- 2013 was an eventful year for energy, though perhaps with fewer earth-shaking implications for the future than in other recent years.
- Several developments concerning global oil production, when taken together, improved the odds of lower oil prices in the next several years.
For example, it is newsworthy that another year has passed without an indication of whether the White House will approve or reject the cross-border permit for the Keystone XL pipeline project. Yet the consequences of that decision are becoming less significant, at least in the reported view of Bakken shale pioneer Harold Hamm. That's due in large measure to the dramatic increase in the transportation of oil by rail, which should be on anyone's top-ten list. Nor is it clear that the EPA's proposal to scale back the Renewable Fuel Standard's (RFS) corn ethanol quota for 2014 will affect more than this year's fuel market, unlike pending Congressional legislation to reform the RFS. California's adoption of an energy storage mandate for utilities is another notable event, but its long-term impact is contingent on the development of cost-effective storage technology and business models to enable much greater integration of renewable energy on the grid.
Instead of extending that list, I'd like to focus on three stories in which I see significant, related implications for oil markets. The first involves the temporary international agreement concerning Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology. Although relaxation of the sanctions limiting Iranian oil exports depends on a highly uncertain final agreement governing uranium enrichment, the Arak reactor's plutonium potential, and a more intrusive inspections regime, the interim deal signals that around a million barrels per day of Iran's oil--and eventually more--could be back on the market in less than two years.
If that happens, it won't be because the Iranian government's repeated assurances of its aversion to nuclear weapons have suddenly become credible, but because most of the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany--the "P5 + 1" negotiating with Iran--are tiring of the protracted confrontation and understandably have no appetite to address this in the same way that the collapsing UN sanctions regime for Iraq was resolved in 2003.
Next consider the stunning reversal of the Mexican government's 75-year-old nationalization of oil and gas. As a result of the reforms just enacted by their congress and ratified by a majority of Mexico's states, the state oil company Pemex will be run along more commercial lines, and foreign firms will be allowed to partner with Pemex in developing the country's large untapped hydrocarbon resources. If the terms prove attractive for international energy firms, the result will move North America even closer to net energy independence. Meanwhile the Transboundary Hydrocarbon Agreement between the US and Mexico that was just passed by the US Congress will simplify energy development that straddles the border.
Mexico's potential could be even more significant for oil markets than an unconstrained Iran. The former's production has declined by 24% since 2004--a loss of 900,000 bbl/day-- mainly due to limited reinvestment. Foreign investment can help to restore that output, but the upside potential is much bigger. Pemex has barely scratched the surface of its deepwater resources in the Gulf. Its proven and contingent reserves are estimated at 45 billion barrels, while US estimates put Mexico's shale oil, or "tight oil" resources at 13 billion barrels, slightly more than the country's proved conventional reserves. (Shale gas could exceed 500 trillion cubic feet.)
Mexico's oil output has grown dramatically before. In the decade following the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 production increased from 500,000 bbl/day to around 3 million. A similar performance seems possible again from a higher starting point, but it's unlikely to happen overnight. As Dan Yergen pointed out in a recent Wall St. Journal op-ed, "exploration and development could take another five to 10 years" beyond the first bid rounds.
And that brings us to Saudi Arabia's options for dealing with a shifting market that will include projected US crude oil output of 9.6 million bbl/day by 2016, the recovery and growth of Iraqi production, possible exports from Canada to Asia, Mexico's potential, and the eventual return of full Iranian exports. Whether or not this wave of new or restored production will be sufficient to replace production declines elsewhere, it must undermine OPEC's control of pricing in this decade. In that light, it's hard to ignore reported indications that Saudi Arabia might abandon its role of swing producer, particularly when it comes to unilateral output cuts to balance new non-OPEC supplies.
Haven't we seen this movie before? After a dozen years of high prices and tight markets OPEC steadily lost market share in the 1980s as new fields in Alaska, Mexico and the North Sea came online. That trend culminated in Saudi Arabia's 1986 "netback pricing" decision, linking the price of its oil to the value of its customers' refined petroleum products. Following the price collapse that policy helped precipitate, oil prices took 18 years to reach $30/bbl again, by which time the dollar had lost a third of its value.
I doubt we're in for anything that dramatic. Back then, most demand growth came from the developed countries of the OECD, rather than from the expanding middle classes of developing Asia and the Middle East itself. Moreover, today's new production has higher costs--up to $70-80 per barrel--ruling out a return to $20 oil. With many serious geopolitical risks still in play, an oil-price price correction or extended soft market seems likelier than another price collapse. In the meantime, if we're seeking $20 oil, we already have it in the form of US shale gas that averaged the equivalent of $21.64/bbl last year. And that's the early, odds-on favorite for the energy story of the decade.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.