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Oil Supply: The Crunch Has Arrived!!
by iNet News Manager
Impacts of Non-Renewable Energy Sources
source: Solar Today News Network

Boulder, CO, •• March 13, 2000 •• SolarQuest® iNet News Service ••

Background

In December 1997 the Asian Financial Meltdown began to bite ending over 20 years of high economic growth there. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) also increased their production quotas, responding to the highest consumption growth in 1996-97 since the 1970's while the UN Security Council increased Iraq's so-called oil-for-food quota. The 1997-98 northern hemisphere winter was mild and demand for heating oil was low. Consequently 1998 saw a fall in Asian oil consumption ending years of high growth with world consumption the same as in 1997 while production expanded.

Oil prices fell from US$23 a barrel in December 1997 to US$10 a barrel in February 1999, nearly equalling in real terms the lowest prices ever. OPEC countries faced severe financial crises with the threat of political unrest. Falling cash flow forced western oil companies to cut back exploration and development work and shed experienced staff, weakening even further their capacity to operate in upstream oil. In many areas production costs exceeded the price of oil, wells were shut down with some never to be turned on again, especially 'stripper wells' in the USA. Many of the investment cut backs were for development work to counter falling output from ageing oil fields. Running fast to just stand still became running backwards.

To counter this financial disaster the OPEC cartel in March 1999 further reduced its production "quotas" to a total cut back of 4.32 million barrels per day (m.bbls/d). Oil prices began to rise in April and most oil analysts predicted OPEC discipline would not hold and forecast low prices to continue for at least three years. The more perceptive analysts, aware of how tight supply was and of the looming spectre of depletion, predicted the opposite.

Why Were The Analysts Wrong?

Consumption rebounds
Firstly, OPEC quota discipline held at around 90% through 1999. Prices continued to rise and were over US$20 a barrel by August.

Asian Recovery
Secondly, from mid-1999 Asian economies began to recover sooner and more quickly than everyone expected, and with it their oil consumption. Oil was the principal fuel powering the "Asian Tigers" economic growth. A booming US economy was also fuelling higher oil consumption, and both impacts resonated around the world. Oil consumption rose by 1.6% to 75.2 m.bbls/d in 1999 with the increase gathering pace as the year progressed.

By October consumption was exceeding supply, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), with stock draw downs of 0.7 m.bbls/d in October, 1.6 m.bbls/d in November, 4.7 m.bbls/d in December, 0.5 m.bbls/d in January and continuing into February while OPEC quota compliance fell to 75%. In other words the OPEC "shut-in" production is down to about 3.2-3.3 m.bbls/d and the falling inventories of crude and petroleum product are starting to encroach upon that required for secure operation of the supply system which is becoming increasingly vulnerable to minor disturbances. Oil prices have risen to over US$30 a barrel.

Non-Persian Gulf oil is peaking
Thirdly, there is a growing consensus in the oil industry and among other analysts that oil production outside the Persian Gulf will peak in 2000 through 2001. North Sea oil will peak this year according to the London based Petroleum Review of February 2000. Mexico's largest oil field, offshore Cantarell, has a gigantic $1 billion nitrogen injection project about to be commissioned to re-pressurise the field to offset decline and requiring a further 12 year $9 billion investment to keep the pressure up. The enforced investment cut backs of 1998-9 are now showing themselves as faster production declines in North America, the North Sea and possibly Venezuela which faces a similar situation to Mexico. African producers and China face similar prospects over the next two years.

Non-Persian Gulf oil will peak at about 55-56 m.bbls/d with about 10 m.bbls/d of this coming from OPEC producers. The IEA forecasts consumption of 77 m.bbls/d in 2000, an increase of 2.4% on 1999 with consumption in the successive four quarters of 77.2, 75.4, 76.6 and 78.8 m.bbls/d respectively. That means Persian Gulf producers have to supply 21-22 m.bbls/d average for the year and 22.8 m.bbls/d in the fourth quarter. Their output in 4Q 1999 was 19 m.bbls/d and the maximum is about 23 m.bbls/d. However, it is not possible to operate such a supply system at or near 100% capacity all the time, there are always supply hiccups.

The 2Q is normally the time stocks are replenished following the northern hemisphere peak and in preparation for the summer driving season and subsequent winter peak. However, in the absence of an increase in OPEC production this will be difficult. OPEC meets in March to review quotas. It looks as though quotas will be partially lifted. But there are signs that OPEC members are looking backwards at the price falls that have accompanied past quota rises and will be wary about ending quotas. It would be June before such increases could come into full effect as it takes two months for oil to move from the exporters shipping terminal to the petrol bowser.

If the IEA's consumption expectations are fulfilled, even with OPEC quotas lifted in March, supply will be extremely tight in the second half of 2000.

Post 2000 Supply Shortfall

Mid 1990's forecasts Oil supply analysts like Colin Campbell have for many years forecast that non-Persian Gulf oil would peak around 2000, Persian Gulf production would peak about 2011-12 and the world as a whole between 2006-08. The latter forecasts have always assumed that the needed investment in exploration and oil field development would occur in time on the scale required, especially in the Persian Gulf. What is the true position?

A series of articles in the US Oil & Gas Journal around 1994-96 discussed the prospects for OPEC as a whole and the Persian Gulf producers to meet expected production in 2000 and 2005. Around $100 billion was seen as necessary by 2005 with just under half in the Persian Gulf countries who would provide 75% of the net production increase, indeed the only area in the world where significant increases are possible at low cost. Oil consumption in 2000 is at the higher end of these forecasts and non-Persian Gulf production a bit higher.

The bulk of non-Persian Gulf investment was required to sustain production from ageing oil fields - with 60% of the Persian Gulf investment needed for the same purpose. There is a substantial backlog of such investment. Such rehabilitation investment is particularly needed in Iraq and Iran where the consequences of war and sanctions have taken their toll. Several producers maximum production is now below levels attainable in the1970's.

It is difficult to get reliable information on the physical status of these oil fields and the level of investment to date. But one thing is certain there is a substantial backlog of Persian Gulf investment needed to meet expected post-2000 oil consumption growth, in the order of tens of billions of dollars. Once the barriers to such investment are removed it will take about two to four years for this to translate into oil production.

So it will be 2003-04 before meaningful expansion of world oil production beyond the 2000 level is possible!! Remember by then non-Persian Gulf production falls will be very visible, particularly in the North Sea. The scale of the investment is beyond the internal financial and technical resources of these countries. This may not have been the case if sustained investment had begun five years ago.

Barriers to Persian Gulf oil investment

What are the main obstacles to Persian Gulf oil investment?

Firstly there is a lack of awareness of the realities of oil depletion, over-optimistic expectations of the gains to be made by technology and inconsistencies in the statistics for production and reserves and there interpretation, factors that together create a false optimism and lack of awareness of how tight supply is becoming.

Secondly, low oil prices have inhibited investment, and until recently the large excess of supply over consumption which was mostly concentrated in the Persian Gulf. Growing populations and low oil prices have substantially reduced the per capita income of these countries who now have to import food on a substantial scale to feed their populations. Along with welfare (for the elite as well as the masses) and the military, little has been left in budgets for oil investment.

Thirdly, and the most important are the political constraints to investment. Iraq and Iran have the most urgent need to upgrade infrastructure. US inspired sanctions effectively prohibit this, sanctions that now seriously threaten the political and economic stability of the world. These are unlikely to be lifted before the US Presidential elections and what happens after that may depend on who is President and the composition of congress.

The scale and speed of outside investment and technical support needed is a sensitive internal political issue for the countries concerned where their is considerable criticism of the extravagances of the ruling elites compounded by a generation change. Iran has over 6o million people and over half are under the age of 25.

It is not in the long term interests of these countries to blow there oil quickly, but rather ration it out at high prices, but not at a level that damages the world economy.

The March and September 2000 meetings of OPEC will be critical in this regard as will the interactions with the US Presidential elections and six-monthly re-negotiating of the UN's so-called oil-for-food agreement with Iraq, due in May and November.s

Conclusion

Only a significant fall in IEA's expected world oil consumption for 2000 can reduce the risk of a supply shortfall later this year, and then only if OPEC substantially or completely lifts its production quotas in March.

Supply shortfalls are inevitable after 2000 to at least 2003 due to the lack of appropriate investment in the Persian Gulf countries. If the political obstacles to this investment are delayed unduly then the supply shortfalls will last longer.

As a consequence the peaking of non-Persian Gulf oil production in 2000-01will merge with the previously anticipated 2006-09 world peak into one decade long peaking event.

Australia's oil self -sufficiency is expected to deteriorate rapidly next decade. Oil imports were approximately A$1.2 billion in 1999 and could reach A$10 billion by 2010 at current oil prices and exchange rate for business-as -usual consumption, half that by 2003. The annual trade deficit is under A$10 billion at present. Business will not be "as usual".

A better appreciation will be possible after 10 April when th IEA publishes its quarterly report on www.iea.org.

Submitted by Brian Fleay, Perth, Australia

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