The gradual climb in oil prices in recent weeks has revived hopes that US shale oil producers will return to profitability, while also renewing fevered dreams of the US becoming a fossil fuel superpower once again.

Thus a few days ago my daily newspaper ran a Bloomberg article by Grant Smith which lead with this sweeping claim:

“The U.S. shale revolution is on course to be the greatest oil and gas boom in history, turning a nation once at the mercy of foreign imports into a global player. That seismic shift shattered the dominance of Saudi Arabia and the OPEC cartel, forcing them into an alliance with long-time rival Russia to keep a grip on world markets.”

I might have simply chuckled and turned the page, had I not just finished reading Oil and the Western Economic Crisis, by Cambridge University economist Helen Thompson. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

Thompson looks at the same  shale oil revolution and draws strikingly different conclusions, both about the future of the oil economy and about the effects on US relations with OPEC, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

Before diving into Thompson’s analysis, let’s first look at the idea that the shale revolution may be “the greatest oil and gas boom in history”. As backing for this claim, Grant Smith cites a report earlier in November by the International Energy Agency, predicting that US shale oil output will soar to about 8 million barrels/day by 2025.

Accordingly, “ ‘The United States will be the undisputed leader of global oil and gas markets for decades to come,’ IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said … in an interview with Bloomberg television.”

Let’s leave this prediction unchallenged for the moment. (Though skeptics could start with David Hughes detailed look at the IEA’s 2016 forecasts here, or with a recent MIT report that confirms a key aspect of Hughes’ analysis.) Suppose the IEA turns out to be right. How will the shale bonanza rank among the great oil booms in history?

Grant Smith uses the following chart to bolster his claim that the fracking boom will equal Saudi Arabia’s expansion in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chart by Bloomberg

OK, so if US shale oil rises to 8 million barrels by 2025, that production will be about the same as Saudi oil production in 1981. Would that make these two booms roughly equivalent?

First, world oil consumption in the early 1980s was only about two-thirds what it is now. So 8 billion barrels/day represented a bigger proportion of the world’s oil needs in 1980 that it does today.

Second, Saudi Arabia used very little of its oil domestically in 1980, leaving most of it for sale abroad, and that gave it a huge impact on the world market. The US, by contrast, still burns more oil domestically than it produces – and in the best case scenario, its potential oil exports in 2025 would be a small percentage of global supply.

Third, Saudi Arabia has been able to keep roughly 8 million barrels/day flowing for the past 40 years, while even the IEA’s optimistic forecast shows US shale oil output starting to drop within ten years of a 2025 peak.

And last but not least, Saudi Arabia’s 8 million barrels/day have come with some of the world’s lowest production costs, while US shale oil comes from some of the world’s costliest wells.

All these factors come into play in Helen Thompson’s thorough analysis.

No more Mr. NICE Guy

In an October 2005 speech, Bank of England governor Mervyn King “argued that the rising price of oil was ending what he termed ‘NICE’ – a period of ‘non-inflationary consistently expansionary economic growth’ that began in 1992.” (Thompson, Oil and the Western Economic Crisis, page 28-29)

In spite of their best efforts in the first decade of this millennium, Western governments were not able to maintain steady economic growth, nor keep the price of oil in check, nor significantly increase the supply of oil, nor prevent the onslaught of a serious recession. Thompson traces the interplay of several major economic factors, both before and after this recession.

By the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, there was widespread concern that world oil production would not keep up with growing demand. The booming economies of China and India added to this fear.

“Of the increase of 17.9 million bpd in oil consumption that materialised between 1994 and 2008,” Thompson writes, “only 960,000 of the total came from the G7 economies.” Nearly all of the growth in demand came from China and India – and that growth in demand was forecast to continue.

The GW Bush administration appointed oilman and defense hawk Dick Cheney to lead a task force on the impending supply crunch. But “ultimately, for all the aspiration of the Cheney report, the Bush Jr administration’s energy strategy did little to increase the supply of oil over the first eight years of the twenty-first century.” (Thompson, page 20)

In fact, the only significant supply growth in the decade up to 2008 came from Russia. This boosted Putin’s power while fracturing Western economic interests, as “the western states divided between those who were significant importers of Russian oil and gas and those that were not.” (Thompson, page 23)

Meanwhile oil prices shot up dramatically until Western economies dropped into recession in 2007 as a precursor to the 2008 financial crash. Shouldn’t those high oil prices have spurred high investment in new wells, with consequent rises in production? It didn’t work out that way.

Between 2003 and the first half of 2008 the costs of the construction of production facilities, oil equipment and services, and energy soared in good part in response to the overall commodity boom produced by China’s economic rise. Consequently, whilst future oil supply was becoming ever more dependent on large-scale capital investment both to extract more from declining fields and to open up high-cost non-conventional production, the capital available was also required by 2008 simply to cover rising existing costs.” (Thompson, page 23)

Thus oil prices rose to the point where western economies could no longer maintain consumption levels, but these high prices still couldn’t finance the kind of new drilling needed to boost production.

Oddly enough, the right conditions for a boom in US oil production wouldn’t occur until well after the crash of 2008, when monetary policy-makers were struggling with little success to revive economic growth.

Zero Interest Rate Policy

In western Europe and the US, recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 has been sluggish and incomplete. But the growth in demand for oil by India and China continued, with the result that after a brief price drop in 2009 oil quickly rebounded to $100/barrel and stayed there for the next few years.

As in the years leading up to the crash, $100 oil proved too expensive for western economies, accustomed as they had been to running on cheap energy for decades. Consumer confidence, and consumer spending, remained low.

Simply pumping the markets with cash – Quantitative Easing – had little effect on the real economy (though it afforded bank execs huge bonuses and boosted the prices of stocks and other financial assets). But as interest rates dropped to historic lows, the flood of nearly-free money finally revived the US energy-production sector.

QE and ZIRP hugely increased the availability of credit to the energy sector. ZIRP allowed oil companies to borrow from banks at extremely low interest rates, with the worth of syndicated loans to the oil and gas sectors rising from $600 billion in 2006 to $1.6 trillion in 2014. Meanwhile, in raising the price and depressing the yield of the relatively safe assets central banks purchased, QE created incentives for investors to buy assets with a higher yield, including significantly riskier corporate bonds and equities. …” (Thompson, page 50)

Without this extraordinary monetary expansion “the rise of non-conventional oil production would not have been possible”, Thompson concludes.

And while a huge boost in shale oil production might be counted as a “win” for the economic growth team, the downsides have been equally serious. The Zero Interest Rate Policy has almost eliminated interest earnings for cautious middle-income savers, which depresses consumer spending in the short term and threatens the security of millions in the long term. The inflation in asset prices has boosted the profits of large corporations, while weak consumer confidence has removed corporate incentive to invest in greater production of most consumer goods.

The situation would be more stable if non-conventional oil producers had the ability to weather prolonged periods of low oil prices. But as the price drop of 2015 showed, that would be wishful thinking. “By the second quarter of 2015 more than half of all distressed bonds across investment and high-yield bond markets were issued by energy companies. Under these financial strains a wave of shale bankruptcies began in the first quarter of 2015” – a bankruptcy wave that grew three times as high in 2016.

Finally, financial markets with their high exposure to risky non-conventional oil production have been easily spooked by mere rumours of the end of quantitative easing or any significant rise in interest rates. So central bankers have good reason to fear they may go into the next recession with no tools left in their monetary policy toolbox.

Far from representing a way out of economic crisis, then, the shale oil and related tar sands booms are a symptom of an ongoing economic crisis, the end of which is nowhere in sight.

Energy and power

Thompson also discusses the geo-political effects of the changing global oil market. She notes that the shale oil boom created serious tensions in the US-Saudi relationship. The Saudis wanted oil prices to be moderately high, perhaps in the $50-60/barrel range, because that would afford the Saudis substantial profits without driving down demand for oil. The Americans, with their billions sunk into high-cost shale oil wells, now had a need for oil prices in the $70/barrel and up range, simply to make the fracked oil minimally profitable.

There was no way for both the Saudis and the Americans to win in this struggle, though they could both lose.

At the peak (to date) of the shale oil boom, there was only one significant geo-political development in which the Americans were able to flex some muscle specifically because of the big increase in US oil production, Thompson says. She attributes the nuclear treaty with Iran in part to the surge of new oil production in Texas and North Dakota. In her reading, world oil markets at the time needn’t fear the sudden loss of Iran’s oil output, and that gave European governments a comfort level in agreeing to impose sanctions on Iran. These sanctions, in turn, helped convince Iran to make a deal (a diplomatic success which the Trump administration is determined to undo).

But in 2014 OPEC still produced about three times as much oil as the US produced – with important implications:

“even at the height of the shale boom the obvious limits to any claim of geo-political transformation were also evident. The US remained a significant net importer of oil and, consequently, lacked the capacity to act as a swing producer capable of immediately and directly influencing the price.” (Thompson, page 56)

“Most consequentially, when the Obama administration turned towards sanctions against Russia after the onset of the Ukrainian crisis in the spring of 2014, it was not willing to contemplate significant action against Russian oil production.” (Thompson, page 57)

Thompson wraps up with a look at the oil shock of the 1970s, concluding that “There are striking similarities between aspects of the West’s current predicaments around oil and the problems western governments faced in the 1970s. … However, in a number of ways the present version of these problems is worse than those that were manifest in the 1970s.” (Thompson, page 57)

A much higher world oil demand today, the fact that new oil reserves in western countries are very high-cost, plus the explosion of oil-related financial derivatives, make the international monetary order highly unstable.

Has the US returned to the ranks of “fossil fuel superpowers”? Not as Thompson sees it:

Now the US has nothing like the power it had in the post-war period in providing other states access to oil. Shale oil … cannot change the fact that the largest reserves of cheaply accessible oil lie in the Middle East and Russia, or that China and others’ rise has fundamentally changed the volume of demand for oil in the world.” (Thompson, page 111)