Another Oil Shock Around The Corner

About a month ago I wrote a post concerning a thesis that was floating around that high energy prices rather than the housing debacle that was at the heart of the collapse of the economy. It generated lots of comments, pro and con, on Seeking Alpha but in the end it was just a thesis, albeit one with probably some relation to reality.

I raise the issue now not because the price of oil has been rising, though that is worthy of note, but because of a warning today from Saudi Arabia. They’re saying the world could face prices above $150 a barrel within two or three years.

From the Guardian.co.uk here is their logic:

“We are maintaining our long-term focus rather than being swayed by the volatility of short-term conditions,” said the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, ahead of an Opec meeting in Vienna on Thursday. “However, if others do not begin to invest similarly in new capacity expansion projects, we could see within two to three years another price spike similar to or worse than what we witnessed in 2008.”

He said low prices and weak demand had discouraged investment in energy projects. Those problems had been compounded by high development costs, tight credit markets and energy policies that are focused on alternative fuel sources.

IMF first deputy managing director John Lipsky said: “With long time-to-build lags, significant setbacks to oil investment today could set the stage for future sharp price increases.”

The article also references a report from the International Energy Agency that echoes the Saudi’s warning:

The International Energy Agency has voiced similar concerns. At a conference in London two months ago, the agency’s deputy director, Richard Jones, said: “Unless sufficient companies have the will and financial ability to invest through the downcycle, there is a real risk that supply growth may lag the eventual rebound of demand, leading to substantial price increases – possibly as early as this year.”

It wouldn’t take much to choke off whatever sort of recovery we have going right now. Though neither of these forecasts talk about an incipient spike upwards, it’s no secret that gas prices are up pretty smartly right now. Since no one seems to expect this recovery to be terribly robust, the prospect of prices racing back up in the medium term is a bit concerning. Oil could well act as a cap on any recovery of significance.

The issue that both the Saudis and the IEA cite is one of under-investment though there are others talking of production peaks in major fields occurring sooner than forecast. The question is where the investment in expanded exploration and development is going to come from.

Certainly, the major private oil companies as well as the sovereign oil producers like the Saudis will contribute their share. At the same time, however, there is substantial antipathy to further development of fossil fuel resources within a number of countries including the United States. The environmental movement is unlikely to look kindly on any measures taken by this country and most western countries that would appear to be assist or abet any increase in investment in oil production. It is somewhat of an article of faith with them that higher prices for oil will accelerate the movement to renewable energy sources.

So if we do indeed find ourselves in a situation in which oil spikes for a lack of productive capacity, it’s probable that little help in alleviating the choke point would come from government. Given the time lags involved in bringing production online it’s not at all unlikely we could find ourselves trying to crawl out of this hole with a pretty big anchor around our ankle.

If you’re looking for a way to play this, I think you ought to look at oil field services. This has the smell of a problem that will be left to fester for political reasons and then turn into a crisis. When that happens money will be thrown at the problem big time and it’s not likely to taper off that quickly. Just a guess here, but I suspect that a few years down the road the reality of how long it’s going to take to transition to renewables is going to hit everyone between the eyes. As reality imposes on reveries the necessity of securing an adequate fossil fuel supply will transform the current political debate into one which works to the distinct advantage of the oil business.

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