Monday, February 16, 2015

Tech Talk - enjoy it while you can

It is perhaps an odd time to be writing about oil shortages. The price of gas in our town has just moved above $2 a gallon up significantly from the $1.64 it was at its recent lowest point, but still very reasonable. Debate still rages as to whether the global price of a barrel of oil has found a bottom, although there are signs that the price is beginning to increase, in part due to other issues than overall availability of crude. So why be concerned?

There are several issues, and perhaps the first is that of industrial inertia. Despite the daily fluctuations in oil price, many of the events that occur between the time that oil is found in a layer of rock underground and the time that some of it is poured into your gas tank take a long time to initiate, and similarly can’t be turned off overnight. It takes, for example, roughly 47 days for a tanker to travel from Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia to Houston.

One response to the drop in oil prices has been to reduce the number of rigs drilling for oil in the United States. Again this is not an immediate response, but rather one that grows with time. This is particularly true with the number of oil rigs that are used to gain access to the oil reservoirs. As the price for this oil falls, so rigs are idled and the potential for additional oil production also declines. This drop is particularly significant in fields that are horizontally drilled and fracked because of the very rapid decline in production with time in existing wells and the need for continued drilling to develop and produce new wells to sustain and grow production. The most recent figures show a fall of 98 rigs in the week from the 6th to the 13th of February, with the overall count now standing at 1,358. This rate of decline has held at nearly 100 rigs a week now for the past three with no indication of any immediate change in the slope of the curve. At the same time the number of well completions in the Bakken is falling, as producers hold back on the costs for producing oil that would be sold at a loss.

The impact from this will take time to appear, North Dakota has reached a production rate of 1.2 mbd in December and the DMR estimates that it will need around 140 rigs to sustain that production level this year, with the most recent rig count being 137. This number is likely to continue to fall through the first six months of the year.

The impact is not just in the immediate loss of production. Rather, once the rigs are idled it will take time, even after the markets recover, for the companies to adjust their planning and finances, and to re-activate the rigs. What this effectively does is to shift the production increment into later years, when the production base from existing wells will have declined beyond current levels. This means that the peak level of production will likely also be lower than would otherwise be the case, and the period over which this peak production is sustained will also be shorter.

The problem that this all presages is that lower levels of production against an increasing world demand will induce a faster rise in price than many now anticipate. There is a complacent feeling that oil prices won’t reach $100 a barrel for some considerable time - perhaps even years. If the current difference between available oil supply and demand is below 2 mbd, Euan Mearns has suggested that roughly half of this might be eaten up by increased demand, while the other half would disappear as production levels drop, although he doesn’t see this bringing the two volumes into rough balance until the end of 2016.

I rather think that it will happen faster than that, and that the price trough will steepen faster than currently anticipated, and likely before the end of this year. The problem (if you want to call it that) with the perceptions of the ability of global production to meet demand is that it is all tied to the production of the United States and Canada. I have noted, over the past two years, how future projections of increasing global oil demand have been met, in models, by increased production from the United States, and that this was anticipated to continue. (Increased production from Iraq, if sustained, is more likely to be needed just to balance declines in production from other countries).

Yet the US industry is going into a relatively rapid decline because of the way that it is structured that is going to be hard to stop, and much slower to reverse than anticipated. (In a way it is similar to the intermittent traffic congestion one finds on roads which result because we brake a lot faster than we then accelerate). This will not only stop the growth in production that is currently anticipated, but will go further and before the end of the year will lead to a drop in overall volumes produced. Yet demand is expected to increase. Where will the supply come from, if not the United States?

While Saudi Arabia can produce more, one gets the sense that they are quite comfortable where they are, thank you and won’t be increasing their contribution, and while Russia may bemoan the price they are getting for their oil, if the price goes up they are not going to be able to meet an increased demand, nor are there likely to be others with spare capacity that they can bring to the table. And because of the inertia in the system the United States will still be in a mode of declining production.

So I rather suspect that what we can anticipate is that prices will start to recover through the summer, and then, as the full impact of the rebalanced situation starts to become evident, will move higher at an increasing rate. Because if, in fact, we are reaching the period of a tighter balance between demand and available supply, then the market will change its perceptions quite quickly and be driven by a totally different metric.


  1. I'm not sure I agree with your timeframe. The large amount of oil going into storage should allow time for more US rigs to be brought into production if supply starts to lag demand. I do agree that peak US production will probably be lower than previously anticipated.

  2. Matthew:
    I suspect there will be a considerable debate about the timeframe over which this will play out. The industry has, however, a lot of inertia that will slow reaction, the market has less, driving prices upward (and downward) faster.

  3. Hi Heading Out,

    It's almost 6 months since this post - any chance of an update on your thoughts? Price seems to have started to drop again, perhaps due to growth stalling?