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Goldilocks and the three prices of oil

 Goldilocks runs from the three bears (1912). Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson, eds. The Book of Knowledge https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goldilocks_1912.jpg

We all know Goldilocks from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which the young maiden wanders into the home of the bears and samples some porridge that happens to be sitting on the dinner table. The first bowl is too hot, the second is too cold and the third is just right.

Like a corporate version of Goldilocks, the oil industry has been wandering into the world marketplace in recent years often finding an oil price that is either too high such as in 2008 and therefore puts the brakes on economic growth undermining demand and ultimately crashing the price as it did in 2009. Or it finds the price too low as it is today therefore making it impossible to earn profits necessary for exploiting the high-cost oil that remains to be extracted from the Earth's crust. Oil that hovered around $100 per barrel from 2011 through much of 2014 seemed to be just right. But those prices are now long gone.

Violent swings in the price of oil in the last decade have made it difficult for the industry to plan long term to produce consistent supplies at moderate prices. This has important implications for future supplies which I will discuss later.

The great political power of the oil industry has led many to conclude erroneously that the industry must also somehow control the price of oil. If the industry has such power, it is doing a really lousy job of using it.

It is true that in times of robust demand, OPEC can maintain high prices by limiting oil production in member countries. But when demand softens, OPEC rarely exhibits the necessary discipline as a group to cut production. Typically, Saudi Arabia shoulders most of the burden of reduced production under such circumstances.

Which is why it was so shocking when, during this most recent swoon in the oil price, the desert kingdom responded with an emphatic "no." No, Saudi Arabia will not curtail its production. And, since all the other OPEC members are unable to challenge Saudi Arabia's power--which consists of the ability to add production to counter cuts by others--the price of oil has stayed low.

The stated reason for this move is that Saudi Arabia wants to undermine American tight oil production. And, low prices are doing just that. The U.S. oil rig count peaked in October last year at 1609. In the week just passed that number was 595.

The low-price strategy seems to be knocking the competition out of the game. And, it's difficult to imagine investors in the future dumping great gobs of new money so freely into tight oil wells and the companies that drill them after having been thoroughly burned this time around. And, that's probably true even if the price of oil recovers significantly. There will always be the fear that Saudi Arabia will flood the market with oil and crash the price. (This is not, in fact, what Saudi Arabia has done so far. In the most recent oil price rout, the Saudis simply refused to cut the kingdom's then current production level--as it had regularly done in the past--even as demand softened and prices fell.)

Probably one of the best illustrations of the problematic future of oil supply is the recent abandonment of a multi-billion dollar arctic oil drilling project by Shell Oil Company, the American arm of the European-based Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Shell called its arctic discoveries "marginal" and indicated that it would cease drilling there for the "foreseeable future."

This emphasizes that the remaining oil available for extraction is both difficult-to-get and high-cost. It turns out that the oil discovered by Shell's arctic project comes in small packages instead of the giant reservoirs which have powered the oil industry and modern civilization up to now.

What this implies is that limitations on future supplies may result from the price of oil being too low. Contrary to the public perception that such limits would be accompanied by high prices, it is precisely high prices that make it possible to exploit the marginal deposits that are unprofitable today.

Writer Gail Tverberg has developed this thesis in detail on her blog Our Finite World, a thesis first advanced by energy analyst and consultant Steven Kopits. (A presentation by Kopits is available here.) Tverberg's analysis is that high energy prices, particularly high oil prices, tend to suppress economic growth leading to recession and price declines. The lower incomes and lack of employment that accompany recessions make oil--despite its lower price--less affordable than is generally recognized. Lack of demand is partly the result of crimped living standards--which keep prices low, which, in turn, make it unprofitable to exploit high-cost oil.

Now, oil demand actually went up somewhat in the face of recent lower prices. But if Tverberg's thesis is correct, then demand won't hold up when the economy sinks into a recession or stalls close to zero growth. If the world economy shrinks or merely stalls, as it now appears to be doing, we may be in for a long stagnation for other reasons as the world works off debt built up previously in a long 30-year credit boom.

It seems only logical that if world oil production drops as a result of low demand and low prices, at some point shortages will appear and prices will rise even if the world economy remains in a slump. That may happen, but the big question will be this: Just how high can those prices rise before financially strapped consumers can't afford to pay more?

If that price turns out to be somewhat less than $100 a barrel, very few deposits of unconventional oil such as arctic and deepwater oil, tight oil from deep shale deposits, and tar sands will be profitable to produce. And these unconventional sources have been virtually the only engines of oil production growth in recent years. The International Energy Agency, a consortium of 29 countries which tracks energy developments, is already on record saying that conventional oil production peaked in 2006.

With violent swings in oil prices continuing, it's hard to imagine world markets delivering an oil price indefinitely above $100--which would encourage growth in unconventional oil production--but not above, say, $130, which could easily send the economy into recession and lower prices below the point of profitability for unconventional oil. It seems that either Tverberg's stagnation scenario will limit production because of low prices or that a return to robust economic growth will be doomed to be short-lived because oil prices rise move above what the world economy can bear.

It's always possible that some technological breakthrough will allow us to get out of this cycle. But we should not count on this soon. As I have pointed out, the most recently touted "new" technology, the technology that opened the deep shale deposits in the United States for oil drilling, has a 60-year history of development:

For those who point to hydraulic fracturing as a recent technological breakthrough, they need to do a little research. Hydraulic fracturing was first used in 1947. More than 30 years later in the early 1980s, building on government research, George Mitchell and his company Mitchell Energy and Development began pursuing natural gas in deep shale deposits. It took Mitchell 20 years of experimentation, government help and government incentives to perfect the type of hydraulic fracturing which is now used to release both natural gas and oil from deep shales. It took another 10 years for his methods to be widely deployed by the oil and gas industry.

For truly revolutionary technology to make an important contribution to the world's oil supply over the next 20 years, that technology would have to be available today, but not yet widely deployed. The cycles of innovation in the oil industry do not move nearly as quickly as those in, say, the semiconductor industry. Major breakthroughs in oil extraction require long lead times, and there doesn't seem to be anything but marginal improvements in some existing techniques in prospect for many years to come.

For now, we may be experiencing limits in oil production that are not absolute, but relative to what the world economy can afford. Of course, we could rework our infrastructure and daily practices to use less oil or even to begin to phase it out altogether. But, don't look for that kind of dramatic move anytime soon, either.

Image: Goldilocks runs from the three bears (1912). Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson, eds. The Book of Knowledge. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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