Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How Will Oil's Current Slide Affect Gasoline Prices?

  • How far could crude oil prices fall, and what does it mean for US pump prices this summer?
  • The broad trends behind oil's current weakness could persist for some time. 

We all carry assumptions around with us.  For many who follow energy one such assumption is that oil prices, and thus gasoline prices, generally rise over time.  In an otherwise fairly well-reasoned blog post I read yesterday, that logic underpinned the case for electric vehicles (EVs) becoming more attractive to consumers.  Yet if we review the history of oil prices, it becomes clear that they don't only rise.  Just recently, the price of Brent crude oil, the current world benchmark, has declined roughly 11% since the start of April, prompting speculation about where it's headed from here and what that might mean for motorists.  It's worth stepping back from the day-to-day volatility of the market to consider what's behind this drop, as well as how OPEC might respond if the recent trend continues.

Start with the fundamentals of demand and supply.  Demand in the developed world remains weak. Despite modest GDP growth in 2012, US oil demand fell by 2% last year and is now 11% below its 2005 high.  This year, the unemployment rate is down a bit, but economists see signs of another  "spring swoon." The outlook seems no better in the other big economies, including China, prompting the International Energy Agency last week to cut its estimate of annual oil demand growth to just below 800,000 barrels (bbl) per day, with the US government cutting its estimate even further.  Meanwhile, many refineries are either undergoing maintenance or about to, reducing the most direct element of demand, at least temporarily. 

On the supply side, US production growth remains the big story.  US crude oil output is currently 7 million bbl/day, up nearly a million bbl/day in just the last year, and projected to average at least 300,000 bbl/day more than that for 2013. Overall, the IEA anticipates non-OPEC oil supply to increase by 1.1 million bbl/day this year.  Whenever non-OPEC growth exceeds the growth of demand, while inventories and spare production capacity are adequate, that puts pressure on OPEC and oil prices tend to weaken.  North Korea, Iran and a few other hot spots provide ample geopolitical risk, but the market has already absorbed the loss of about half of Iran's exports due to sanctions, while some other problem areas, such as Sudan/South Sudan, are being resolved. 

Taking all this into account, the market seems to have concluded prices were too high.  This is the other face of speculation that is never subjected to Congressional investigations.  Yet it also seems premature to assume this is the start of a major move downward, or an imminent oil price collapse.  Nick Butler of the Financial Times suggested that normal economics would take us to around $70/bbl, though I think he underestimates OPEC's cohesion and their willingness to absorb pain to defend a crucial price threshold.  Their experience in 2008-9 provides a vivid recent reminder that selling 10% less oil at something close to the current price is a much better deal for them than selling all the oil they can at $35/bbl.

It's also not clear how quickly a sharp drop in prices would undermine the output of the Bakken, Eagle Ford and other big US shale oil plays. These reservoirs require more intensive drilling than conventional oil fields, and many of the drilling rigs in use there were redeployed from gas-rich opportunities after the US price of natural gas slid sharply in the last several years.  It also seems that some of the weakness in Brent is specific to its market. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude hasn't dropped as quickly, thus narrowing the gap between the two from $20/bbl as recently as February to about $11 today.  So those parts of the US where refiners still import significant quantities of foreign crude pegged to Brent, such as the east coast, might see more gasoline price relief than those where abundant supplies of cheaper, WTI-related crude have kept pump prices lower.

And that's what it boils down to for most Americans, who don't burn crude oil or invest in oil futures.  The Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy recently issued its Summer Fuels Outlook, projecting that US gasoline prices would average $3.63 per gallon for the April-September "driving season", down from $3.69 last year and up just slightly from last week's $3.61/gal. However, that forecast was based on a July Brent crude price of $107/bbl.  Crude oil makes up around two-thirds of the retail cost of a gallon of gasoline in the US, where fuel taxes are relatively low compared to other developed economies. If Brent merely held where it is today we could see summer gasoline prices below $3.50/gal. for the first time in several years.

Longer-term, oil and gasoline prices remain as unpredictable as ever.  However, the trends combining to produce today's weaker prices could well have staying power.  It's still relatively early days in the US shale, or "tight oil" upsurge, with more growth expected, and new-car fuel economy continues to improve.  Those factors support the trend of falling US oil imports, which will take pressure off global markets, no matter what happens to demand in Asia.  At least until we see a different configuration of factors the argument for suspending our assumption of steadily rising future oil and motor fuel prices looks pretty robust.  That suggests that the case for EVs and alternative fuels must be made on the basis of other factors and, if anything, be prepared to weather another period of lower fuel prices should oil continue to weaken.

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