Why oil prices are so high: Production shortfall, Iran concerns, and low interest rates

Rising oil and gasoline prices are of concern to many people today. I see three basic issues involved:

  1. “Stalled out” growth in world oil supply
  2. Concerns about Iran
  3. Artificially low interest rates

Stalled Out Oil Supply Leads to Five Million Barrel a Day Shortfall in 2011

In my view, the biggest contributor to high oil prices is the first one–stalled out oil supply.  At this point, the interaction between oil demand and oil supply does not work in the way most people expect it would. Even if the price of oil rises, world oil production doesn’t increase by very much (Figure 1), if at all.

Figure 1. Brent oil spot price and world oil supply (broadly defined), based on EIA data.

In the words of economists, world oil supply is relatively inelastic. This is true, even though the oil supply shown in Figure 1 is what is sometimes called “All Liquids,” so includes substitutes for crude oil, such as biofuels, natural gas liquids, “refinery gain,”  and any fuels from coal-to-liquid and gas-to-liquid processes. These substitutes are not growing by enough to make up for the shortfall in crude oil growth.

If we compare recent oil production with that in the 1980s and 1990s, we see that about 2005, growth in world oil supply suddenly slowed down (Figure 2).

Figure 2. World oil production (broadly defined) based on EIA data, with exponential trend line fitted by author to 1983 to 2005 values.

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Businessweek Gets it Wrong—Everything You Know About Peak Oil is ‘Not’ Wrong

On January 26, Bloomberg Businessweek printed an editorial by Charles Kenny titled, “Everything You Know About Peak Oil Is Wrong”. This editorial reflects several common misunderstandings.

According to Kenny:

Titled Limits to Growth, their report suggested the world was heading toward economic collapse as it exhausted the natural resources, such as oil and copper, required for economic production. The report forecast that the world would run out of new gold in 2001 and petroleum by 2022, at the latest.

Limits to Growth gives a table that might be interpreted to show that oil and gold new extraction will be exhausted by the dates indicated. The book is careful to explain that the situation is more complicated, though. The way the book summarizes the issue is as a price problem:

Given present resource consumption rates and the projected increase in these rates, the great majority of non-renewable resources will be extremely costly 100 years from now.

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Saudi Arabia – Headed for a Downfall?

Saudi Arabia recently announced that it had halted a $100 billion oil production expansion plan to raise capacity to 15 million barrels a day by 2020. At this point, the country claims to have capacity of 12 million barrels a day. What does this mean for its future? Let’s take a look behind the figures.

Figure 1. Saudi Arabian oil production and exports, from Energy Export Data Browser. Note that oil production is in grey, oil exports are in green, and the black line represents consumption.

The figure shows that Saudi Arabia has not been increasing its production for many years. At the same time, the country’s own oil consumption has been rising rapidly. The combination means that oil exports have already started declining. Continue reading

Kidding ourselves about future MENA oil production

Recently, the International Energy Agency’s Chief Economist Fatih Birol was quoted as saying,

In the next 10 years, more than 90% of the growth in global oil production needs to come from MENA [Middle East and North African] countries. There are major risks if this investment doesn’t come in a timely manner.

While I agree that we need more oil production, I think we are kidding ourselves if we expect that 90% of the needed growth in global oil production will come from MENA countries. In this post, I will explain seven reasons why I think we are kidding ourselves.

Reason 1. MENA’s oil production, as a percentage of world oil production, has not increased since the 1970s, suggesting that MENA really cannot easily ramp up production.

Figure 1. Middle East and North Africa oil production as percentage of world oil production. Figure also shows oil price in 2010 dollars. Amounts are from BP Statistical Report. Oil includes NGL; oil price comparable to Brent.

MENA’s oil production amounted to more that 40% of the world’s oil production back in  the mid-1970s, but is now down to 36% of world oil supply. It is hard to see anything that looks like an upward trend in MENA’s share of world oil supply, even when high prices hit. OPEC talks big, but its actions do not correspond to what it says. Continue reading