Since 2005, the “total oil supply” for the United States as reported by the Energy Information Administration increased by 2.2 million barrels per day. Of this, 1.3 mb/d, or 60%, has come from natural gas liquids and biofuels, which really shouldn’t be added to conventional crude production for purposes of calculating the available supply. Of the 800,000 b/d increase in actual field production of crude oil, almost all of the gain has come from shale and other tight formations that horizontal fracturing methods have only recently opened up. Here I offer some thoughts on how these new production methods change the overall outlook for U.S. oil production.
Let me begin by clarifying that “shale oil” and “oil shale” refer to two completely different resources. “Oil shale” is in fact not shale and does not contain oil, but is instead a rock that at great monetary and environmental cost can yield organic compounds that could eventually be made into oil. Although some people have long been optimistic about the potential amount of energy available in U.S. oil-shale deposits, I personally am pessimistic that oil shale will ever be a significant energy source.
West Texas Intermediate crude oil, which had been selling for $105 a barrel at the end of March, fell to $80 a barrel last week, while Brent has come from $125 down to near $90. These price declines will translate into substantial savings for U.S. consumers in the weeks ahead.
Since Brent and WTI diverged, it has been Brent that matters for U.S. retail gasoline prices; this fact and the reasons for it were discussed here. A regression of the average U.S. retail gasoline price on the price of Brent over 2000-2012 captures the close relation (OLS standard errors in parentheses):
Here I describe some interesting new research on modifying Hubbert’s model of peak oil to take into account the incentives for additional production that higher oil prices would be expected to bring.
A recent IMF Working paper by Jaromir Benes, Marcelle Chauvet, Ondra Kamenik, Michael Kumhof, Douglas Laxton, Susanna Mursula and Jack Selody begins by noting the trend in forecasts of oil production from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In earlier years, these forecasts were primarily just extrapolations of trends in global demand, with the assumption that supply would grow as needed to meet demand. If EIA’s 2001 forecast had proven accurate, the world today would be producing about 100 million barrels of oil each day. The EIA forecast for 2012 has been revised downward in each successive year, and now stands just under 90.
The figure below plots the price of crude oil in dollars per barrel and the price of natural gas on an equivalent BTU basis. Historically, the two prices had tended to stay fairly close together. But they began to diverge significantly in 2006. Even with the recent easing in oil prices, today you’d have to pay over $14 to get a million BTU in the form of crude oil, but only $2.30 if you were willing to use natural gas as an alternative.
It seems that no matter what financial series you look at, there’s a similar pattern of ups and downs over the last few years. I was curious to get a quick quantitative impression of how much of a contribution aggregate factors have been making to recent movements in the price of oil.
In my previous post I described a new research paper with University of Chicago Professor Cynthia Wu on the Effects of Index-Fund Investing on Commodity Futures Prices. Previously I discussed what we found for the prices of agricultural commodities. Here I review our findings about oil prices.
Part of the interest in a possible effect of commodity-index funds on oil prices comes from testimony before the U.S. Senate by hedge fund manager Michael Masters, in which he produced a provocative graph of oil prices against an estimate of the number of crude oil futures contracts held by commodity-index funds. We reproduced his methodology to update his graph below. The figure certainly seems to suggest a strong connection between these two series, particularly during 2008 and 2009.
Joseph P. Kennedy II, former Congressional Representative from Massachusetts, and founder, chairman, and president of Citizens Energy Corporation, has a proposal to make energy affordable for all. All we have to do, Kennedy claims, is “bar pure oil speculators entirely from commodity exchanges in the United States.”
Writing in the New York Times last week, Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) explained why he believes that speculators are responsible for the high price that we currently have to pay for oil:
Today, speculators dominate the trading of oil futures. According to Congressional testimony by the commodities specialist Michael W. Masters in 2009, the oil futures markets routinely trade more than one billion barrels of oil per day. Given that the entire world produces only around 85 million actual “wet” barrels a day, this means that more than 90 percent of trading involves speculators’ exchanging “paper” barrels with one another.
It’s true that most buyers of futures contracts don’t actually want to take physical delivery of oil. If I buy the contract at some date, I usually plan on selling the contract back to somebody else at a later date, so that I leave the market with a cash profit or loss but no physical oil. But remember that for every buyer of a futures contract, there is a seller. The person who sold the initial contract to me also likely wants to buy out of the contract at some later date. I buy and he sells at the initial contract date, he buys and I sell at a later date. One of us leaves the market with a cash profit, the other with a cash loss, and neither of us ever obtains any physical oil.
If an embargo is successful in preventing Iran from selling a significant amount of oil on the world market, what would replace it?
On Friday the White House released the following statement:
there currently appears to be sufficient supply of non-Iranian oil to permit foreign countries to significantly reduce their import of Iranian oil, taking into account current estimates of demand, increased production by some countries, private inventories of crude oil and petroleum products, and available strategic petroleum reserves and in fact, many purchasers of Iranian crude oil have already reduced their purchases or announced they are in productive discussions with alternative suppliers.
That the President or anybody else is counting on the world demand for petroleum curve to shift left in 2012 seems doubtful. And which are the countries from which increased production is anticipated? Libyan production averaged only 500,000 barrels/day in 2011, and if things go well could soon be producing a million barrels more than that daily. In the mean time, disruptions in Sudan, Syria, and Yemen have taken out a separate 640,000 barrels/day. The best hope is perhaps Saudi Arabia, which presumably has been making private statements to U.S. officials similar to this public statement from Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi last Wednesday:
Saudi Arabia’s current capacity is 12.5m barrels per day, way beyond current levels demanded, and a reliable buffer against any temporary loss of production. Saudi Arabia has invested a great deal to sustain its capacity, and it will use spare production capacity to supply the oil market with any additional required volumes.
“There is no rational reason for high oil prices,” writes Ali Naimi, Saudi Arabian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, in today’s Financial Times. Well, I can think of one– if oil prices were lower, the world would want to consume more than is currently being produced.
The graph below plots total world oil production over the last decade. After growing rapidly in earlier years, production hit a bumpy plateau. In November 2007, just before the U.S. recession began, the world was producing 84.9 million barrels each day, a little less than was produced in the spring of 2005. Although production stagnated, the demand curve continued to shift out, with world GDP growing 5.3% in 2006 and another 5.4% in 2007.