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What Happened to Saudization? Bipolar Fuel Projections!

Just a few short months ago, newspapers, led by the WSJ, trumpeted, many on their front pages, the Saudization of America and the end of America’s and OECD’s reliance on Middle East oil. Do you remember?   Well maybe you don’t have to– at least after 2025. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook for 2013, published Nov 12, indicates that the “Middle East, the only large source of low-cost oil, remains at the center of the longer-term oil outlook.” Within about 10 years or so, it will provide the largest share of the world’s expanded oil supply.

I realize the fragility of projections and have in the past criticized the IEA and the EIA and other makers of global energy projections. At times, projection makers are more artists than scientists. The good artists, sometimes, come close to what actually happens. The not so good ones either get lucky or appear to mute their “over or under” reality numbers. They either provide ranges, permitting them to say they were right in the future, or they complain, perhaps over a good bottle of wine, about the complexity of the variables.

I believe it is important to read the IEA report because it lends a bit of skepticism to the idea that America and its friends are entering the golden era of energy abundance. Indeed, The New York Times on Nov 13 ran the IEA story under the headline, “Shale’s Effect on Oil Supply Is Forecast to Be Brief.”

Here is what the IEA said in their Executive Summary:

“The role of OPEC countries in quenching the world’s thirst for oil is reduced temporarily over the next 10 years by rising output from the U.S., from oil sands in Canada, from deep water production in Brazil and from natural gas liquids from all around the world.  However, by mid-2020, non-OPEC production starts to fall back and countries in the Middle East provide most of the increase in global supply. Overall national oil companies and their host governments control some 80 percent of the world’s proven-plus-probable oil reserves.”

America’s likely surplus combined with a slowdown in the increase of demand will not affect costs of oil and gasoline in a major way.  Escalating demand for both will be reflected in Asia and will place a floor under prices. America’s oil companies function in a global market and are not governed to a great extent by the laws of supply and demand in this country.  They will sell to the highest bidder worldwide.

IEA indicates that “the need to compensate for declining output from existing oil fields is the major driver for upstream oil investment to 2035…conventional crude output from existing fields is set to fall by more than 40 mb/d by 2035.Of the 790 billion barrels of total production required to meet our projections for demand to 2035, more than half is needed just to offset declining production. According to the NY Times, IEA conclusions are generally shared by the EIA; that is, today’s rapid oil production from shale will continue for a relatively short time and then slow rapidly. IEA indicated the slowdown will occur in the mid-twenties, EIA by the late teens.

IEA’s and EIA’s analysis should not generate a bipolar response or create a need for a regimen of pills to cure projection related manic depression. It’s only a projection. Take a deep breath and count to ten.  Next year it will likely change because of “complex variables ” including but not limited to changing world demand, Middle East tension, new technology and the use of alternative fuels.

Until we get better at projection, let’s applaud IEA and EIA’s professionals.  At a minimum, they are honestly and artistically responding to lots of unknowns.  Paraphrasing the comedian Ilka Chase (and changing a word or two) projectionist’s minds are cleaner because they change them so often…

Just kidding!

Their efforts should at least reinforce the need to think through transportation fuel strategies and act with all reasonable speed on what I would consider, at least, low hanging fruit. For example, a coordinated campaign by the public, nonprofit and private sector to encourage the federal government to approve methanol as a fuel would be a good first step.  Federal acquiescence, if combined with simultaneous certification of low cost kits to convert existing vehicles to flex fuel cars could provide the framework for an effective transitional fuel strategy.

It, likely, will take from five to ten years before electric and or hydrogen powered vehicles will be able to reach the budgets and driving needs of most low, and moderate income Americans.  Even when renewable fuel powered new vehicles reach a mass market, the technology will not be able to change the gasoline dependent older vehicles. In this context, alternative transitional fuels could, with the addition of an increased number of conveniently located fuel stations and stimulated by new demand, offer competition to oil company restricted gas-only stations and consumers a choice of fuels.  America would be better off economically and environmentally.  Consumers would secure a more predictable, probably lower price for fuel at competitive pumps and charging stations.  The nation would be less dependent on imported oil.

And that’s the way it is or isn’t — stable oil and gas markets

“And that’s the way it is” was used by my favorite news anchor, Walter Cronkite, to sign off on his highly respected network news show. And that’s the way the content he generally delivered generally was — clear, factual, helpful. I have tried to apply Cronkitism to today’s media analyses and commentary on oil production and oil prices. The new assumed “way it is” regrettably sometimes seems like the way the journalist or his boss — whether print, TV or cable — wants it to be or hopes it will be. Frequently, partial sets of facts are marshaled to ostensibly determine clear cause and effect relationships but end up confusing issues and generating questions as to the author or speakers mastery of content and conclusions.

What’s a Cronkitist to do? I often look to The New York Times for the wisdom grail. Generally, it works. But, I must confess that a recent piece in the Times by outstanding journalist, Clifford Kraus, titled “Is Stability the New Normal?” Oct. 9 bothered me. I found its thesis that a new stability has arrived with respect to oil prices and by implication gas prices at the pump a bit too simple.

The author indicates that “predictions about oil and gas prices are precarious when there are so many political and security hazards. But it is likely that the world has already entered a period of relatively predictable crude prices…there are reasons to believe the inevitable tensions in oil-producing countries will be manageable over at least the next few years, because the world now has sturdier shock absorbers than at any time over at least the past decade.”

What are these absorbers? First, more oil production in the U.S., Canada, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, to balance the loss of exports from countries like Iran, Libya and, I assume, Venezuela and possibly Nigeria. Second, the continued spread of oil shale development throughout the world, including many non-Middle East or OPEC countries. Third, increased auto efficiency, conservation and lower demand for gas in the U.S. Finally, near the end of the article and not really seemingly central to the author’s stability argument natural gas becomes in part a hypothetical “if.” He notes that American demand for gasoline could drop below a half a billion barrels a day from already below peak consumption, if natural cheap gas replaces more oil as a transportation fuel. (At least he mentioned natural gas as a transportation fuel. Most media reports fail to tie natural gas to transportation) break open the champagne! Nirvana is near! Michael Lynch, a senior official at Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc., is quoted in the article, saying, “Stable oil prices could reduce future inflation rates and particularly curb transportation costs, helping to steady prices of food and construction materials that travel long distances…Lower inflation can also help reduce interest rates. By reducing uncertainty, investor and consumer confidence should both be increased, boosting higher spending and investment and thus economic growth.”

In the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, I want to be a cockeyed optimist…but something tells me to be at least a bit wary of a too-good-to-be-true scenario, one premised on a historically new relatively high price of oil per barrel (bbl.), just under $100 (the price is now about $105) and gas prices likely only modestly lower than they are now (the U.S. average is close to $3.50 a gallon)

So why be wary and worry?

1. The Times accepts the rapid significant growth in oil shale development and production too easily. Maybe they are right! Perhaps the oil shale train has left the station. But the growth of environmental opposition, particularly opposition to fracking, will likely slow it down until regulations perceived as reasonable by the industry and environmentalists are put in the books. Further, the often very early large expectations with respect to new pools of oil in places like the Monterey Shale, featured in media releases, have not panned out after later sophisticated analyses. Finally, the price of hard to get at oil may come in so high as to limit producer enthusiasm for new drilling.

2. The Times correctly suggests that the relationship between oil prices and gasoline costs may be less than thought conventionally. Lower oil costs in the U.S. do not necessarily trigger lower gasoline costs, and higher gasoline costs are not necessarily the result of higher oil costs per barrel

The Times credits the recent visible break in the relationship primarily to an abundance of oil linked to oil shale production in the U.S. and in many other countries and to falling demand for oil throughout the world, including China, to the lack of economic growth and higher efficiency of vehicles.

It’s more complicated. For example, price setting is affected in a major way by speculation in the financial community, and by oil producers and refiners who govern production and distribution availability. Respected analysts and political leaders suggest that companies base their decisions concerning price at least in part on market and profit assumptions. Fair. But, oil’s major derivative gasoline does not function in a free market, rather, it is a market controlled by oil companies. There is little competition from alternative fuels. Unfair and inefficient.

3. The quest for oil independence and the related justification for drilling lead the media to suggest and the public to believe that there is an equivalency between increased production of oil and closing the gap between what we consume and produce as a nation. Yes, we have reduced the gap — both demands have fallen and production has increased. But it is still around 6.0 to 6.5 million barrels per day. Yet, we continue to export nearly half of what we produce every day or nearly 4 million barrels. Our good friends, China and Venezuela, get 4% and 3% respectively. Companies may sing “God Bless America” while extracting, refining, exporting and importing oil, but theologically based patriotism doesn’t govern the oil market. Sorry, but global prices and profits have precedence. Remember the adage — “the business of business is business.”

4. A recently released Fuel Freedom Foundation paper suggests that energy independence is a misnomer. Based on its review of EIA data and projections through 2035, negative energy balances exist that never drop below a $300 billion deficit. If EIA data is to be believed, energy independence, Saudi America and control of our energy future are developments that will not occur anytime soon.

I am disappointed that natural gas as an alternative fuel seems more like an afterthought coming at the end of Kraus’s long piece. I am glad the author mentioned it but it seems at least a bit forced. The commentary was limited to natural gas and not its derivatives, ethanol and methanol, or, for that matter, other alternative fuels. Put another way, it seemed to assume a still very restricted fuel market. Opening up consumer choices at the pump is a key factor in stabilizing oil and gas markets. It also is a key factor achieving reduced prices at the pump for low and moderate income families; the former spending from 14-17% of their limited income on gasoline.