Are We Sleepwalking Into The Next Oil Crisis?

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By Robert Rapier

One school of thought is that future oil demand is set to decline because consumers will have better options. Many in this “peak demand” camp believe that the growth of electric vehicles will soon make oil obsolete.

That’s a relatively painless view of the future and is consistent with much of our past experience. Old technologies are frequently replaced by newer, better, and cheaper technologies.

I have written previously on why I don’t believe this version of future oil demand will unfold anytime soon. In a nutshell, if you “do the math,” it becomes clear that it will be years before EVs can take a meaningful bite out of oil demand.

Meanwhile, some organizations are sounding the alarm that rather than a peak demand scenario, we may soon face a peak supply scenario. Or at the least, the loss of global excess spare capacity. The last time this happened, oil prices rose above $100 a barrel.

Words of Warning

In January 2017, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister Khalid A. Al-Falih warned CNBC that he foresaw a risk of oil shortages by 2020:

“I believe if the investment flows that we have seen the last two or three years continue in the next two or three years, we will have a shortage of oil supply by 2020. We know, from what we have seen in the last couple of years, that prices around the current level and below are not attracting enough investment. We know the level of natural decline that existing production is undergoing, and we know that demand is picking up at 1.2 to 1.5 million barrels a year. So between increase in demand and natural decline, we need millions of barrels every year to be brought to the market, which requires massive investment.”

In March 2017, the International Energy Agency published its market analysis and forecast report, Oil 2017. In the report, the IEA warned that the global investment slump of 2015 and 2016 already poses a risk to future oil supplies and that 2017 global spending didn’t look encouraging. Oil supplies are growing in the U.S., Canada, and a few other places around the world, but the IEA report concluded that this growth could stall by 2020 if spending doesn’t pick up.

The report projects that if current trends continue, spare production capacity in 2022 will fall to the lowest level since 2008 (when oil prices nearly reached $150/BBL). On the topic of EVs, the IEA estimated they will only displace small amounts of transportation fuel by 2022. Further, the IEA said that it doesn’t foresee peak oil demand anytime soon.

Halliburton, the world’s largest hydraulic fracturing service provider, reiterated the IEA’s forecast last summer at the World Petroleum Congress in Istanbul. Mark Richard, a Senior Vice President with the company, said that the $2 trillion in spending cuts in the global oil industry over the past few years would impact the price of oil around 2020. Richard added, “Sooner or later, the market is going to catch up. You’ll see some kind of spike in the price of oil. Maybe somewhere around 2020-2021, but it’s got to catch up sooner or later.”

The British multinational bank HSBC gave similar warnings in its Peak Oil Report 2017. The report noted that the oil market is currently adequately supplied, but spare production capacity could soon shrink to just 1 percent of global supply, bringing the risk of disruption and the subsequent volatility back to the oil markets. HSBC noted that oil demand continues to grow at more than one million BPD every year, and they didn’t see a peak demand scenario before 2040.

The HSBC report further noted that global oil discoveries have been declining and that 81 percent of the world liquid production is already in decline.

Shale Oil and OPEC May Not Be Enough

Former Energy Information Administration (EIA) head Adam Sieminski warned of a decade of disorder:

“Maybe we are going to be less volatile now because shale can feed into rising demand. I’m thinking that the decade of the ‘20s is going to be one of difficulties. That’s why I call it the decade of disorder. We’re not getting enough capital investment now, I don’t know that shale is going to be able to do it all.”

There are some who suppose that OPEC has enough spare capacity to flood the market and keep oil prices in check. But Ed Morse, Citibank’s Global Head of Commodities Research, warned that OPEC may be pumping at maximum capacity and that there is a risk of a market squeeze due to under-investment by OPEC countries:

“Fear in the market has been that OPEC production will rise dramatically, however, there could be a supply gap emerging, which could point to a tighter market. We’re seeing more and more evidence that it’s not the international oil companies, it’s not the independent oil companies that are lagging new investments, but it’s OPEC countries lagging, particularly those five [Libya, Nigeria, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq].”

Plummeting Discoveries

But the risk isn’t just from lack of investment. On the topic of new global oil discoveries, in December, Norwegian research firm Rystad Energy reported that oil companies discovered less than seven billion barrels of oil and gas in 2017 — the lowest number on record. Rystad indicated that this would only replace 11 percent of 2017 oil and gas production, and that the last time the world discovered enough oil and gas to completely replace that year’s production was 2006. Since the beginning of the shale revolution a decade ago, the world has discovered 110 billion barrels of oil. Meanwhile, consumption has totaled 360 billion barrels. This 250-billion-barrel deficit between discoveries and consumption seems sure to grow in the years ahead, given recent oil discovery trends.

It is understandable why people would be complacent about this scenario. After all, didn’t the world face similar risks a decade ago, only to have shale oil save the day? But it isn’t clear that there is another “shale oil miracle” that is ready to save the day. There are indeed more high-cost oil resources out there that can be developed, but these projects take a long time to complete. That’s why we can look out two to three years and see an impending supply crunch. The longer investments in the industry remain depressed, the more unavoidable this scenario becomes.

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