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Last Updated: June 23, 2016
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In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released an estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – the largest offshore spill in U.S. history. The spill caused widespread damage to marine species, fisheries and ecosystems stretching from tidal marshes to the deep ocean floor.

Emergency responders used multiple strategies to remove oil from the Gulf: They skimmed it from the water’s surface, burned it and used chemical dispersants to break it into small droplets. However, experts struggled to account for what had happened to much of the oil. This was an important question, because it was unclear how much of the released oil would break down naturally within a short time. If spilled oil persisted and sank to the ocean floor, scientists expected that it would cause more extensive harm to the environment.

Before the Deepwater Horizon spill, scientists had observed that marine bacteria were very efficient at removing oil from seawater. Therefore, many experts argued that marine microbes would consume large quantities of oil from the BP spill and help the Gulf recover.

In a recent study, we used DNA analysis to confirm that certain kinds of marine bacteria efficiently broke down some of the major chemical components of oil from the spill. We also identified the major genetic pathways these bacteria used for this process, and other genes, which they likely need to thrive in the Gulf.

Altogether, our results suggest that some bacteria can not only tolerate but also break up oil, thereby helping in the cleanup process. By understanding how to support these natural occurring microbes, we may also be able to better manage the aftermath of oil spills.

Finding the oil-eaters

Observations in the Gulf appeared to confirm that microbes broke down a large fraction of the oil released from BP’s damaged well. Before the spill, waters in the Gulf of Mexico contained a highly diverse range of bacteria from several different phyla, or large biological families. Immediately after the spill, these bacterial species became less diverse and one phylum increased substantially in numbers. This indicated that many bacteria were sensitive to high doses of oil, but a few types were able to persist.

We wanted to analyze these observations more closely by posing the following questions: Could we show that these bacteria removed oil from the spill site and thereby helped the environment recover? Could we decipher the genetic code of these bacteria? And finally, could we use this genetic information to understand their metabolisms and lifestyles?

To address these questions, we used new technologies that enabled us to sequence the genetic code of the active bacterial community that was present in the Gulf of Mexico’s water column, without having to grow them in the laboratory. This process was challenging because there aremillions of bacteria in every drop of seawater. As an analogy, imagine looking through a large box that contains thousands of disassembled jigsaw puzzles, and trying to extract the pieces belonging to each individual puzzle and reassemble it.

We wanted to identify bacteria that could degrade two types of compounds that are the major constituents of crude oil: alkanes and aromatic hydrocarbons. Alkanes are relatively easy to degrade – even sunlight can break them down – and have low toxicity. In contrast, aromatic hydrocarbons are much harder to remove from the environment. They are generally much more harmful to living organisms, and some types cause cancer.

We successfully identified bacteria that degraded each of these compounds, and were surprised to find that many different bacteria fed on aromatic hydrocarbons, even though these are much harder to break down. Some of these bacteria, such as Colwellia, had already been identified as factors in the degradation of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but we also found many new ones.

This included Neptuniibacter, which had not previously been known as an important oil-degrader during the spill, and Alcanivorax, which had not been thought to be capable of degrading aromatic hydrocarbons. Taken together, our results indicated that many different bacteria may act together as a community to degrade complex oil mixtures.

Neptuniibacter also appears to be able to break down sulfur. This is noteworthy because responders used 1.84 million gallons of dispersantson and under the water’s surface during the Deepwater Horizon cleanup effort. Dispersants are complex chemical mixtures but mostly consist of molecules that contain carbon and sulfur.

Their long-term impacts on the environment are still largely unknown. But some studies suggest that Corexit, the main dispersant used after the Deepwater Horizon spill, can be harmful to humans and marine life. If this proves true, it would be helpful to know whether some marine microbes can break down dispersant as well as oil.

Looking more closely into these microbes' genomes, we were able to detail the pathways that each appeared to use in order to degrade its preferred hydrocarbon in crude oil. However, no single bacterial genome appeared to possess all the genes required to completely break down the more stable aromatic hydrocarbons alone. This implies that it may require a diverse community of microbes to break down these compounds step by step.

Back into the ocean

Offshore drilling is a risky activity, and we should expect that oil spills will happen again. However, it is reassuring to see that marine ecosystems have the ability to degrade oil pollutants. While human intervention will still be required to clean up most spills, naturally occurring bacteria have the ability to remove large amounts of oil components from seawater, and can be important players in the oil cleanup process.

To maximize their role, we need to better understand how we can support them in what they do best. For example, adding dispersant changed the makeup of microbial communities in the Gulf of Mexico during the spill: the chemicals were toxic to some bacteria but beneficial for others. With a better understanding of how human intervention affects these bacteria, we may be able to support optimal bacteria populations in seawater and reap more benefit from their natural oil-degrading abilities.

Authors: 

Nina Dombrowski

Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Texas at Austin 

Brett J. Baker

Assistant Professor of Marine Science, University of Texas at Austin

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Myanmar’s Coup and Repercussions to Its Oil Industry

It was a good run while it lasted. Almost exactly a decade ago, the military junta in Myanmar was dissolved, following civilian elections. The country’s figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest to lead, following in the footsteps of her father. Although her reputation has since been tarnished with the Rohingya crisis, she remains beloved by most of her countrymen, and her installation as Myanmar’s de facto leader lead to a golden economic age. Sanctions were eased, trade links were restored, and investment flowed in, not least in the energy sector. Yet the military still remained a powerful force, lurking in the background. In early February, they bared their fangs. Following an election in November 2020 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an outright majority in both houses of Parliament. A coup d’etat was instigated, with the Tatmadaw – the Burmese military – decrying fraud in the election. Key politicians were arrested, and rule returned to the military.

For many Burmese, this was a return to a dark past that many thought was firmly behind them. Widespread protests erupted, quickly turning violent. The Tatmadaw still has an iron grip, but it has created some bizarre situations – ordinary Burmese citizens calling on Facebook and foreign governments to impose sanctions on their country, while the Myanmar ambassador to the United Nations was fired for making an anti-army speech at the UN General Assembly.

The path forward for Myanmar from this point is unclear. The Tatmadaw has declared a state of emergency lasting up to a year, promising new elections by the end of 2021. There is little doubt that the NLD will win yet another supermajority in the election, IF they are fair and free. But that is a big if. Meanwhile, the coup threatens to return Myanmar to the pariah state that it was pre-2010. And threatens to abort all the grand economic progress made since.

In the decade since military rule was abolished, development in Myanmar has been rapid. In the capital city Yangon, glittering new malls have been developed. The Ministry of Energy in 2009 was housed in a crumbling former high school; today, it occupies a sprawling complex in the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw. While not exactly up to the level of the Department of Energy in Washington DC, it is certainly no longer than ministry that was once reputed to take up to three years to process exploration licences for offshore oil and gas blocks.

And it is that very future that is now at stake. Energy has been a great focus for investment in Myanmar, drawn by the rich offshore deposits in the Andaman Sea and the country’s location as a possible pipeline route between the Middle East and inland China. Estimates suggest that – based on pre-coup trends – Myanmar was likely to attract over US$1.1 billion in upstream investment in 2023, more than four times projected for 2021 and almost 20 times higher than 2011. The funds would not only be directed at maintaining production at the current Yadana, Yetagun, Zawtika and Shwe gas fields – where offshore production is mainly exported to Thailand, but also upcoming megaprojects such as Woodside and Total’s A-6 deepwater natural gas and PTTEP’s Aung Sinka Block M3 developments.

The coup now presents foreign investors in Myanmar’s upstream energy sector with a conundrum and reputational risk. Stay, and risk being seen as abetting an undemocratic government? Or leave, and risk being flushing away years of hard work? The home governments of foreign investors such as Total, Chevron, PTTEP, Woodside, Petronas, ONGC, Nippon Oil, Kogas, POSCO, Sumitomo, Mitsui and others have already condemned the coup. For now these companies are hoping that foreign pressure will resolve the situation in a short enough timeframe to allow business to resume. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum has already called the coup a ‘transitionary issue’ claiming that it will not affect its exploration plans, while other operators such as Total and Petronas have focused on the safety of their employees as they ‘monitor the evolving situation’.

But the longer the coup lasts without a resolution satisfactory to the international community and the longer the protests last (and the more deaths that result from that), the more untenable the position of the foreign upstream players will be. Asian investors, especially the Chinese, mainly through CNPC/PetroChina, and the Thais, through PTTEP - will be relatively insulated, but American and European majors face bigger risks. This could jeopardise key projects such as the Myanmar-to-China crude oil and natural gas pipeline project (a 771km connection to Yunnan), two LNG-to-power projects (Thaketa and Thilawa, meant to deal with the country’s chronic blackouts) and the massive Block A-6 gas development in the Shwe Yee Htun field by Woodside which just kicked off a fourth drilling campaign in December.

It is a big unknown. The Tatmadaw has proven to be impervious to foreign criticism in the past, ignoring even the most stringent sanctions thrown their way. In fact, it was a huge surprise that the army even relinquished power back in 2010. But the situation has changed. The Myanmar population is now more connected and more aware, while the army has profited off the opening of the economy. The economic consequences of returning to its darker days might be enough to trigger a resolution. But that’s not a guarantee. What is certain is that the coup will have a lasting effect on energy investment and plans in Myanmar. How long and how deep is a question that only the Tatmadaw can answer. 

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$63-65/b, WTI – US$60-63/b
  • The slow-but-sure recovery in Texan energy infrastructure following the big freeze has caused crude oil benchmarks to retreat somewhat, with all eyes now focusing on OPEC+ as it meets to decide its supply quotas for April and beyond
  • Some form of supply easing is expected, given that the market is showing signs of tight supply, but OPEC+ is still split on how aggressive it can be; Saudi Arabia is advocating caution while most others, led by Russia, favour a bolder easing given current prices
  • While OPEC+ supply will be keenly watched as an indicator of future crude trends, supply elsewhere is picking up, with the Baker Hughes survey of active oil and gas rigs in the USA crossing the 400-site level for the first time in over a year, with gains mainly from onshore shale drillers tempted back after being wiped up last year

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March, 03 2021
The Competition For The LNG Crown

The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.

But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.

Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.

Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes. 

Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.

So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.

There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.

But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$64-66/b, WTI – US$60-63/b
  • Despite the thaw after Texas saw a devastating big freeze, the slow ramp-up in restoring US Gulf Coast oil production and refining has supported crude oil prices, with Brent moving above the US$65/b level and WTI now in the low US$60/b level
  • Some Wall Street analysts, including Goldman Sachs, are predicting that oil prices could climb above US$70/b level based on current fundamentals, as the short-term spike gives ways to accelerating consumption trends
  • However, much will depend on OPEC+’s approach to managing supply in Q2, with a meeting set for early March; Saudi Arabia is once again urging caution, but there are many other members of the club champing at the bit to increase output and capitalise on the rising price environment


March, 01 2021
EIA forecasts the U.S. will import more petroleum than it exports in 2021 and 2022

Throughout much of its history, the United States has imported more petroleum (which includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other liquids) than it has exported. That status changed in 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) estimates that 2020 marked the first year that the United States exported more petroleum than it imported on an annual basis. However, largely because of declines in domestic crude oil production and corresponding increases in crude oil imports, EIA expects the United States to return to being a net petroleum importer on an annual basis in both 2021 and 2022.

EIA expects that increasing crude oil imports will drive the growth in net petroleum imports in 2021 and 2022 and more than offset changes in refined product net trade. EIA forecasts that net imports of crude oil will increase from its 2020 average of 2.7 million barrels per day (b/d) to 3.7 million b/d in 2021 and 4.4 million b/d in 2022.

Compared with crude oil trade, net exports of refined petroleum products did not change as much during 2020. On an annual average basis, U.S. net petroleum product exports—distillate fuel oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and motor gasoline, among others—averaged 3.2 million b/d in 2019 and 3.4 million b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that net petroleum product exports will average 3.5 million b/d in 2021 and 3.9 million b/d in 2022 as global demand for petroleum products continues to increase from its recent low point in the first half of 2020.

U.S. quarterly crude oil production, net trade, and refinery runs

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), February 2021

EIA expects that the United States will import more crude oil to fill the widening gap between refinery inputs of crude oil and domestic crude oil production in 2021 and 2022. U.S. crude oil production declined by an estimated 0.9 million b/d (8%) to 11.3 million b/d in 2020 because of well curtailment and a drop in drilling activity related to low crude oil prices.

EIA expects the rising price of crude oil, which started in the fourth quarter of 2020, will contribute to more U.S. crude oil production later this year. EIA forecasts monthly domestic crude oil production will reach 11.3 million b/d by the end of 2021 and 11.9 million b/d by the end of 2022. These values are increases from the most recent monthly average of 11.1 million b/d in November 2020 (based on data in EIA’s Petroleum Supply Monthly) but still lower than the previous peak of 12.9 million b/d in November 2019.

February, 18 2021