Religion, structural changes in the oil Industry and the price of oil and gasoline

Oil barrelAmericans — in light of the decline in oil and gas prices — don’t take happy selfies just yet! Clearly, the recent movement of oil prices per barrel below $80 and the cost of gasoline at the pump below $3 a gallon lend cause for, at least strategically, repressed joy among particularly low-income consumers, many of whose budgets for holiday shopping have been expanded near 10 percent. Retail stores are expressing their commitment to the holiday by beginning Christmas sales pre-Thanksgiving. Sure, sales profits were involved in their decisions, once it appeared to them that lower gas prices were here to stay, at least for a while. But don’t be cynical; I am sure the spirit moved them to play carols as background music and to see if in-store decorations made it easier for shoppers to get by headlines of war, climate change and other negative stuff and into, well yes, a buying mood. If retail sales exceed last year’s and GNP is positively affected, it will provide testimony and reaffirm belief that God is on America and the free market’s side, or at least the side of shopping malls and maybe even downtowns. Religious conversions might be up this year…all because of lower costs of gasoline at the pump. The power of the pump!

But, holy Moses (I am ecumenical), we really haven’t been taken across the newly replenished figurative Red Sea yet. There are road signs suggesting we won’t get there, partly because of the historical and current behavior of the oil industry. Why do I say this?

If history is prologue, EIA’s recent projections related to the continued decline of oil and gasoline prices will undergo revisions relatively soon, maybe in 6 months to a year or so. I suspect they will reflect the agency’s long-held view that prices will escalate higher during this and the next decade. Tension in the Middle East, a Saudi/OPEC change of heart on keeping oil prices low, a healthier U.S. economy, continued demand from Asia (particularly China), slower U.S. oil shale well development as well as higher drilling costs and the relatively short productive life span of tight oil wells, and more rigorous state environmental as well as fracking policies, will likely generate a hike in oil and gasoline prices. Owners, who were recently motivated to buy gas-guzzling vehicles because of low gas prices, once again, may soon find it increasingly expensive to travel on highways built by earthlings.

Forget the alternative; that is, like Moses, going to the Promised Land on a highway created by a power greater than your friendly contractor and with access to cheap gas to boot. Moses was lucky he got through in time and his costs were marginal. He was probably pushed by favorable tides and friendly winds. The wonderful Godly thing! He and his colleagues secured low costs and quick trips through the parting waters.

Added to the by-now conventional litany concerning variables affecting the short- and long-term cost and price of gasoline and oil (described in the preceding paragraph), will likely be the possible structural changes that might take place in the oil industry. If they occur, it will lead to higher costs and prices. Indeed, some are already occurring. Halliburton, one of the sinners in Iraq concerning overpricing services and other borderline practices (motivated by the fear of lower gas prices), has succeeded in taking over Baker Hughes for near $35 billion. If approved by U.S. regulators, the combined company will control approximately 30 percent of the oil and gas services market. According to experts, the new entity could capture near 40 percent relatively quickly. Sounds like a perfect case for anti-trust folks or, if not, higher oil and gas costs for consumers.

Several experts believe that if low gas prices continue, oil companies will examine other profit-making, competition-limiting and price-raising activities, including further mergers and acquisitions. Some bright iconoclasts among them even suggest that companies may try to develop and produce alternative fuels.

Amen! Nirvana! Perhaps someday oil companies will push for an Open Fuels Law, conversion of cars to flex-fuel vehicles and competition at the pump…if they can make a buck or two. Maybe they will repent for past monopolistic practices. But don’t hold your breath! Opportunity costing for oil companies is complex and unlikely to quickly breed such public-interest related decisions. Happy Thanksgiving!

10 reasons why falling oil prices is good for the U.S. and replacement fuels

While they might not make the Late Show with David Letterman, here are ten reasons why the fall in oil and gas prices, if it is sustained for a while, is, on balance, good for the U.S. and replacement fuels.

  1. U.S. consumers are getting a price break. While the numbers differ by researchers, most indicate that on average they have saved near $80 billion. According to The Wall Street Journal, every one cent drop in gasoline adds approximately a billion dollars to nationwide household consumption.
  2. Low- and moderate-income households will have extra money for basic goods and services, including housing, health care and transportation to work.
  3. Increased consumer spending will be good for the economy and overall job growth. Because of the slowdown in production and the loss of jobs in the oil shale areas and Alaska, the net positive impact on GNP will be relatively small, higher at first as consumers make larger purchases, and then lower as oil field economic declines are reflected in GNP.
  4. Low prices for oil and gas will impede drilling in tight oil areas and give the nation time to develop much-needed regulations to protect environmentally sensitive areas. Oil is now under $80 a barrel. The price is getting close to the cost of drilling. Comments from producers and oil experts seem to suggest that $70-75 per barrel would begin to generate negative risk analyses.
  5. Low prices for oil and gas will make it tough on Russia to avoid the impact of U.S. and EU sanctions. Russia needs to export oil and gas to secure revenue to meet budget constraints. Its drilling and distribution costs will remain higher than current low global and U.S. prices.
  6. Low prices of oil and gas will reduce U.S. need to import oil and help improve U.S. balance of payments. Imports now are about 30 percent of oil used in the nation.
  7. Low prices of oil and gas will further reduce dependence on Middle East oil and enhance U.S. security as well as reduce the need to rely on military intervention. While the Saudis and allies in OPEC may try to undercut the price of oil per barrel in the U.S., it is not likely that they can sustain a lower cost and meet domestic budget needs.
  8. Low prices of oil and gas will create tension within OPEC. Some nations desiring to improve market share may desire to keep oil prices low to sustain market share, others may want to increase prices and production to sustain, if not increase, revenue.
  9. Low prices of oil and gas will spur growth in developing economies.
  10. Low prices for oil and gas will likely secure oil company interests in alternative fuels. It may also compel coalitions of environmentalists and others concerned with emissions and other pollutants to push for open fuel markets and natural gas based ethanol, methanol and cellulosic-based fuels as well as a range of renewable fuels.

We haven’t reached fuel Nirvana. The differential between gasoline and corn-based E85 has lessened in most areas of the nation and now appears less than the 20-23 percent needed to get consumers to think about switching to alternative fuels like E85. But cheaper replacement fuels appear on the horizon (e.g., natural gas-based ethanol) and competition in the supply chain likely will reduce their prices. Significantly, in terms of alternative replacement fuels, oil and gas prices are likely to increase relatively soon, because of: continuing tensions in the Middle East, a change of heart on the part of the Saudis concerning maintaining low prices, the increased cost of drilling for tight oil and slow improvements in the U.S. economy resulting in increased demand. The recent decline in hybrid, plug-in and electric car sales in the U.S. follows historical patterns. Cheap gas or perceived cheap gas causes some Americans to switch to larger vehicles (e.g., SUVs) and, understandably, for some, to temporarily forget environmental objectives. But, paraphrasing and editing Gov. Schwarzenegger’s admonition or warning in one of his films, unfortunately high gas prices “will be back…” and early responders to the decline of gasoline prices may end up with hard-to-sell, older, gas-guzzling dinosaurs — unless, of course, they are flex-fuel vehicles.

It’s the oil price and cost, baby

I began what turned out to be a highly ranked leadership program for public officials at the University of Colorado in the early ’80s, as dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs. I did the same for private-sector folks when I moved to Irvine, Calif., to run a leadership program involving Israeli startup CEOs for the Merage Foundations. Despite the different profiles of participants, one of the compelling themes that seemed pervasive to both — for- profits in Israel and governments everywhere — was and remains building the capacity of leaders to give brief, focused oral presentations or elevator pitches (or, as one presenter once said, “how to seduce someone between the first and fifth floor”). A seduction lesson in oil economics in a thousand words or three minutes’ reading time!

Now that I got your attention! Sex always does it! During the last few days, I read some straightforward, short, informative articles on oil company and environmentalist group perceptions concerning the relationship between the price of oil per barrel and the cost of drilling. Their respective pieces could be converted into simple written or oral elevator pitches that provided strategic background information to the public and political leaders — information often not found in the news media — press, television, cable and social media — concerning oil company or environmentalist decision-making.

This is good news. Most of the academic and, until recently, media coverage of the decline of oil and gasoline prices generally focuses on the dollar or percentage drop in the price of oil and gasoline from a precise date … 3 months, 6 months, a year, many years ago, etc. And, at least by implication in many of its stories, writers assume decision-making is premised on uniform costs of drilling.

But recently, several brief articles in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch,, etc., made it clear that the cost of drilling is not uniform. For example, there is a large variation internal to some countries depending on location and geography and an often larger variation between and among oil-producing nations. Oil hovers around $80 a barrel now, but the cost of drilling varies considerably. In Saudi Arabia, it is $30 per barrel or less on average; in the Arctic, $78; in Canada’s oil sands $74; and in the U.S, $62.

If you’re responsible for an oil company or oil nation budget, a positive cash flow and a profit, you are likely to be concerned by increasingly unfavorable opportunity cost concerning costs of drilling and returns per barrel. In light of current and possibly even lower prices, both companies and nations might begin to think about the following options: cutting back on production and waiting out the decline, pushing to expand oil exports by lowering costs in the hopes of getting a better than domestic price and/or higher market share, lessening your investment in oil and moving toward a more balanced portfolio by producing alternative fuels. If you believe the present price decline is temporary, and that technology will improve drilling cost/price per barrel ratios, you might consider continuing to explore developing wells.

Up to now, the Saudis have acted somewhat counterintuitively. They have created dual prices. Overall, they have sustained relatively high levels of production. For America, they have lowered prices to hold onto or build market share and undercut prices related to U.S. oil shale. For Asia, they have increased prices, hoping that demand, primarily from China and India, and solid production levels in the Kingdom, will not result in a visible drop in market share.

However, the Saudis know that oil revenue has to meet budget needs, including social welfare requirements resulting in part from the Arab Spring. How long they can hold onto lower prices is, in part, an internal political and budget issue, since oil provides a disproportionate share of the country’s public revenue. But, unlike the U.S. and many other nations, where drilling for tight oil is expensive, the Saudis have favorable ratio between production costs and the price of oil. Again, remember the cost of production in the U.S., on average, is about 100 percent above what it is in Saudi Arabia and some other OPEC nations. Deserts may not provide a “wow” place for all Middle East residents or some tourists looking for a place to relax and admire diverse landscapes, but, at the present time, they provide a source of relatively cheap oil. Further, they permit OPEC and the Saudis to play a more important global role in setting prices of oil and its derivative gasoline than their population numbers and their nonoil resources would predict. Lowering prices and keeping production relatively high in the Middle East is probably good for the world’s consumers. But as environmentalists have noted , both could slow oil shale development in the U.S. and with it the slowdown of fracking. Both could also interest oil companies in development of alternative fuels.

Oil-rich nations in the Middle East and OPEC, which control production, will soon think about whether to lower production to sustain revenues. In the next few months, I suspect they will decide to risk losing market share and increase per barrel oil prices. U.S policy and programs should be recalibrated to end the nation’s and West’s often metabolic response to what the Saudis do or what OPEC does. Support for alternative replacement fuels is warranted and will reduce consumer costs over the long haul and help the environment. It will also decrease America’s dependence on Middle East oil and reduce the need to “think” war as a necessary option when developing America’s foreign policy concerning the Middle East.