1. Production and Prices

Last week oil prices were dominated by a rebound in the equity markets and the prospects for another production cut at yesterday’s OPEC meeting. All week a stream of mixed signals emerged from various OPEC sources as members pondered the issue of another cut. Starting the week at $47 a barrel, oil fell as low as $42 and then rebounded to close at $46.

The weekly US stocks report contained more mixed signals with crude stocks increasing by 700,000 barrels rather than falling 1 million as expected. Given the economic situation, US gasoline consumption seems to be surprisingly strong with consumption reported as increasing by 1.6 percent over the same four weeks last year. These unadjusted consumption numbers, however, are likely to be revised. The current price of gasoline is, of course, $1.28 a gallon lower than at this time last year.

Tanker tracker Oil Movements reports that partial, preliminary information for March exports suggests that there will be at least another 350,000 b/d drop in OPEC oil shipments during March.

Just prior to yesterday’s OPEC meeting, Iran’s Oil Minister told reporters that his country was fully complying with its quota and is currently exporting about 2.2 million b/d. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minster, who is also attending the OPEC meeting, told reporters that Russia will cut oil exports and increase domestic oil consumption in an effort to support world prices. He also indicated that Moscow is ready to consider joining OPEC “if all Russian accords and proposals were met.”

2. OPEC’s Dilemma

The cartel could have either left production unchanged and prices relatively low, thereby contributing to helping the global economic situation from getting worse or perhaps even rebounding; or it could have continued efforts to force prices higher and risk causing an even greater and longer-lasting recession.

As oil is the main source of revenue for most OPEC members, in several countries current prices are devastating national budgets and are likely to cause political instability if they continue at present levels (or lower) much longer. Oil prices are, of course, only one of many factors that will determine the course of the global economy. Whether or not an economic rebound will occur in the foreseeable future and whether or not another $20 or $30 a barrel higher oil prices will have any measurable effect on slowing any rebound is unknown.

What is known, however, is that current oil prices are choking off much new exploration and drilling for oil. Should this situation continue for the next year or two, the oil industry’s capability to keep ahead of depletion from existing fields will be seriously harmed.

Whenever oil prices return to the $100-$150 levels seen last year, either through deliberate production cuts or inability to produce sufficient oil to meet demand, it is almost certain that economic growth will be seriously harmed.

3. And OPEC’s Decision

The cartel will keep production quotas unchanged, will meet again on May 28th and September 29th, and will make concerted efforts to implement the remainder of the current 4.2 b/d production cut. The unmet portion of the cuts, announced during the fourth quarter of 2008, was reported last week by OPEC as being 800,000 barrels as of the end of February; however, outside observers report that exports are on track to drop by at least 350,000 b/d during March. During the meeting, the Saudis were said to have resisted another cut out of concern for the global economy. OPEC spokesmen acknowledge that this decision is not likely to result in an immediate price increase.

4. Forecasts

Last week saw a spate of new forecasts for the global economy and the demand for oil during 2009. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank issued forecasts that were much bleaker than those issued by private forecasters. Both foresee the world economy shrinking for the first time since World War II.

The three major oil forecasting organizations, the US’s EIA, the OECD’s IEA and OPEC, also issued increasing pessimistic numbers during the week. The EIA now foresees a 0.8 percent reduction in the world GDP during 2009 with a 2.6 percent rebound in 2010. Average annual world oil consumption is seen as shrinking by 1.4 million barrels in 2009. This is 3 million b/d lower than the forecast six months ago.

The IEA now foresees global demand for oil in 2009 shrinking by 1.2 million b/d to 84.4 million b/d, a drop of 270,000 b/d since last month. The agency sees non-OPEC supply as stagnant at 50.6 million b/d during 2009. Problems in Azerbaijan and the major drop in Mexican production are seen as offsetting increases elsewhere. Despite the economic problems, the IEA still foresees Chinese demand increasing by 0.6 percent during 2009.

The IEA continues to warn that the OPEC production cut of 4.2 million b/d, which they seem likely to accomplish, will continue for several months and that there is no growth in non-OPEC production, so world stockpiles will drop swiftly unless, of course, demand falls more than the 1.2 -1.4 million b/d currently forecast. The heart of the issue remains the course of the global economy and the success of the many stimulus initiatives currently underway.

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

  • CERA: The direction oil prices take will depend more on a meeting of world leaders in London next month than on what OPEC decided Sunday, said Daniel Yergin, CERA chairman. There is now between 6 and 7 million barrels of spare production capacity for oil worldwide, Yergin said. He expects prices to average $45 a barrel this year, based on the drop in demand. (3/13, #7)
  • Exxon’s oil discovery off the coast of Brazil may hold enough crude to rival the nearby Tupi prospect as the Western Hemisphere’s largest find in three decades. The Azulao-1 well tapped a reservoir that could contain 8 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Exxon’s own representatives say it’s way too early to make such claims [made by Brazilians]. (3/14, #10)
  • In Brazil, use of smaller platforms to pump subsalt oil from deep under the ocean bed would make it cheaper to extract and profitable at an oil price of $40 per barrel, according to the state controlled energy firm Petrobras. (3/11, #10)
  • Baker-Hughes said rigs exploring for or producing oil or gas declined by 44 to 1,126, down 44% from a peak of 2,031 rigs drilling back on September 12, 2008. (3/14, #15)
  • The oil minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region warned foreign oil companies against signing deals with Baghdad on fields in territory the Kurds claim. (3/14, #8)
  • Venezuela’s GDP will shrink 4.1 percent in 2009 as revenue from oil sales plunges by $50 billion, said Alejandro Grisanti, an economist at Barclays Capital Inc. (3/13, #9)
  • Venezuela’s national oil company PDVSa has signed agreements with several international oil companies to form temporary consortiums for developing two LNG liquefaction plants. PDVSa plans to deliver 2.7 million tonnes/year of LNG starting in 2014 from each of the first two trains. (3/12, #7)
  • For Mexico, the IEA predicts average production of just 600,000 barrels a day at Cantarell in 2009, compared with Pemex’ target of 756,000 barrels a day, according to the IEA’s OMR. Pemex has fallen short of its production targets since 2004 (3/14, #9)
  • Mexico’s state- owned oil company Pemex awarded a $687 million contract to a unit of Schlumberger to drill 500 wells at the onshore Chicontepec field in Mexico as it seeks to boost slowing production. (3/12, #8)
  • Iran’s oil minister suggested OPEC would accept Russia as a member if Moscow wanted to join the 12-member oil producers’ group, the Fars News Agency reported. (3/11, #7)
  • Iran’s first nuclear power plant, in the southern city of Bushehr, will begin generating electricity by Aug. 22, according to reports. The 1,000-megawatt power plant, where test operations were started last month, will produce some 500 megawatts by that date.
  • Nigeria’s oil output has dropped to 1.6 million barrels per day compared to last year’s average of around two million bpd as a result of the OPEC quota and activities of militants in the Niger Delta.(3/11, #11)
  • French oil major Total’s Akpo deep offshore oilfield in Nigeria has started operations with production expected to reach 175,000 barrels per day this summer, the company said last Monday. (3/9, #10)
  • China’s crude oil imports fell by a steep 15 percent in February, a second successive decline as swollen stocks forced refiners to slow purchases, although rising fuel imports suggested demand was picking up. (3/11, #12)
  • China has filled all four of its state-owned emergency oil reserve tanks to the brim and should now invest in oil tankers to add more to inventories while oil prices are low, a senior industry executive said last Monday. (3/9, #12)
  • China, the world’s biggest holder of United States government debt, on Friday expressed concern about the safety of U.S. Treasuries as American deficits have ballooned with costly stimulus and bailout packages aimed at rescuing the economy. (3/13, #10)
  • China is seriously considering granting subsidies to buyers of new cars using alternative energy systems—such as hybrids, fuel-cell and electric-powered cars. The subsidies would be paid by the central government. (3/14, #17)
  • China’s vehicle sales surged 25 percent in February, the first gain in four months, after the government cut taxes on some models, helping the country extend its lead as the world’s largest auto market this year. (3/12, #9)
  • China, the world’s second-biggest energy user, approved building wind power plants and hydropower stations with a combined capacity of 2,001 megawatts to boost economic growth and trim global-warming emissions. (3/12, #18)
  • China’s product exports fell much more sharply than expected in February, data showed on Wednesday, as the economy finally felt the full force of the global financial crisis. Exports in February dropped 25.7 percent from a year earlier, compared to a forecast of a 5 percent decline. (3/11, #13)
  • Kansas drilling rigs that once could not punch holes fast enough when oil prices hit record highs less than a year ago are now sitting idle, their crews laid off. Tax revenues in oil-rich counties are plummeting. Marginal wells are shutting down. Nearly 80 percent of the state’s oil production comes from small wells averaging slightly more than two barrels of oil per day — making them more vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices. (3/12, #13)
  • While Canadian energy companies say a temporary $1.5 billion royalty price break in Alberta is a step in the right direction, the industry is skeptical of their ability to reverse a forecast 27% slump in drilling activity this year. The adjustments came just two months after higher royalty rates had taken effect. (3/12, #15)
  • Natural gas fell to the lowest in more than six years on concern the economy is cutting demand for the fuel from factories and manufacturers. Industrial gas use will fall about 6 percent to 17.1 billion cubic feet a day this year, according to the US DOE. (3/12, #14)
  • Rapidly declining US natural gas rig counts and prices are setting the stage for a recovery in both sooner rather than later. (3/11, #14)
  • A huge expansion of global capacity for producing liquefied natural gas is set to bring additional volumes to an already depressed global market. Plants scheduled to come on stream over the next year will increase global LNG capacity by 30 per cent, putting downward pressure on natural gas prices worldwide, particularly in the US and UK. (3/9, #7)
  • Chevron, the second-biggest U.S. oil company, is drilling 43 major prospects from Australia to Canada after posting its biggest drop in output since 2003. (3/11, #15)
  • Chevron expects new project startups and continued ramping up of existing projects to contribute production of 650,000 b/d over the next two years, according to George Kirkland, Chevron’s vice president-of upstream and gas. (3/10, #15)
  • Chevron will in the next few months begin large-scale testing of a production technique that could unlock tens of billions of barrels of reserves across the Middle East. The technique—modified steamflooding—for producing heavy oil that cannot be extracted using conventional methods, will be used in the neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. (3/9, #5)
  • Shell and other international oil companies may get greater access to reserves as resource-rich nations seek capital and technology for fields that have become harder to develop since crude prices slumped. (3/11, #17)
  • The global economic crisis will not hinder the development of the giant Kashagan oilfield in Kazakhstan by a consortium of global oil firms and may even help reduce its costs, a Shell executive said on Tuesday. The current plan is for first oil to flow in late 2012—roughly a dozen years after initial discovery. (3/10, #8)
  • In his 2010 budget, President Obama wants $31.5 billion from oil companies over the next 10 years through new taxes and by closing tax loopholes. This is $3.15 billion a year, but the oil execs still say Obama is “the creature stealing their black lagoon.” (3/13, #13)
  • Oil sands are the “thin end of the wedge of what could come with unconventional fuels” like the oil shale, said Marlo Reynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank. (3/13, #14)
  • Russia’s ruble plunged the most in almost three weeks against the dollar as Russia’s largest privately owned bank forecast a 20 percent depreciation and the price of oil continued to decline. (3/13, #15)
  • The FutureGen coal project in Illinois, designed to burn coal and capture 90 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, was abandoned by the Bush administration in 2008 but is likely to be revived during the current administration. Coal-fired power plants supplied 49 percent of U.S. electricity last year. (3/12, #12)
  • Early results from curve-fitting analysis of coal’s production history show much less coal being mined than geologists ever expected and a peak in coal production looming as early as a decade from now. (3/14, #16)
  • A new nuclear reactor design — called Traveling-Wave reactor — is noteworthy for three things: it comes from a privately funded research company, not the government; it would run on what is now waste, thus reducing dramatically the nuclear waste and weapon proliferation problems; and it could theoretically run for a couple of hundred years without refueling. Intellectual Ventures has patented the technology, and is now in licensing discussions with reactor manufacturers. There are still some basic design issues to be worked out, but a spokesman thinks a commercial unit could be running by the early 2020s. (3/15, #21)
  • In another sign of just how far the US auto industry has fallen, this is likely to be the first year since 1945 when the number of new cars bought will be less than the number of cars turned in to the junk yard. Some consultants say US families will be getting by with fewer cars in the coming years. (3/14, #13)
  • General Motors Corp has told U.S. officials that it can survive without $2 billion in additional aid that it had requested to get through March, the automaker said on Thursday. (3/13, #12)
  • A new lithium ion battery material has a special coating that allows it to charge and discharge dozens of times faster than existing lithium battery materials, according to a paper published in Nature. That ability could make hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles more practical and could be used to provide a back-up for wind and solar energy. (3/12, #20)
  • In the fourth quarter of 2009, Aptera Motors in Vista, Calif., will begin manufacturing its 2e plug-in, an all-electric three-wheeled, 1,700-pound two-seater that gets the equivalent of over 200 mpg, goes 100 miles on a single charge and has a top speed of 90 mph. Aptera management projects the 2e will cost between $25,000 and $40,000. (3/13, #18)
  • It’s possible that the Mexican government is seeking a pitched battle with the drug cartels because with the government’s oil hedges only in place through 2009, and with oil production, remittance income, and tourism dollars poised to continue a sharp decline, the state may not have much more than a year of financial viability in which to cripple the drug cartels. (3/9, #18)

Quote of the Week

“Oil is not only the world’s most important commodity, it’s a barometer of the global economy. It’s telling us the global economy is sick.”
Daniel Yergin, Chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates