coal through Dec. 30, a 6 percent increase versus 2016.

With coal consumption down, production ticks up from some Appalachian mines
Amy Sisk, StateImpact Pennsylvania

While the United States burned less coal in 2017 than it had in three decades, an uptick in global demand for Appalachia’s metallurgical coal — used in the steelmaking process — helped boost production this past year, according to a new analysis by an economic research firm. Coal production rose 6 percent across the United States in 2017, which coincided with a 70 percent jump in coal exports, according to the Rhodium Group.

Cold weather gives coal a boost

While much of the country grapples with a deep freeze, the cold snap has given coal a boost. According to data from PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization, as of Thursday, coal was providing 40% of the power to thirteen states (including West Virginia), while nuclear was providing 28% and natural gas was providing 22%.


Entergy’s 728-MW Pilgrim shuts due to loss of a transmission line
Jim Ostroff, Platts

Entergy’s 728-MW Pilgrim nuclear reactor, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, shut at 2:09 pm EST (1908 GMT) Thursday, when one of two 345-kV transmission lines that supply the plant with electricity from the grid “became unavailable,” according to a US Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman. The unit continues to receive offsite power from a second 345-kV line and a 23-kV line, Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for NRC Region I, said in an email.

NJ abandons nuclear bailout bill, for now
Andrew Maykuth, The Philadelphia Inquirer

A nuclear bailout bill that appeared to be on a fast-track for approval in New Jersey before Gov. Christie departs office was abruptly derailed late Wednesday, much to the relief of critics, who said it would force consumers to subsidize a profitable business. The bill would have provided about $300 million in annual support for nuclear power through higher statewide electric rates, primarily benefiting Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., the powerful Newark energy company that operates the nation’s second largest nuclear complex, in Salem County.


Air chief says challenging endangerment finding is possible
Robin Bravender, E&E News

Top U.S. EPA officials are considering using a formal climate science critique to re-examine the endangerment finding that underpins greenhouse gas rules. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to “be sure that the scientific basis for the endangerment finding is solid,” his top air lieutenant Bill Wehrum told E&E News yesterday in an interview.

Climate Scientists Exiled by Trump Form Panel to Continue Work
Eric Roston, Bloomberg

The Trump administration disbanded a federal advisory committee on climate change last year but the scientists on the panel won’t be deterred. Columbia University’s Earth Institute has hired one of the committee’s researchers, Richard Moss of the University of Maryland, who will reconvene most of the former panel members and produce the same report.

Opinions, Editorials and Perspectives

Trump’s Offshore Energy Opening
The Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal

The United States sits on more than a decade’s worth of oil and natural gas offshore. In another reversal of President Obama’s policies, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed Thursday to open up more than 90% of America’s Outer Continental Shelf for potential energy development.

Revenge Of The Oil Services Sector In 2018
Dan Eberhart, Forbes

While shale producers have shifted from survival mode to thriving as a result of the steady rise in the price of oil, the services sector continues to struggle under forced efficiencies and low day rates. Oil-field services contractors bore the brunt of the three-year oil price downturn, accounting for the bulk of an estimated 450,000 layoffs while accepting cut-rate prices from producers for their work and equipment – sacrifices that allowed their clients to survive the commodity collapse.

One year in, is Trump helping the US coal industry? Not really.
David Roberts, Vox

The research outfit Rhodium Group has just released a helpful snapshot, in the form of a research note on US coal’s performance in 2017. To summarize: Coal production was up, barely, over 2016, but it had nothing to do with Trump or federal policy and produced few new jobs.

Utilities’ savings should be shared with consumers
Editorial board, Williamson Daily News

Customers of regulated, for-profit utility companies that supply electric, gas and water could benefit from the corporate tax cut under the tax reform legislation recently signed into law by President Donald Trump. But that is likely to occur only if state regulating agencies are on their toes and look out for the interests of consumers.

Caution on SCANA deal
Editorial board, The Post and Courier

Virginia-based Dominion Energy offered on Wednesday to buy SCANA and eat $1.7 billion in costs related to two now-abandoned nuclear reactors. Until lawmakers and regulators have had enough time to fully explore the options available to protect South Carolina ratepayers and recoup the money they have already spent on the nuclear failure, any offer involves speculation.

Gov. Kean: Don’t rush bailout of PSEG’s nuclear plants. Wait for Murphy
Thomas H. Kean, The Star Ledger

New Jersey’s electric customers are about to be stuck with an annual $300 million bill to bail out two aging PSEG nuclear plants. It’s the worst kind of corporate welfare: asking citizens to hand over cash without full disclosure by the company or getting anything in return.

Research Reports

Offshore Seismic Surveys: Additional Guidance Needed to Help Ensure Timely Reviews
Frank Rusco, U.S. Government Accountability Office

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) process and time frames for reviewing seismic survey applications differ by region along the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). From 2011 through 2016, BOEM reviewed 297 applications and issued 264 seismic survey permits, and the reviews’ time frames differed by region.

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