Roger Baker is a transportation and energy reform advocate based in Austin, Texas. Long time member of ASPO, we actually met at one of the first ASPO conferences, the one held in Pisa, in 2006. Here he discusses the current situation with crude oil and the global economy.
We are fully under the influence of petroleum demand destruction. The global oil market can’t function without real oil production price discovery, which doesn’t exist in the currently deflationary global economy, which forces indebted producers to sell far below cost.
Both supply and demand seem to cyclic in nature and we are not finished with the supply destruction phase, which can only be revived through a globally realistic oil trading price, which nobody knows. This is an unknown until demand destruction also runs its course. The global demand in the oil supply-demand balance that sets the global oil price cannot be known until we can understand where the global economy is headed. The global material economy seems to be contracting as the Baltic dry index, trucking, and railroad profitability seem to affirm, even ignoring oil prices and Chinese economy.
The reality is probably that a falling EROEI and the end to cheap oil after ~2005 made our finance capital investment growth less profitable. But this fundamental shift has been hidden through easy central bank credit and fiat currency generated on demand to pay interest on a growing mountain of unpayable debt, with a shift of debt from private hands to public, such as away from Wall Street toward Fed and US Treasury obligations. Now we see the world’s major central banks each independently creating their own fiat currencies to preserve a trading advantage, led by the dollar as the world’s standard reserve currency. (if it were up to me, things would work out a lot better if each dollar would be exchangeable on demand for a quart of conventional oil)
Under current conditions, nobody can predict a meaningful exchange rate for the major currencies trading on the key foreign exchange market; the trade exchange rates and pegs are established through national politics and are thus arbitrary, which leads to Triffin’s paradox. National sovereign bank policies tend toward easy money, more debt, and business as usual. Global trade generates its own pressures that necessarily, for the sake of stability of global trade, have to be soundly based on how much energy, labor, and investment capital really went into the production of the goods being exchanged. Here the trends don’t look so good.
It looks like a system that tends to resist change and internal pressure for reform until things break down into a sort of a global version of a "Minsky moment" where financial guarantees behind finance break down like a domino effect, think late 2008 before the emergency bailouts. Trying to predict how far an out-of-balance system can be pushed before it breaks down or stalls out is impossible.
When this happens, there is no reason to expect an orderly contraction toward the lower energy supply and demand balance needed to encourage new oil investment. It may look more like a chaotic price increase in a world full of angry oil junkies fighting over the existing production. Or maybe it already is that way more than we would like to admit.
Back to oil economics. Following is a nice analysis of when we might expect the next oil price spike, considering the current trends. Perhaps in early 2018 as this estimates? I have seen others guess maybe 2017 for a slow return to a tight global oil market. At any rate, this analysis gives appropriate credit to the many things that can go wrong in the meantime. This has a useful geopolitical account of the various global oil production regions, including Art Berman’s rather discouraging Permian shale oil profitability map.
Jeffrey Brown makes the very important point that special attention should be focused on the higher boiling fractions of petroleum known as distillate. You can crack big hydrocarbon (distillate) molecules into little ones during refining, but you can’t (affordably) go back the other way to make the little ones into big ones.
The problem here is that what we might call the raw mobile muscle power for our civilization and its trade rests critically on the availability of these bigger distillate molecules that mostly come from conventional oil. Trucks, planes, airplanes, ships and heavy equipment mining won’t work using the smaller hydrocarbon molecules that predominate in gasoline. These lighter fractions tend to be favored in tight oil due to the geology and physics involved.
For this reason, whenever we do see oil production price discovery again due to the return of a tight global oil market, if operating under orderly market conditions, we should expect to see it expressed as a global fuel price shift. One where distillate price rises stubbornly, relative to the price of lighter fuel fractions like gasoline.