Carnivals, peas and oil predictions

Earlier in my life, I volunteered as a carnival “barker” — you know, the guy who tries to inveigle passers-by to throw a ring around a bottle to win something for their date or children. At the time, most paid a buck, lost, and were happy as I was, because the funds went to charity. While I was at my station, I happened to see a would-be magician working the old pea trick. You know, you followed the pea in the magician’s open hand and when the magician closed his hands, you picked the hand that you believe covers the pea. Again, passers-by lost all the time, because his sleight of hand was faster than their eyes (or their brains and their eyes). Charity, once again, came out ahead.

What’s all this got to do with oil? Well yesterday, I was bemused by a piece in the Financial Times by Ed Crooks, titled “U.S. oil boom resets on shaky foundations.” Earlier this week another article in another respected paper quoted an expert that stated that America is now and will be in the future much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil because of the oil boom and its likely continuance into the future. Numerous papers have called the now and future oil boom the Saudization of America.

Which pea will be picked up tomorrow by the media — the oil is a shaky pea, or the oil is our country’s genetic future pea. Can we, as consumers, based on often different expert projections related to the supply and demand for oil, pick the right pea ahead of the media’s grand pronouncements concerning oil production and consumption? The answer, given the probability of frequent expert-related projection amendments, the different methodologies involved and, yes, in some cases the captive quality of the projector, is no. If it’s Monday, oil is our salvation and America’s oil largess will be a road to riches; if it’s Tuesday, oil salvation is uncertain and we will remain dependent on importing oil; if it’s Wednesday, you put two oil experts in a room and you get three or four or more future projections; and if it’s Thursday, oil analysts, including some of the best, throw up their hands and say we really don’t know where oil is going. How can we be sure, given all the complex variables? Why did I go to college to study research and statistics? I want my tuition money back.

Oil projections recently seem more an art than science. Paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in defense (just kidding) of what often seems like “one a day” projections, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds , and the King from The King and I, oil projections are a “puzzlement.”

More attention should probably be paid to the Financial Times article. The author indicates that a question hangs over the U.S. oil boom in relation to increasing production costs. “The effort required to squeeze the oil out of the rock, from which it will not flow easily, means that shale production has a relatively high cost, compared with the traditionally cheap to extract reserves of the Middle East.”

Up to this point, Crooks (while he is named Crooks, he is not really a crook, but a fine writer) has been easy to follow. Relatively high oil per barrel costs, he indicates, lead to investment in drilling and, as important, innovative fracking technology, products and services. Small and mid-sized independent firms seemed to flourish, given their cost efficient innovative production processes. Service companies supporting drillers and production firms positioned themselves well, given the oil boom. It all seemed like fun and games. Everyone made money and met investor or stockholder expectations. Dinners at fancy restaurants seemed the norm.

But Crooks maintains that with the fall in prices for natural gas in 2012, the oil related equipment and service industry quickly met its waterloo. “Capacity utilization for pressure pumping equipment dropped to just 74%. Prices for pumping services dropped an estimated 22% between the first quarter of 2012 and the third quarter of 2013.” It was tough time for service firms. Many tried to switch from gas to oil drilling, but over capacity and underutilization were pervasive.

Recently, things appear to be looking up for the service and equipment sector. Oil prices seem relatively stable, at least until tomorrow, and gas prices seem on the uptake. Interestingly, several respected industry spokespersons suggest that a rise in prices for equipment and activities is likely more dependent on the hope for significant LNG exports and assumed higher natural gas prices (and production) than on significant increases in shale drilling for oil. But as Crooks points out, gas producers and servicers’ gain is oil’s pain. An increase in prices for services and a reduction in equipment overcapacity, the article suggests will raise the costs of oil production and lead to more investor as well as producer caution concerning investment in new risky oil wells. Remember most experts indicate that the best sites for new oil drilling have been leased or acquired. “It is possible that U.S. shale oil can continue to thrive only if shale gas continues to struggle.”

Several of the assumptions in Crooks’ piece seem to reflect the same shaky foundations that he indicates weaken projections concerning the U.S. oil boom. For example,

  • Yes, hard-to-get-at oil from shale will cause producers pause when thinking about future development. It will be much more expensive than drilling from conventional, easy-to-get-at U.S. or Middle East reserves. Since oil is globally traded, we could see an increase in dependency on imports.
  • Yes, the service and equipment industry will be in better shape if the natural gas industry grows and thrives. The costs of its equipment and services will rise accordingly. However, the increases in the price of natural gas, if they occur, and, if they are sustainable over time, will probably be relatively small in terms of dollars and may not significantly affect oil production and decisions. Sure, there are similarities between oil and natural gas drilling equipment and services, and while they constitute a large share of the on-site drilling costs (40-70%), rapid technological improvements matched by improved management of drilling have and continue to occur, lessening cost impact by improving productivity. They may reduce the harm seen by Crooks that could come to the oil industry from increased service costs. Other related factors, such as global oil consumption, supply and per barrel costs, international tensions, environmental sensitivities, financial speculation and profit seeking etc., will probably affect oil industry opportunity costing concerning drilling — even more than the increased cost of equipment and services. Taken together, these factors often explain short term changing oil-per-barrel prices. A large anticipated and continuous increase or decrease in per barrel costs will provide a drilling marker for investors and producers — over $100 more wells, under $70 or so less wells and uncertainty in between.
  • Yes, exporting LNG will improve the economic condition of the natural gas industry; just as removing export restrictions on crude oil will improve the economic viability of the already thriving oil sector. But the impact of extended large LNG sales abroad will likely take years, given the need to gain regulatory acquiescence to develop infrastructure and product. Similarly, the likelihood of eliminating restrictions on crude oil exports remains politically iffy.

Concern with the health of the natural gas industry— whether from Crooks’ perspective, because he believes growing gas prices will help strengthen the oil boom’s foundation, or my own, because the increased use of natural gas and its derivatives, ethanol and methanol as transitional transportation fuels will help reduce GHG emissions and improve the quality of the environment as well as reduce the price of gasoline at the pump and enhance America’s security, is legitimate. I wonder why Crooks neglected to discuss natural gas as a transportation fuel and the need for competition in America’s gasoline market in his otherwise provocative article. But it seems his core objective in the piece was the health and well-being of the oil industry. A bit more balance would have served him and the readers well.

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