Friday, June 29, 2012

Could Oil's Surge Sink Renewable Energy?

A new forecast of global oil production by the end of the decade attracted a fair amount of attention this week.  The study, from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, indicates that oil production could expand by about 20% by 2020 from current levels.  The Wall St. Journal's Heard on the Street column cited this in support of the view that the influence of "peak oil" on the market has itself peaked and fallen into decline.  I was particularly intrigued by a scenario suggested in MIT's Technology Review that this wave of new oil supplies could trigger an oil price collapse similar to the one in the mid-1980s that helped roll back the renewable energy programs that were started during the oil crises of the 1970s.  That's possible, though I'm not sure this should be the biggest worry that manufacturers of wind turbines and solar panels have today.

The Harvard forecast is based on a detailed, risked country-by-country assessment of production potential, with the bulk of the projected net increase in capacity from today's level of around 93 million barrels per day (MBD) to just over 110 MBD coming from four countries: Iraq, the US, Canada and Brazil. However, the study's lead author, former Eni executive Leonardo Maugeri, sees broad capacity growth in nearly all of today's producing countries, except for Iran, Mexico, Norway and the UK.  Although this is certainly a diametrically opposed view of oil's trajectory than the one promoted by advocates of the peak oil viewpoint, it is accompanied by the customary caveats about political and other risks, along with new concerns about environmental push-back.  The latter point is particularly important, since much of the expansion is based on what Mr. Maugeri refers to as the "de-conventionalization of oil supplies", based on the expansion of unconventional output from heavy oil, oil sands, Brazil's "pre-salt" oil, and the "tight oil" that has reversed the US production decline

Although this de-conventionalization trend is very real, it's one thing to envision a shift to an environment in which oil supplies could accommodate, rather than constrain global economic growth; it's another to see these new supplies bringing about an oil price collapse.  It's helpful in this regard to consider the three previous oil-price collapses that we've experienced in the last several decades.  The mid-1980s collapse is the one that Kevin Bullis of Technology Review seems to have latched onto, because much like today's expansion of unconventional oil, the wave of new non-OPEC production that broke OPEC's hold on the market was the direct result of the sharp oil price increases of the previous decade, after allowing for inherent development time lags. The analogy to this period looks even more interesting if the new Administrator of the Energy Information Agency of the Department of Energy is correct in speculating that the US government might be willing to allow exports of light sweet crude from the Bakken, Eagle Ford and other shale plays, to enable Gulf Coast refineries to continue to run the imported heavy crudes for which they have been optimized at great expense.  That could dramatically alter the dynamics of the global oil market.

However, I see two significant differences in the circumstances of the 1980s price collapse, compared to today. First, oil consumption was then dominated by a small number of industrialized countries, the economies of which were still much more reliant on oil for economic growth than they are today. Second, these economies were already emerging from the major recession of the late-1970s and early '80s--a downturn in which the 1970s' energy price spikes played a leading role.  For example, US GDP grew at an annual rate of 7.2% in 1984, the year before oil prices began their slide from the high $20s to mid-teens per barrel.  So when new supplies from the North Slope and North Sea came onstream, the market was ready and eager to use them.  Lower, relatively stable oil prices persisted for more than a decade

Current global economic conditions have much more in common with either the late-1990s Asian Economic Crisis or the combined recession and financial crisis from which we're still emerging.  Each of these situations included a short-lived global oil price collapse that ended when OPEC constrained output and the economy moved past the point of sharpest contraction.  The late-90s oil price collapse looks especially relevant for today, because increased production contributed to it.

A new factor that would tend to make any oil-price slump due to unconventional oil self-limiting is its relatively high cost.  Mr. Maugeri makes it clear that his output forecast depends on prices remaining generally above $70/bbl, and that any drop below $50-60/bbl would result in curtailed investment and slower expansion.  The picture that this paints for me is one in which new oil supplies would be there if we need them to meet growing demand but not otherwise.  That should narrow the implications of such an expansion for renewable energy.

As Mr. Bullis reminds his readers, the connection between oil and renewable energy is much more tenuous than many of the latter's proponents imagine.  The US gets less than 1% of its electricity supply from burning oil, so technologies like wind and solar power simply have no bearing on oil consumption, and vice versa.  That is less true outside the US, but the trends there are also moving in this direction.  So other than for biofuels, a steep drop in oil prices for any reason would have little impact on the rationale for renewables, except perhaps psychologically.  The two factors on which renewable energy investors and manufacturers should stay focused are the economy and the price of natural gas, against which renewables actually do compete and have generally been losing the battle, recently. 

Time will tell whether the Harvard oil production forecast turns out to be more accurate than other, more pessimistic views.  Yet while a drop in oil prices due to expanding supply wouldn't do any good for renewables, the single biggest risk the latter face is the same one that would be likeliest to trigger a major oil price collapse: not surging unconventional oil output, the impact of which OPEC will strive hard to manage, but a return to the kind of weak economy and frozen credit that we should all be able to recall vividly.  If anything, the consequences for renewables from that risk look much bigger today than a couple of years ago, because of the global overcapacity in wind turbine and solar panel manufacturing that built up as the industry responded to policy-induced irrational exuberance in several key markets.