Porgy and Bess, Marxian dialectic, oil and alternative fuels

Porgy and Bess poster“We got plenty of oil and big oil’s got plenty for me” (sung to the tune of “I Got Plenty of Nutting” from Porgy and Bess). “I got me a car…got cheap(er) gas. I got no misery.”

This is the embedded promise for most Americans in the recent article by David Gross, “Oil is Cratering. American Oil Production Isn’t.” His optimism concerning at least the near future of oil — while a bit stretched at times, and economically and environmentally as well as socially somewhat misplaced — serves at least as a temporary antidote to individuals and firms with strong links to the oil industry and some in the media who have played chicken with oil (or is it oy little?). But in a Marxian sense (bad economist, but useful quotes), Gross does not provide a worthy synthesis of what is now happening in the oil market place. Indeed, his was a thesis in search of an antithesis rather than synthesis. Finding a synthesis now is like Diogenes searching for truth in light of almost daily changes in data, analyses and predictions concerning the decline in oil and gas prices by so-called experts.

Gross’s gist is that “Signs of the oil bust abound….The price of West Texas Intermediate crude has fallen in half in the past six months. The search for oil, which fueled a gold-rush mentality in North Dakota and Texas, is abating.” Rigs have closed down, employment is down and oil drilling areas face economic uncertainty, but, despite signs of malaise, “a funny thing has happened during the bust. Oil production in America has been rising…In November, the U.S. produced 9.02 million barrels of oil per day, up by 14.5 percent from November 2013… Production in January 2015 rose to 9.2 million barrels per day. And even with WTI crude settling at a forecasted price of about $55 per barrel for the year, production for all of 2015 should come in at 9.3 million barrels per day — up 7.8 percent from 8.63 million barrels per day in 2014…The U.S., which accounts for just 10 percent of global production, is expected to supply 670,000 new barrels — 82 percent of the globe’s total growth.”

Somewhat contrary to his facts about rigs closing down, Gross indicates that America’s oil largesse results from “American exceptionalism.” Shout out loud! Amen! American oil companies are able to produce larger amounts, even when oil numbers suggest a market glut, because they play by new rules. They are nimble, they are quick, they jump easily over the oil candlestick. They rely on new technology (e.g., fracking), innovation and experimentation. They don’t have to worry about environmental or social costs. The result? They bring down the cost of production and operations, renegotiate contracts and lay off workers. “The efforts at continuous improvement combined with evasive action mean a lot more profitable activity can take place at these prices than previously thought.” The industry appears like a virtual manufacturing and distribution version of Walmart. It, according to Gross, apparently can turn a positive cash flow even if the price per barrel stays around where it has been….from close to $50 to $70 a barrel. Holy Rockefeller, Palin and Obama! Drill, baby, drill! Just, according to the President, be circumspect about where and how.

Not so fast, according to both Euan Mearns, writing for the Oil Drum, and A. Gary Shilling, writing for Bloomberg Oil, both on the same day as Gross.

Mearns’ and Shilling’s perspectives are darker, indeed, gloomy as to the short term future of the oil market. The titles of their pieces suggest the antithesis to Gross article: Oil Price Crash Update (Mearns) and Get Ready for $10 Oil (Shilling). “The collapse in U.S. shale oil drilling, that looks set to continue, must lead to U.S. oil production decline in the months ahead…It looks as though the U.S. shale oil industry is falling on its face. This will inevitably lead to a fall in U.S. production” Mearns evidently places much less value on the industry’s capacity to literally and strategically turn on the present oil market dime.

Shilling asks us to wait for his next article in Bloomberg for his synthesis of what’s likely to happen- sort of like the trailers in Fifty Shades of Grey, except his data is not enticing. His voice through words is just short of Paul Revere’s: price declines are coming! The economy is at risk! Men and women to the battlefields! “At about $50 a barrel, crude oil prices are down by more than half from their June 2014 peak at $107. They may fall more, perhaps even as low as $10 to $20.” Slow growth in the U.S., China and the euro zone, and negative growth in Japan, combined with conservation and an increase in vehicle gas mileage, places a limit on an increase in global demand. Simultaneously, output is climbing, thanks mostly to U.S. production and the Saudis’ refusal to lower production. Shilling’s scenario factors in the prediction from Daniel Yergin, a premier and expensive oil consultant, that the average cost of 80% of new U.S. shale oil production will be $50 to $69 a barrel. He notes, interestingly, that out of 2,222 oil fields surveyed worldwide, only 1.6% would have a negative cash flow at $40 per barrel. Further, and perhaps more significant, the “marginal cost of efficient U.S. shale oil producers is about $10 to $20 dollars a barrel in the Permian Basin in Texas and about the same for oil produced in the Persian Gulf. Like Gross, Shilling pays heed to American efficiency but suggests its part of a conundrum. “Sure, the drilling rig count is falling, but it’s the inefficient rigs that are being idled, not the [more efficient], horizontal rigs that are the backbone of the fracking industry.” Oil production will continue to go up, but at a slower rate. This fact, juxtaposed with continuing, relatively weak growth of global and U.S. demand, will continue to generate downward pressures on oil prices and gasoline.

Even a Marxist, who is a respected dialectician, would find it tough to make sense out of the current data, analyses and predictions. More important, if you wait just a bit, the numbers and analyses will change. Those whose intellectual courage fails them and who generally put their “expert” analyses out well after facts are created by the behavior of the stock market, oil companies, consumers and investors deserve short shrift. They are more recorders of events than honest analysts of possible futures — even though they get big bucks for often posturing and/or shouting on cable.
So what is the synthesis of the confused, if there is one? Oil could go down but it could also stabilize in price and start going up in fits and starts. Production is likely to continue growing but at a slower rate. Demand sufficient to move oil prices depends upon renewed and more vigorous GDP growth in Asia, the U.S. and Europe. Realize that very few analysts are willing to bet their paychecks on definitive economic predictions.

Saudi reserves will likely provide sufficient budget revenues to support its decision to avoid slowing down production and raising prices at least for a year or so (notice the “or so”). Market share has supplanted revenue as (at least today’s) Saudi and OPEC objectives. But how long Saudi beneficence lasts is anyone’s guess and, indeed, everyone is guessing. Deadbeat nations like Venezuela and Russia are in trouble. Their break-even point on costs of oil is high, given their reliance on oil revenues to balance domestic budgets and their use more often than not of aging technology and drilling equipment.

As the baffled King from “Anna and the King of Siam” said, concerning some very human policy-like issues, “It’s a puzzlement.” There are lots of theses and some antitheses, but no ready consensus synthesis. Many Talmudic what ifs? What is clear is that the dialectic is not really controlled or even very strongly influenced by the consumer. Put another way, the absence of alternative fuels at your friendly “gas” station grants participation in the dialectic primarily to monopolistic acting oil and their oil related industry and government colleagues. Try to get E85 or your battery charged at most gas stations. Answers to most of the “what ifs” around oil pricing and production, particularly for transportation, would be shaped more by you and I — consumers — if we could break the oil monopoly at the pump and select fuels of personal choice including an array of alternates now available. Liberty, equality and fraternity! Oh, those French.

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