Life is becoming tough for oil companies and oil nations

Wow. Over the last few days, the nation has seen the possibilities inherent in a transportation-related energy and environmental policy. No, Washington has not become more functional. It’s still a mess! Happily, Congress is out! (They weren’t doing much.) While they’re still being paid, we can at least turn down the thermostat in both the Senate and House Chambers. No new holidays have been created, and no new articles are being put in the Quarterly that cater to requests from constituents. Leaving town is consistent with one part of the Hippocratic Oath that guides doctors and at least vacations for congressman and women … do no harm!

The light in the energy-policy tunnel, or the canary in the policy mineshaft, results from the seeming collapse of the oil market. The price of Brent crude oil has fallen more than 20 percent since June, and on Friday it rose a little to $86.16 a barrel. The four-month drop in oil prices, caused mostly by an oil glut, falling demand and speculation related to both, likely will continue the recent trend toward lower gas prices at the pump, at least for the next few months. The U.S. average is now near $3.16 a gallon, reflecting a drop of about 15 percent since early summer.

The unseen hand of the marketplace — in this case, the actually relatively transparent hand of the marketplace — may provide a substitute for Congressional inaction concerning the presently complicated and sometimes weak policies that ostensibly protect sensitive global and U.S. land and water from harm. At $82 a barrel, oil producers and their investor colleagues have little incentive to invest heavily in tight shale oil. It just costs too much to get to and take out of the ground (or water). If the negative “opportunity costing” concerning decisions about future exploration and rig development become tougher, folks concerned with the environmental well-being of the Arctic Circle and the Monterrey Shale, etc. may end up smiling. They will see less drilling, fewer rigs, less GHG emissions and less non-GHG pollutants!

Apart from environmental benefits, falling oil prices will cause not-so-friendly and even sometimes-friendly Middle East nations to make difficult choices. They are reflected in the current dialogue within OPEC. Should OPEC and its member states sanction the production of more oil and contribute to the global surplus or lessen oil production targets to secure higher prices?

Both decisions, once made, have high risks. Raising prices by lowering production could lead to less market share and ultimately less revenue. Keeping prices low (and lower if the surplus continues to grow and demand continues to fall) could also mean less revenue and an earlier arrival of the time when production costs are near to, or exceed, returns for hard-to-get-at oil. Some Middle Eastern nations may not have a choice. Easy-to-drill oil is becoming increasingly hard to find, even in the once-productive oil-rich desert, and production costs are increasing, as they are around the world. It will be difficult to keep prices low. Yet if countries raise prices, they lose market share. Perhaps another compelling fact of life that Middle Eastern nations must look at is the increase in domestic needs brought about by the Arab Spring and the yearning for a better life among their citizens. Indeed, in this context, both lower prices and higher prices may limit their competitive abilities and result in declining revenue for national budgets. It will present them with a conundrum. Translated into political realities, countries in the Middle East may have less to spend on social welfare programs, exacerbating tension that already exists in the Middle East.

Low prices for oil, resulting from market variables, could well also provide another important international impact: Russia, already hit by sanctions, faces increased budget constraints because of the fall in oil prices. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Economists say falling oil prices could kill off Russia’s flagging economic growth, forecast at no more than 0.5% this year.” Apparently, some Russian economists see $90 as their economic tipping point.

Short-term projections of U.S. oil production suggest a continued (but more modest) decline of oil imports and dependency. But will U.S. oil surpluses and lower costs transfer into oil independence? No! The oil industry is pushing hard for, and is likely to secure, an increased capacity to expand crude oil exports from the federal government. However, trafficking in oil is, and will remain, a two-way street. Price, as well as profits, will be the determining variable. Imports now contribute about one-third of the oil used in the country. The number will hover around 30 percent at least for the near future.

Who knows? We might wake up one morning to find out from public television that we are selling oil to the oil-needy Chinese, while still buying it from countries in the Middle East and maybe even Russia.

There is another possible scenario (we cannot say probable yet) at least to consider in thinking about oil’s future. Because of the likelihood of increasing economic tension between objectives related to drilling for hard-to-get-at oil and its cost, we may go to sleep one night in the not-too-distant future, after hearing again on public television (of course) that oil companies are moving in a big way into the replacement fuel business and lessening their focus on oil. Assets will be sold and bought, followed by media attention suggesting that a major structural shift is occurring in the oil industry. Let’s anticipate what oil CEOs might say: “It’s tough to make the balance sheets work. Drilling for tight oil, really most of the oil left, is just too damn expensive in light of the uncertainty of prices and demand. While still only a small percentage of the overall fuel market, replacement fuels, including natural gas-based ethanol and renewable fuels, seem to be catching on. Detroit, our earlier partner in crime (not literally, of course) in restricting consumer choices to gasoline, hasn’t helped either, recently. It is producing more and more flex-fuel vehicles. Besides continuing to make money, we would like to get off the most disliked industry lists in America.”

Stranger things have happened!

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