1. Production and Prices
In a shortened trading week, high volatility continued due to the now familiar conflict between a widening world recession and OPEC production cuts. There were, however, surprises along the way. When the weekly US inventory report was released on Wednesday showed US crude inventories falling by 200,000 barrels as opposed to an expected 3 million barrel increase, oil rebounded 14 percent from a drop earlier in the week. The inventory decline was largely due to a decrease in imports which may be only temporary or possibly an early indication that OPEC production cuts are starting to take hold. Prices closed out the week at $40 a barrel, a couple dollars below where they started.

Another major surprise in the week’s US stocks report was an increase in domestic oil consumption. Total US consumption of oil products was down by just 0.1 percent as compared to the same four week period last year. Gasoline and distillate consumption were actually up by 0.8 percent and 0.3 percent respectively. Jet fuel consumption is still down by about 15 percent as airlines reduce flights.

On Friday, natural gas prices fell below $4 per million BTUs for the first time in more than 6 years as the recession curbs demand for the fuel by factories and power plants.

2. The March OPEC meeting
With three weeks to go before the March 15th OPEC meeting, speculation is rife about what the cartel will do regarding additional production cuts. The traditional price hawks Venezuela and Iran continue to call for another cut, while the OPEC governors, as distinct from the decision-making Oil Ministers, are reported to be opposed to another cut at this time. The governors, however, agree that the market is still oversupplied by about 1.6 million b/d and that a cut of this size may be necessary in the second quarter.

A new factor in the situation is the role of Russia in further production cuts. Moscow, which is being hurt as badly by low crude prices as many OPEC countries, showed up at the December OPEC meeting talking about some sort of association other than full membership in the cartel. Following the December meeting several OPEC members expressed frustration that Russia made no move to cut production while receiving the benefits of OPEC’s efforts.

Last week Russia’s Vice Premier said that he has been invited to the March 15th meeting to discuss a memorandum of understanding with the cartel that will be aimed at some sort of coordination.

Last week Azerbaijan said it will be producing less oil in 2009. At the December meeting, Azerbaijan was the only non-OPEC country that offered to make a production cut. It is not clear whether production cuts this year will be deliberate or stem from ongoing production problems.

3. Nigeria
There were more indications last week that the security, economic, and political situation in Nigeria continues to deteriorate. As more than 300 oil industry employees have been kidnapped in the last three years, foreign oil workers must travel by air or in military convoys, adding greatly to costs and reducing efficiency. In an effort to cut costs in 2008 Shell eliminated 1200 oil-worker jobs in the country and is likely to cut more this year. Shell, BP, and Total all suffered losses last quarter and the income of the other international oil companies operating in Nigeria was greatly reduced.

Nigeria, where oil production is already down about 500,000 b/d to about 1.9 million b/d due to militant attacks, is under an OPEC mandate to cut production by another 319,000 b/d. The government will likely apply these cuts disproportionately to offshore production which is lightly taxed and highly profitable to the oil companies. Shell and Exxon have about $7 billion invested in developing the offshore fields and are seeking to recover their investments as quickly as possible. Government efforts to renegotiate offshore oil agreements are likely to further reduce foreign investment in the country.

The steep decline in oil prices has left the Nigerian government unable to pay its share of new investment. Last week Shell announced that it will lend Nigeria $3 billion in order to keep projects moving.

While militant attacks do not appear to have increased significantly in recent weeks, they continue and are starting to take a toll on the patience of the international oil companies who may be losing interest in their Nigerian operations.

4. China goes shopping
With circa $1.5 trillion in foreign reserves, Beijing is taking advantage of low oil prices and the global recession to gain long-term access to sources of oil and other minerals around the world. In recent weeks China has announced concluded or pending deals with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Venezuela, and Australia. In most cases, cash-strapped companies and governments are more than happy to take China’s money and give highly favorable terms.

So far the $25 billion loan to Russia to be repaid with $20-a-barrel oil is the biggest deal signed this month. A similar sized deal for access to Australian ores is reported to be in the works. China’s President Hu visited Riyadh last week seeking more Saudi oil to fill his new strategic reserve. Brazil is reported to be well along in negotiations for a $10 billion Chinese loan to finance development of its deep-water fields. Brazil’s Petrobras has already signed an agreement to sell 60-100,000 b/d of crude to China and a second deal for an additional 60,000 b/d is said to be near.

In the words of one Chinese observer “The global economic crisis has given China a rare, good opportunity to trade our abundant currency reserves for other countries’ oil resources.”

Some observers are skeptical as to how long these cheap oil deals will last after prices go higher. Moscow in particular has a very spotty record of adhering to agreements in recent years.

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

  • Mexico’s state-owned oil company PEMEX said crude output fell 9.2 percent in January as its largest field plunged at the second-fastest rate ever. (2/21, #4)
  • Azerbaijan has cut its 2009 oil production forecast by a fifth to 45 million tonnes due to production problems and low oil prices, potentially ending a decade of rapid output growth, an Azeri government source said…An estimated 40-50 percent of the budget is financed by oil revenues. (2/21, #7)
  • Total SA is maintaining its overall investment program at the same $18 billion level as in 2008 despite the unfavorable economic and financial environment. (2/20, #16)
  • Petrobras’ average oil and gas production in Brazil in January was up 4.8 percent more than a year ago and 0.7 percent more than in December 2008. (2/19, #7)
  • U.S. motorists reduced driving by the most in 66 years in 2008, the Federal Highway Administration said yesterday in a report. Vehicle-miles traveled last year fell by 107.9 billion, or 3.6 percent. (2/21, #2)
  • US drilling rigs exploring for or producing oil or gas declined to 1,300, the lowest level since March 2005, Baker Hughes said Friday. The rig count has fallen for 14 out of the past 15 weeks and is down 36% from the high of 2,031 rigs on Sept 12. (2/21, # 15)
  • Venezuela won’t cut spending for social programs despite the decline in oil revenue and will instead tap a fund with China to continue funding development projects, President Chavez said today in comments carried by state television. The 2009 budget estimated oil would sell for $60 a barrel. (2/21, #11)
  • Venezuela plans to boost oil output at least 12 percent in a joint venture with foreign investors that will cost more than twice what the government previously estimated, a confidential document shows. The project would increase Venezuela’s daily output by 400,000 b/d within seven years. (2/19, #5)
  • Venezuelan President Chavez scored a victory in his drive to stay in power as voters scrapped constitutional term limits that would have forced him from office in 2013. (2/16, #8)
  • The Obama administration’s plan to conduct a new study of offshore crude oil and natural gas resources through the US Geological Survey may be little more than a “de-facto moratorium” on further drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, Larry Nichols, chairman of the American Petroleum Institute, said Friday. (2/21, #14)
  • On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Chu declined to offer an opinion on whether OPEC should cut production, saying the issue was “not in my domain.” He later told reporters on a conference call that his response to the question reflected “more of my naivete than anything else.” (2/20, #9)
  • With energy at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda, there are growing concerns that the Energy Information Administration’s statistics are incomplete, outdated, or, in some cases, inaccurate. Last year, it initially failed to register how quickly U.S. oil demand was falling. (2/21, #19)
  • What President Obama and PM Harper are facing is the problem of being viewed as environmental crusaders, while at the same time justifying their use of the dirtiest oil available. What neither leader has been willing to admit – and won’t, for obvious reasons – is that they can’t have it both ways. (2/21, #17)
  • Chery Automobile Co., China’s largest maker of own-brand cars, unveiled its first plug-in hybrid, touting a range more than twice as far as General Motors Corp.’s planned Volt. The S18 can travel as much as 150 kilometers (93 miles) using just its batteries. 2/21, #21)
  • World oil demand could begin to peak over the next decade as worries over security of supply, extreme price swings and climate change force a move towards other forms of energy, consultancy Arthur D. Little said. (2/20, #4)
  • Sales of new cars and trucks in February are collapsing almost too fast to track. The sales pace through the first half of the month appears to be at an annualized rate of fewer than 9 million vehicles. (2/20, #10)
  • Russia’s crude production in January declined 0.8% year-on-year. (2/17, #19)
  • Russian officials now forecast their economy will shrink 2.2 percent in 2009, as falling oil and commodity prices lead a retreat from a decade of impressive growth. (2/20, #15)
  • Russia will consider linking the launch of new oil deposits to global crude prices, a policy that would allow oil firms to store up reserves and cut exploration budgets in times of low prices. (2/21, #18)
  • Russia will supply about 50 cargoes of liquefied natural gas this year, mostly to Japan, from a new plant on the Pacific island of Sakhalin that will establish it as a major energy supplier to Asian markets. (2/18, #13)
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a study in 2001 that showed a peak and decline of uranium supply, with a peak occurring in 2024, assuming all resources, including the highest cost resources, can be extracted. (2/20, #17)
  • The big surprise in 2009, particularly by the second half of year, will be the loss of non-OPEC production, according to Larry Goldstein, a trustee with the Energy Policy Research Foundation. He pointed to swiftly falling cash flows and oil production in Russia and Mexico. (2/20, #18)
  • A drive by major oil consumers to expand the use of biofuels and other renewable energy sources at the expense of crude supplies could destabilize the oil market in the long run, according to OPEC. (2,16, #7)
  • The IEA said on Monday there could be an oil supply crunch from 2010 once global demand recovers and the impact of delayed investment crimps future supplies. The agency is concerned that some oil producers are deferring projects to expand supply. (2/17, #2) The IEA urged OPEC against cutting production further when they meet next month. (2/16, #3)
  • On Friday, a film for BBC called “A Farm for the Future” concentrated on the necessity to find a new way to feed the nation. It concluded that present methods cannot go on feeding Britain as they are highly dependent on fossil-fuel. (2/20, #19)
  • The descendants of the founder of Standard Oil — forerunner of Exxon — are backing a shareholder resolution for the second year asking Exxon to dive deeper into renewable energy. (2/19, #13)
  • The Canadian economy has been blindsided by plummeting oil prices. The nation has ratcheted up its dependence on oil revenue, more than doubling its crude-oil exports over the past four years. Now, the oil bust is pushing it into a deeper recession than many economists had expected. (2/19, #16)
  • Rick George, CEO of Suncor, which in January postponed site-expansion work worth C$14 billion, estimates that 35,000 temporary workers employed around the Fort McMurray oil sands will be reduced to fewer than 10,000 by the end of the year. (2/19, #16)
  • Switching from gasoline or corn-based biofuels to cellulosic ethanol–made from the stalks and stems of plants–could have more health and environmental benefits than previously recognized, according to a study of different types of transportation fuels. (2/18, #17)
  • In January 2009 world production of total liquid fuels decreased by 520,000 barrels b/d from December according to the latest figures of the IEA This puts total world liquids production at 85.17 million b/d. Average global production in 2008 was 86.59 million b/d according to the IEA. In 2007 an average of 85.41 million b/d was produced. (2/17, #20)
  • Since gasoline prices slumped to a low of $1.616 per gallon on Dec. 30, they’ve jumped more than 20% to $1.965 and could hit $2 soon. (2/17, #11)
  • Exxon Mobil said it boosted its proven reserves last year by 1.5 billion oil-equivalent barrels, more than replacing the amount of oil and natural gas the company produced. (2/17, #12)
  • President Obama’s energy plan calls for putting one million electric plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015. This ambitious goal could be accomplished more quickly if we invested in converting the largest civilian fleet in the United States — the 219,000 vehicles owned by the United States Postal Service — to electricity. (2/16, #20)

Quote of the Week

“If the question is, what is Pemex going to do in the short-term to prevent their falling production, I’m afraid the answer is nothing.” [Their production fell 9% last month from January 2008.]
— George Baker, energy consultant, publisher of Mexico Energy Intelligence