Thursday, November 20, 2008

Delayed Reactions

The analysis in the current edition of the Department of Energy's "This Week in Petroleum" highlights an unexpected finding from the department's Short Term Energy Outlook: a forecast of a pronounced uptick in US oil production for next year, by 8% compared to this year. The commentary emphasizes that this reflects more than just a rebound from production that was temporarily shut in by this year's hurricanes. What struck me, however, was how neatly the graph accompanying the analysis illustrated the delayed impact of changes in market conditions on our oil output. As the incoming US administration contemplates its policy stance towards the domestic oil and gas industry, it's worth thinking about how they might benefit from these lagged effects during the next four years, but pay for them in a possible second term, particularly if US energy policy turns more negative to oil next year.

When I studied macroeconomics in graduate school 25 years ago, it was generally understood that changes in fiscal policy--tax cuts and spending increases--involved a time-lag of about two years before they produced the desired results, while the effects of monetary policy--changes in interest rates and the money supply--lagged by about one year. (We haven't heard much about such lags during the current crisis, and even if they have shortened, they prevent any stimulus from yielding the instantaneous result the media seem to expect.) Energy has its own inherent time-lags. For large oil projects, such as offshore production, the delay from "green light" to first production is typically 5-7 years. That compounds the volatility of the oil markets, because by the time new supplies come on the market, the conditions that prompted them may have changed dramatically, as we are now witnessing.

The above chart is a modified version of the one in the EIA's weekly report. I've deleted the Alaskan and Lower-48 production volumes in the original graph and substituted the annual average WTI price, while retaining the annual year-on-year percent change in production. With that price overlay, the effects of the oil price collapse of the late-1990s, precipitated by the Asian Financial Crisis, are evident in both a short-term drop in US oil output and an echo roughly six years later. Although much of the drop in 2005 was attributable to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the decline in 2004 reflects a dearth of new production, due to projects that were delayed or cancelled when oil company revenues collapsed in 1998 and 1999. But that relationship also works in both directions. It is hardly coincidental that we should anticipate an oil production rise in 2009, five years after prices began their steady upward march in 2004. That trend might continue for a few years, when projects initiated when oil was $60, $80 or $100 come onstream. However, if we expect oil prices next year to be no higher than they are now, despite the rapid escalation in production costs over the last few years, then we might reasonably expect a dip in production, over and above normal decline rates, beginning around 2013 or 2014.

There's certainly a lot more to US oil production than a simple cause-and-effect relationship with oil prices. Government policies play an important role, as well, and it's reassuring to hear the House Majority Leader, Representative Hoyer (D-MD) indicate that the Congress would not seek to reinstate the recently-expired federal offshore drilling moratorium. Nevertheless, it's worth keeping in mind that oil supplies are ultimately price-elastic, just as oil demand has proved to be. If the lagged response to flagging oil prices coincides with policy decisions that reinforce their effect--for example, if the new administration follows through on President-designate Obama's campaign promise to impose a windfall profits tax on the largest US oil companies--we could be facing a substantial future drop in output that could negate much of our efforts to wean the US off of imported oil. We need to keep in mind that every million barrels per day of domestic oil production is the equivalent of roughly 20 billion gallons per year of ethanol, and is worth $20 billion to our trade deficit, even at today's diminished prices.

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