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The death of cheap crude

Oil prices are in a state of flux or so we are told. But the truth of the matter may be far simpler than that; maybe production cannot meet soaring global demand.

As prices hit record highs, some analysts' remarks, and much of the comment in the media, are directed at uncertainty surrounding Russian company Yukos, Iraqi pipeline attacks, Nigerian strikes and a forthcoming presidential referendum in Venezuela.

Yet behind the easy headlines, so called emerging economies such as China and India, added to rising American demand, are putting pressure on the price of energy. Meanwhile, major oil fields are withering, no new ones are being found and supplier countries are already pumping at their production limits.

Major problems

As an example, in the same year as China's consumption rose by a crushing 26% its main oilfield, Daqing, started to decline.

The Chinese state, not known for releasing accurate figures on anything, said the decline would be around seven per cent a year. It may well be faster.

As Daqing produced around 50% of China's total oil needs, one does not need to be a mathematician to see the problem. China will need to import large quantities of oil to satisfy its astronomical growth in consumption - growth which shows little sign of slowing.

The Yukos crisis may be only
part of a very big problem

Ali Bakhtiari, head of strategic planning at the Iranian National Oil Company (NIOC), dismisses the media chat, as just that.
"Cheap oil is dead. You are never going to see oil priced at $25 a barrel again. These high prices, yes, they are exacerbated by Yukos, Iraq and so on, but more importantly they are a sign that we have major structural problems with supply.

"They are a sign that there is now no spare capacity for the fluctuations of the markets."

Then we can add some other major determinants. That the North Sea oilfields, long a cash cow for the British and Norwegian governments, have peaked and are declining at a faster rate than analysts expected.

Then factor in the millions of "lost" barrels of oil that were misrepresented by Royal Dutch Shell, to the tune of 23% of their total reserves. Mix up the fact that no major oil fields were discovered in the last 18 months, despite increased technological innovation.

And round it all off with the OPEC statement that producer countries have "no more supply" according to spokesman, Indonesian oil minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro. This just weeks after OPEC assured markets production was "no problem".

Panic pricing

Thus the underlying reasons for high oil prices seem to be that demand is outstripping possible production.

Nigeria produced more oil in 2004
than for the six previous
years

Additional worries such as Yukos, Iraq, Nigeria and Venezuela are the icing on the crumbling energy cake.

Indeed Yukos is still pumping oil at record levels, Nigeria produced more oil in June 2004 than it has done for six years and a lack of Iraqi oil on the market place did not drive prices to $43 during the 12 years of sanctions. Indeed there is more Iraqi oil reaching refineries now than since the first Gulf war.

"Remember on June 3, when oil was $43 a barrel?" continues Bakhtiari. "Then OPEC said they would increase production, by 2.5m barrels a day from July 1. It did make a small dent in the price for a while, but now we are already back where we started."

Critical point

Dr Colin Campbell is former executive vice president of oil company Total. He is one of the leading industry figures who have long stated that oil prices are set to rocket, as production fails to meet soaring demand.


"Because of the way
the market works, what was previously a minor strike in Nigeria or a commercial row in Russia is now a straw that will break the camel's back"

Dr Colin Campbell,
former Total executive vice president

"Because of the way the market works, what was previously a minor strike in Nigeria or a commercial row in Russia is now a straw that will break the camel's back.

"Once you are producing flat-out, there is nothing you can do about disruptions. Once a slight imbalance occurs, then traders, who are there to make money, will price oil accordingly."

Of course, a surge in oil prices does benefit some areas of the global community, the oil companies.

BP has reported record 2nd quarterly profits of $3.9bn to June, a 23% yearly increase. The market was disappointed it did not make more.

Lord Browne, chairman of the super-giant, acknowledged that prices would "stay high for the short term", adding unconvincingly that they would come down "one day". That one day may be in the form of a recession.

Bleak prospects

Then there is the Saudi Arabian angle. Another major oil figure, the recently retired executive vice president of Saudi Aramco, Sadad al-Hussaini, has frightened the markets with recent articles in Oil & Gas Journal.

In them he cites "proven developed reserves" of Saudi Arabia at only "130bn barrels", half of what Saudi Arabia normally claims to have underground.

A lack of transparency over reserve figures, many of which are thought to be groundless, has further undermined confidence in oil producers to match demand.

Add to this that Russia's oil minister has claimed that Russian output will fall in 2005 and that Indonesia became the first OPEC country to admit, in June, that it had become a net importer and one can see the underlying trend.

Campbell draws some difficult conclusions. "It could be that the long awaited peak in oil production is either here or about to arrive. We are seeing that nowhere has the capacity to increase production."

Bakhtiari agrees. "We are approaching the plateau of production; these are the first signs that we are there. As I said, cheap oil is history."

If they are right, there are harsh times ahead.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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