1. Production and prices

It was a very volatile week with oil prices starting off at $68 a barrel, falling to $63 at mid-week, and then bouncing back to close out the month at $69.50. Once again, the fundamentals of the oil market had little to do with price movements which remain tied to fluctuations of the US dollar and perceptions as to when the recession will end.

On Friday oil prices climbed by 3.7 percent after the Commerce Department issued a preliminary estimate showing the US economy shrinking by only 1 percent in the 2nd quarter. Some are skeptical that this number will hold up through subsequent revisions and President Obama noted on Saturday that it will take many more months for the US to get out of the recession. The President hinted that this week’s jobs report will show increasing unemployment.

Last week’s US stocks report shows demand for oil products is still weak and that US crude inventories increased by 5.1 million barrels the prior week.

Slack demand and low prices are playing havoc with international oil company and refiner profits. Many are reporting 50 percent or more declines from the record profits they booked in 2008. It looks likely that several of the major oil companies will not meet their 2009 production targets due to low demand and various interruptions.

Tokyo announced that its crude imports fell by 8.3 percent in June, while China’s apparent demand in the second quarter is reported to be 4.2 percent lower in the 2nd quarter than in the first despite an 8 percent increase in GDP. Beijing says GDP growth will increase to 9 percent in the 3rd quarter and that oil usage will pick up.

The Saudis say they now have the capacity to produce 12 million b/d and Iraq is attempting to establish a national oil company independent of the Oil Ministry to manage the expected increase in Baghdad’s production. The disturbances in the wake of Iran’s presidential election continue, but so far there is no discernable impact on oil production.

2. Priorities

The chief scientist at the Department of Energy, Stephen Koonin, warned the Western Energy Summit that moving away from fossil fuels will require a calibrated judgment about what projects should be pursued and in what order.

Koonin maintains that there are simply not enough time and resources to let “1000 flowers bloom indiscriminately” and that carbon capture, nuclear, and biofuels should be the first priority. He would prefer that widespread adoption of electric cars be put off to concentrate on increasing the efficiency of internal combustion engines.

He believes that the production of electricity using wind and solar will increase of its own accord but is unlikely to exceed 20 percent of US production. Nuclear and carbon sequestered coal will be needed to make up the difference.

Koonin believes that resource constraints soon will force the Department of Energy to narrow its focus onto the most promising technologies.

3. Mexico

Pemex’s June production was down 11 percent from June 2008 and 20.4 percent from July 2007. Production from what is now the country’s #2 oil field, Cantarell, is now down to 600,000 b/d as compared with a high of over 2 million b/d; output is falling twice as fast as government predictions.

The decline of Cantarell is starting to take a heavier toll on Pemex and Mexican Government finances. Pemex will seek $10 billion in bank loans to finance its 2009 capital budget of $19.5 billion. In addition the company has asked the Finance Ministry for $2.3 billion to cover losses in the first quarter and will borrow $900 million from the US Export-Import Bank.

With a June output of 2.51 million b/d Mexico is unlikely to meet its announced goal of averaging 2.65 million b/d in 2009 (down from an earlier announced goal of 2.8 million). A government plan to increase output to 3-3.1 million b/d by 2012 is looking increasingly doubtful. To attain this goal the company is planning to spend about $80 billion over the next four years. Given the likelihood that Cantarell will decline by several hundred thousand more b/d over the next 3-4 years, it is unlikely that Mexico will have much oil to export by 2012.

The only bright spots on Pemex’s horizon are the low interest rates it currently is paying to finance its debt and increasing oil prices over the last six months.

Briefs (clips from recent Peak Oil News dailies are indicated by date and item #)

  • World oil consumption will rise for the first time in two years in 2010 as a recovery in the global economy boosts demand, according to a Reuters poll of top oil-tracking analysts and organizations. (7/28, #6)
  • Saudi Aramco CEO Khalid al-Falih, in an interview with the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayah, said production capacity of the state-owned firm reached 12 million b/d in June. He cited the start-ups of the Nu’aym oil field (capacity: 100,000 b/d), Khurais (capacity: 1.2 million b/d), the expansion of Shaybah oil field’s capacity by 250,000 b/d, and Khursaniyah at 500,000 b/d. (8/1, #3)
  • In Iraq last month the oil majors bid to boost output from oilfields auctioned by a whopping six million b/d, four times more than the rise Iraq targeted. (8/1, #4)
  • Royal Dutch Shell said its total production fell 5.3% compared with the year-earlier period while ExxonMobil’s production fell 3.1% to its lowest level since 1999 when Exxon bought Mobil. (7/31, #4) Total SA, Europe’s third-largest oil producer, reported output fell 7.3 percent to the lowest in at least nine years as the global recession eroded energy demand, offsetting gains from new projects in Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico. CEO Christophe de Margerie had predicted in February that output would rise in 2009, after a 2 percent drop in 2008. (8/1, #13)
  • International oil companies expressed unanimous disapproval of proposed legislation to revamp the oil and gas industry in Nigeria. At a Nigerian senate hearing on the bill, executives of U.S. producers Chevron and ExxonMobil, Italy’s Eni SpA, as well as Anglo-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell said the bill would cost the firms billions of dollars and drastically diminish foreign investment in Nigeria’s oil industry. (7/29, #5) [Note: no surprise.]
  • Last week Venezuela made or reaffirmed direct oil deals with friendly countries – Russia on Monday, Japan Tuesday and Spain Wednesday. (7/31, #8)
  • Repsol, the Spanish oil company, looking to sell part of its business in Argentina, is switching focus to Brazil to reverse four years of declining production. Output fell 4.9 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, partly because of natural field depletions in Argentina. (7/29, #6)
  • Russia and Cuba have signed contracts that ”set the bases” for Russian oil company Zarubezhneft to search for oil in Cuba’s part of the Gulf of Mexico. Cuba has said it may have 20 billion barrels of oil reserves in its offshore fields, but only one test well has been drilled. The USGS has estimated that Cuba has about 5 billion barrels of oil. (7/30, #10)
  • Cuba has ordered austere energy savings this summer. The latest cuts are small compared to strict measures imposed during the so-called “special period,” when Cubans nearly starved after subsidies dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba consumed about 150,000 barrels of crude oil a day in 2008, of which 52,000 were produced domestically and 93,000 imported from Venezuela (8/1, #6)
  • The Mexico Competitiveness Institute has called for dramatic policy steps to confront Mexico’s decline in the world economy. The institute, which studies the relative competitiveness of 48 countries, reported that Mexico was the only country that scored zero on IMCO’s index scale of zero to three. The institute also took note of the fall in Mexican oil production, which since 2004 represented a 700,000 b/d drop that has been a severe blow to public finances. (7/31, #9)
  • A new report from Greenpeace asserts that the world might fast be approaching a tipping point—a peaking in world oil demand (not supply) by the middle of the next decade—that could have profound implications on world oil prices and supplies going forward. (7/29, #16) [Editors’ note: will supply destruction and demand destruction both race each other downwards over the next few years? It’s one scenario…]
  • Canadian drillers moving from Calgary to Mexico say rigs in Mexico earn more because the lack of winter weather means they can work 365 days a year instead of as little as 200 days. And an 18-month contract provides stable income and a good return compared with Canadian spot contracts that might last just a few weeks at a lower rate. (7/31, #11)
  • The US refinery downturn is expected to result in run cuts, shuttering of units and entire plant closures. With pending environmental legislation likely to undermine the sector, about 10 percent of the country’s capacity to process crude into fuel could be lost over the next decade. (8/1, #2)
  • The number of US oil and gas rigs climbed to 948, up five rigs from the previous week, according to data from oil-field services company Baker Hughes Inc. The brisk decline in U.S. drilling activity, down from 2032 last September, shows signs of stabilizing. (8/1, #10)
  • Federal regulators at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission moved closer on Tuesday to issuing new rules to limit oil speculation, addressing concerns that Wall Street firms may have manipulated the price of oil through financial trading. (7/29, #9)
  • One of the U.S.’s most important economic assets — the booming Louisiana oil hub called Port Fourchon — is turning into a sitting duck for hurricanes as the beach that protects it from the Gulf of Mexico washes away. (7/31, #13)
  • Shipyards including Samsung Heavy Industries and Hyundai Heavy Industries may see orders drying up for liquefied natural gas tankers because of a surplus of ships and low demand. (7/30, #4)
  • Royal Dutch Shell curbed liquefied natural gas production in Malaysia and Oman mostly because of lower demand for the fuel, CEO Peter Voser said. (8/1, #5)
  • Sempra LNG said on July 31 that its second North American LNG terminal, this one near Lake Charles, La., has begun commercial operations. (8/1, #11)
  • Chesapeake Energy said its daily output in the second quarter rose 5 percent from a year ago and that it may curtail more production in coming months if natural gas prices stay weak. (8/1, #12)
  • New calculations show the Appalachian Basin’s Marcellus Shale formation could yield enough natural gas to supply all U.S. needs for nearly two decades — dramatically more than previous estimates. Penn State University geosciences professor Terry Engelder projects nearly 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be produced from the entire formation, which is found in portions of five Mid-Atlantic states. (7/29, #14)
  • UK utilities may need to mothball power plants and cut investment plans as the country faces the biggest electricity glut in almost 20 years. (7/29, #15)
  • Israel hardened its insistence that it would do anything it felt necessary to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, just the ultimatum the United States hoped not to hear as it tried to nudge Iran to the bargaining table. (7/28, #7)
  • Natural gas hydrates are a potentially significant energy source, but more work needs to be done to determine if they can be economically produced, three experts told a US House subcommittee on July 30. (8/1, #15) [Editors’ note: this is a massive understatement.]
  • Some top US nuclear fusion experts say General Fusion’s approach, which is a variation on what the industry calls magnetized target fusion, is scientifically sound and could actually work. Those experts say the proposal, a prototype for $1 billion, is a long shot but well worth a try. (8/1, #16)
  • EEStor Inc has been working for years to develop a breakthrough battery technology which would be extremely useful in electric cars. The material they use is called Barium Titanate that has already been demonstrated to have extremely high permittivity, which means it can hold tremendous amounts of energy. Batteries made from this material would be several times lighter and less expensive than lithium-ion batteries, would not degrade over charge-discharge cycles, and could be recharged in minutes. (7/30, #16)
  • Biofuels: a startup based in Cambridge, MA, Joule Biotechnologies, revealed details of a process that it says can make 20,000 gallons of biofuels per acre per year at competitive prices. If this yield proves realistic, it could make it practical to replace all fossil fuels used for transportation with biofuels. Joule plans to build a pilot-scale plant in the southwestern US early next year, and it expects to produce ethanol on a commercial scale by the end of 2010. Large-scale demonstration of hydrocarbon-fuels production would follow in 2011. (7/28, #17) [Editors’ note: just the latest in a long line of show-me silver bullets.]
  • As Congress debates climate and energy legislation, Asian challengers are moving rapidly to win the clean-energy race. China alone is reportedly investing $440 billion to $660 billion in its clean-energy industries over 10 years. South Korea is investing a full 2 percent of its gross domestic product in a Green New Deal. And Japan is redoubling incentives for solar, aiming for a 20-fold expansion in installed solar energy by 2020. (7/28, #19)
  • The biggest opportunity to improve the US’s energy situation is a major investment program to make homes and businesses more efficient, according to a study released Wednesday by the consulting firm McKinsey. An investment of $520 billion in improvements like sealing ducts and replacing inefficient appliances could produce $1.2 trillion in savings on energy bills through 2020. (7/30, #13) [Editor’s note: this wouldn’t impact oil imports.]
  • Energy Secretary Chu wants to kill research and development on cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells, but a spending bill approved by the House this month and another scheduled for a Senate vote this week would restore funding for the program. Chu says hydrogen fuel cells are an impractical technology for vehicles. (7/28, #21)

Quote of the Week

  • “The deployment of inefficient feel-good technologies is doubly bad,” because they give the illusion of progress and divert resources from promising projects.
    — Steve Koonin, Chief Scientist, US Dept. of Energy