Nearly everyone believes that oil prices will trend higher and higher, allowing increasing amounts of oil to be extracted. This belief is based on the observation that the cost of extraction is trending higher and higher. If we are to continue to have oil, we will need to pay the ever-higher cost of extraction. Either that, or we will have to pay the high cost of some type of substitute, if one can be found. Perhaps such a substitute will be a bit less expensive than oil, but costs are still likely to be high, since substitutes to date are higher-priced than oil.
Even though this is conventional reasoning based on experience with many substances, it doesn’t work with oil. Part of the reasoning is right, though. It is indeed true that the cost of extracting oil is trending upward. We extracted the easy to extract oil, and thus “cheap” to extract oil, first and have been forced to move on to extracting oil that is much more expensive to extract. For example, extracting oil using fracking is expensive. So is extracting Brazil’s off-shore oil from under the salt layer.
There are also rising indirect costs of production. Middle Eastern oil exporting nations need high tax revenue in order to keep their populations pacified with programs that provide desalinated water, food, housing and other benefits. This can be done only through high taxes on oil exports. The need for these high taxes acts to increase the sales prices required by these countries–often over $100 barrel (Arab Petroleum Investment House 2013).
Even though the cost of extracting oil is increasing, the feedback loops that occur when oil prices actually do rise are such that oil prices tend to quickly fall back, if they actually do rise. We know this intuitively–in oil importing nations, deep recessions have been associated with big oil price spikes, such as occurred in the 1970s and in 2008. Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 US recessions since World War II were associated with oil price spikes (Hamilton 2011). Hamilton also showed that the effects of the oil price spike were sufficient to cause the recession of that began in late 2007 (Hamilton 2009).
In this post, I will explore the reasons for these adverse feedback loops. I have discussed many of these issues previously in an academic paper I wrote that was published in the journal Energy, called “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis” (available here or here).
If I am indeed right about the path of oil prices being down, rather than up, the long-term direction of the economy is quite different from what most are imagining. Oil companies will find new production increasingly unprofitable, and will distribute funds back to shareholders, rather than invest them in unprofitable operations. In fact, some oil companies are already reporting lower profits (Straus and Reed 2013). Some oil companies will go bankrupt. As an example, the number two oil company in Brazil, OGX, recently filed for bankruptcy, because it could not profitably find and extract Brazil’s off-shore oil (Lorenzi and Blout 2013).
Oil companies will increasingly find that the huge amount of debt that they must amass in the hope of producing profits sometime in the future is not really sustainable. The Houston Chronicle reports that an E&Y survey of Oil and Gas Companies indicates that the percentage of companies that expect to decrease debt to capital ratios jumped to 48% in October 2013 from 31% a year ago (Eaton 2013). If companies with huge debt loads cut back production to the amount that their cash flow will sustain, oil extraction can be expected to fall–just as it can be expected to fall if oil and gas companies go bankrupt or give back investment funds to shareholders.
The downward path in oil production is likely to be steep, if oil prices do indeed drop. The economy depends on oil for many major functions, including most transportation, agriculture, and construction. Increasingly expensive to extract oil is a sign of diminishing returns. As we utilize more resources for extracting oil (oil, steel, water, human labor, capital, etc.), there will be fewer resources to invest in the rest of the economy, reducing its ability to grow. This lack of economic growth feeds back as low demand, bringing down the prices of commodities, including oil. It is because of this feedback loop that I believe that the path of oil prices is generally lower. This path is the opposite of what a naive reading of “supply and demand” curves from economics textbooks would suggest, and the opposite of what we need if the economy is to continue on its current path. Continue reading