Ben Casselman: The conventional wisdom on oil is always wrong

This is something we knew already: Oil prices fluctuate. Like all commodities, prices go up, and then they go down, and few experts know exactly why, or how far, or for how long trends will endure.

But’s Ben Casselman, who used to cover the oil patch for The Wall Street Journal, outlines (in typical well-executed FiveThirtyEight style), all the ways that people have gotten oil predictions so horribly wrong this year.

Here’s one of the many instructive passages from his piece:

It isn’t just that experts didn’t see the shale boom coming. It’s that they underestimated its impact at virtually every turn. First, they didn’t think natural gas could be produced from shale (it could). Then they thought production would fall quickly if natural gas prices dropped (they did, and it didn’t). They thought the techniques that worked for gas couldn’t be applied to oil (they could). They thought shale couldn’t reverse the overall decline in U.S. oil production (it did). And they thought rising U.S. oil production wouldn’t be enough to affect global oil prices (it was).

Now, oil prices are cratering, falling below $55 a barrel from more than $100 earlier this year. And so, the usual lineup of experts — the same ones, in many cases, who’ve been wrong so many times in the past — are offering predictions for what plunging prices will mean for the U.S. oil boom. Here’s my prediction: They’ll be wrong this time, too.

Among the many reasons why pundits’ crystal balls are so often murky: various factors go into the makeup of prices; and the economics of oil-field drilling are complicated, which is why even “break-even” declarations about when oil-shale drilling in Texas or North Dakota might become unprofitable can be off base as well.

As to the first point — all the factors that comprise the fluctuating price of oil — Cassleman writes:

In July 2008, my Journal colleague Neil King asked a wide range of energy journalists, economists and other experts to anonymously predict what the price of oil would be at the end of the year. The nearly two dozen responses ranged from $70 a barrel at the low end to $167.50 at the high end. The actual answer: $44.60.

It isn’t surprising that experts aren’t good at predicting prices. Global oil markets are a function of countless variables — geopolitics, economics, technology, geology — each with its own inherent uncertainty. And even if you get those estimates right, you never know when a war in the Middle East or an oil boom in North Dakota will suddenly turn the whole formula on its head.

But none of that stops television pundits from making confident predictions about where oil prices will head in the coming months, and then using those predictions as the basis for production forecasts. Based on their track record, you should ignore them.

An oil-drilling sing along, to the tune of “Politics and Polka”

Correlation or causation, correlation or causation
Misleading numbers, mistaken assumptions. Who will be the joker?

Okay, I am neither poet nor composer. I can’t even sing. But Fiorello Laguardia was an early hero from the time I met him in my sixth grade history books, and the musical Fiorello! was good fun.

Mayor Laguardia would be amused and bemused by recent articles suggesting that the Monterey Shale isn’t what it was cracked up to be a year or two ago. The story lends itself to his famous encounters with comic books. Despite earlier media hype, its development will not lead to economic nirvana for California and could well lead to real environmental problems.

Why were the numbers that were put out by the oil industry just a couple of years ago wrong? Maybe because of a bit of politics and polka! The articulated slogan concerning oil independence from foreign countries mesmerized many who should have known better.

Similarly, why, while once accepted by relevant federal agencies, have the production numbers concerning the Monterey Shale been recently discounted by the same agencies (EIA) and independent non-partisan analysts? Quite simply, they now know more. Succinctly, it’s too expensive to get the oil out and the oil wells, once completed, will have a comparatively short production life.

Drilling an oil field that is located under flat land is easier than drilling for very tight oil — oil that lies underwater or under a combination of flat as well as hilly, rolling, developed, partially developed or undeveloped areas known for their pervasive, pristine, beautiful environment. Further, the geological formations in the Monterey Shale area are a victim of their youth. They are older than Mel Brooks, but at 6-16 million years, the Monterey Shale is significantly younger than The Bakken. Shale deposits, as a result, are much thicker and “more complex.” According to David Hughes (Post Carbon Institute, 2013), existing Monterey Shale fields are restricted to relatively small geographic areas. “The widespread regions of mature Monterey Shale source rock amendable to high tight oil production from dense drilling…likely do not exist…” “… While many oil and gas operators and energy analysts suggest that it is only a matter of time and technology before ‘the code is cracked’ and the Monterey produces at rates comparable to Bakken and Eagle Ford,” this result is likely is not in cards…the joker is not wild. “Owing to the fundamental geological differences between the Monterey and other tight oil plays and in light of actual Monterey oil production data,” valid comparisons with other tight oil areas are…wishful thinking. Apart from environmental opposition and the costs of related delays, the oil underwater or underground in the Monterey Shale is just not amenable to the opportunity costing dreams of oil company CEOs, unless the price of oil exceeds $150 a barrel. According to new studies from the EIA, the recoverable reserves, instead of being as it projected earlier from 13.7 to 15.4 barrels, will be closer to 0.6 barrels.

If you believe in “drill, baby, drill” as a policy and practice, the cost/price conundrums are real. Low costs per barrel for oil appear at least marginally helpful to consumers and increases in oil costs seem correlated with recessions. Increased production of tight oil depends on much higher per barrel prices and, in many instances, increased debt., Neither in the long term is s good for the economic health of the nation or its residents.

Breaking the strong link between transportation and oil (and its derivative, gasoline) would make it easier to weave wise policy and private-sector behavior through the perils of extended periods of high gasoline prices and oil-related debt. Expanding the number of flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) through inexpensive conversion of older cars and extended production of flex-fuel vehicles by Detroit would provide a strong market for alternative transition fuels and put pressure on oil companies to open up their franchises and contracts with stations to a supposedly key element of the American creed-competition and free markets. The result, while we encourage and wait for renewable fuels to reach prime time status, would be good for America, good for the environment and good for consumers.