Oil production can be confusing because there are various “pieces” that may or may not be included. In this analysis, I look at oil production of the United States broadly (including crude oil, natural gas plant liquids, and biofuels), because this is the way oil consumption is defined. I also provide some thoughts regarding the direction of future world oil prices.
Figure 1. US Liquid Fuels production by month based on EIA March 2016 Monthly Energy Review Reports.
US oil production clearly flattened out in 2015. If we look at changes relative to the same month, one-year prior, we see that as of December 2014, growth was very high, increasing by 18.0% relative to the prior year.
Figure 2. US Liquids Growth Over 12 Months Prior based on EIA’s March 2016 Monthly Energy Review.
By December 2015, growth over the prior year finally turned slightly negative, with production for the month down 0.2% relative to one year prior. It should be noted that in the above charts, amounts are on an “energy produced” or “British Thermal Units” (Btu) basis. Using this approach, ethanol and natural gas liquids get less credit than they would using a barrels-per-day approach. This reflects the fact that these products are less energy-dense.
If a person reads US newspapers, it is easy to get the impression that all of the world’s oil problems are over. But this is not really the case.
An Overlooked Part of the Problem: High Oil Prices
A major piece of the world’s oil problem is high price. Prices continue to be far above historic levels, now in 2013.
Figure 1. World oil price (Brent equivalent) in 2011$, based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.
High oil prices disrupt economies around the world because when oil prices rise, the wages of the vast majority of workers do not rise to compensate. Workers find that they need to adjust their spending patterns because the higher price of oil leads to higher prices for many things, including the cost of commuting, the cost of food, and the cost of buying goods that have been shipped long distance.
When workers adjust their spending patterns, discretionary spending is cut. This leads to patterns we associate with recession, or perhaps just slow growth. Unemployment rises, and there is less demand for new homes and cars.
Governments are also affected, because many of their costs, such as building roads, are higher. They also have to pay benefits to workers who can’t find jobs, or who can only find only low-paying jobs. Governments find it increasingly difficult to collect enough taxes because of the low wages of workers. Problems with rising deficits and the debt ceiling become the order of the day. Does any of this sound familiar?
A person might think from looking at news reports that our oil problems are gone, but oil prices are still high.
Figure 1. US crude oil prices (based on average prices paid by US refiners for all grades of oil based on EIA data) converted to 2012$ using CPI-Urban data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In fact, the new “tight oil” sources of oil which are supposed to grow in supply are still expensive to extract. If we expect to have more tight oil and more oil from other unconventional sources, we need to expect to continue to have high oil prices. The new oil may help supply somewhat, but the high cost of extraction is not likely to go away.
Why are high oil prices a problem?
1. It is not just oil prices that rise. The cost of food rises as well, partly because oil is used in many ways in growing and transporting food and partly because of the competition from biofuels for land, sending land prices up. The cost of shipping goods of all types rises, since oil is used in nearly all methods of transports. The cost of materials that are made from oil, such as asphalt and chemical products, also rises. Continue reading →
We have been hearing a lot about escaping the fiscal cliff, but our problem isn’t solved. The fixes to date have been partial and temporary. There are many painful decisions ahead. Based on what I can see, the most likely outcome is that the US economy will enter a severe recession by the end of 2013.
My expectation is that credit markets are likely see increased defaults, as workers find their wages squeezed by higher Social Security taxes, and as government programs are cut back. Credit is likely to decrease in availability and become higher-priced. It is quite possible that credit problems will adversely affect the international trade system. Stock markets will tend to perform poorly. The Federal Reserve will try to intervene in credit markets, but if the US government is one of the defaulters (at least temporarily), it may not be able to completely fix the situation.
Less credit will tend to hold down prices of goods and services. Fewer people will be working, though, so even at reduced prices, many people will find discretionary items such as larger homes, new cars, and restaurant meals to be unaffordable. Thus, once the recession is in force, car sales are likely to drop, and prices of resale homes will again decline.
Oil prices may temporarily drop. This price decrease, together with a drop in credit availability, is likely to lead to a reduction in drilling in high-priced locations, such as US oil shale (tight oil) plays.
Other energy sources are also likely to be affected. Demand for electricity is likely to drop. Renewable energy investment is likely to decline because of less electricity demand and less credit availability. By 2014 and 2015, less government funding may also play a role.
This recession is likely be very long term. In fact, based on my view of the reasons for the recession, it may never be possible to exit from it completely.
I base the foregoing views on several observations:
1. High oil prices are a major cause of the United States Federal Government’s current financial problems. The financial difficulties occur because high oil prices tend to lead to unemployment, and high unemployment tends to lead to higher government expenditures and lower government revenue. This is especially true for oil importers.
2. The United States and world’s oil problems have not been solved. While there are new sources of oil, they tend to be sources of expensive oil, so they don’t solve the problem of high-priced oil. Furthermore, if our real economic problem is high-priced oil, and we have no way of permanently reducing oil prices, high oil prices can be expected to cause a long-term drag on economic growth.
3. A cutback in discretionary spending is likely. US workers are already struggling with wages that are not rising as fast as GDP (Figure 2). Starting in January, 2013, US workers have the additional problem of rising Social Security taxes, and later this year, a likely cutback in government expenditures. The combination is likely to lead to a cutback in discretionary spending.
Figure 2. Wage Base (sum of “Wage and Salary Disbursements” plus “Employer Contributions for Social Insurance” plus “Proprietors’ Income” from Table 2.1. Personal Income and its Distribution) as Percentage of GDP, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data. *2012 amounts estimated based on part-year data.
4. The size of our current financial problems, both in terms of US government income/outgo imbalance and debt level, is extremely large. If high oil prices present a permanent drag on the economy, we cannot expect economic growth to resume in a way that would fix these problems.
5. The financial symptoms that the US and many other oil importers are experiencing bear striking similarities to the problems that many civilizations experienced prior to collapse, based on my reading of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov’s book Secular Cycles. According to this analysis of eight collapses over the last 2000 years, the collapses did not take place overnight. Instead, economies moved from an Expansion Phase, to a Stagflation Phase, to a Crisis Phase, to a Depression/Intercycle Phase. Timing varies, but typically totals around 300 years for the four phases combined.
It appears to me that the corresponding secular cycle for the US began in roughly 1800, with the ramp up of coal use. Later other modern fuels, including oil, were added. Since the 1970s, the US has mostly been experiencing the Stagflation Phase. The Crisis Phase appears to be not far away.
The Turkin analysis started with a model. This model was verified based on the experiences of eight agricultural civilizations (beginning dates between 350 BCE and 1620 CE). While the situation is different today, there may be lessons that can be learned.
Below the fold, I discuss these observations further.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) provides unrealistically high oil forecasts in its new 2012 World Energy Outlook (WEO). It claims, among other things, that the United States will become the world’s largest oil producer by around 2020, and North America will become a net oil exporter by 2030.
Figure 1. Author’s interpretation of IEA Forecast of Future US Oil Production under “New Policies” Scenario, based on information provided in IEA’s 2012 World Energy Outlook.
Figure 1 shows that this increase comes solely from the expected rise in tight oil production and natural gas liquids. The idea that we will become an exporter in later years occurs despite falling production, because “demand” will drop so much.
The oil price forecasts underlying these and other forecasts in the report are approximately as follows:
Figure 2. Author’s interpretation of future average world oil prices, as provided by IEA in their 2012 WEO report. (Forecast provided by IEA is more “concave downward”.) Historical amounts are based on BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy amounts.
One reason the WEO 2012 estimates are unreasonable is because the oil prices shown are unrealistically low relative to the production amounts forecast in the report. This seems to occur because the IEA misses the problem of diminishing returns. As the easy-to-produce oil becomes more depleted, and we need to move to more difficult reservoirs, the cost of extraction increases.
In fact, there is evidence that the “tight” oil referenced in Exhibit 1 is already starting to reach production limits, at current prices. The only way these production limits might be reasonably overcome is with higher oil prices–much higher than the IEA is assuming in any of its forecasts.
Higher oil prices cause a huge problem because of their impact on the world economy. The IEA in fact mentions that current high oil prices are already acting as a brake on the global economy in its first slide for the press. Higher oil prices also mean that investment costs required to reach target production levels will be even higher than forecast by the IEA, adding another impediment to reaching its forecast production levels.
If higher prices put the economies of oil importing nations into recession, then oil prices will drop lower, reducing the incentive to invest in new oil production infrastructure. In fact, we could find ourselves reaching “peak oil” because of an economic dilemma: while there seems to be plenty of oil available, the cost of extracting it may be reaching a point where it is more expensive than consumers can afford. As a result, some oil that we know about, and have been counting as reserves, will have to be left in the ground.