Into a new oil spike

Ever heard of spare capacity theory? It’s defined by Gregor Macdonald as:

the assumption among western bankers, policy makers, economists, and stock markets that OPEC producers can lift oil production at will, and, export all of that spare production to world consumers.

(See also this recent post on Global Dashboard, and this one from back in 2008.) There’s a lot of spare capacity theory doing the rounds at the moment, given what’s happening in North Africa and the Middle East. Libya normally produces 1.6 million barrels of oil a day (a little under 2% of global production). It’s estimated that about 350,000 barrels, or 22%, of that is now offline, and depending on how things pan out, it could stay offline for some time.

Now imagine what happens if it all kicks off in Algeria (a larger exporter than Libya of oil plus oil products). Or, for that matter, in Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia – all of which are much more significant again. That’s what has traders and futures markets spooked, and everyone looking to Saudi Arabia: as a source quoted in the FT this morning puts it,

“It is fear of the unknown. The risks are all to the upside. Saudi Arabia needs to respond.”

Saudi Arabia, for its part, insists that it can and will increase production if needed:

“Right now, there are active talks in order to implement what is needed,” the Saudi official said. He stressed that the kingdom retains spare capacity of some 4m barrels a day – more than double Libya’s entire output, which totalled 1.58m b/d in January, according to the International Energy Agency.

Saudi Arabia has not yet decided whether to increase production. If it proved necessary to produce more, “then that will happen, there’s no problem at all”, the official said.

But what if that’s not true? Gregor Macdonald argues that the extent to which markets have climbed over the past week “suggests the market is justifiably concerned about events in Libya, and the risk of more unrest to come in oil producing regions”. His conclusion:

Given the potential magnitude of this situation, I actually think its good that we can still rely on price as a means to ration supply.

True though that may be, a new oil price spike is exactly what we didn’t need on global food prices at this point. Back at the start of the year, the fact that we weren’t in the middle of an oil spike was one of the factors I drew comfort from on the food outlook. Not now…

When’s the next oil price spike?

Back in 2008, just as the oil price started to plummet after hitting its all-time high of $147 a barrel, I did a post pondering whether the drop was “the start of a long decline, or just a brief pause to draw breath before a resumption of the relentless upward march of recent years”. I argued that oil prices would stay low as long as the credit crunch lasted, but that

once we’re through the crunch, we may be back to a game of cat and mouse between oil supply and economic growth. Demand falls, oil price falls; demand picks up, oil price goes back up too – but never for long enough to give investors a clear signal to pump cash into new oil supply infrastructure

Over at the Energy Bulletin, Dave Cohen’s just published a post thinking about the same question – and wondering when the next oil spike is due. His take is that the next crunch will likely be in 2013, give or take a year, as his graph below illustrates:

As Dave notes, this graph is not a forecast on oil prices, but rather a schematic illustrating that a) demand surges cause oil price shocks [i.e. the peaks on his graph]; b) oil price shocks cause recesssions and force reductions in demand [the troughs]; and c) the average price of oil goes up over time [the straight line]. Informally, he notes, “we can say there’s been an oil price shock when the real (inflation-adjusted) price goes over $100 per barrel and stays there for at least 2 months”.

His whole post is worth reading (n.b. especially his emphasis on the key variable in all this, namely prospects for Chinese growth) – and leaves the reader wondering: how do we break out of the cycle?

As I argued back in 08, one answer could be massive new investment in oil production – remember the IEA’s consistent warnings throughout the downturn about how under-investment in new oil production is setting the stage for a new supply crunch. But there are two problems with that option. One: we’re into diminishing returns territory. With the age of easy oil over, production increases from now depend on unpalatable options like tar sands, oil shales and, ahem, a lot more deepwater drilling (which is projected to account for 40% of global oil demand by 2020). Two: this approach does nothing to solve climate change.

So, I concluded 2 years ago, “it looks like the only way through is for policymakers to agree a global climate policy framework that’s both global in scope and sufficiently long term to provide investors with an unequivocal signal of where to put their cash: this is the only way of squaring energy security with climate change”.

I still think that’s right – but obviously, prospects for that have dimmed considerably since Copenhagen. So where does that leave us? That leaves us, alas, stuck in the yo-yo world depicted in Dave’s graph (which looks a lot like the Multilateral Zombie climate policy scenario that David and I described in our 2009 report for the UK government on global climate architecture – see page 7 onwards).

Oh – and it also leaves us on track for 3 degrees plus of global warming.

OPEC reserves: who the hell knows?

The question of OPEC’s reserves looms large in the latest World Energy Outlook.  A small excerpt (with emphasis added):

The world’s total endowment of oil is large enough to support the projected rise in production beyond 2030 … Estimates of remaining proven reserves of oil and natural gas liquids range from about 1.2 to 1.3 trillion barrels (including about 0.2 trillion barrels of non-conventional oil).  They have almost doubled since 1980.  This is enough to supply the world with oil for over 40 years at current rates of consumption. Though most of the increase in reserves has come from revisions made in the 1980s in OPEC countries rather than new discoveries, modest increases have continued since 1990, despite rising consumption.

Sounds like quite a lot rides on the accuracy of those reserves estimates.  But the oil industry is a high tech business, and only a total cynic would suggest that OPEC members would inflate their reserve estimates so as to increase their production quotas – so we can trust the data, right? 

Over to Carola Hoyos and Javier Blas in the FT this morning:

When the Opec oil cartel meets in Cairo tomorrow, some of its most powerful members will argue that the key action the group must take is to keep strictly to the 1.5m barrel a day cuts that it has already announced.

Verifying whether Opec’s countries do just that is far from simple. Knowing how much each country produces is mired in politically motivated dishonesty, secrecy and, in many cases, incompetence.

The most reliable data, used even by Opec countries themselves, come not from the cartel member’s energy ministries, but from … a network of spies watching, binoculars in hand, the movement of tankers in and out of the world’s biggest export terminals.