Posts tagged ‘OPEC’

What A Disaster Nationalization of the US Oil Industry Would Have Been!

Back in the 1970's, there were serious proposals in Congress to nationalize US oil companies.  My dad, who was an executive at a major oil company, was being constantly dragged to DC to testify in front of Congress to try to explain what a bad idea that would be.  This was a time of incredible economic ignorance in Washington, perhaps even more than average, when a Republican President had recently instituted wage and price controls and Congress was looking for ways to "fix" problems with oil supply that they themselves had caused with price control rules and other restrictions on exploration.

Think about what we know about state-run oil companies in Venezuela, Mexico and even Saudi Arabia:

  • They always under-invest capital in well maintenance, preferring to route cash flow to social spending that helps maintain shaky governments in power.  Many folks don't understand this, but production from a well starts falling off almost from the moment you drill it.  Well's must be expensively reworked and maintained and upgrade to keep flowing over their life.  This has gotten so bad in Venezuela that the country with the world's largest oil reserves is running out of gas.  I worked with Pemex for years and, at least in the 1990's, were about 1 step away from Pemex looking just like Venezuela's state oil company
  • They have missed most of the recent revolutions in technology, and do no technology development of their own.  If not for technology developed by private western oil companies, they would barely be ahead of Edwin Drake.
  • They deal with price downturns by forming cartels and attempting to fix prices and reduce output.

Private oil companies at the same time:

  • Reinvest massively in both new and existing fields, often with 20-30 year time horizons
  • Continue to revolutionize technology - the shale boom is just one example
  • Respond to market price downturns with innovation and efficiency improvements.

The link above is gated so here is an excerpt:

Now, with oil currently trading near $50 a barrel, these producers are trying to unleash fracking 2.0, the next step in the technological transformation of the sector that is aimed at extracting oil even faster and less expensively to eke out profits at that level.

The promise of this new phase is potentially as significant as the original revolution. If more producers can follow EOG’s lead and profitably ramp up output from shale drilling even at lower prices, the sector could become a lasting force that challenges OPEC’s ability to control market prices.

For a sector in which the previous era’s success was tied to the rapid expansion of output, the shift toward finding more cost-effective ways to get to that oil and gas is full of challenges. When oil prices dropped, critics wondered if the shale industry—rife with heavily indebted companies that had never turned a profit—would collapse.

EOG, with its longtime focus on low-cost production, is the producer many hope to emulate, thanks to the iSteer app and dozens of other homegrown innovations. Dubbed the “Apple of oil” by one analyst, EOG made its name as a pioneer in horizontal drilling and in finding ways to get oil out of shale—often dense layers of rock that hold oil and gas in tiny pores—a feat many once believed impossible.

Can you imagine people like Gina McCarthy running our state oil company?  Good god, we would have $10 gas and import 80% of our oil.

Oil Prices and State-Run Corporate Incompetence

Over the last year or so, I have been relatively optimistic for a relatively significant drop in oil prices over the next 2-4 years followed by a number of years of price stability at this lower level.  This would be a direct analog to what happened in the 80's after the 1978 oil price spike.

One argument readers have made against this scenario is that a much larger percentage of the world's oil potential is controlled by lumbering state oil companies than was the case in 1978, particularly given the US Congress's continued cooperation with OPEC in keeping US oil reserves off-limits to drilling.  The theory runs that these state run oil companies have a number of problems:

  • they move and react very slowly
  • they don't have the technical competence to develop more difficult  reserves
  • they don't have the political will to divert oil profits from social programs (including oil industry over-employment and patrimony) to capital spending

This latter issue is a big one - even keeping current fields running at a level rate requires constant capital and technological infusions.  I have written about this issue before, and I am sympathetic to this argument.  Here is Jim Kingsdale on this issue:

Events in Iran since the Revolution are an eery echo of what has
happened in Venezuela since the advent of Chavez.  Skilled workers and
foreign capital and technology have fled.  Corruption has become
rampant  along with incompetence.  Production of over 6 mb/d fell to
below 3 mb/d after the Revolution and is currently about 3.8 mb/d.  The
pre-revolutionary head count of 32,000 employees has grown to 112,000.

Since the Revolution Iran has exported $801.2 billion of oil but
nobody knows where that money has gone.  "Certainly none of it was
invested in Iranian oil infrastructure which badly needs renovation and
repair, upstream and downstream."  The author claims the Iranian
petro-industry is "on the brink of bankruptcy" although such a claim is
not documented.

It is clear that Iran, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, and Iraq together
represent an enormous percentage of the world's oil deposits and
production that is being mismanaged.  The political and management
dysfunctions in all of these countries simultaneously is a major reason
for the world's current energy crisis.  If these countries all operated
in a standard capitalist mode, I suspect oil would be below $50 a
barrel and the ultimate supply crisis might be five or ten or even
fifteen years beyond when we will see it fairly soon
.  There seems to
be little hope that any of these countries will make a dramatic change
in their oil productivity soon.

I am coming around to this argument.  I still think that oil prices are set for a fall, but lower prices may not last long if this analysis is correct.

Update: Of course Maxine Waters would like to add the United States to this list of countries with incompetent government management of oil reserves.

So Where Are They Storing All the Oil?

I find the current political demagoguery that oil speculators are now the ones responsible for higher oil prices to be absolutely laughable.  I am willing to believe that oil supply and demand are perfectly inelastic over very short time periods, meaning that we might expect little change in supply or demand over a couple of days or weeks after a price change, allowing for a fairly free range of speculative excesses.  However, there is every evidence that oil is by no means perfectly price inelastic, and supply and consumption do change with price.  Already in the past few months we have seen, for example, substantial reductions in passenger car miles in this country. 

For any period of time longer than hours or days (or perhaps weeks), any cabal that is somehow manipulating oil prices well above the natural market clearing price is going to have to deal with a problem:  Extra oil.  Lots of it.  Even if the supply side is sticky due to shortages currently in drilling equipment, demand is not.  People are going to use less, and at the same time, every supplier is going to be trying to send every barrel to market as quick as they can  (oil producers know that prices that rise will eventually fall again -- that is the history of oil.  They are all programmed to move as much product as possible when prices are at all time highs).

A lot of dynamics, such as a short squeeze, can create a speculative bulge, but if speculators are somehow purposefully keeping oil prices high for long periods of time, they must be doing one of three things:

  1. Storing a lot of oil somewhere
  2. Creating an extensive system of production controls that keeps oil supply off the market.
  3. Have someone with deep pockets subsidize consumer demand for oil by selling excess oil off at below market prices.

One is just not possible, not in the quantities that would be required.  Two sort of happens in a haphazard and not very consistent way with OPEC, though it is hard to convince me that futures traders in Chicago have an active partnership with large state-run oil companies.  Three is actually happening, with the Chinese government continuing to sell gasoline and other petroleum products at below market prices, but there is evidence that there are limits to how much further they will take this.  Again, I think this is being done for reasons other than cooperation with mercantile exchange traders in the US.

To a large extent, this theory, if it is anything more than just populist capitalism-bashing, is a result of extreme ignorance.  There are an incredible number of people involved in the oil markets every day in numerous countries with numerous different incentives, such a large number that it is impossible to imagine a conspiracy.  There have been a couple of cases of proven petroleum commodity price manipulation in these trading markets - most of these have involved manipulation of prices at the end of the day on certain futures expiration and/or Platt's pricing windows.  The time frame for these manipulations have been on the order of 1-2 minutes.

But here is the best argument against this manipulation for higher prices, and it is amazing to me that no one ever thinks of it.  Sure, there are a bunch of really savvy people in the commodity trading business who are long on oil and want the price to be higher.  But for every seller, there is a buyer on the other side, someone who is at least as savvy and is desireous of lower prices.  Yes, I know it is a complicated concept, but for every trader selling there is one buying.  If there is an extended conspiracy to push up oil prices by speculators, do you really think the buyers are just going to sit on their hands and take it?  And do you really think the exchanges are going to be happy with this behavior, threatening the integrity of their trading system (really their only asset)?  Just ask the Hunt family, which attempted to corner the market and drive prices up in silver, only to have major buyers and the exchanges stop them cold, driving the Hunts in the process into bankrupcy. 

I wrote about this same topic previously here.

Congressmen Make Themselves Outlaws

From recent legislation:

"It shall be illegal and a violation of this Act," declared the House
of Representatives, "to limit the production or distribution of oil,
natural gas, or any other petroleum product"¦ or to otherwise take any
action in restraint of trade for oil, natural gas, or any petroleum
product when such action, combination, or collective action has a
direct, substantial, and reasonably foreseeable effect on the market,
supply, price, or distribution of oil, natural gas, or other petroleum
product in the United States."

Well, OPEC nations may or may not be in violation of this law.  My guess is that if incompetence and general third-world type fraud is actionable, then they are guilty.  It may be tougher to prove outright conspiracy.

BUT, there is one nation that has, right there on the public record, clear government legislation that substantially limits development of some of the largest potential new oil reserves in the US.  That country is the United States, and by passage of this law, the entire Congress has made itself outlaws.

Congress, Sue Thyself

This is almost beyond parody:

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation on
Tuesday allowing the Justice Department to sue OPEC members for
limiting oil supplies and working together to set crude prices, but the
White House threatened to veto the measure.

The bill would
subject OPEC oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela,
to the same antitrust laws that U.S. companies must follow.

The measure passed in a 324-84 vote, a big enough margin to override a presidential veto.

legislation also creates a Justice Department task force to
aggressively investigate gasoline price gouging and energy market

"This bill guarantees that oil prices will reflect
supply and demand economic rules, instead of wildly speculative and
perhaps illegal activities," said Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen of
Wisconsin, who sponsored the legislation.

I am sure, either through scheming or more likely incompetance, that OPEC countries are under-supplying their potential capacity for oil production.  But if we want to deem this a crime, who is the biggest criminal?   The US is the only country I know of that has, by statute, made illegal the development of enormous domestic reserves.  Just last week, Democracts in Congress, in fact the exact same folks sponsoring this bill, voted to continue an effective moratorium on US oil shale development.  No country in the world is doing less to develop the most promising oil reserves than is the US.  Congress, sue thyself.  I mocked this idea weeks ago when Hillary first suggested it.  If this passes, I would love to see the US counter-sued for not developing ANWR.  Or large areas of the Gulf.  Or most of the Pacific coast.  Or all of the Atlantic coast.  Or our largest-in-the-world oil shale deposits. 

Will Hillary Sue the US Congress?

Hillary apparently wants to sue OPEC for not producing enough oil. If this idea had come in via the constituent mail, Hillary's staffers would probably have laughed themselves silly, but it is an election year, and no bottom has been found below which candidates are unable to keep a straight face while uttering what they know to be nonsense.

But should Hillary be suing OPEC, or the US?  Because if you ranked the world's countries on those that are doing the least to develop the most promising potential oil deposits, the US would be right at the top of that list.  By Hillary's logic, Western Europe and Japan should be suing us.


Dumbest Thing I Have Read Today

I agree with Kevin Drum, this is the dumbest thing I have read today:

There is a solution to the rising cost of oil, but it is a painful
one. Let's say there is a lot of $20-a-barrel oil in the world "”
deep-sea oil, Canadian tar sands. But who would look for $20-a-barrel
oil if someone else (Saudi Arabia) has lots of $5-a-barrel oil? The
answer is: no one.

Basically, American taxpayers have to guarantee potential producers
that the price in the future will not fall below $20 a barrel and that
they will not lose their investments.

This is easy to do. The U.S. needs to guarantee that it will buy all
of its oil at $20 a barrel before buying anything from OPEC. This
forces the price of oil down to $20 a barrel, but it eliminates the
possibility that it will ever go back to $5 a barrel.

The implication that no one will add capacity if there is anyone at all to the left of them on the supply curve is just silly, and defies history in any number of industries, including oil.  By this argument, no one would be building super-deep water oil platforms today.  The reason there is not more oil exploration today in certain areas of North America is that there are formal and informal government restrictions that make it hard and/or impossible.  And to the extent that oil companies are treating current oil prices as a bubble that will inevitably fall, all I can say is, bring it on. 

Aren't These the Same?

I saw these two posts one after the other on Q&O.  One is about Chavez's food regulations in Venezuela, the other is about a government health care plan in California.  One is about government takeover of a critical industry, price controls, supply rationing, and demonizing large private corporations, and the other is about the same thing, but in Venezuela.  Since Chavez is further along with his program, we might see how things are working out for him:

Venezuela's top food company has accused troops of illegally seizing
more than 500 tonnes of food from its trucks as part of President Hugo
Chavez's campaign to stem shortages.

The leftist Chavez this
week created a state food distributor and loosened some price controls,
seeking to end months of shortages for staples like milk and eggs that
have caused long lines and upset his supporters in the OPEC nation.

highly publicised campaign has also included government crackdowns on
accused smuggling, with the military seizing 1,600 tonnes of food and
sending 1,200 troops to the border with Colombia....

He also threatened to expropriate companies selling food above regulated prices.

who is distributing food ... and is speculating, we must intervene and
we must expropriate (the business) and put it in the hands of the state
and the communities," Chavez said during the inauguration of a new
state-run market in Caracas.

Yep, sounds about the same.  Fortunately, people in the West can still travel across borders to get health care when government rationed and price-controlled services are not available, as many Canadians and British do. So in the US, when we implement all these same steps, we'll be able to travel to..., travel to...  Where will we be able to go?