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1. Oil and the Global Economy

Oil prices have had a spectacular two weeks. After trading for a week around $81 a barrel, prices climbed steadily to close just below $90 on Friday, the highest since the great oil price spike of 2008. In London, Brent crude continued to do even better, trading at $91.42. The impetus behind oil price moves is becoming a jumble of fundamentals, currency movements, weather, and muddled perceptions of what is happening in the global economy. Much of the recent move is based on continuing strong demand for oil from China and India, and scattered economic reports spun to suggest that the US economy is “recovering.” The value of the dollar which now has much to do with oil prices has been bouncing around in response to the latest twist and turns in the EU’s debt crisis, which sent oil higher then lower in the absence of any overriding economic news. Last week, the euro rose as concerns about the various debt crises abated with the Irish bailout. Concerns that further bailouts will still be necessary abound.

Global oil stocks, which had risen to abnormally high levels during the recession, have been dropping this fall as excess inventories have been worked off, particularly those in temporary floating storage. Last week Brent crude in London switched into “backwardation” in which near term futures contacts are trading at higher levels than more distant contracts. This suggests that global supplies are tightening.

On Friday the US government announced that US employers added fewer jobs than forecast in November. As the Wall Street Journal characterized the event, “A surprisingly weak jobs report cast a shadow over the economy, undermining several weeks of positive data and diluting hopes of an accelerating recovery.” This caused the dollar to fall and oil to rise. US fuel consumption decreased 1.8 percent the week before last, the third straight weekly decline. Unusually cold weather across Europe and northern China helped prices.

Wall Street remains schizophrenic about forecasts of much higher oil prices, realizing that very high oil will do serious damage to the US and global economies and almost certainly send security prices lower no matter how much intervening central banks do. Last week JPMorgan joined the chorus of Wall Street investment banks by saying that oil will reach $120 a barrel in 2012. This is not too far from Goldman Sachs who forecasts that oil will average $110 that year.

US gasoline prices are now averaging $2.94, up 8 cents a gallon in the past week.

2. OPEC’s spare capacity

Current conventional wisdom holds that circa 2013-14 depletion from existing oil fields will overtake the oil industry’s capacity to produce oil from new fields and that global production will start down. For this year and the next two or three years analysts see global oil production as flat: with new production and depletion in balance. The IEA, however, is forecasting a 2.3 million b/d increase in global demand during 2010 and another in 1.3 million in 2011. With little growth in world production in store, the question of spare capacity becomes important in determining just how close we are to another economy-killing oil price spike.

The IEA currently says that there is 5.5-6 million b/d of spare capacity in OPEC that can be brought into production within 30 days. Two-thirds of this spare is in Saudi Arabia, which says it can produce 12 million b/d vs. its current production of 8.2, and 77 percent is in Saudi, Kuwait and the UAE. If the growth forecasts prove to be accurate and there really are 6 million b/d of spare capacity tucked away in the Middle East, then the world might be able to get through the next few years with moderate oil prices, say $100-120 a barrel.

In recent months, however, some analysts have started to question OPEC’s claims, which the IEA in many cases takes at face value. They point out that domestic consumption in Saudi, Kuwait, and the UAE has been rising rapidly and that there is a difference between spare capacity and “marketable” spare capacity, the former including oil of such poor quality that it is difficult to sell. At least one analyst believes that the spare capacity available to meet export demand is really so low that it could approach zero by the end of next year assuming that projected demand materializes.

It is interesting to note that as oil prices have gone up, so has OPEC’s (Saudi Arabia’s) comfort zone: the price level above which would allegedly trigger higher production to keep prices from becoming excessive. From $70-80 a barrel earlier this year the official comfort zone now goes up to $90 a barrel, which we seem to have surpassed last week, with many OPEC officials now saying that no production increases will occur until oil passes $100. This school of analysis suggests, but does not confirm, that we could be witnessing the beginnings of a new price spike similar to that of 2008 which took prices well into triple digits.

3. Asia

Last week China’s Purchasing Manager’s Index showed that economic activity in China grew in November for the seventh straight month. While this increase in the face of measures to dampen economic growth may be good for oil imports, other analyses suggest that Beijing’s efforts to slow growth may be taking hold. On Friday China’s governing Politburo announced a new monetary policy of “prudent spending” during the coming year, but will continue the policy of “proactive fiscal policy.” In recent weeks statements such as these have been enough to spook the oil markets into sudden drops. But we may be in a different era, for the government appears confident it can continue economic growth at high levels while controlling inflation.

In recent days, analysts have noted that recent jumps in consumer prices may have more to do with food prices, which have been boosted by droughts and floods in the past year and steadily increasing energy costs, than lending policies.

India announced last week that its economy had grown 8.9 percent in the 3rd quarter, once again underlying the growing gap between economic performance in China and India and the growth in the rest of Asia which is essentially flat. The Indians, however, reported a deepening coal shortage as the country is having difficulty developing domestic resources and must increase imports to keep growing at current rates. The Indians may also be facing inflationary pressures that could force tighter lending policies.

4. Offshore Drilling

The announcement by the Obama administration that it had rescinded its decision to expand offshore oil exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast led to the predictable complaints from the oil industry and its allies in Congress. Environmental organizations hailed the move. The Interior Department said it would not auction any new leases in the area until 2017 by which time a new and more stringent regulatory regime would be firmly in place.

Even though most of the Gulf is now open to drilling again, the oil companies are complaining that long delays in issuing drilling permits are making life difficult. New lease sales in the central and western Gulf that were scheduled for next March have been pushed off until the end of 2011 or even 2012.

While there is little evidence that large commercial quantities of oil will be found along the east coast, the oil companies are more concerned about seven- or eight-year delays in the eastern Gulf where extensions of existing oil fields offer more potential.

The impact of the Macondo disaster with the consequent moratorium, stricter regulation, and delays will not be felt for several years with most of the effect coming in the latter part of this decade. By that time global oil production is likely to be contracting with restrictions on offshore drilling adding to the pace of the decline.

Quote of the week

“Oil seems to have everything going for it.”

— Energy Advisor Cameron-Hanover

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

  • At UN climate talks in Mexico, many policymakers and business leaders are focused not on carbon dioxide but curbs to other greenhouse gases. (11/30, #8, 20; 12/3, #3)
  • Seadrill has invested $2 billion in the past two months on oil rigs. It and others have ordered 20 rigs since BP’s Macondo well was plugged in July, raising global orders by 22 percent. Deepwater rig rates have stabilized after a 30 percent plunge. Oil and gas rigs operating in the US have jumped to a 23-month high, gaining 26 to 1,713. (11/30, #6; 12/4, # 13)
  • OPEC is unlikely to change quotas at its upcoming meeting, and $100 is a “fair” price for a barrel of oil, Venezuela says. Libya agrees on the probable status quota. (12/2, #3)
  • US natural gas proved reserves increased by 11 percent in 2009 to 284 trillion cu. ft., the highest level since 1971, according to the EIA. (12/2, #18)
  • A University of Texas researcher has introduced the Energy Intensity Ratio as a new way to measure energy quality: the profit of energy consumers relative to producers. (12/4, #11)
  • Federal offshore inspectors still aren’t looking for safety problems of the sort linked to the Deepwater Horizon explosion, according to the Wall Street Journal. (12/3, #18)
  • Iraq expects to increase crude oil production to 8 million b/d from the current 2.35 million in 6-7 years. Iraq so far in 2010 has exported 1.875 million b/d. Revenues were $230 billion from January 2006-Nov. 1, 2010. (11/29, #6)
  • Shell plans to raise oil production at Iraq’s Majnoon field to 175,000 b/d by the end of 2012. This year Shell has raised production to 65,000 b/d from 40,000. Shell has also announced a deal with Halliburton and Iraqi Drilling to drill 15 wells starting next year. (12/1, #6)
  • Production from Iraq’s West Qurna Stage 1 oil field should reach 750,000 b/d in three years from the current 234,000 b/d. (11/29, #7)
  • Kurdistan wants new hydrocarbon and revenue-sharing laws by June 2011 as a condition of its participation in a new Iraqi administration. (12/1, #7)
  • Iraq Prime Minister al-Maliki will shift oil and acting electricity Minister al-Shahristani to a new post, deputy prime minister for oil and electricity issues. The change ensures that the PM will keep a hand on Iraq’s energy sector even if forced to award leadership of the Oil or Electricity ministry to other parties. (12/2, #7)
  • Saudi Aramco says Saudi Arabia’s gas demand is growing 5-6 percent annually but the country is trying to curb domestic consumption. Aramco is raising gas production from non-associated gas fields and expects to complete in 2013 its first such offshore project. It is also working on two new gas projects which it says will be online by mid-2014. (12/1, #8)
  • Two car bomb blasts killed one Iranian nuclear scientist and wounded another in Tehran. Iran’s atomic chief said one of the country’s biggest nuclear projects was on the killed scientist’s agenda. (11/29, #11)
  • Violence in Nigeria’s delta region is threatening oil output and may thwart the president’s ambition to win next year’s election. Meanwhile fuel shortages hit as a strike began. Also, anti-corruption police will file charges against former US Vice President Cheney in a $180 million bribery case involving Halliburton. (11/29, #13; 12/1, #10; 12/3, #9)
  • Anadarko says its third major natural-gas discovery off Mozambique justifies a liquefied natural gas project. Together all three reservoirs will likely yield 6-8 trillion cu. ft. of gas but production won’t likely begin until 2018. (11/29, #14, 11/30, #14)
  • In China, CNPC will expand its oil-gas network by 80 percent through 2015. (12/1, #15)
  • Cnooc’s joint venture in Argentina has paid $7 billion to take full control of the country’s second-biggest oil and gas producer from BP. Sinopec has struck a deal with Chevron to join a $6 billion deepwater natural gas project off Indonesia. (11/29, #15; 12/2, #10)
  • China has recently approved several new hydropower projects: the 2.6-GW Changheba, the 2.4-GW Guan’di and the 600-MW Tongzilin, all in Sichuan province. Studies for 8.7- and 14-GW projects have also been approved. (11/30, #16)
  • China could be more receptive than the US to the Pickens plan: to power vehicles with natural gas instead of oil. (11/30, #17)
  • The Indonesian government aims to end subsidized fuel for private cars by 2013, starting in Jakarta in January next year. (12/3, #17)
  • South Korea increased oil imports for a seventh month. Imports rose to 76.8 million barrels last month from 59.1 million a year earlier. The crude import bill climbed 42 percent. Gas import costs increased 43.9 percent. Oil-product exports jumped 29 percent. (12/1, #16)
  • India’s ONGC will spend more to redevelop Mumbai High, its largest oilfield. Reliance and ONGC have asked Ecopetrol to jointly develop oil and gas blocks. (12/1, #17; 12/2, #11)
  • Russia exported 20.1 million tons of crude oil in November, down 2.5 percent from the same month last year. Refining output rose 3.1 percent to 20.78 million tons. (12/3, #22)
  • Gazprom and Shell have agreed to expand cooperation in oil and gas projects in Russia’s West Siberia and Far East as well as in global energy markets. (12/1, #21)
  • Venezuela’s President Chavez has raised the possibility of selling Citgo. This could bankroll promised spending on public housing, social programs and a subway, while also distancing Venezuela from the US and strengthening ties with Russia, China and Iran. (11/29, #17)
  • Brazil’s natural gas output reached a record 2.3 billion cu. ft. a day in October, up 9.3 percent from the same month in 2009 and 1.6 percent higher than September. Combined output of oil and gas in October was similar to last year. (12/1, #11)
  • Brazil’s lower house of congress approved new oil regulations that will increase government control and reduce competition against Petrobras. (12/2, #8; 12/4, #4)
  • Desire Petroleum says a well off the Falkland Islands is the region’s second discovery this year, threatening to reignite a dispute between the UK and Argentina. (12/3, #11)
  • Severe weather across Europe has killed up to 28 people, forced one thousand to evacuate their homes, stranded thousands of travelers and strained gas pipelines. In the UK, gas demand is 25 percent higher than last year, and power for next-day delivery has risen up to 35 percent to its highest level since January 2009. (12/1, #22; 12/2, #21, 22; 12/3, #20)
  • Halliburton, Chevron and Exxon, among others, want to bring fracking to Europe, where shale gas is increasingly seen as a way to sever links with Gazprom. European energy companies are scrambling to secure licenses to roll out extraction projects. (12/1, #23)
  • Lufthansa will launch in April the world’s first passenger flight using biofuel. (11/30, #21)
  • The NY State Assembly has passed a bill to ban new hydraulic fracturing until May. The governor is expected to sign the ban, approved earlier by the state senate. (12/1, #19)
  • Growing corn for biofuels is affecting water quality and quantity in northwestern Mississippi, a USGS study finds. (12/2, #20)
  • An MIT team working on a nuclear fusion reactor has discovered a way to confine heat in the reactor plasma while allowing contaminants to escape. (12/4, #18)