Friday, July 22, 2011

Energy Crisis Prices Persist

Watching oil prices is a hard habit to break, once formed. They're always moving up and down, sometimes for obvious reasons and sometimes not. It has probably escaped most observers' notice that the magnitude of this year's price moves has exceeded the total nominal price of oil that prevailed not many years ago, yet without the sort of apocalyptic events that one might expect such volatility would require. Perhaps that's because we seem to be stuck in the middle of an ongoing, slow-boil oil crisis from which the financial crisis and the demand contraction that accompanied the global recession only provided a brief respite. In fact, when you glance at the oil price trend in real dollars over the last 40 years, it's apparent that prices are back at the level associated with the peak of the oil crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s:

One reason I've been paying extra attention to oil prices lately is that I've been observing the impact of the coordinated release from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) and strategic reserves of other members of the International Energy Agency. So far, my initial assessment that it would have little lasting effect seems to have been validated, though I'll reserve judgment until the oil is actually delivered during August, when we might see the market respond to the increase in commercial oil inventories that should result. Robert Rapier had an excellent posting yesterday on the folly of this decision. My view is, if anything, less flattering. Not only was this choice unwise, but it also appears to have been ineffective, which in the current economic climate is an even more damning assessment.

The modest response to this move tells us something about the fundamentals of the market. In the past, an SPR release on this scale would have crushed prices--not just for a few days, but for months at least. Consider the release that accompanied the start of the first Gulf War in 1991. Only about half of the nearly 34 million bbls authorized was eventually sold, but the price of oil dropped by 33% overnight and took 13 years to recover to the peak it had reached during the lead-up to Desert Storm. By comparison, the announced release of 30 million bbls from the US SPR--the sale of which was fully-subscribed--and another 30 million bbls from other IEA members managed to depress the price of oil by only around 5% for a week or so. As of this morning Brent crude, the global marker, is $4/bbl higher than it was on June 22nd. And as of this Monday's survey, the average pump price of unleaded regular in the US was also higher than before the President announced the release.

The market's tepid reaction to the SPR release suggests that oil prices have been driven up by more than just speculators. Speculation may be playing a role, but it's more like the head on a glass of beer. Beneath that froth lies the robust demand growth in the developing world, which has pushed global oil consumption to a record level of 89 million bbl/day this year. On the supply side, some point to incipient Peak Oil, but characterizing the crisis we're in doesn't require a grand theory. In addition to the curtailment of production from places like Libya and Yemen, and OPEC's desire to keep a lid on output to preserve their revenues, there's a fundamental mismatch between the companies that have the capital and the desire to invest in new production, and the willingness of some governments to grant access to the resources, whether in the Middle East or the US. All of this is compounded by the inherent time lags in resource development, which can range from 5-10 years, depending on the technology and permits required.

As different as the causes and symptoms of this crisis are from those of the 1970s, the broad outline of solutions remains quite similar: Reduce demand, increase supplies, and diversify our sources of energy. We have more and better options than in 1979, but still no miracle cures.

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