Last week reporters at the Wall Street Journal sat down and did some arithmetic. They looked at how much oil was selling for in the spring of 2014 (over $100 a barrel); looked at what it is selling for today (under $50); and concluded that if prices stay low for the next three years, the global oil industry and the countries it finances will be out $4.4 trillion in revenues. As these oil companies, nationalized and publically traded, will be producing roughly the same amount of oil in the next few years, the $4 trillion will have to come mostly out of profits or capital expenditures.
This is where the problem for the future of the world’s oil supply comes in. The big oil companies, especially those that export much of their production, have been doing quite well in recent years. National oil companies have earned vast profits for their political masters. Publically traded ones have developed a tradition of paying out good dividends which they are loathe to cut.
This leaves mostly capital expenditures on exploring for and producing more oil in coming years to take a dive as part of the $4 trillion revenue hit. Even if oil prices of $50 a barrel or less do not continue for the next three years, this still works out to a revenue drop of $1.5 trillion a year or about three times the planned capital expenditures of some 500 oil companies recently surveyed.
The International Energy Agency just came out with a new forecast saying that while current oil prices have the demand for oil products increasing rapidly, there is still so much over-production that the oil glut is expected to last for another year or more before supply/demand comes back into balance. The return of Iran to unfettered production would not help matters.
In looking at the next five years there are several trends or major issues that are likely to impact the supply and demand for oil. First is the recent price collapse that no longer makes it profitable to start projects to produce new oil, most of which now comes from deepwater, tar sands, or shale oil fields and is far more expensive to produce than “conventional” oil. As a result, investment in new oil production projects has dropped substantially in the last year and is likely to fall further.
On the demand side of the equation China is the biggest unknown. For the last 30 years the Chinese have enjoyed unprecedented economic growth, but recently the “world’s factory” has not been doing as well. Its government has been thrashing around wildly trying to stimulate growth and fend off a collapse in its stock market. Some believe China is a huge economic bubble that is about to collapse taking much of the world with it, and obviously reducing its ever-increasing demand for more oil.
The other 800-pound gorilla looming out there is climate change. Except for the drought in California and the storm that flooded New York a few years back, much of America and China for that matter has not been hurt badly enough by anomalous weather to reach an agreement that stopping climate change is the number one priority of all of us. Reports of “feels like” 159°F coming out the Middle East this summer have little impact on those convinced that climate change is a hoax. Should the effects of climate change worsen in the near future to the point that “do something before life on earth becomes impossible” becomes the majority perception of the issue, consumption of fossil fuels could be severely restricted. Although not widely appreciated, there do seem to be viable alternatives to fossil fuels waiting to be exploited.
The violence in the Middle East has grown worse in recent years. Although oil production in some areas has been restricted by geopolitics and violence, most of the oil continues to be produced. It is useless to talk about the next five years in the Middle East; however, we should keep in mind that there are at least a half dozen confrontations going on in the region that could morph into situations where oil production becomes more restricted.
When we net this all together, what do we have? Conventional wisdom currently says that oil prices are likely to be closer to $50 a barrel than to $100 for the next year or more. Capital spending on new production to offset declining production from existing oilfields is likely to drop still further leaving us in the situation where depletion may exceed the oil coming from new wells or fields. This is the argument that those who believe that we are at or near the all-time peak of world oil production about now are using.
The International Energy Agency says that the demand for the cheaper oil is rising rapidly, that production of shale oil currently is falling and the rest of world’s production is relatively static so we should be seeing oil prices rising again by 2017. This is where the turning point in the history of oil production could occur. In recent history rising prices have led oil producers to increase drilling for new oil production again. However the next time around, as mentioned above, there are new factors that may come into play. Will China be increasing its demand for oil in another two years? Will the Middle East still be exporting as much oil, and producing oil given the turmoil and the need to increase air conditioning? Will the world have decided the time has come to clamp down seriously on carbon emissions?
If global oil production does reach some kind of a peak this year and is lower in 2016, can it recover to reach new highs in the years following? Anything from inadequate investment stemming from persistently low oil prices to a major conflict in the Middle East could keep production from rebounding to new all-time highs. We are living in interesting times and just could see peak oil before we realize it.