1. Production and Prices
Oil prices had a good week, closing out above $53 barrel despite much bad economic news. After concern about the possible consequences of the swine flu on Monday and Tuesday, prices moved up on reports of increased consumer confidence and investor hopes that the recession may be bottoming out.

Fundamentals supporting oil prices remain weak. Around the world crude stockpiles continue to build both in conventional storage and aboard chartered tankers. Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest oil center, is running out of storage and US stockpiles increased by 4 million barrels in last week’s report. Floating storage is now reported to total 100 million barrels of crude and 25 million barrels of refined products.

Demand for oil continues to be weak. In the US, demand for oil products is down to 18.4 million b/d, a 6.8 percent drop from last year and down 13.6 percent from the US all-time high (Feb 2007). Chinese consumption of petroleum products seems to have dropped sharply in the first quarter.

Most authorities continue to warn that the US and global economies still have a way to go before any sustained rebound is likely. Given the large amounts of crude in storage, it is unlikely that there will be much of an increase in oil prices until these inventories are worked off.

Last week saw the largest increase in US natural gas prices in six weeks. The number of rigs drilling for gas has fallen by 54 percent since September and it now looks as if US gas production in the 4th quarter will be 5 percent lower than in 2008.

2. Iraq
The security situation in Iraq appears to be deteriorating at a time when Baghdad is making a major effort to attract foreign investment and increase its oil production. Last week the government sent revised contracts to potential bidders on six oil and two gas fields it seeks to develop. The new contracts ask for large payments up front as soon as the contracts are signed in an effort to offset the precipitous drop in oil prices since last summer. Last year Baghdad earned nearly $62 billion from oil sales; so far this year they have earned less than $9 billion.

The US Defense Department issued a report last week pointing out numerous obstacles to further exploitation of Iraq’s oil resources. Among the problems are endemic corruption in the government and business, and the inability to pass legislation that will establish a framework for exploiting the oil and distributing the revenue.

Last month 200 Iraqis were killed in a renewed surge of suicide bomb attacks – four times the number killed in February. Next month the US is scheduled to pull its forces out of Iraq’s cities and there is growing concern that violence may increase in the wake of those withdrawals. Last week unidentified insurgents blew up a power station feeding an oil field that the Chinese are developing under a $3 billion contract in southern Iraq.

The Iraqi government, which is totally dependent on oil revenues, has plans to increase production from the current 2.3 million b/d to 6 million over the next five years. Given the decrepit state of much of Iraq’s oil production infrastructure, the deep-seated splits among the various factions, and the likelihood that the new American administration will reduce the US military presence, prospects for significantly increasing production do not seem good.

3. Detroit
It will be some time before we can sort out the impact of last week’s developments in the US automobile industry. April sales figures continued sinking with sales dropping back to an annualized rate of 9.3 million, down from 14.5 million in April 2008.

The week’s major development came when some of the hedge funds holding Chrysler’s secured debt refused to take a write-down and the company filed for bankruptcy. There is optimism that the company can be out of bankruptcy and into the hands of the UAW (55%), Fiat (20%), and US and Canadian governments (10%) in 30 to 60 days. The next month will bring the answers to many questions such as whether consumers will continue to buy cars from a bankrupt company in sufficient quantity; can the financing of Chrysler vehicles through GMAC work; and whether the bankruptcy proceedings can be completed in 30 to 60 days or drag on interminably. The bankruptcy judge received 150 motions to consider at the first hearing. Important issues regarding the restructuring and sale to Fiat have not yet been raised.

Chrysler’s bankruptcy is being looked upon as a trial run for a possible GM bankruptcy that could occur as early as the end of this month. GM has already announced that it will temporarily close 13 plants this summer in order to reduce inventory. When the parts manufacturers and reductions in the numbers of Chrysler and GM dealerships are taken into consideration, the layoffs will run into the tens and possibly hundreds of thousands, even under the best of conditions.

Should the restructuring/bankruptcies go awry or sales of US-made cars continue to drop, the damage will be felt in every corner of the economy. Job losses could easily run into the hundreds of thousands and major parts of the automotive industry would be liquidated. Layoffs of this scale obviously would have a considerable impact on the demand for consumer and producer goods.

Under these circumstances, the demand for oil would likely drop further, putting more pressure on prices. While the myriad interactions here are too complex to forecast with any confidence, the fortunes of the US automobile industry over the next few months may determine the course of the recession and the demand for oil.

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

  • World oil demand is forecast to fall this year by much more than previously expected, as growth stalls in China and India and fuel consumption declines in the developed world. The latest Reuters poll of 11 analysts, banks and industry groups shows oil consumption is expected to decline by an average of 1.56 million b/d in 2009 to 84.10 million b/d. (4/30, #3)
  • Natural gas production by Gazprom fell by a more than a quarter last month to the lowest levels in a decade, continuing its spiral downward in response to plummeting European demand.(5/3, #8)
  • Crude oil output growth from deepwater areas may stagnate because current oil prices make it unprofitable to tap new deposits and large discoveries dwindle, according to PFC Energy’s Michael Rogers. The majority of deepwater areas have reached “maturity” and current projects are facing delays. Global deepwater oil production may peak at 7.5 million barrels a day in 2013. (4/28, #4)
  • Nicolas Sarkis, Director of the Paris-based Arab Oil Research Centre, echoed concerns by the International Energy Agency and other groups that insufficient investment in expanding oil production because of low oil prices could create a sharp supply gap. (4/27, #4
  • The Petroleum Services Association of Canada on Thursday predicted 41 percent fewer oil and gas wells will be drilled in the country this year—roughly 10,000 wells, compared to the 16,940 wells completed last year. (5/1, #16)
  • As oil prices marched toward a peak of $145 last summer, ExxonMobil Corp. used its swelling profits to lower its debt and build up its cash reserves. The company is taking steps to preserve cash during the market downturn, positioning itself to take advantage of new investments and make acquisitions. (5/2, #10)
  • BP cut its 2009 spending target for a second time after posting a 64 percent slump in first-quarter profit as the recession dragged down crude and natural-gas prices. (4/28, #20)
  • Shell said crude prices are unlikely to rebound in the next 12 to 18 months as it reported a 62 percent slump in first-quarter profit. (4/30, #6)
  • Some investors were so encouraged by the success of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq that they dared to start investing in what is one of the Middle East’s biggest oil-rich economies. Now, with violence on the rise and with the US pushing ahead with its withdrawal plans, pulling out from the cities by June, the question that has nagged the country since the 2003 American-led invasion is rising back to the surface: could Iraq unravel? (5/1, #4)
  • The UN-mandated watchdog over Iraq’s oil revenue says the government is too slow in putting in place a metering system that will allow transparency throughout the oil production and export chain. (4/27, #8)
  • Investors and global oil companies such as Shell, Eni, China National Petroleum, and Exxon Mobile betting on Iraq are certain to be disappointed. Several reasons why Iraq has failed to date to increase its production include endemic corruption, “political reserves,” bad management, political rivalry and foreign oil company stalemates, and political insecurity. (4/28, #22)
  • The worst market for supertankers since the 1973 Arab oil embargo is setting the stage for prices to double by the fourth quarter as ship owners scrap aging vessels and delay orders for new ones. (4/27, #6)
  • Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, may be hurt by a rig shortage as it begins development of the Tupi field, the largest discovery in the Americas since 1976, according to Jefferies & Co. (4/27, #10)
  • Petrobras started a long-term test last week at the Tupi field in the Santos Basin. Tupi created a stir of excitement in November 2007, when Petrobras said the field held recoverable reserves of between 5 billion and 8 billion barrels of oil equivalent – the Western Hemisphere’s largest oil discovery in 30 years. (5/1, #7)
  • At Saudi Aramco’s 500,000 barrels per day Khursaniyah oilfield, the central gas processing facility is scheduled to begin operations by October. The plant had been due to come on stream in December 2007, but construction had been delayed due to a shortage of labor and materials. (4/29, #4)
  • Venezuela’s Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez has threatened to take over oil service companies that fail to agree on lower rates for their services. (4/29, #6)
  • Williams Companies said Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA probably will not pay its outstanding bills, so the US pipeline company has issued notices of default to PDVSA. If PDVSA does pay and does not comply with its contractual obligations to purchase the assets, Williams said it will pursue all rights available to it under its agreements, including arbitration. (4/30, #10)
  • Venezuela may ponder the possibility of selling CITGO, PdVAS oil refining subsidiary in the US, because of the decline of revenues. (4/29, #7)
  • Top Asian refiner Sinopec’s 3.3 percent cut in first-quarter refinery output has helped thin China’s swelling fuel stocks, but a steep 12 percent fall in fuel sales points to still lackluster fuel demand. (4/29, #9)
  • A federal appeals court threw out a federal oil and natural gas leasing plan for New Mexico’s Otero Mesa wilderness, saying the agency’s environmental review for the plan was incomplete. (4/29, #12)
  • The US natural gas industry will emerge as a major winner in the next two decades if President Obama succeeds in pushing through cap-and-trade emissions legislation, former EIA director Guy Caruso said Tuesday. (4/29, #13)
  • A bill that would allow oil drilling off Florida’s coast is ready for a vote in the state’s House of Representatives. (4/28, #17)
  • Costs in Canada’s pricey oil sands are starting to fall but developers are still leery of giving the green light to stalled projects. Last week, Husky Energy Inc. said estimated costs for its proposed Sunrise oil sands development – a joint venture with BP – had nearly halved to C$2.5 billion, from earlier projections of C$4.5 billion. The company is the first to provide hard numbers. (4/29, #16)
  • Dr. Selma Guigard, an engineering professor at the University of Alberta, has developed a method for extracting bitumen from the oil sands that uses almost no water and far less energy. So far no oil company has expressed interest in her preliminary R&D results during the current slow-down in oil sands expenditures. (4/29, #15)
  • The Bank of Japan said it expects the economy to contract more this year and prices to fall further than it forecast just two months ago. The bank lowered its forecast for the economy to a 3.1 per cent contraction this fiscal year to next March, rather than a previously expected 2 per cent decline in growth. (4/30, #12)
  • US sales of light vehicles in April dropped 34.4% year-on-year. Passenger cars continued to expand their market share against light trucks, with a 52.8% new market share. US hybrid sales decreased 45.5% year-on-year, representing a 2.7% new vehicle market share. (5/2, #7)
  • As unemployment rises and discretionary income shrinks, millions fewer Americans are driving. For commuters, that means some of the worst bottlenecks in the country are easing. Americans drove 8.6 billion fewer miles in January and February than during the same months in 2008. (4/28, #14)
  • American Electric Power, the biggest U.S. producer of coal-fueled electricity, expects demand from industrial customers to fall 10 percent to 15 percent this year from 2008 because of the recession. (4/27, #14)
  • A wave of new nuclear reactors now in the works is intended to solve at least part of the nation’s energy problems as it attempts to shift away from fossil fuels. But cost is likely to plague every upcoming nuclear project. This month in Missouri the first of the next generation reactors was put on hold because of the $6 billion price tag. (4/29, #20)
  • Spain’s Andasol solar power plant uses more than 28,000 metric tons of sodium and potassium nitrates to store some of the sun’s heat for use at night or on a rainy day. The molten salts are stored in enormous hot and cold vats, able to be employed on command to soak up extra heat or drive the generation of electricity. The plant began operating last November and now provides 50 megawatts of power, enough electricity to supply 50,000 to 60,000 homes year-round. (5/1, #17)
  • Suniva’s solar cells sell for about $6/watt today, down from $12 a year ago. (5/1, #18)
  • Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory say they’ve come up with a way to recharge electric cars that won’t strain the power grid. The smart charger controller is a device that automatically figures out the best and cheapest times for drivers to recharge cars. (5/2, #17)
  • In Norway a proposal to ban sales of new petrol-powered cars from 2015 could help spur struggling carmakers to shift to greener models, Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen said. (4/27, #17)
  • The massive Haynesville natural-gas discovery in northern Louisiana heralds a big shift in the nation’s energy landscape. After an era of declining production, the U.S. is now swimming in natural gas…Of the 372 power plants expected to be built in the U.S. over the next three years, 206 will be fired by natural gas and just 31 by coal, according to the Energy Information Administration. (4/30, #14)

Quote of the Week

Offshore oil: “The pace of growth will slow and then become flat for the next few years. There were not a whole lot of large commercial discoveries in the last couple of years.”
— Michael Rodgers, a partner at PFC Energy