Friday, February 05, 2016

An Ill-conceived Tax Idea

Yesterday we learned that President Obama's final budget proposal includes a plan to raise money for transportation projects and other uses by imposing a per-barrel tax on US oil companies. Here are a few quick thoughts on this ill-conceived idea:
  • As I understand it, the tax would be imposed on oil companies, exempting only those volumes exported from the US. The US oil industry is currently in its deepest slump since at least the 1980s. Having broken OPEC's control of prices and delivered massive savings to US consumers and businesses, it is now enduring OPEC's response: a global price war that has driven the price of oil below replacement cost levels. This is evidenced by the recent full-year losses posted by the "upstream" oil-production units of even the largest oil companies: ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP and ConocoPhillips, particularly in their US operations. The President has wanted to tax oil companies since his first day in office, but his timing here would only exacerbate these losses, putting what had been one of the healthiest parts of the US labor market under even more pressure.
  • This tax would also increase OPEC's market leverage, providing a double hit on the cost of fuel for American consumers: We would pay more immediately, when the tax was imposed and companies passed on as much of it as they could, and then even more later when OPEC raised prices as competing US production became uneconomical.
  • Focusing the tax on the raw material, crude oil, rather than on the products that actually go into transportation, as the current gasoline and diesel taxes do, is guaranteed to produce distortions and unintended consequences. For starters, exempting exports--a sop to global competitiveness?--would give producers a perverse incentive to send US oil overseas instead of refining it in the US. It would also shift consumption toward more expensive fuels like corn ethanol, which provides no net emissions benefits but has been shown to affect global food prices.
  • Singling out oil, which is not the highest-emitting fossil fuel and for which we still lack scalable alternatives, will put all parts of the US economy that rely on oil as an input at a competitive disadvantage, globally, and undermine what had become a significant US edge in global markets. Petrochemicals, in particular, would be adversely affected. The President's staff is well aware that the distribution of lifecycle emissions from oil, and the structure of the industry and markets, make policies focused on consumption far more effective than those aimed at production. This is why his administration's first act in implementing the expanded interpretation of the Clean Air Act to greenhouse gases was to tighten vehicle fuel economy standards. Taxing the upstream industry does nothing for global emissions but makes US producers less competitive, ensuring a return to rising oil imports and deteriorating energy security.
As widely reported, the Congress will not enact a budget containing this provision. It is hard to gauge whether this proposal represents a serious attempt to inject new thinking into the debate on funding transportation upgrades, or is simply one last shot across the bow of the administration's least favorite industry before leaving office in 349 days. It's not unusual for the wheels to come off as a presidency winds down, and this particularly flaky and futile idea might just be an indicator of that.

Disclosure: My portfolio includes investments in one or more of the companies mentioned above.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2015: A Turning Point for Energy?

  • 2015 was certainly an eventful year in energy, with plummeting oil prices and a widely anticipated global climate conference in December. It's less clear that it was a turning point. 
When I sifted through the major energy developments of 2015, I was surprised by the number of references I found to last year as a turning point, whether for the oil industry, the response to climate change, coal-fired electricity generation, or renewable energy. To this list I am tempted to add the decision to allow unrestricted exports of US crude oil for the first time in 40 years.

Major turning points are best identified with the passage of time. With so many legitimate candidates it might seem a bit deflating to note, as the chart below reflects, that the growth pattern for US energy supplies in 2015 looks a lot like the one for 2014. Despite low prices, oil and gas output posted solid gains, at least through October, while wind and solar power contributed modestly, when compared on an energy-equivalent basis.

There are sound reasons to think that next year's graph may look quite different, starting with oil. The petroleum industry is still in turmoil from its turning point in late 2014, when OPEC declined to cut its output quota to restore the global oil market to balance. In North America and much of the world, drilling and investment in new projects are down sharply, and US oil production is retreating from the 44-year peak it reached in April. The subsequent decline would have been even more pronounced without the contribution of new deepwater platforms  in the Gulf of Mexico that were planned long before oil prices fell.

However, anyone identifying 2015 as the start of a global shift away from oil, rather than another cyclical low point, must contend with some contrary statistics. Global oil demand appears to have increased by around 2%--equivalent to the output of Nigeria--in response to a 70% drop in oil prices. And despite a lot of media attention, electric vehicles--the leading contender to replace the internal-combustion cars that are the main users of refined oil--have yet to catch on with mainstream consumers.

Based on data from, US sales of battery-electric vehicles (EVs) grew slightly faster than the 6% pace of the entire US car market in 2015 but still accounted for less than 0.5% of all new cars. In fact, the combined US market share of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery EVs fell by 18%, compared to 2014, to below 3%. This is a respectable start for vehicle electrification, but it's not much different from the beachhead that hybrids alone occupied in 2009.

Although we might look back on this situation in a few years as a turning point, I believe that will depend on the condition of OPEC and the global oil industry, as well as the level of global oil consumption, when supply and demand come back into balance and today's high oil inventories are drawn down.

At the launch of API's latest State of American Energy report earlier this month I had the opportunity to ask Jack Gerard, the President and CEO of API, how he thought the current situation might change the oil and gas industry, and whether it would push it even farther towards shale development, including outside the US. His response focused on ensuring that policies will allow US producers to compete globally and build on the advantages of US resources, capital markets and rule of law to increase their share of the market.

As for US natural gas production, rising per-well productivity and growth in the Utica shale and Permian Basin offset less drilling in general and output declines in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere.  The continued expansion of gas is remarkable, considering that natural gas futures prices (front month) averaged just $ 2.63 per million BTUs for the year and dipped below $2 in December. The LNG exports set to begin this month look very timely.

Renewable energy, mainly in the form of wind and solar power, continues to grow rapidly as its costs decline. US renewables got an unexpected boost in December when the US Congress extended the two main federal tax credits for wind, solar and other technologies, including retroactively reinstating the lapsed wind Production Tax Credit (PTC).  Renewables should also benefit from the implementation of the EPA's Clean Power Plan, and from the effect of the Paris climate agreement on the investment climate for these technologies.

We may not know for years whether the Paris Agreement was truly a turning point for climate change, as many have suggested. Another prescriptive agreement with legally binding targets, along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol, was never in the cards. However, the Paris text is replete with tentative verbs, along the lines of, "requests, invites, recognizes, aims, takes note, encourages, welcomes, etc. "  It remains up to the participating countries whether and how they fulfill their voluntary Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and financial commitments.

The Paris Agreement could turn out to be the necessary framework for firm steps by both developed and developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climatic changes that are already "baked in", or it might shortly be overtaken by other events, as previous climate change measures were in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The current financial problems of the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases--arguably the most important signatory to the Paris Agreement--are not a positive signal.

With so many uncertainties in play, we should consider all of these potential turning points as signposts of changes that depend on other interconnected factors, if they are to lead to a future that breaks with the status quo. There are enough of them to make for a very interesting 2016, even if this wasn't also a US presidential election year.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Cheapest Gasoline Ever?

Last week the Energy Information Administration  (EIA) reported that the $2.43 per gallon average US retail price for regular gasoline in 2015 was the lowest since 2009. A quick look at the EIA's handy page for comparing nominal and real fuel prices over time shows that last year's average, when adjusted for inflation, was actually the cheapest since 2004. A recent article suggested that current prices are lower than those in the mid-1960s, in the heyday of the American love affair with driving. I've lost the link, but that factoid checks out, too. However, even this understates the bargain currently on offer at the gas pump.

The price of gasoline is still one of the most visible prices in the US, prominently displayed on gas station signage and roadside billboards across the country. However, it only captures one aspect of how much motorists really pay, just as measuring fuel economy in miles per gallon misses the economic impact of driving. A few years ago I ran across a metric that combines these factors into a simple gauge of driving cost: miles per dollar, or mp$.

The chart below incorporates EIA data on inflation-adjusted fuel cost and data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) on actual fleet corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) performance for each model year of passenger cars--not SUVs or light trucks--to display average mp$ for the last four decades.

Taking last week's average price of $2.03 for unleaded regular and using 36.4 mpg for the 2013 model year (the latest on NHTSA's site), today's fuel cost of driving is cheaper than at any time since 1978--and maybe ever. The 18 miles per dollar I calculated just beats the previous peak of mp$ in the late 1990s, when fuel economy was around 28 mpg and gas prices averaged barely over $1, due to the effects of the Asian Economic Crisis. By comparison, the $0.31 per gallon that motorists paid in 1965 was downright expensive, after adjusting for inflation and factoring in the low-to-mid-teens fuel economy of cars of the day.

Miles per dollar is also handy for comparing driving cost on gasoline to the cost of operating vehicles that use other fuels or electricity. When I first looked at miles per dollar in 2008, electric vehicles were significantly cheaper, per mile driven, than cars running on gasoline or diesel, even hybrid cars like the Prius. That gap still exists, but it has narrowed. At an US average residential electricity price of $0.126/kilowatt-hour last year, a Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt would get around 26 mp$. However, in New England and other parts of the country with significantly higher-than-average electricity prices, the miles of driving that an EV can deliver per dollar of energy used could be less than that for gasoline in some locations.

A few caveats are in order. Based on data from the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan, new-car fuel economy has slipped 0.8 mpg since oil prices started falling in the summer of 2014. And in any case, new cars are typically more efficient than the entire US car fleet, which includes older vehicles and substantial numbers of SUVs and light trucks. The Consumer Price Index is also an imperfect tool for comparing prices over long periods of time, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics periodically changes the components of the "basket" of goods and services that go into calculating the CPI.

None of those issues seems big enough to alter the basic conclusion that the gasoline cost of driving is exceptionally, perhaps historically cheap at the moment. If oil prices stay "lower for longer", as some experts expect,  changing the make-up--and thus the emissions--of the US car fleet is likely to be an uphill battle.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Has OPEC Lost Control of the Price of Oil?

  • The shale revolution effectively sidelined OPEC's control over global oil prices, but the consequences of a year of low prices are shifting power back to the cartel.
In the aftermath of another inconclusive meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, oil prices have been testing their lows from the 2008-9 financial crisis,  For all the attention and speculation devoted to OPEC-watching whenever they meet, the question we should be asking about OPEC is whether the current situation shares enough of the elements that defined those periods in the past when the cartel's actual market control lived up to its reputation.

That reputation was established during the twin oil crises of the 1970s. US oil production peaked in late 1970, and to the extent there was then a global oil market, the key influence in setting its supply--and thus prices--passed from the Texas Railroad Commission to OPEC, which had been around since 1960.  From 1972 to 1980, the nominal price of a barrel of oil imported from the Persian Gulf increased roughly ten-fold, with disastrous effects on the global economy.

Just a few years later, however, oil prices collapsed.  OPEC's control was undermined by new non-OPEC production from places like the North Sea and Alaskan North Slope and a remarkable 10% contraction in global oil demand. The turning point came in 1985. Saudi Arabia, which had successively cut its output from 10 million barrels per day (MBD) in 1981 to just 3.6 MBD, introduced  "netback pricing" as a way to protect and recover market share.

That move helped set up nearly 20 years of moderate oil prices, during which OPEC's most successful intervention came in response to the Asian Economic Crisis of the late 1990s, when together with Mexico, Norway, Oman and Russia, it sharply curtailed production to pull the oil market out of a tailspin.

The proponents of today's "lower for longer" view of oil prices may see compelling parallels in the circumstances of the mid-1980s, compared to today's. Production from new sources, mainly US "tight oil" from shale, has created another global oil surplus. In the 1980s nuclear power and coal were pushing oil out of its established role in power generation. Now, renewables and electricity are beginning to erode oil's share of transportation energy, while the slowdown of China's economic growth and concerns about CO2 emissions raise doubts about the future growth of oil demand.

However, these similarities break down on some fundamental points. First, the production profile of shale wells is radically different from that of large, conventional onshore oil fields or offshore platforms. Once drilled, the latter produce at substantial rates for decades, while tight oil wells may deliver two-thirds of their lifetime output in just the first three years of operation. Sustaining shale production requires continuous drilling. In fact, new non-shale projects similar to the ones that underpinned oil-price stability from 1986-2003 make up the bulk of the $200 billion of industry investment that has reportedly been cancelled in response to the current price slump.

Another major difference relates to spare capacity. During most of the 1980s and '90s, OPEC maintained significant spare oil production capacity, much of it in Saudi Arabia. That wasn't necessarily by choice, but it was what enabled OPEC to absorb the loss of around 3.5 MBD from Kuwait and Iraq in 1990-91 while continuing to meet the needs of a growing global market. The virtual disappearance of that spare capacity was a key trigger of the oil price spike of 2004-8. (See chart below.)  A little-discussed consequence of OPEC's current strategy to maintain, and in the case of Saudi Arabia to increase output has been a decline in OPEC's effective spare capacity, to just over 2 MBD, compared to 3.5 MBD in the spring of 2014.

As a result, global spare oil production capacity is essentially shifting from Saudi Arabia, which historically was willing to tap it to alleviate market disruptions, to Iran, Iraq and US shale. The responsiveness of all of these is subject to large uncertainties. Iran's production capacity has atrophied under sanctions, and it isn't clear how quickly it can ramp back up once sanctions are fully lifted. Iraq's capacity and output have increased rapidly, but key portions are threatened by ISIS.

Meanwhile, US tight oil production is falling, although numerous wells have been drilled but not completed, presumably enabling them to be brought online quickly, later--perhaps mimicking spare capacity. How that would work in practice remains to be seen. One uncertainty that was recently resolved was whether such oil could be exported from the US. As part of its recent budget compromise, Congress voted to lift the 1970s-vintage oil export restrictions. Even with US oil exports as a potential stabilizing factor, a world of lower or more uncertain spare capacity is likely be a world of higher and more volatile oil prices.

Oil prices were largely unshackled from OPEC's influence last year, after Saudi Arabia engineered a new OPEC strategy aimed at maximizing market share. However, with oil demand continuing to grow and millions of barrels per day of future non-OPEC production having been canceled--and unlikely to be reinstated any time soon--and with OPEC's spare capacity approaching its low levels of the mid-2000s, the potential price leverage of a cut in OPEC's output quota is arguably greater than it has been in some time.
In 2016 we will see whether OPEC finally pulls that trigger, or instead chooses to remain on a "lower for longer" path that raises big questions about the long-term aims of its biggest producers.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Grand Compromise on Energy?

The idea of  a Congressional "grand compromise" on energy has been debated for years. A decade ago, such an agreement might have opened up access for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in exchange for "cap and trade" or some other comprehensive national greenhouse gas emissions policy. By comparison, the deal apparently included in the 2016 spending and tax bill is small beer but still worthwhile: In exchange for lifting the outdated restrictions on exporting US crude oil, Congress will respectively revive and extend tax credits for wind and solar power.

Anticipation about the prospect of US oil exports seemed higher last year, when production was growing rapidly and threatening to outgrow the capacity of US oil refineries to handle the volumes of high-quality "tight oil" flowing from shale deposits. Just this week Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, citing a study by the Energy Information Administration, suggested that allowing such exports might now be nearly inconsequential in most respects.

Although little additional oil may flow in the short term, given the current global surplus, it's worth recalling that the gap between domestic and international oil prices hasn't always been as narrow as it is today. The discount for West Texas Intermediate relative to UK Brent crude has averaged around $4 per barrel this year, but within the last three years it has been as wide as $15-20. Oil traders will tell you that average differentials between markets are essentially irrelevant. What counts is the windows when those gaps widen, during which  a lot of cargoes can move in short periods.

No matter how much or little US oil is ultimately exported, and how much additional production the lifting of the export ban will actually stimulate, the bigger impact on the global oil market is likely to be psychological. Having to find new outlets for oil shipped from West Africa, for example, because US refiners are processing more US crude and importing less from elsewhere is one thing; having to compete directly with cargoes of US oil is going to be quite another. That's where US consumers will benefit in the long run, from lower global oil prices that translate into lower prices at the gas pump.

Finally, if OPEC can choose to cease acting like a cartel--at least for the moment--and treat crude oil as a normal market, then it's timely for the US to follow suit and end an oil export ban that originated in the same 1970s oil crisis that put OPEC on the map.

How about the other side of this deal? What do we get for retroactively reinstating the expired wind production tax credit (PTC), along with extending the 30% solar tax credit that would have expired at the end of next year?

We'll certainly get more wind farms, along with some stability for an industry that has been whipsawed by past expirations and last-minute extensions of a tax credit that has been a major driver of new installations throughout its 20+ year history. Wind energy accounted for 4.4% of US grid electricity in the 12 months through September, up from a little over 1% in 2008.

However, this tax credit isn't cheap . The 4,800 Megawatts of new wind turbines installed in 2014 will receive a total of nearly $2.5 billion in subsidies--equivalent to around $19 per barrel--during the 10 years in which they will be eligible for the PTC, and 2015's additions are on track to beat that. The PTC is also the policy that enables wind power producers in places like Texas to sell electricity at prices below zero--still pocketing the 2.3¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh) tax credit--distorting wholesale electricity markets and capacity planning.

As for solar power, it's not obvious that the tax credit extension was necessary at all, in light of the rapid decline in the cost of solar photovoltaic energy (PV). In any case, because the tax credit for solar is calculated as a percentage of installed cost, rather than a fixed subsidy per kWh of output like for wind, the technology's progress has provided an inherent phaseout of the dollar benefit. Solar's rapid growth seems likely to continue, with or without the tax credit.

The big missed opportunity from a clean energy and climate perspective is that these tax credit extensions channel billions of dollars to technologies that, at least in the case of wind, are essentially mature and widely regarded as inadequate to support a large-scale, long-term transition to low-emission energy. I would have preferred to see these federal dollars targeted to help incubate new energy technologies, along the lines of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition announced by Bill Gates and other high-tech leaders at the Paris climate conference.

The current deal, embedded within a $1.6 trillion "omnibus" spending bill, must still pass the Congress and be signed by the President. It won't please everyone, but it is at least consistent with the "all of the above" approach that has been our de facto energy strategy, at least since 2012. It also serves as a reminder that despite the commitments at Paris to reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, renewable energy will of necessity coexist with oil and gas for many years to come.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Shrinking the Strategic Petroleum Reserve

  • Selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as part of the Congressional budget compromise raises serious questions about the SPR's future role.
  • Shrinking the SPR without first bringing its coverage into line with 21st century needs risks strengthening OPEC's hand. 
Last month's Congressional budget compromise included plans to sell 58 million barrels of oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, beginning in 2018. That decision raises serious questions. The world has changed enormously since the SPR was established in the 1970s, but the realignment of such an asset for the 21st century deserves a full strategic review and debate. Leaping ahead to treat the SPR like an ATM  seems unwise on multiple grounds.

My initial reaction was that the sale would result in the US government effectively buying high and selling low. However, using the last-in, first-out (LIFO) accounting common in the oil industry, the SPR release during the 2011 Libyan revolution should have removed any barrels purchased as prices surged past $100 per barrel (bbl) to over $140, prior to the financial crisis. The oil now slated to be sold in 2018-25 was likely injected between December 2003 and June 2005, when West Texas Intermediate crude oil averaged around $44/bbl. The Treasury should at least break even on these sales, allowing us to dispense with judging the trading acumen of the Congress and focus on the strategic aspects of this decision.

It is also true that the combination of revived US oil production and lower domestic petroleum demand effectively doubled the notional import protection that the SPR provides. That has made policy makers comfortable enough with the coverage the reserve provides to consider shrinking it. Yet as Energy Secretary Moniz  and a growing body of experts have concluded, the SPR's present configuration is inadequate to deal with whole categories of plausible oil-supply disruptions.

Today's SPR consists entirely of crude oil stored in caverns near the major refining centers of the Gulf Coast, to which it is connected via pipelines. However, while crude oil imports into the Gulf Coast have fallen dramatically, the long-term decline of oil production in Alaska and California has forced West Coast refiners to import 1-1.5 million bbl/day of oil, including more than half of California's crude supply, much of it from OPEC producers. In the event of an interruption of those deliveries, and under current oil-export restrictions, getting SPR oil from Texas and Louisiana to L.A. and San Francisco would pose enormous logistical challenges.

We have also learned that natural disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 affect refinery operations, as well as oil deliveries.  A crude oil SPR is of little value if its contents can't be processed into the fuels that consumers and industry actually use.  The newer Northeast heating oil and gasoline reserves were intended to address that limitation, though on a much smaller scale.

It is thus fair to say that the SPR established in the Ford Administration and filled by the next five US presidents to a level now equivalent to 137 days of US crude oil imports is not diverse enough in its composition or locations, and too big for our current needs. If we could count on a continuation of cheap, abundant oil for the next two decades, selling off some SPR inventory wouldn't create problems. However, the purpose of such a reserve is to mitigate the risks of uncertain and inherently unpredictable future conditions and events. That should be factored into any decision to shrink it.

We don't have to look far to find reasons to suspect that oil prices might someday be higher and more volatile--perhaps as soon as the 2018-25 legislated sales period--or to worry that oil supplies from the Middle East might become less secure. Consider the consequences of the oil price collapse that began over a year ago. Low oil prices have indeed put pressure on the highly flexible US shale sector, where production is now expected to drop by around 500,000 bbl/day by next year. The impact on large-scale, long-lead-time capital investments in places like Canada, the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico has been even more profound. Over $200 billion of new projects and exploration activity have been deferred or canceled. Unlike shale, most of these projects could not be revived quickly if prices rebounded.

As production from existing fields declines without replacement, the current global oil surplus will dissipate, bringing the market back into balance. However, that balance is likely to be more precarious than before, since last fall's strategic shift by OPEC to protect its market share instead of managing prices entails the depletion of OPEC's "spare capacity." That means that in a future crisis, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers will have little flexibility to increase production to make up for lost output elsewhere.

Barring an unforeseen reduction in global  oil demand, the scenario that is beginning to take shape fits the  pattern of risks that the SPR was originally intended to address. It includes the prospect of rising US oil imports, increasing reliance on OPEC, and the threat posed by ISIS in the world's oil "breadbasket".  In that light it is hard to justify reducing the size of the SPR without a clear plan for making the remaining volume more effective at shoring up future vulnerabilities in US energy security.

In their haste to reach a deal, Congressional negotiators may also have overlooked some SPR-related alternatives that could generate revenue without draining inventories. These might include allowing other countries to buy into the reserve by means of "special drawing rights," or simply selling long-dated call options backed by the SPR, to be settled in the future by delivery or cash, at the government's discretion.

Taken together, there are ample reasons for the next Congress and administration to revisit the SPR sales provisions of the 2016 budget deal, before they go into effect.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Keystone Rejection and the Shift Back toward OPEC

Although the International Energy Agency's latest warning of future energy security risks doesn't mention the Keystone XL pipeline, it provides important context for assessing President Obama's decision turning down that project's application. The IEA's newly issued global energy forecast indicates that if oil prices remain low until the end of the decade, it "would trigger energy-security concerns by heightening reliance on a small number of low-cost producers," a polite way of referring to OPEC. The Keystone verdict could help reinforce that shift.

I've devoted a lot of posts to different aspects of the Keystone issue. In a post last year on the State Department's Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, I pointed out the pipeline's relatively modest potential to affect climate change, with a range of incremental greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) equating to 0.02-0.4% of total US emissions. Even if the full lifecycle emissions of the oil sands crude it would have transported were included, they would still not have exceed around 0.3% of global CO2-equivalent emissions. For these and other reasons, I have consistently concluded that the decision would be made on political, rather than technical grounds, consistent with the symbolism the project has taken on with environmental activists during this administration.

Whether the Keystone rejection is attributable mainly to domestic political considerations or to positioning in advance of next month's Paris climate conference is a minor distinction. As the editors of the Washington Post put it, the distortion and politicization of the issue "was a national embarrassment, reflecting poorly on the United States’ capability to treat parties equitably under law and regulation." If the IEA's assessment of the trends underlying today's low oil prices is correct, we may come to regret last Friday's ruling for other reasons, too.

Recall that last year's oil-price collapse had two principal triggers: surging US oil production from shale deposits in Texas, North Dakota and several other states, and a decision by OPEC to forgo its historic role as balancers of the global oil market and instead to produce full out. The latter explains why oil remains below $50 per barrel, even though US shale output is now retreating.

Yet while shale production is expected to rebound once prices start to recover--whenever that might occur--the same cannot necessarily be said for conventional non-OPEC production from places like the North Sea and other high-cost, mature regions. Oil companies have canceled or deferred over $200 billion in exploration and production projects, while existing oil fields accounting for more than 10 times the output of US shale will continue to decline at rates of perhaps 5-10% per year.

The combination of all these factors sets the stage for a future oil market very different from what we've experienced in the past few decades. If OPEC and particularly Saudi Arabia assume the role of baseload, rather than swing producers, the price of oil will be set by the last, most expensive barrels to be supplied. That would constitute a much more normal market than one that has been dominated by OPEC production quotas, but it would also lack the margin of 3-5 million barrels per day of "spare capacity" that OPEC has typically held in reserve. That is a recipe for increased risk and volatility ahead.

If this comes to pass, the result might not be an exact re-run of the oil crises of the 1970s. The global economy is much less reliant on oil than it was four decades ago, especially for electricity generation, which as the IEA points out will increasingly come from renewable sources. However, oil will remain indispensable for transportation for many years. In a global oil market again dominated by OPEC, additional pipeline-based supplies from a reliable neighbor like Canada would be highly desirable, and the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which the Congress just voted to shrink in order to raise a couple of billion dollars of revenue, could become a lot more valuable.

The decision to reject TransCanada's application for the Keystone XL pipeline was ostensibly made on long-term considerations related to climate change, but it reflects a short-sighted view of energy markets. In that light, the President's conclusion that Keystone "would not serve the national interests of the United States" seems very likely to be revisited by a future US president.