Oil’s Big Dive
May 2, 2016
I posted last week the news that Saudi Arabia seems to have recognized that the age of Oil is drawing to an end.
Below, Amory Lovins Whale oil analogy might have seemed quixotic a few years ago. Now?
Sunday, April 17th was the designated moment. The world’s leading oil producers were expected to bring fresh discipline to the chaotic petroleum market and spark a return to high prices. Meeting in Doha, the glittering capital of petroleum-rich Qatar, the oil ministers of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), along with such key non-OPEC producers as Russia and Mexico, were scheduled to ratify a draft agreement obliging them to freeze their oil output at current levels. In anticipation of such a deal, oil prices had begun to creep inexorably upward, from $30 per barrel in mid-January to $43 on the eve of the gathering. But far from restoring the old oil order, the meeting ended in discord, driving prices down again and revealing deep cracks in the ranks of global energy producers.
It is hard to overstate the significance of the Doha debacle. At the very least, it will perpetuate the low oil prices that have plagued the industry for the past two years, forcing smaller firms into bankruptcy and erasing hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in new production capacity. It may also have obliterated any future prospects for cooperation between OPEC and non-OPEC producers in regulating the market. Most of all, however, it demonstrated that the petroleum-fueled world we’ve known these last decades — with oil demand always thrusting ahead of supply, ensuring steady profits for all major producers — is no more. Replacing it is an anemic, possibly even declining, demand for oil that is likely to force suppliers to fight one another for ever-diminishing market shares.
No doubt geopolitics played a significant role in the Saudi decision, but that’s hardly the whole story. Overshadowing discussions about a possible production freeze was a new fact of life for the oil industry: the past would be no predictor of the future when it came to global oil demand. Whatever the Saudis think of the Iranians or vice versa, their industry is being fundamentally transformed, altering relationships among the major producers and eroding their inclination to cooperate.
Until very recently, it was assumed that the demand for oil would continue to expand indefinitely, creating space for multiple producers to enter the market, and for ones already in it to increase their output. Even when supply outran demand and drove prices down, as has periodically occurred, producers could always take solace in the knowledge that, as in the past, demand would eventually rebound, jacking prices up again. Under such circumstances and at such a moment, it was just good sense for individual producers to cooperate in lowering output, knowing that everyone would benefit sooner or later from the inevitable price increase.
But what happens if confidence in the eventual resurgence of demand begins to wither? Then the incentives to cooperate begin to evaporate, too, and it’s every producer for itself in a mad scramble to protect market share. This new reality — a world in which “peak oil demand,” rather than “peak oil,” will shape the consciousness of major players — is what the Doha catastrophe foreshadowed.
At the beginning of this century, many energy analysts were convinced that we were at the edge of the arrival of “peak oil”; a peak, that is, in the output of petroleum in which planetary reserves would be exhausted long before the demand for oil disappeared, triggering a global economic crisis. As a result of advances in drilling technology, however, the supply of oil has continued to grow, while demand has unexpectedly begun to stall. This can be traced both to slowing economic growth globally and to an accelerating “green revolution” in which the planet will be transitioning to non-carbon fuel sources. With most nations now committed to measures aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases under the just-signed Paris climate accord, the demand for oil is likely to experience significant declines in the years ahead. In other words, global oil demand will peak long before supplies begin to run low, creating a monumental challenge for the oil-producing countries.
Those who claimed low oil prices would crash renewables (other than biofuels) were wrong. The reason is simple. Wind and solar power make electricity. Oil makes less than four percent of world and under one percent of U.S. electricity, so oil has almost nothing to do with electricity. Thus in 2015, as oil prices kept skidding, global additions of renewable power set a new record, adding about 121 GW of wind and solar power alone. Renewables’ $329 billion investment was up 4% from 2014, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance (which tracks each transaction), but it added 30 percent more capacity because renewables got much cheaper. Solar power is booming even in the Persian Gulf, where it beats $20 oil.
Natural gas does compete with solar and windpower, and its price tends to move with oil’s, but cheaper gas doesn’t much affect renewable power either. That’s because new wind and solar power often beat even the operating costs of the most efficient gas-fired power plants anyway, even without counting the market value of gas’s price volatility.
Yet as oil prices gyrate, it’s important to understand that underlying trends are shifting too, to oil’s disadvantage. It’s happened before. In the 1850s, whalers—America’s fifth-largest industry—were astounded to run out of customers before they ran out of whales. Over five-sixths of their dominant market (lighting) vanished to competitors—oil and gas both synthesized from coal—in the nine years before Drake struck “rock oil” (petroleum) in Pennsylvania in 1859. Two decades later, Edison’s electric lamp beat whale oil, coal oil, town gas, and John D. Rockefeller’s lighting kerosene. Today in turn, most traditional lighting is being displaced by white LEDs, which each decade get 30x more efficient, 20x brighter, and 10x cheaper. By 2020 they should own about two-thirds of the world’s general lighting market.
LEDs inside-out are PVs—photovoltaics, turning light into electricity. PVs often, and very soon generally, beat just the fossil-fuel cost of running traditional power plants. PVs are now less capital-intensive than Arctic oil, not counting the ability to use electrons more effectively than molecules. Costly frontier hydrocarbons like Arctic oil can’t sell for a high enough price to repay their costs. Their revenue model has been upside-down for years. Had Shell persevered instead of abandoning its $7-billion Arctic investment, and had it found oil, it wouldn’t have won durable profits.
A devastating drought has brought Venezuela, already facing economic and energy crises amid simmering political unrest, to the brink and threatens the future of the oil-rich nation.
“Simply put, a natural disaster is making a man-made disaster much worse,” said Donald Kingsbury, a professor of political science and Latin American studies at the University of Toronto.
The “man-made disaster,” in this case, is a heavily petroleum-dependent, state-run economy gutted by the precipitous drop in crude oil prices.
Inflation will reach 720 per cent some time this year, the International Monetary Fund estimates, and the economy will contract another 10 per cent. Food staples and essential medicines are increasingly scarce. The costs of basic goods and services has skyrocketed. Incomes, for those lucky enough to still have one, are stagnant.
Further, crime rates have reached troubling levels. Venezuela now boasts the world’s second-highest per capita homicide rate after Honduras.
“People are fed up, from all over the political and social spectrum. At this point, it may not take much for things to erupt,” said Kingsbury.
The worst drought to hit Venezuela in almost half a century could be the catalyst, he said.
-Water levels in the Guri reservoir, which feeds Venezuela’s biggest and most critical hydroelectric dam, are dangerously low. Up to 70 per cent of the electricity consumed by the country’s 30 million citizens comes from the dam.
Without enough water, the dam is simply unable to satisfy demand. If the water level continues to drop, it is not out of the realm of possibility that vast swathes of the sixth-largest nation in South America could be without power.
So President Nicolás Maduro’s deeply unpopular administration recently started rationing electricity. With a few exceptions, notably Caracas, most areas of the country see daily four-hour blackouts at different times.
This item from 2008’s Presidential campaign resonates.