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1. Production and Prices

Oil prices hovered around $71 a barrel last week with most movement linked to the climbing or falling dollar. The usual concerns about inflation and hopes for an economic recovery were the major factors in last week’s moves. Even a week of widespread rioting in Iran and three new production-cutting attacks on oil pipelines in the Niger Delta did little to move the markets.

The biggest move of the week came on Friday, when July futures fell by $1.82 a barrel to close at $69.55 on an increase of 3.4 million barrels in US stocks of gasoline. Total US daily demand for petroleum products is running six percent below last year.

The prospects for a Chinese economic recovery remain a major unknown. Last week the World Bank raised its forecast for China’s GDP growth this year to 7.2 percent and Platts calculated that Beijing’s oil consumption was up 6 percent in May over last year. Chinese analysts say that while China is spending billions on building new infrastructure, purchasing foreign companies, and importing commodity, the employment situation remains weak and the small increase in new jobs does not correlate with a 6 or 7 percent growth in GDP. Exports continue to fall. China recently announced that it has finished filling the strategic reserve tanks that it has built over the last several years. All this suggests that demand for oil from China could ease.

Most oil traders continue to say that oil is over-priced, given the weak fundamentals. In recent weeks gasoline prices have moved up to a current national average of $2.69, a rate high enough to suggest that the increase in consumption we saw in April and May could be coming to an end. While some are looking at oil as a commodity to be consumed, others see oil as a store of value that can be used to offset a falling dollar and inflation. This struggle between oil as a commodity and oil as a financial tool is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, or until governments put restrictions on speculation.

2. Iraq

In the last few months, Iraqi oil exports have been hitting post-invasion highs as oil has begun flowing from northern oil fields to the export terminal in Turkey. However, the next few weeks are likely to mark a turning point for Iraqi oil production as US forces pull out of Iraqi cities and service contracts are awarded to foreign oil companies to develop six of Iraq’s largest oil fields over the next 20 to 25 years.

Competition to win the contracts is intense as Iraq is sitting on a proven 115 billion barrels of what is likely to be the last easy-to-find and cheap-to-produce ($2-4 a barrel) oil in the world. Thirty-two companies are bidding including BP, Shell, Sinopec of China, Lukoil of Russia and Total of France. Foreign companies have been excluded from Iraq since 1972, and a series of coups, wars, embargos, and invasions have left Iraqi production at its 1976 level of 2.5 million b/d. Most observers believe the investment and expertise the international oil companies have available could easily double or triple Iraqi production provided the production environment remains benign.

While on the surface Iraq’s prospects may be bright, there are many problems ahead. After four years of debate the Iraqi parliament still has not passed an oil law that would determine how the profits would be divided between the central government and its constituent regions, tribes and states. The awarding of contracts to foreign companies is highly controversial and many are accusing the Prime Minister of conducting the mother of all sellouts. Many senior officials in Iraq’s oil industry opposed the concession auction, preferring short-term technical service agreements rather than 25-year contracts.

Finally, there is the security situation. While US troops are to remain in Iraq for another 2-3 years, they will no longer be based in urban centers after June 30th so that most of the security will be provided by the Iraqi government itself. Over the weekend, a truck bomber killed 73 and wounded hundreds at a Shiite mosque near Kirkuk, the worst attack in over a year.

Just when those 115 billion barrels of $2-4 oil will be making it to market is still very much up in the air.

3. Natural Gas

The US’s supply of natural gas has been much in the news lately as prices have fallen to $4 /mbtu and a steady stream of announcements and articles have touted the potential of shale gas.

In the short term, falling industrial production has reduced the demand for natural gas and electricity generated by natural gas. In addition to the fall in industrial demand, mild weather — expected to last for another two weeks in the northeast — has reduced the residential and commercial cooling demand. Last week’s injection of 114 billion cubic feet into storage increased the US stockpile to 2.55 trillion cubic feet which is 23 percent above average and 32 percent above last year’s level. Prices are down 70 percent from last July. While the number of rigs drilling for gas is down by more than 50 percent since last September, so far there has not been a significant drop in production.

A report issued by the non-profit Potential Gas Committee last week concludes that due to the discovery of immense new shale gas fields in Texas, Louisiana and the Appalachians, the US now has 2,074 trillion cubic feet of gas in the ground or nearly 100 years worth “at current rates of production”—a metric which we find to be not very useful. Industry estimates put the reserves even higher at 2,247 trillion cubic feet.

The gas industry is touting the discoveries as a domestically produced resource, more environmentally friendly than coal, which could easily handle increased consumption without danger of running short for many decades.

The report has many implications; T. Boone Pickens is saying that there is no need to build a $26 billion pipeline to access 39 trillion cubic feet of Alaska gas when so much is already available close to existing pipelines and centers of consumption. While the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which mandates large and expensive cuts in emissions is currently bogged down in a fight with agricultural interests, passage of the bill could spark a major shift to natural gas as a relatively inexpensive means of compliance.

For now natural gas prices are too low to be profitable. EnCana, Canada’s largest producer is cutting back production. The use of natural gas as a substitute for liquid fuels in motor vehicles has never really caught on in the US as it has in many parts of the world. Should gasoline prices rise to levels not yet seen, cheaper, more available, and much cleaner natural gas could become more prevalent as a way to power motor vehicles in the US. But this step is far from a given.

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

  • The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta destroyed six more pipelines and pumping stations in the last week. A statement issued by its spokesman, Gbomo Jomo, said the latest attack was in line with its campaign to cripple the entire oil and gas exports of the Federal Government. (6/18, #5)
  • The escalation of violence in the Niger Delta region in the last three weeks may have reduced Nigeria’s crude oil production to about 1.3 million b/d, with the capacity shut down by violence totaling over 1 million b/d. (6/19, #7)
  • Mexican oil production fell 7.9 percent during the first five months of this year to an average of 2.65 million b/d. Exports fell 15 percent on average, from 1.46 million b/d to 1.24 million b/d. Mexican oil production is down over a fifth since peaking in 2004. (6/20, #6)
  • Mexico’s Pemex is scrambling to extract what oil it can from its key Cantarell deposit as growing water and natural gas levels in the field depress yields. Pemex engineers said at a conference last week that the oil layer of the Akal field is shrinking by at least 4 meters (13 feet) a month as gas moves downward and water moves upward in the rock formation. Contraction of the oil layer means many of the traditional vertical wells Pemex has used to drain Cantarell since the late 1970s are being flooded by gas or water. Years of underinvestment have left Pemex few options to quickly replace capacity being lost at Cantarell. (6/18, #6)
  • Russia’s exports were down 1.3 percent against the first four months of 2008, the country’s statistics service said on Friday. (6/20, #18)
  • Oil prices should hit $85/bbl by the end of 2009, and if capital investment is not restored, oil prices could hit $150/bbl within 2-3 years, warned Gazprom CEO Miller. (6/17, #15)
  • The majority of new oil projects in Russia will not be profitable even with oil prices at $150 per barrel, according to an Energy Ministry proposal on how to reduce taxes at undeveloped fields. Based on data from oil companies, the ministry determined that under the current tax regime most new oil projects would not be financially viable. (6/19, #17)
  • European gas companies may end up buying excess volumes of Russian gas to help prevent a new EU supply crisis. Russian supplier Gazprom is facing financial and technical difficulties after having contracted to buy set volumes of gas from Central Asian producers while facing a sharp drop in demand in the EU and Ukraine. (6/19, #18)
  • A doubling of oil prices in the past six months has yet to convince many Canadian oil companies to fatten capital spending, partly because natural gas markets remain depressed, executives said on Monday. (6/16,#15)
  • Ugandan Finance Minister Syda Bumba said that, due to rigorous exploration activity, his country’s confirmed oil reserves reached 2 billion bbl in June—the end of the 2008-09 fiscal year—which is up from 300 million bbl in 2006. (6/16, #9)
  • Chinese oil majors have acquired a variety of holdings in Angola, Azerbaijan, Canada, Chad, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Peru, Russia, Singapore (pending), Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela. (6/19, #19)
  • Ford’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford called on the US to develop policies to stabilize “gyrating” gasoline prices and support industry’s efforts to compete globally. (6/17, #12)
  • U.S. oil and gas companies have accelerated their spending on lobbying faster than any other industry, training profits on Washington to fight new taxes on drilling and slow efforts to move the nation off fossil fuels. The industry spent $44.5 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies in the first three months of this year, on pace to shatter last year’s record. Only the drug industry spent more. (6/19, #12)
  • China continued to consider a “super-sovereignty” currency among the countries of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an intergovernmental mutual-security organization that met Wednesday in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, in the Urals. Members include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with India as one of its four observers. Right after the SCO meeting, the BRIC country (Brazil, Russia, India and China) leaders met formally for the first time. It is not merely coincident that three of them have expressed a desire to adjust their foreign exchange reserve portfolios by reducing the share or volume of US dollar assets. (6/17, #3)
  • Power outages in Africa: Zambian power firm ZESCO said it was working around the clock to restore electricity as the country experienced nationwide blackouts…Zimbabwe’s perennial power crisis could worsen, if neighbors from whom the country imports power carry out their threats to cut off the supply for non-payment…The Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), in its latest announcement, disclosed that power will be interrupted for 18 hours per shedding day for 15 days between June and July. (6/17, #9-10; 6/16, #10)
  • The Saudi Electricity Company sent letters to factories and businesses in the Industrial City in south Jeddah last week to inform them that power would be cut every day from 1-4pm. in order to avoid a major blackout. (6/16, #7)
  • A new type of nuclear power plant that is designed to be manufactured in a factory rather than being built from scratch on site could cut construction times for nuclear power plants almost in half and make them cheaper to build. That, in turn, could make it possible for more utilities to build nuclear power plants, especially those in poor countries. (6/17, #19)
  • An international plan to build a nuclear fusion reactor is being threatened by rising costs, delays and technical challenges. (6/17, #22)
  • Major airlines, struggling with shrinking passenger demand and trouble financing, are placing fewer new orders and are instead pressing Boeing and Airbus to delay or cancel deliveries of jetliners they ordered years ago. The two rivals are scrambling to keep output steady and to avoid big production swings, which are costly, complicate planning and can lead to job cuts. (6/16, #6)
  • Airbus executives warned over the weekend that output at their European factories could fall by as much as one-fourth over the next two years as the aircraft maker and its suppliers adjust to the sharp drop in air traffic and widening losses at the world’s airlines. But the company insisted that it could absorb those cuts without resorting to large-scale layoffs — at least for now. (6/15, #12)
  • The virtual non-existence of available water rights in the bone-dry southern reaches of Utah will not hobble possible oil shale mining and nuclear power development projects, according to testimony delivered by industry insiders and state officials to a legislative interim committee. Utah state engineer Kent Jones said the state’s allocation of water rights in the Uintah Basin is essentially maxed out, and either effort would require obtaining water rights in control of someone else. (6/19, #19)
  • US motorists drove 0.6 percent more miles in April than a year earlier, snapping a record streak of monthly driving declines as gasoline prices fell and consumers regained confidence in the economy. (6/20, #12)
  • General Motors is preparing for oil prices as high as 130 dollars a barrel once the world economy recovers and will develop more electric cars and biofuels. (6/20, #13)
  • China is on track to sell 11 million vehicles this year, according to the China Passenger Car Association. That would be up 17% from 2008, and a stunning 20 times the number of vehicles sold in China just a decade ago. During this decade, a network of 30,000 miles of new roads are planned for China, making this the biggest such expansion seen anywhere since the US interstate system. China has one-seventh as many autos on the road as the USA but nearly twice as many traffic deaths (6/16, #13)
  • The European Union now has about 8,000 biogas plants, and — fueled by rising subsidies — thousands more are expected to be built over the next decade. Farmers are building plants to make a profit, not to protect the environment, and orders are rising at companies that provide the technology. Germany, the world leader in biogas with about 4,000 plants, is expected to build 500 to 700 plants a year over the next decade (6/18, #19)
  • An ambitious German-led project to supply Europe with solar energy from the deserts of North Africa will start with a meeting on July 13. The project involves a consortium of about 20 firms—including Siemens (SI), Deutsche Bank (DB), and energy companies like RWE—and will cost €400 billion ($555.3 billion). The new initiative, which promises to be the largest green-energy project in the world, could provide around 15 percent of Europe’s energy needs. (6/18, #20)
  • Renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar could provide 10 percent of electricity in the U.S. by 2020 if funding is expanded to help cut costs of those technologies, the National Research Council said. (6/16, #20)

Quote of the Week

  • “I’m a free-market guy, but the government must step in to stop the [oilprice] speculators!” [Ed. note: can one make a more oxymoronic statement?]
    — Bill O’Reilly, The O’Reilly Factor

Statistic of the Week

  • Today more than half the USA’s nitrogen fertilizer is imported, and about 20 percent of the imports are from Russia. The cost of natural gas now accounts for up to 90 percent of the cost of making nitrogen fertilizer (6/17, #21)