Category Archives: Peak Oil

Has Shale Killed Peak Oil?

Climate change has a certain unbearable logic. While temperature may oscillate around a trend, the trend remains. Moreover, to steepen or shallow the trend will take decades, or, indeed, centuries. Broadly, what you predict with climate change is mostly what you get.

Peak oil is a different beast. We are not sure when it will become a pressing problem, if indeed it ever will given the possibility that technology will allow us to transcend to a non-oil world.

Further, peak oil gives us a price―climate change doesn’t. As oil becomes harder (more costly) to extract, price rises. This then loops back to supply stimulation and demand destruction. Theoretically, as oil depletes, there will come a time when supply can’t respond (North Sea oil production, for example), at which point price will destroy demand, so pushing us back toward equilibrium. So what are we to make of this chart (click for larger image; source EIA here):

EIA Brent and WTI Oil Price jpeg

The sheer intensity of the drop suggests that it isn’t a function of demand. Unlike the fall in 2008, we aren’t witnessing a financial crash. The world economy may lack some puff, but it is still growing. So is this supply? And if so, it this the death of peak oil?

To answer this question, we first have to understand what we mean by peak oil. To do this, I prefer to go back and read what some key peak oil theorists have actually said. On this particular occasion, I don’t think it particularly useful to reread the dead M. King Hubbert, the father of peak oil theory, since he died long ago (1989 to be exact). Better to read the more eloquent advocates of what I call Peak Oil 2.0: Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere.

Campbell and Laherrere wrote a seminal and prescient article for Scientific American in March 1998 titled “The End of Cheap Oil”. You can read it here. First off, focus on what they didn’t say: they didn’t say that oil was going to run out. Rather they said this:

The world is not running out of oil―at least not yet. What out society does face, and soon, is the end of the abundant and cheap oil on which all industrial nations depend.

They were also perfectly aware of unconventional oil.

…. economists like to point out that the world contains enormous caches of unconventional oil that can substitute for crude oil as a soon as the price rises high enough to make them profitable………Theoretically, these unconventional oil reserves could quench the world’s thirst for liquid fuels as conventional oil passes its prime.

But under their analysis, unconventional oil is too costly and too time consuming to ramp up quickly enough to compensate for conventional oil’s decline. As a result:

The world could thus see radical increases in oil prices. That alone might be sufficient to curb demand, flattening production for perhaps 10 years……But by 2010 or so, many Middle Eastern nations will themselves be past the midpoint. World production will then have to fall.

So we can extract three predictions. First, a steep rise in price will occur that is accompanied by a flatlining in production of conventional oil. Second, unconventional oil will be produced but not in sufficient quantities and at the right price to compensate for the collapse in conventional oil production growth. Third, eventually, and regardless of price, world oil production will fall.

In terms of calling the bottom of the market, Campbell and Laherrere were stunningly successful. The average oil price in 1998 for Brent crude was $12.8. Over the last four years, we have been averaging over $100 (click for larger image; source: here).

Crude Oil Price Change jpeg

These are nominal prices that don’t take account of inflation. Still, even if we adjust for inflation, the jump in oil prices has been impressive.  In 2013/14 dollars, the oil price in the late 1990s would have been around $25 to $30; so in real terms, we have seen a three- to four-fold increase. Apart from the two price spikes of the 1970s, the surge has been unprecedented.

Moreover, even if we take the current price of Brent oil after the slump of the last few months  ($72 as of writing), the appreciation is two- to three-fold.

Crude Oil Prices jpegAs for a flatlining in conventional oil, Campbell and Laherrere have been pretty good on that prediction too. Since 2005, we have been moving along a bumpy plateau (the blue section). Chart below is taken from Eaun Mearns excellent blog here.

word total liquids production jpeg

Where Campbell and Laherrere have been wrong is with respect to unconventional oil. This category has been powering ahead, although not, until recently, at a sufficient pace to hold down price. Nonetheless, unconventional volumes have risen sufficiently to keep total aggregate liquids on the rise as well.

Global Liquids jpeg

So to recap, the peak oil camp has done pretty well on price and conventional oil volume, but not so well on unconventional oil production. However, we need to go back to Scientific American’s summary statement, the peak oil bottom line:

The world is not running out of oil―at least not yet. What out society does face, and soon, is the end of the abundant and cheap oil on which all industrial nations depend.

Using this statement as a yardstick, peak oil gets a straight “A”. Unconventional oil has been forthcoming but not at sufficient volumes and lower enough cost to push down the oil price back to the kind of levels seen in the 1990s. Indeed, up until a few months ago, unconventional was hardly moving the needle in terms of price.

But has everything now changed following the oil price plunge as much of the media would suggest? Note, what was so unusual about the recent period of high oil prices was that such prices were sustained over a prolonged period: 2011, average of $111 per barrel for Brent crude,  2012, $111; 2013, $109; 2014, likely to average around $100.

Oil has a notoriously inelastic supply and demand curves (they are steep on the chart), so you don’t need supply or demand to move much to get a major shift in price over the short term.But over the longer term, the supply curve is supposed to be more elastic. At the right price, technology and innovation should pour into the sector and push the supply curve to the right. This didn’t happen. Or rather it didn’t happen for a long time, but just possibly it is happening now.

Oil Supply and Demand jpeg

But we don’t really know if what we are seeing over the last couple of months is a short-term or long-term phenomenon. You can get to where we are now with the short-term curves alone. Push the demand a little bit to the left due to a slowing Chinese economy, and the supply a bit to the right due to oil from a few troubled regions coming back on stream and, hey presto, price plummets. But I repeat: peak oil is a story about long-term supply and demand, and long-term elasticities.

Over the short term, whether you pump oil depends on your marginal cost and the price per barrel. Whether you have invested $10 million, $100 million or $1 billion in a particular oil field makes no difference as  to whether you pump the oil or not—the investment is a sunk cost. The “pump or not to pump decision” has no relation to the investment in existing operating kit; you will produce if the cost of producing one barrel of oil (operation and maintenance) is below the price of a barrel of oil. Accordingly, when you see media reports that some shale oil fields are still profitable at $40 per barrel this has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the veracity of the peak oil claim. The question to be asked is would you invest in new shale fields at $40, $50 or $60 per barrel?

Peak oil, in effect, says the long-term supply of oil is inelastic, not just the short term. Consequently, for new unconventional oil sources like shale to dispose of the peak oil thesis, they must come to market such that the return on investment including the maintenance and operating costs plus the opportunity cost of what your money could be earning elsewhere is considerably below the oil price level witnessed in recent years. Will the shale win this argument? Possibly (although I think not).

The predictions made by Campbell and Laherrere have held up pretty well because the two said that the oil price would rise and then stay high for year after year—it did. For Campbell and Laherrere to be proved wrong, the oil price must fall and then stay low for year after year. Let’s see what happens in 2015.

Links for the Week Ending 16 July 2014

I haven’t posted for quite a while. Basically, family commitments have eaten into my blogging time, and this state of affairs will likely continue for an indefinite period longer. Nonetheless, I will try to get some posts out as we grind through the last few innings of what I would term the ‘Great Hiatus': a hiatus period—or pause— amid the longer term trend of rising global mean temperatures, higher oil prices, increasing resource constraints and greater global economic instability.

For example, with a 70-80% chance of an El Nino by year-end, temperature records have the potential to start falling again. Further, oil has built a solid base above $100 per barrel but appears poised to go higher in the next year or so as oil companies struggle to find new fields that can be developed at the right price.

At the same time, many of the financial fragilities in the system posed by ageing demographics, declining productivity and increasing resource constraints have to date been countered by the super easy monetary policy pursued worldwide. The aggressive, unprecedented and unorthodox monetarism  led by the Federal Reserve Board has been a policy triumph over the short term. Since the credit crunch of 2008/2009, the sky has not fallen down.

Yet the jury is still out as to whether the provision of free money can be maintained long enough to see a return to sustainable economic growth, or whether it will beget a new cycle of chronic instability through having fostered the extension of credit into intrinsically poor investments and a generalized asset price inflation that benefits few but the rich.

In the meantime, here are some links which I hope will flesh out some of the themes of this blog:

  • Occasionally, my left-learning friends berate me for reading the right-of-centre Daily Telegraph. I offer two defences: first, you need to read opinion with which you may instinctively disagree, but find of some merit with a bit of reflection. Second, a good newspaper has intellectual mavericks—and The Telegraph has many (probably more than The Guardian). Here is an article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard portraying the fossil fuel industry as poor capitalists; in short, the oil majors have been investing ever more, to reap ever less; while renewables are slowing sloughing off their subsidies. Joseph Schumpeter would be proud of this epic creative destruction.
  • And despite all the new technology we are bringing to bear on oil extraction, when fields go into decline it is damn tough fighting the tide. North Sea oil was a much ignored saviour of the British economy in the 1980s, but is decline is inexorable and, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), accelerating. The Financial Times has the story here (access to FT articles after free registration), but if you want to go to the primary OBR source you can find it here.
  • We are still seeing a lot of commentary over “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty. Piketty argues that the relative reduction in inequality in advanced countries over the post-war period was something of an aberration. Accordingly to his analysis, without direct political intervention (or in the most extreme case revolution), capital will gradually accrue to a relative few. In short, when the return on capital is greater than the growth rate, it is the owners of capital who prosper most, not those in capital’s employ. For a fuller treatment, I recommend Cory Doctorow’s summary here,  and an interview by Maththew Yglesias of Vox  a while back with Piketty here.
  • You can also slice growing inequality in different ways. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in the UK has just issued a report detailing how the real incomes of young people are falling much faster than those of any other age cohort (here). Meanwhile, I have often commented on how London has detached itself form the rest of the UK. In the US, Emily Badger of The Washington Post’s Wonk Blog charts a similar divergence between cities showing a virtuous cycle of education and growth and those showing a vicious cycle of poor education and decline (here)
  • Climate sceptics love to start any global mean temperature chart with a data point centred on 1997/98, which happens to coincide with the largest El Nino for a century. This monster El Nino ushered in the record breaking hot year of 1998 (slightly eclipsed in later years depending on which data set you look at, but still one of the hottest years on record: see NASA’s data set here). Global mean temperature is a construct of short-term weather volatility, long-term green-house gas induced temperature rise and the medium-term ENSO cycle. Eventually, CO2 will do its stuff and records will fall regardless of whether we have an El Nino. But for us to quickly retire all the talk of a hiatus in temperature rise will require a new and powerful El Nino. True, an El Nino appears on the cards by year-end, but quite how strong it will be is still clouded in uncertainty as this post at Skeptical Science explains here.
  • If you visit London, take time to visit some of the quirky, smaller museums. One of the most intriguing (and downright disturbing) is the Old Operating Theatre that used to be part of St Thomas Hospital just south of The Thames. This is no Disney Land reconstruction, but a perfectly preserved part of pre-antiseptic medical history.  Despite appearing to be a set from a particularly dark Harry Potter movie scene, the Old Operating Theatre shows how and where surgeons removed a damaged limb in around two minutes flat, with minimal anaesthetic. The museum demonstrates how far we have come health-wise in an historical blink of an eye (150 years or so). And for those who would welcome an economic collapse as a route toward a more authentic form of living, I direct you to a post at Club Orlov explaining a world of post-collapse, or village, medicine. Humanity is put right back on the St Thomas Hospital’s operating table. Pray for four strong men to hold you down—and a surgeon who has not only washed his hands, but is also quick with blade and saw.

Data Watch: US Natural Gas Monthly Production February 2014

The US government agency the Energy Information Administration (EIA) issues data on U.S. natural gas production, including shale gas, on a monthly basis with a lag of roughly two months. The latest data release was made on April 30th, and covers the period up until end-February 2014. Data is reported in billion cubic feet (bcf) and can be found here. Key points:

  • February 2014 natural gas dry production: 1,896 bcf, plus 2.8% year-on-year
  • Average monthly production for the 12 months to February 2014: 2,034 bcf, +1.7% over the same period the previous year
  • Since the end of 2011, production growth has stalled (click chart below for larger image), with the year-on-year 12-month average bumping along a plateau.

U.S. Dry Gas Production Feb 14 jpeg

There was significant natural gas price volatility over the winter period due to unusually high gas demand prompted by periods of extreme cold. Critically, however, natural gas prices have remained elevated into spring at around $5 per million British thermal unit (Btu).

Natural Gas Spot Price May 14 jpeg

To put the current price of $5 in perspective, a long-term chart of natural gas prices is given below (click for larger image). Note that 1 million Btu is roughly equivalent to 1,000 cubic feet; the unit price is, therefore, comparable even though one chart refers to Btu and the other cubic feet.

U.S. Natural Gas Well Head Price April 2014 jpeg

As can be seen in the chart, two natural gas spikes took place in the 2000s, with the price temporarily moving above $10. However, the average price for the period was between $5 and $7. The current well head price has now moved into that zone. Adjusting for inflation, the current price is still cheaper than the price in the late 2000s—but not that much cheaper.

Much commentary on natural gas compares the 2012 price lows of around $2-$3 dollars with the $10 highs of the 2000s. This is very misleading and obscures the fact that shale gas is expensive to produce. My definition of a product revolution would be one with lower price and higher volume—integrated circuits being the classic case. Shale gas does not fulfil this definition. When price falls, production growth struggles; only with high price do you get production uplifts.

Nonetheless, despite U.S. gas prices trending above $5, the U.S. spot price remains significantly below the price in other markets as the chart below shows (taken from BG Group presentation here, click for larger image). Note that NBP refers to the ‘national balancing point’, the benchmark wholesale spot price of natural gas in the UK.

Global Natural Gas Prices jpeg

Until liquid natural gas (LNG) production and export facilities come on stream in the U.S., traders cannot arbitrage between domestic and international markets, so the divergence in prices will remain. When such facilities are available, the critical question is whether U.S. production can be ramped up to allow exports, and whether the volumes will be significant enough to impact on global market prices.

 

Data Watch: US and Global Crude Oil Monthly Production April 2014 Releases

On April 30th, the U.S. government agency The Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced provisional U.S. crude oil production figures for February 2014. Key points:

  • February crude oil production was 224.9 million barrels, equivalent to 8.0 million barrels per day (bpd)
  • Change over February 2013 on a barrel-per-day basis: +12.8% y/y
  • February total crude oil plus natural gas liquids reached 300.0 million barrels, equivalent to 10.7 million bpd
  • Growth continues to remain in the double digits year-on-year.

As can be seen from the chart below (click for larger image, link to original data here), the fracking of tight oil formations in the U.S. has made a major impact on U.S. crude production over the last few years.

US Field Crude Oil Production April 2014 jpeg

Given crude oil is a globally traded commodity, U.S. production numbers need to be placed in the context of world supply and demand. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its latest Oil Market Report (OMR) dated 11 April 2014, recorded global ‘all liquids’ (oil and condensate) production of 91.8 million bpd for March 2014. Year-on-year supply growth is averaging around 1 million bpd, or a little over 1%.

OPEC and Non-OPEC Oil Supply March 2014 jpeg

Mirroring supply, benchmark crude prices continue to bump along a plateau. Increased U.S. production is being offset by a reduction in OPEC output, particularly with respect to Libya and Iraq. As a result, both WTI and Brent have remained above $100 per barrel.

Crude Futures March 2014 jpeg

Full quarterly IEA world supply-and-demand figures, including 2013 provisional supply and demand numbers, together with 2014 forecasts, can be found here. Interestingly, 2013 supply is now given as averaging 91.6 million bpd, up only 0.6 million bpd from 2012. Successive articles in the media have pronounced peak oil dead due to the fracking of shale. This story is everywhere—except in the actual numbers, where almost no increase in supply can be seen.

Links for the Week Ending 9 March 2014

Apologies for the late posting of this week’s links. Has been a crazy week.

  • For those of a non-business background, any reference to The Economist magazine with respect to climate change may appear strange. Who cares what The Economist writes on the subject? I would beg to disagree. Few, if any, senior business executives will read posts on Real Climate or Skeptical Science, let alone academic articles on the subject. For English speakers, most climate change commentary will come out of the pages (much of which will, of course, be online these days) of The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, other serious non-financial dailies like The New York Times in the U.S. and The Telegraph in the U.K., a motley collection of weeklies like Forbes, and, of course, The Economist. And The Economist is rather special in terms of its reach into board rooms across the globe (and for that matter cabinet offices). For example, Playboy Magazine once asked Bill Gates what he reads. The answer: “The Economist, every page”. A year ago, The Economist wrote an extended article on the global warming ‘hiatus’ that, I thought, gave too much weight to a few studies suggesting that climate sensitivity was far lower than previously thought (here, free registration). This week, however, the magazine made amends by publishing an excellent piece titled “Who pressed the pause button?” on the so called ‘hiatus’ in temperature rise. It ended with this statement:  “Most of the circumstances that have put the planet’s temperature rise on “pause” look temporary. Like the Terminator, global warming will be back.”
  • Talking of ‘The Terminator’, The Guardian carries an interview with the Crown Prince of techno-optimists and Google geek in chief Ray Kurzweil. God help us if anyone actually believes this stuff.
  • Up the road from me in Oxford is the NGO Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN). Its founder George Marshall has an interesting blog that looks at the narratives surrounding climate change. In a post called “How the Climate Change Messengers Became Blamed for the Floods” he deconstructs the media’s reaction to the recent U.K. floods. It’s somewhat depressing stuff.
  • One of the sharpest observers of the shale hype has been the petroleum geologist Art Berman. He has a site called The Petroleum Truth Report, but, frustratingly, doesn’t keep it current. Fortunately, he has just given a new interview with Oilprice.com updating us on his recent thinking. The interview is full of gems such as this: “Oil companies have to make a big deal about shale plays because that is all that is left in the world. Let’s face it: these are truly awful reservoir rocks and that is why we waited until all more attractive opportunities were exhausted before developing them. It is completely unreasonable to expect better performance from bad reservoirs than from better reservoirs.” I highly recommend you read the whole thing.
  • The economist Noah Smith writes a lively blog called Noahpinion. In this post he makes some keen observations on the ‘jobs and robots’ debate, while in this article in The Week he compares America’s decline with the collapse of the Ming Dynasty.

So U.S. Fracking Will Save Europe from Russia?

So will U.S. shale gas save Europe from a belligerent Russia? This from The Financial Times (here, free access after registration):

The US should make it easier for Europeans to buy American natural gas in order to reduce its allies’ dependence on Russian energy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives has said.

John Boehner’s statement on Tuesday brought national security concerns into the centre of a debate on how the US should use supplies of oil and gas from its shale.

In my humble opinion, reportage on the Ukrainian crisis has generally been dire, but finding any decent analysis of the West’s reliance on Russian oil and natural gas has been especially hard. Let’s start with the big picture for gas. From the International Energy Agency‘s “Key World Energy Statistics 2013” (click for larger image):

Producers, Net Exporters, Importers Nat Gas jpeg

From the tables, we see that Russia is the second largest natural gas producer behind the U.S., but it is the world’s largest exporter. Russia also exports 28% of all it produces.

As always with energy statistics, every publication has its preferred unit of measurement, so we have to do some very simple math to compare. One cubic metre of natural gas is equivalent to 35.3 cubic feet, so Russia’s 185 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas exports translates into roughly 6.5 trillion cubic feet.

And where does it go (from the Energy Information Administration‘s Russian analysis here)?

Share of Russia's Natural Gas Exports jpeg

Shale gas to the rescue? The U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) released this graph in its “Annual Energy Outlook 2014“.

US Nat Gas Import Export 2014 jpeg

The chart shows LNG exports kicking in around 2016 and then rising to 2 trillion cubic feet in 2020 and then plateauing at approximately 3 trillion in 2025. At the same time, imports will be declining by around 1 to 2 trillion cubic feet or so.

This doesn’t entirely cover current Russian exports of 6.5 trillion cubic feet, but it is certainly a significant amount. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the fact that U.S. LNG exports will not commence for a couple of years or more, the U.S. change in trade is material.

However, this all assumes an “other things being equal” type of world. But things will certainly not be equal going forward due to one particular country: China. From the EIA’s “International Energy Outlook 2013“.

Non OECD Asia Nat Gas Trade jpeg

Accordingly, it is a very moot question as to whether any U.S. origin LNG exports end up in Europe as opposed to the more likely destination of Asia—where insatiable demand will likely translate into premium pricing.

What about oil? Back to the IEA’s tables:

Producers, Net Exporters of Crude Oil jpeg

Now this is where it gets interesting. If Vladimir Putin decided not to play nice, then he would likely use oil to turn the screws on the West. As usual, we have a table with different units, but one metric tonne is roughly equivalent to 7.3 barrels of oil. Accordingly, Russia’s 520 million tonnes of production is around 3.8 billion barrels per year. This, in turn, is about 10.3 million barrels per day (bpd)—47% of which goes abroad. In short, he has a 5 million bpd oil cosh to beat the West.

In a recent post, I referred to the IEA’s observation that oil inventories have fallen considerably, mostly due to political troubles in Libya and Iraq, so any explicit, or even implicit, oil threat would be enough to send prices shooting higher—and global financial markets lower. Put another way, current global consumption is a little over 80 million bpd, and excess production capacity is estimated at around 1 to 2 million bpd above that. So if Putin turned the oil tap off, the global oil market would fall into a significant shortfall.

Overall, I see neither U.S. shale gas nor U.S. tight oil having any diplomatic impact on Russia. The major check on any Putin aggression will likely come from Russia’s oligarchs, who all have a major stake in the global capitalist status quo. Will that be enough? I don’t know.

Data Watch: US Natural Gas Monthly Production December 2013

The US government agency the Energy Information Administration (EIA) issues data on U.S. natural gas production, including shale gas, on a monthly basis with a lag of roughly two months. The latest data release was made on February 28th, and covers the period up until end-December 2013.

Data is reported in billion cubic feet (bcf). Key points:

  • December 2013 natural gas dry production: 2,090 bcf, plus 2.1% year-on-year
  • Average monthly production for the 12 months to December 2013: 2,023 bcf, +0.9% over the same period the previous year

Since the end of 2011, production growth has stalled (click chart below for larger image), with the year-on-year 12-month average bumping along a plateau.

US Dry Gas Production Dec 13 jpeg

Natural gas well-head prices exhibit seasonality, with winters generally seeing stronger prices due to heating needs. The recent polar-vortex induced cold snap in the U.S. has pushed prices up to their highest since February 2010 (here, click for larger image).

Natural Gas Spot Prices Mar 3 jpeg

To put the current price of $5.0 per million British thermal uni (Btu) in perspective, a longer term monthly time series going up until end December 2012 is given below (click for larger image). Note that natural gas production is very inelastic over the short term. Accordingly, the market is brought back into equilibrium during periods of strong demand through large jumps in price. However, these don’t generally prompt an investment surge in natural gas infrastructure since they are viewed as temporary in nature. Only if prices remain elevated beyond winter would we likely see a supply-side response. However, prices are already coming off their highs as we move toward spring.

US Nat Gas Well Head LT jpeg