1. Production and Prices
Oil prices climbed as high as $48 on Monday, collapsed to the low $40s on Tuesday and remained there for the rest of the week. The fall was precipitated by another round of bad economic news which once again outweighed the prospects of OPEC production cuts. Although OPEC officials maintain that the organization was on track to finish its 4.2 million b/d production cut by the end of January, tanker-trackers say the members are still shipping at least 1 million b/d above that goal.

OPEC’s Secretary General reiterated at the Davos meeting that producers want crude between $75 and $100 a barrel and will not hesitate to cut more production at the March 15th meeting in Vienna, if prices do not increase by then.

The EIA issued a revised estimate showing that US oil demand in November was down by 7.7 percent or 1.5 million b/d, year over year, to 18.9 million b/d. Demand for gasoline in November was revised down to 8.8 million b/d, the lowest November demand since 2002. Weekly figures for December and January have been showing a small increase in demand since November likely due to the holidays and lower prices.

The possibility of a strike at US refineries this week kept prices firm on Friday.

Natural gas prices fell some more on Friday to close at $4.41 /mbtu. During January, natural gas was down by 21 percent on falling industrial demand.

2. Obama’s stimulus
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan currently making its way through the Congress contains, among much else, the seeds of a multi-billion dollar overhaul of energy. As part of the efforts to sell the bill, President Obama gave a brief speech last week outlining his goals for revamping the supply and use of energy. Starting with the assertion that “America’s dependence on oil is one of the most serious threats that our nation has faced”, coupled with the threat – “violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines, and irreversible catastrophe” – of climate change, it is clear the new President clearly understands the seriousness of our oil problems. Moreover, he seems determined to do something about them after decades of inaction.

Once you understand that “energy independence” is a politically acceptable euphemism for peak oil, the details of the proposals such as doubling the production of alternative energy, 3,000 miles of new transmission lines, fuel efficient cars, and massive weatherization make sense. The primary purpose and justification for the expenditure of $800-900 billion envisioned in the plan is to create jobs quickly, not to prepare for oil depletion. While not optimum to prepare for peak oil (do we really need more new roads and more ethanol from corn?) and slow global warming, the plan is the best we have had in recent times and at the minute seems likely to become law.
The major concerns about the plan are the massive cost and its effectiveness in creating jobs. Can borrowing on a multi-trillion scale be accomplished without triggering a period of devastating inflation and will disappearance of jobs be reversed quickly enough? These are the questions for which there are a thousand opinions.

3. Venezuela
Of all the oil exporting countries, Venezuela appears to be suffering the worst consequences from the rapid fall in oil prices last year. Russia and Iran may be running close seconds. Caracas says it has averaged $36 a barrel for its oil this year, well below the $60 planned in the state budget.

For several weeks it has been rumored that Venezuela has not been paying its bills and that payments on the order of $8 billion are due the oil service companies that do much of the drilling and keep the oil flowing. Last week troubles arose as several oil service companies, seeing no payments in sight, simply stopped working. In one case the Venezuelans actually seized a foreign-owned drilling rig after the company stopped work. In a second case a US oil driller stopped work at several locations saying that PdVSA owed it $100 million.

Short of a rapid rebound in oil prices there is no end to this problem in the offing. Caracas has been vocal in calling for still more OPEC production cuts which—short term–would make their situation still worse. The patience of Venezuela’s partners and contractors is clearly wearing thin. Should they start halting or slowing work en masse, Venezuela’s oil production is likely to fall, further exacerbating the situation. In some areas, local employees of oil service companies are only receiving partial pay despite government orders that the companies continue to pay their employees. Caracas appears to hope falling costs and lost business will force the oil service companies to renegotiate for less expensive contracts.

The only bright side to the situation is that Caracas has restarted talks with the French oil company, Total, about expanding its operations in Venezuela. Total was one of the companies hurt when Chavez nationalized much of the foreign oil production.

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

  • Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the International Energy Agency, estimates that around $100 billion in projects, mostly outside of OPEC, have been delayed or canceled over the past year because of weaker oil prices. In some cases, companies are waiting for lower costs. In others, they are deferring projects that have become unprofitable at today’s oil prices. The collapse of the financial sector has made it much harder to finance multibillion-dollar projects. (1/31, #14)
  • Global oil prices need to stay above $40 a barrel to keep deep offshore oil production and exploration economically viable in Nigeria according to the head of the country’s state-run oil firm. (1/28, #6)
  • Nigeria’s main militant movement said it was ending a four-month ceasefire and was gearing up for a “sweeping assault” on oil and gas companies rekindling the risk of escalating disruptions in the country’s restive Niger Delta. (1/31, #6)
  • Saudi Arabia may cut output more as it seeks to set a floor under oil prices. The kingdom plans to pump in February below its OPEC target of 8.05 million b/d, undershooting what was already a record OPEC supply cut agreed in December. (1/30, #9)
  • OPEC Secretary General el-Badri said the group may achieve its new output quotas in full before the end of the month, even as tanker-tracker estimates suggest otherwise. PetroLogistics says OPEC members will produce about 1.3 million b/d more than their new collective target this month. (1/29, #3)
  • Shell Nigeria’s Bonny Light and Sea Eagle and Forcados crude fields can produce around 800,000 b/d between them when running at full capacity. The company’s actual output, severely hampered by attacks on its facilities by local militants, averaged 361,000 barrels a day in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with an average of 409,000 barrels a day a year earlier. (1/29, #8)
  • The head of Brazil’s oil company Petrobras said there would be no oil project delays in 2009, and that production was about 2.4 million barrels per day. The company has said its output will reach 3.3 million barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2013. Petrobras had based its calculations on relatively low prices of around $37 a barrel for Brent crude in 2009 and around $45 for the longer term. (1/31, #7)
  • Mexican President Calderon, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, sought to sell the heads of the world’s biggest energy companies on his nation’s oil industry, touting new openings for foreign firms. Mexican oil output fell 9.2 percent last year to 2.8 million barrels per day. (1/31, #8)
  • In a year where oil rose to a record price before having its steepest-ever collapse, ExxonMobil still managed to set a record as the most-profitable U.S. corporation. It earned $45.2 billion in 2008, up from $40.6 billion in 2007. The Exxon CEO has signaled that the company may actually increase its investments by 20 percent this year. (1/31, #14)
  • On Friday January 16th, the Bush Administration’s Electricity Advisory Committee published a lengthy study in which it said the government needs to make a significant intervention in the power market, it’s completely failed to do so for the past eight years (and longer), and conservation needs to be part of anything we do. (1/31, #18)
  • BP’s CEO Tony Hayward said crude oil prices between $60 and $80 a barrel are “appropriate” to sustain essential levels of investment. (1/30, #6)
  • A continuing oversupply in the US crude market could force Canadian oil sands producers to cut back production, says a report by Merrill Lynch. (1/27, #11)
  • Iraq seeks to export 2 million barrels of oil a day in 2009 according to Oil Minister al-Shahristani. (1/28, #5)
  • Canadian oil and gas drilling could fall 21% this year on slowing petroleum demand and low commodity prices according to the Petroleum Services Association of Canada. (1/29, #16)
  • The International Air Transport Association, which represents 230 airlines worldwide, reported that December’s international air passenger traffic fell 4.6% year-over-year, and only 74 percent of plane seats were sold. International air cargo volume fell an unprecedented 22.6 percent year-over-year. This is the first time in memory that airlines in virtually every region of the world have been simultaneously hurt by falling passenger and cargo loads. (1/30, #7)
  • The cost to transport crude oil from the Caribbean on Aframax tankers has dropped 62 percent in four weeks as rising stockpiles of crude oil and the weakening U.S. economy reduced demand for shipments. (1/31, #4)
  • Japan, the world’s third-largest oil user, said gasoline sales fell 4.2 percent during 2008, the most in more than half a century as record prices prompted motorists to drive less. It was the biggest drop since the trade ministry started collecting data in 1952. (1/30, #13)
  • Japanese industrial production fell a larger-than-expected 9.6 per cent and unemployment rose sharply to 4.4 per cent in December, highlighting the rapid deterioration in economic activity in the face of fading global demand. (1/30, #16)
  • Oil analyst Paul Ting says China’s December oil demand declined by 4%, the sharpest monthly demand decline in the past decade. Earlier this month, the IEA predicted that China’s oil demand would grow 1.1 percent this year (1/29, #9)
  • India’s crude oil imports slumped in December to their lowest in more than four years despite Reliance Industries’ new refinery coming on stream. Demand sank amid an economic slowdown and maintenance shutdowns. (1/28, #9)
  • US refiners are likely to take more processing units down for longer periods during spring maintenance as prolonged economic weakness squelches demand for gasoline and diesel fuel. (1/29, #12)
  • Corporate CEOs predict that business will not pick up for three years and have shifted their focus from growth to survival, according to a survey released Wednesday. (1/28, #2)
  • OPEC wants U.S. regulators to curtail oil trading by hedge funds and speculators who helped make last year the most volatile in crude oil markets. (1/28, #3)
  • Chinese car manufacturer BYD started selling a plug-in hybrid (F3DM model) last December 15th. BYD claims the car can travel 62 miles on battery power only, and a total of 267 miles using its range-extending internal combustion engine. BYD says they will start sales in the US in 2011, right after GM’s Volt enters the market. (1/28, #18)
  • The IEA has consistently overestimated oil demand since 2004, leading many market operators to predict an impending oil crisis, Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni said. (1/27, #3)
  • President Obama opened the door to state-level regulation of greenhouse gases, kicking off the first round of what promises to be a lengthy fight between major industries and his administration over how to combat global warming. (1/27, #7)
  • President Obama’s order to the EPA to review whether to grant a government waiver that could allow California to pass tougher fuel economy and emission standards for automakers than the federal government could significantly change the vehicle choices consumers have in the next decade. (1/28, #12)
  • President Obama’s ambiguity on corn-based ethanol has evoked apprehension in the scientific world. If he wants to remain consistent with his liberal agenda and goals of positive change, he will have to yield to the scientists in his cabinet, thereby removing himself and politically-tied Cabinet members from the energy-resolution process. (1/27, #14)
  • The first real-world, demonstration-scale project for turning algae into biofuel year-round has successfully completed the initial stage of research at the University of Nevada, Reno. (1/28, #20)
  • The US natural gas industry may have another hurdle, as some state legislators and fiscal watchdog groups are calling for a tax on mineral extraction. Across the nation, the few states that are not facing massive budget deficits are those that have an abundance of natural resources and tax extraction of those resources. (1/31, #11)
  • Although tax credits are offered to US companies building renewable-energy projects, there are no comparable incentives for domestic equipment makers. That could undermine President Barack Obama’s goal of fostering job creation through adoption of renewable-energy and green technologies. (1/31, #12)
  • The American Wind Energy Association said installed capacity grew by 8,358 megawatts last year to a total of more than 25,000 megawatts, investment worth $17 billion. It warned of an uncertain future in 2009 as a result of the economic crisis. (1/29, #14)
  • For US wind energy, 2009 is likely to be a bad year, with a decline in installations and, possibly, layoffs. The reasons are linked to the inconsistent regulatory framework until now and to the ongoing credit crisis. (1/31, #16)
  • While tides are a free source of energy, generating power from tides is three times more expensive than using natural gas or coal over the life of a project, according to the Carbon Trust, a U.K. government-funded research unit. (1/30, #22)

Quote of the Week

“Russian oil production, which was boosted to new heights in 2007, has now fallen 1.0% in calendar year 2008. More relevant now to the world, however, is the ability of Russia to export oil…2008 saw Russian oil exports fall by over 5.00% and the outlook is not pretty from here. Russia simply does not have the kind of dirt-cheap labor or materials advantage that it enjoyed just 10 years ago. Oil at $45.00 continues to set the stage for a supply collapse. Russia is vulnerable to a huge drop in production.”
— Gregor Macdonald, from “Russian Oil Production Appears To Have Peaked”