Vol. 3 No. 52
December 29, 2008
Tom Whipple, Editor
Steve Andrews, Publisher

1. Prices and production

It was another down week for oil prices. Starting out in the low $40s, oil fell as low as $35 a barrel before jumping to a close at $37.71 after the UAE announced the details of the production cuts it was making to comply with the recent OPEC decision.

Despite widespread skepticism that the cartel will actually cut production on the order of 4 million b/d in the next few months, several OPEC members have already announced the details of how and when they plan to make the required cuts. Despite an OPEC tradition of ignoring production cuts, this time it may be different. Prices have fallen so far that nearly every member of OPEC is in serious trouble. The realization may be growing that if they don’t hang together and temporarily swallow the reduced revenue from lower exports, it may be a long time before prices rebound.

Billions in oil revenues that were flowing into OPEC coffers as recently as last summer now remain in the pockets of consumers around the world. In the US, the cost of fuel is now down by nearly $2 billion a day which is making a major contribution to cushioning the effects of the recession.

Although a drumbeat of harsh economic news continues to flow from around the world, it is still unclear just how far the worldwide demand for oil has dropped. While US demand is down by about 1.2 million b/d, OECD reserves have been growing, and other major consumers are reporting lower imports, these factors are balanced by much lower oil prices. China is reported to be filling its strategic reserve, the US will resume doing so after the 1st of the year and South Korea will start filling its reserve shortly.

The rapid and unprecedented drop in prices clearly indicates that there is too much oil available for current demand. Whether this surplus is measured in hundreds of thousands of barrels per day as suggested by the IEA, or several millions as suggested by other observers, has yet to be determined.

2. Russia

Of all the countries exporting oil, Russia seems to be suffering the most serious consequences from the precipitous drop in oil prices. The Russian stock market has collapsed and the ruble, devalued eight times in recent months, has lost 20 percent of its value vs. the US dollar since August. Although Moscow managed to accumulate a substantial reserve during the good years, this is being rapidly dissipated bailing out troubled industries and $100 billion in foreign obligations are coming due next year. Worldwide demand for Russia’s minerals is dropping and unemployment is increasing.

The country is bracing for civil unrest as more workers are not being paid or are losing jobs. The unspoken social contract between government and the Russian people, in which the people ceded some political freedoms in return for prosperity and consumer goods, is breaking down.

The annual dispute over how much cash-short Ukraine will pay for past and current deliveries of Russian natural gas is in full swing. Russia supplies about one-fourth of Europe’s natural gas through the Ukrainian pipeline system. In 2006, when Moscow tried to pressure Ukraine by reducing the gas feeding into Ukraine’s pipelines, shortages developed in Western Europe. Moscow already is warning the EU that this situation could occur again.

Early next year Moscow will begin shipping LNG from Sakhalin Island and thus increase the share of LNG in the world’s gas supply. Last week Moscow hosted a meeting of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum that formalized the organization by adopting a charter and agreeing to set up a headquarters in Doha and hire a secretary general. Most members of the Forum deny any intention of becoming an OPEC-like cartel to control world LNG prices, but others are suspicious since OPEC too had innocuous beginnings.

Despite economic problems that may or may not turn out to be worse than those of other countries, Moscow continues to maneuver.

3. Electric Cars

It is now generally acknowledged that if the automobile is to have a future, it will be completely or partially electrically powered. GM is staking its future on its plug-in hybrid, the Volt, which is due out in 2010. A Chinese automaker is already selling a competing vehicle, and several Japanese manufacturers are planning to announce new all-electric or hybrid vehicles in January.

At the Detroit auto show, Toyota will unveil the next generation of its successful Prius that is said to have a new hybrid power train which will deliver higher mileage and improved performance. Honda will unveil a new competitor for the Prius, and Mitsubishi will show a four seat all electric with a 100 mile range and a top speed of 87 mph.

Perhaps the most interesting new car in recent weeks is the one built by BYD in China. BYD started life as an advanced battery manufacturer that moved into building cars about 5 years ago. BYD says it has developed a new, proprietary battery technology that will move a four passenger car 62 miles at highway speeds on electricity alone. Built with a range extending gasoline engine like the one in the Chevrolet Volt, this vehicle is already on sale in China for $22,000.

If this vehicle works as advertised, it will mark a paradigm shift in the automobile industry for it is coming on the market with better performance specifications, two years earlier, and at half the rumored cost of GM’s Volt. If the US automobile industry can survive for the next two years it may find difficulty competing with just the Volt. It is worth noting that Warren Buffet has invested $230 million in the BDY electric car project in hopes of introducing them in the US by 2011.

One of the subplots of the anticipated switch to plug-in electric cars is the availability of places to recharge them. In China nearly all housing in urban areas where people can afford cars is in high rise buildings – unsuitable for recharging without a major investment in wiring parking spaces. In America, however, one of the redeeming features of suburban sprawl is easy access to electricity either in garages, driveways or simply in front of a house. This could make the adoption of plug-in cars much more acceptable in the near future.

While the plug-in car has the potential to provide urban transportation with only a fraction of the amount of liquid fuel currently being consumed, the transition to electric cars will be lengthy and expensive. The world’s fleet of liquid fueled cars is now approaching 1 billion vehicles and many question whether there will be enough resources to make the transition.

4. Briefs (clips from recent Peak Oil News dailies are indicated by date and item #)

  • Japan, the world’s third-largest consumer of oil, said its crude imports fell 12 percent during November as the country’s industrial output plunged the most in almost 55 years. Industrial output in Japan declined 8.1 percent in November intensifying worries that the world’s second-largest economy was headed for a deeper and more protracted recession than previously thought. (12/27, #2, #5)

  • In China, energy demand is falling as the fourth-biggest economy enters its deepest slowdown in almost two decades. (12/25, #5) China’s policy makers are becoming convinced that the country’s current economic situation is direr than had been expected and may not bottom out until well into 2009. As a result, new economic stimulus measures are being formulated and will be launched in the following months. (12/26, #7)
  • China’s crude oil imports are expected to register a year-on-year growth of 1.2 percent in 2008, down sharply from 14.7 percent in 2007 and 14.5 percent in 2006. (12/26, #5)
  • China has started filling tanks at its largest oil reserve, taking advantage of low world crude prices. The facility’s 10 tanks have a total capacity of 6.3 million barrels. (12/27, #5)
  • The excavation of Alberta’s tar sands could reduce the region’s migratory-bird population by almost half, according to a study released by US and Canadian environmental groups. The report calls for a moratorium on new tar sands development pending further study of environmental impacts or, failing that, measures that include noise reduction and habitat restoration. (12/27, #9)
  • South Korea warned it faces an “unprecedented crisis” as global demand wilts. (12/26, #6)
  • India’s Reliance Industries started operations at its new 580,000-barrel-a-day refinery in western India, likely raising the pressure on refining margins globally. The new refinery, along with Reliance’s neighboring 660,000 barrel-a-day refinery, will form the world’s largest refining complex in Jamnagar in western India, with a capacity of 1.24 million barrels a day. (12/26, #9)
  • Growing US natural gas production from onshore fields has left the market oversupplied by four billion or five billion cubic feet per day, according to Houston-based investment banking boutique Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. (12/24, #11)
  • Natural-gas prices remain in a slump because manufacturers, which are bigger users of gas than homeowners, have cut back their operations in response to the recession. Natural-gas futures are down 16% from last year despite colder weather. Prices haven’t been this low in December since 2003. Storage levels remain 3.4 percent higher than normal even after the frigid start to the heating season. But the price slump spells bad news for gas producers, who have been forced to slash spending on drilling. (12/26, #11)
  • Chesapeake, based in Oklahoma City, plans to cut its 2009 and 2010 capital spending by a combined $2.9 billion, or 31 percent. (12/25, #11)
    Putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions could help rebalance the natural-gas market by changing the economics of power generation. At current fuel prices, the variable cost of generating one megawatt hour of electricity from the average natural-gas fired plant is $45; for a coal-fired plant, it’s $30. Put a price of $25 per metric ton on these emissions – in line with average prices in Europe since it began trading of emissions allowances – and the economics change dramatically. (12/24, #11)

  • The price of corn has dropped to $3.98/bushel, a 50 percent drop from the all-time high of $7.99 on June 27, despite crop-threatening drought in Argentina and Brazil, the world’s second- and third-largest corn exporters after the US. (12/25, #3)
  • The weakening US labor market is compressing consumer incomes and spending, though sharp declines in gasoline prices are offsetting the troubles for now. (12/25, #9)
  • Despite dropping gasoline prices, a sense of urgency for efficient vehicles may still remain, according to congressional and environmental leaders, because of a confluence of factors including broad anxiety over global warming, enthusiasm for green elements in economic stimulus packages and President-elect Barack Obama’s repeated vows to act. (12/25, #10)
  • US airlines are cheering the jaw-dropping decline in fuel prices, but at the same time are wincing that some of the insurance they bought to hedge against fuel spikes seems to have been a waste of money. (12/25, #12)
  • Aviation will not be able to grow after crude oil production peaks. The competition with diesel fuel production will probably increase. Diesel for agricultural tractors or jet fuel for aviation? (12/25, #18)
  • Reeling from its financial problems and a collapsing SUV market, General Motors on Tuesday closed its factories in Janesville (WI) and in Moraine (OH), marking the passing of an era. (12/24, #12)
  • The profit margin, or crack spread, for turning crude oil into gasoline in the US has been negative for all but four days since Oct. 21. (12/24, #13)
  • Ammonia is probably the most critical manmade substance to the existence of human society. The expansion of the world’s population is based on fertilizer driven agriculture…and modern nitrogen fertilizer is ammonia. Global ammonia production comes about 69 percent from natural gas and 29% from coal. US domestic ammonia production was 10.7 million tons in 2007 and imported ammonia totaled 7.9 million tons. Major suppliers: Trinidad (55%), Russia (21%), and Canada (12%). (12/24, #18)
  • Demand for oil tankers will continue to slip. Pledged OPEC production cuts translate to an approximate 8% to 9% contraction in crude oil tanker demand in 2009, while the crude tanker oil fleet is likely to expand 14% to 15% next year. (12/23, #2)
  • Mexican oil production slid by an average of 9.3 percent during the first 11 months of this year to 2.8 million barrels a day. Exports fell by 17.3% during the period, to 1.4 million barrels a day…Petroleos Mexicanos is already adding rigs, and it plans to double drilling activity next year. (12/23, #7, #8))
  • Brazil’s Petrobras said the offshore pre-salt oil fields, including Tupi, the largest discovery in the Americas since 1976, remain viable even after crude prices plunged. (12/23, #9)
  • Private oil company Flying J filed for reorganization under US bankruptcy laws, citing the collapse in oil prices and tight credit markets as the root of its financial troubles. (12/23, #13)
  • Be it late 2009, 2010 or even 2011, the price of energy will head back to its old highs and likely well beyond. Deleveraging and psychological forces can rule the markets for any short term period. Looking ahead, the fundamentals will prevail.(12/23, #19)
  • Alaska’s North Slope oil production is expected to average 689,000 barrels per day this year, a decline of 3.8 percent from last year, according to a revenue forecast released in Juneau. For 2010 production will decline to 665,000 b/d. (12/22, #11)
  • The US drilling rig count—which peaked in September at just over 2000 rigs—should decline by slightly over 1,000 rigs from the peak to the trough. Since the rig count has already fallen by 165 rigs, the 800-rig drop estimate recently made by Nabors Industries could prove pretty accurate. (12/22, #10)
  • Cambridge Energy Research Associates, in a new report, say they anticipate that spare oil production capacity will increase significantly in the next few years due to falling oil demand and as supply materializes from investments already under way. As low as 1 million b/d in 2005 and 2.4 million b/d in 2008, spare capacity could reach 7-8 million b/d in 2010-12. By 2013, another cycle of supply tightness and high prices could hit us again. (12/22, #18) (Editor’s note: we would be shocked if it took another four years for high oil prices to take hold again.) (

Quote of the Week

“Cheating on OPEC quotas is not a problem. It’s a tradition.”
— Byron King, energy analyst and writer