Friday, May 01, 2009

Is the Energy Crisis Over?

A quick check of Google Trends this morning confirmed my gut feeling that, other than from government officials, references to an ongoing energy crisis have fallen significantly in the last year. Google's statistics show that searches on this phrase have fallen back to about where they were in 2004 or 2005, though still somewhat higher than 2007. Their track of news references shows this trend even more strikingly. Without graphing the correlation, it appears to go hand in hand with energy prices that have fallen to levels that are no longer adding to our economic pain and in some respects provide significant relief. Does our waning interest in an energy crisis reflect the archetypal fickleness of the American psyche, or has the energy crisis that generated such a fever pitch of concern last year truly abated, and if so, will it soon return? A quick tally of some key statistics provides a mostly positive assessment, at least for now. While this doesn't justify complacency, it seems like a genuinely positive indicator at a time when good news has been in short supply.

The question I posed would have been a lot easier to answer if the Energy Information Agency's handy one-page summary of US primary energy production and consumption had been updated since 2007, when about the best one could say was that our net energy imports had stabilized at just under 30% of total consumption. But looking at the major components of US energy supply and demand in 2008, we see more than a few "green shoots." Net imports of crude oil and petroleum products, a much more useful measure of our dependence on foreign suppliers than just looking at crude oil imports, have fallen steadily from a peak of 13 million barrels per day in the summer of 2006 to around 11 million barrels per day. That didn't occur because US crude production was up--it's not--but because of the lagged but profound response of demand to higher prices.

Even if petroleum imports begin growing again as the economy recovers, they will do so in a global market that for at least the next several years will have ample spare capacity--a crucial measure of the market's ability to meet higher demand without creating another severe price spike. In a webcast earlier this week, Global Insight, CERA and IHS Herold (the sponsor of this blog) presented analysis suggesting that the combination of lower demand and higher output have lifted global spare oil capacity from its minimum of barely a million barrels per day in 2005 to more than 6 million this year, or nearly 8% of demand. Together with high oil inventories in consuming countries, this should cap the eventual recovery of oil prices well below the levels we saw last year. It remains to be seen whether $80 oil would prove as harmful to the weak economic recovery most economists expect next year as $140 oil did to an economy teetering on the brink of collapse.

Natural gas presents a remarkable and more uniformly positive story. A few years ago I was seriously worried that a steady decline in US gas output, coupled with strong demand supported by environmental regulations were setting us up to become major importers of gas from outside North America, putting the US in much the same position for gas as we were already in for oil. What a difference a couple of years makes. As detailed in a recent Wall St. Journal article, gas production has rebounded sharply as a result of the exploitation of enormous deposits of gas in deep shales that until recently had looked inaccessible. Marketed gas production last year was up 7% over 2007 and a whopping 13% above its 2005 trough. As a result, imports are down, especially in the form of LNG. This mini "gas bubble" could deflate, if the low gas price and tight credit continue to depress drilling activity, particularly by the independent gas producers who were mainly responsible for the recent surge in production. But as the Journal notes, the underlying resource looks robust enough to carry us well into the future. Whatever its other pitfalls, the Pickens Plan would not fail for lack of natural gas.

If anything, the electricity picture is even more encouraging. Demand in 2008 was essentially flat, compared to the prior year, and the composition of generation shifted modestly away from coal (down 1%) and other fossil fuels (down 4%), while electricity from nuclear, hydro and other renewables expanded by 2%, led by a 51% increase in wind power output. Wind, solar and geothermal power accounted for just 1.6% of all generation, but the broader group of low-emission sources, including nuclear, made up nearly 29% of the total. This looks set to continue growing, as long as the current nuclear fleet, which accounted for 2/3 of that figure, stays on line and eventually expands.

I recently ran across an interesting analysis examining the extent to which the economic crisis might have been precipitated by an oil price shock--the primary feature of the energy crisis that attracted so much attention in 2007-08. I expressed similar suspicions last December, if in less elegant economic terms. Which was the chicken and which the egg is of more than merely academic interest, because if the energy crisis was a principal contributor to the bursting of a financial bubble that couldn't last forever, rather than merely another manifestation of that bubble, then it seems that the chances of another devastating energy price spike in our near future ought to be a little lower. That would be another piece of good news to add to a generally positive current view of energy.

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