“It is sometimes more expensive to stop production than to keep pumping”

An interesting piece  in the Economist notes that falling oil prices have not reduced oil production or assisted global growth.

It begins “Oil traders are paying unusual attention to Kharg, a small island 25km (16 miles) off the coast of Iran. On its lee side, identifiable to orbiting satellites by the transponders on their decks, are half a dozen or so huge oil tankers that have been anchored there for months. Farther down Iran’s Persian Gulf coast is another flotilla of similarly vast vessels. They contain up to 50m barrels of Iranian crude—just what a world awash with oil could do without. The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran on January 16th puts those barrels at the forefront of the country’s quest to recapture a share of international oil markets that it has been shut out of for much of the past decade. The prospect of Iran swiftly dispatching its supertankers to European and Asian refineries to undercut supplies from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Russia helped push the world’s main benchmarks, Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI), to their lowest levels since 2003 on January 20th; WTI tumbled by 6.7% to under $27 a barrel, its biggest one-day fall since September”.

The author goes on to write “The slide marks the latest act in a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the oil industry that is, in turn, roiling the global economy. Less than a decade ago the world scrambled for oil, largely to fuel China’s commodity-hungry growth spurt, pushing prices to over $140 a barrel in 2008. State-owned oil giants such as Saudi Aramco had access to the cheapest reserves, forcing private oil firms to search farther afield—in the Arctic, Brazil’s pre-salt fields and deep waters off Angola—for resources deemed ever scarcer. Investors, concerned that the oil majors could run out of growth opportunities, encouraged the search for pricey oil, rewarding potential future growth in production as much as profitability. Now the fear for producers is of an excess of oil, rather than a shortage. The addition to global supply over the past five years of 4.2m barrels a day (b/d) from America’s shale producers, although only 5% of global production, has had an outsized impact on the market by raising the prospects of recovering vast amounts of resources formerly considered too hard to extract. On January 19th the International Energy Agency (IEA), a prominent energy forecaster, issued a stark warning: “The oil market could drown in oversupply.”

The piece goes on to mention “Last year the world produced 96.3m b/d of oil, of which it consumed only 94.5m b/d. So each day about 1.8m barrels went into storage tanks—which are filling up fast. Though new storage is being built, too much oil would cause the tanks to overflow. The only place to put the spare barrels would be in tankers out to sea, like the Iranian oil sitting off Kharg, waiting for demand to recover. For oil producers that is an alarming prospect, yet for the most part warnings such as those of the IEA have gone unheeded”.

Crucially the piece notes that “This poses two puzzles. When, in November 2014, Saudi Arabia forced OPEC to keep the taps open despite plummeting prices, it hoped quickly to drive higher-cost producers in America and elsewhere out of business. Analysts expected a snappy rebound in prices. Though oil firms have since collectively suspended investment in $380 billion of new projects, as yet there is no sign of a bottom. Projections for a meaningful recovery in the oil price have been pushed back until at least 2017″.

Interestingly the article mentions that “The economic impact of the oversupply is another enigma. Cheaper fuel should stimulate global economic growth. Industries that use oil as an input are more profitable. The benefits to consuming nations typically outweigh the costs to producing ones. But so far in 2016 a 28% lurch downwards in oil prices has coincided with turmoil in global stockmarkets. It is as if the markets are challenging long-held assumptions about the economic benefits of low energy prices, or asserting that global economic growth is so anaemic that an oil glut will do little to help”.

The author adds that “Iran is the most immediate cause of the bearishness. It promises an immediate boost to production of 500,000 b/d, just when other members of OPEC such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq are pumping at record levels. Even if its target is over-optimistic, seething rivalry between the rulers in Tehran and Riyadh make it hard to imagine that the three producers could agree to the sort of production discipline that OPEC has used to attempt to rescue prices in the past. Even if OPEC tried to reassert its influence, the producers’ cartel would probably fail because the oil industry has changed in several ways. Shale-oil producers, using technology that is both cheaper and quicker to deploy than conventional oil rigs, have made the industry more entrepreneurial. Big depreciations against the dollar have helped beleaguered economies such as Russia, Brazil and Venezuela to maintain output, by increasing local-currency revenues relative to costs. And growing fears about action on climate change, coupled with the emergence of alternative-energy technologies, suggests to some producers that it is best to pump as hard as they can, while they can”.

The writer argues that there have been periods before when lower prices to drive out competitors have been tried before but he notes “there is also a reason for keeping the pumps working that is not as suicidal as it sounds. One of the remarkable features of last year’s oil market was the resilience of American shale producers in the face of falling prices. Since mid-2015 shale firms have cut more than 400,000 b/d from output in response to lower prices. Nevertheless, America still increased oil production more than any other country in the year as a whole, producing an additional 900,000 b/d, according to the IEA. During the year the number of drilling rigs used in America fell by over 60%. Normally that would be considered a strong indicator of lower output. Yet it is one thing to drill wells, another to conduct the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) that gets the shale oil flowing out. Rystad Energy, a Norwegian consultancy, noted late last year that the “frack-count”, ie, the number of wells fracked, was still rising, explaining the resilience of oil production”.

The author notes that it is not just shale producers that have tried to stay in business, “Those extracting in more expensive places, such as Canada’s oil sands and Brazilian pre-salt, have too. Canada, whose low-quality benchmark oil, West Canada Select, is trading below $15 a barrel, giving it the ignominious title of the world’s lowest-value crude, is one of the non-OPEC countries expected to add most to global supply this year. So is Brazil, despite debt and corruption at its state oil company, Petrobras”.

Interestingly he mentions that “the oil majors have said they will slash tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment, but they too are reluctant to abandon projects that may add to future production. Shell, an Anglo-Dutch company, took the rare decision to abandon exploration in the Arctic and a heavy-oil project in Canada but its current output of 2.9m b/d in 2015 was only just shy of the previous year’s 3.1m b/d. In the industry at large, the incentive is to keep producing “as flat out as you can”, once investment costs have been sunk into the ground, says Simon Henry, Shell’s chief financial officer. He says it is sometimes more expensive to stop production than to keep pumping at low prices, because of the high cost of mothballing wells”.

Pointedly he goes on to argue that “In theory a long period of low oil prices should benefit the global economy. The world is both a producer and a consumer: what producers lose and consumers gain from a drop in prices sums to zero. Conventionally, extra spending by oil importers exceeds cuts in spending by exporters, boosting global aggregate demand. The economies that have enjoyed the strongest GDP growth in the past year have indeed been oil importers: India, Pakistan and countries in east Africa. It is hard to explain the consumer-led recovery in the euro area without assuming a positive impact from lower oil prices. In the IMF’s latest forecast, published on January 19th, the handful of big economies that were spared downgrades to GDP growth—China, India, Germany, Britain, Spain and Italy—were all net oil importers”.

Yet even this logic is being questioned, “There are doubts that this holds true everywhere. America is both a large producer and consumer of oil. At the start of 2015, JPMorgan, a bank, reckoned that cheap oil would boost GDP by around 0.7%—a boost to consumers’ purchasing power equivalent to 1% of GDP, offset by a smaller drag from weaker oil-industry investment. It now reckons the outcome was between a contraction of 0.3% and a boost of a measly 0.1%. Consumers may have saved more of the windfall than had seemed likely and the share of oil-related capital spending in total business investment in America, which had steadily risen for years, has fallen by half. Add in the indirect effects of the downturn in the oil industry and the net impact of cheap oil may even have been a bigger decline than JPMorgan’s most pessimistic estimate”.

Naturally the oil crash has had serious consequences for states like Russia and Nigeria but “Since the start of the year, the supply shock from Iran has also been accompanied by fears of a demand one from China. The bungled handling of China’s stockmarket and currency has raised fears about the economy, which has spilled over into the oil market. As global financial markets have descended into turmoil, there are mounting worries about the resilience of the global economy, too. That, in turn, raises anxiety about future oil demand. Macroeconomic concerns are paramount, but there are also microeconomic ones. Lower fuel subsidies in some oil-producing countries, aimed at plugging budget deficits, are encouraging car owners to drive less miles. China has said that it will not allow petrol prices to fall in line with oil below $40 a barrel, which will have the same effect. Even in the United States, the link between cheap petrol and gas-guzzling is less strong than it was. Part of the reason, analysts say, is that vehicles are more fuel-efficient”.

The piece concludes “After the Paris summit on climate change in December some pundits reckon that the latest oil crisis reflects a structural change in oil consumption because of environmental concerns—what some call “peak demand”. It is true that as climate consciousness grows, oil companies are developing more gas than oil, hoping to deploy it as an energy substitute for coal. But it may be too early to assume that the era of the petrol engine is coming to an end. More likely, the oil price will eventually find a bottom and, if this cycle is like previous ones, shoot sharply higher because of the level of underinvestment in reserves and natural depletion of existing wells. Yet the consequences will be different. Antoine Halff of Columbia University’s Centre on Global Energy Policy told American senators on January 19th that the shale-oil industry, with its unique cost structure and short business cycle, may undermine longer-term investment in high-cost traditional oilfields. The shalemen, rather than the Saudis, could well become the world’s swing producers, adding to volatility, perhaps, but within a relatively narrow range”.

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