energy: oil


–oil began replacing coal as fuel of choice in the early 20th century, but that loss was mostly offset by substitution of coal for wood, until…

…at the end of WWII, Saudi Arabia, having lost its primary source of revenue, Hajj pilgrims, in the prior decade-plus, opened its oil deposits to foreign development.  

–Third-world producing countries formed OPEC in 1960 as a political organization to battle exploitation by oil-consuming countries.  In the 1970s, OPEC “shocked” the world by raising the price of crude oil in two stages from $1 barrel to $7.  In the panic that ensued after the second increase the price spiked to over $30 before collapsing and staying low for years.

–During the 1970s oil crisis, every major consuming nation other than the US acted decisively to decrease dependence on oil.  If anything, the US did the opposite.  One result of our misguided policy (to protect domestic auto firms) has been that although the US represents 6% of the world’s population it consumes 20% of global oil output.  Another, despite this + trade protection of domestic carmakers, has been loss of half the domestic auto market to better-made, more fuel-efficient imports.  (In most cases this is what happens–protection weakens the protected sector.)


price dynamics

Pre-pandemic, the world was producing about 100 million barrels of oil daily.  It consumed about the same.  Oil supply is relatively inflexible.  In over-simple terms, once a large underground pool of oil start to flow toward a well, it’s difficult to stop without harming its ability to start up again.  Because of this, even small supply excesses and shortfalls can induce sharp price changes.


The biggest oil producers are:

US          19.5 million barrels/day (includes natural gas liquids.  crude alone = 12.7 million)

Saudi Arabia          12 million

Russia          11.5 million

Canada, China, UAE, Iraq, Iran      each 4 – 5 million


The biggest oil consuming countries are:

US          20 million barrels/day

EU          15 million

China          13.5 million

India, Japan, Russia      each about 4 million

my stab at production costs (which is at least directionally correct)

Saudi Arabia        less than $5/barrel

Russia          $30/barrel

US fracking          $40/barrel

where we stand toady

The coronavirus outbreak appears to have reduced world oil demand by about 15 million barrels a day.  Enough surplus oil is building up that global storage capacity will soon be completely full.  Also, a spat broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia over production cutbacks to support prices.  When the two couldn’t agree, the Saudis began to dump extra oil on the market.

West Texas Intermediate, which closed last year just above $60 a barrel, plunged to just above $20 a barrel in late March.  It goes for about $24 as I’m writing this late Sunday night, despite Moscow and Riyadh seemingly paving patched up their differences last week and agreeing to cut their output by 10 million barrels between them.  The market was not impresses, as the Friday WTI quote shows.


The US is in a peculiar position:

–the administration in Washington appears to have two conflicting energy goals:  to keep use of fossil fuels as high as possible; and to keep the world oil price high enough to make fracking profitable.  The first argues for lower prices, the second for higher.

–according to the Energy Information Administration, fracking accounted for 7.7 million barrels of daily crude oil liftings in the US last year, or 63% of the national crude total.   If the cost numbers above are anywhere near accurate, domestic frackers are in deep trouble at today’s oil price  

This doesn’t mean production will come to a screeching halt. 

The industry has two problems:  excessive debt and high total costs.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Whiting Petroleum, a fracker who recently declared bankruptcy, prepared for pulling the plug by drawing its full $600 million credit line, swapping stock in the reorganized company to retire $2 billion in junk bonds and paying top executives a total of $14.5 million.  That solves problem number one. 

As to number two, total costs break out into capital costs (leases, drilling…) and operating costs.  I have no idea what the split is for Whiting and I have no interest in trying to figure it out.  My guess is that the company can generate positive cash flow even at today’s prices.  Almost certainly the reorganized company can.  It may choose to shut its existing wells in the hope of higher prices down the road.  But it could equally well opt to continue to operate just to keep experienced crews together.  However, new field development is likely off the table for now.

my take

When I was an oil analyst almost (gulp!) a generation ago, the ground level misunderstanding the investment world had about OPEC was the belief that it was an economic organization, a cartel, not the political entity that it actually was.  The difference?–economic cartels invariably fail as members cheat on quotas; political groups have much more solidarity.  Today’s OPEC, I think, is much more an economic cartel than previously.  In other words, it can no longer control prices.  And despite the fact that Putin and MSB have extraordinary sway over the administration in Washington, my guess is this won’t help, either.

There’s some risk that investing in oil today is like investing in firewood in 1900 or coal in 1960.

Despite this, for experts in smaller US oil exploration companies, I think there will be a lot of money to be made after a possible wave of bankruptcies has crested.  Personally, I’d rather be making videos.









why have oil production costs fallen so much?

rules for commodities

From years of analyzing oil, gas and metals mining–as well as watching agricultural commodities and high-rise real estate out of the corner of my eye–I’ve come to believe in two hard and fast rules:

–when prices begin to fall, they continue to do so until a significant amount of productive capacity becomes uneconomic and is shut down.  That’s when the selling price of output won’t cover the cash cost of production.  Even then, management often doesn’t reach for the shutoff valve immediately.  It may hope that some external force, like a big competitor shutting down, will intervene (a miracle, in other words) to improve the situation.  Nevertheless, what makes a commodity a commodity is that the selling price is determined by the cost of production.

–it’s the nature of commodities to go through boom and bust cycles, with periods of shortage/rising prices followed by over-investment that generates overcapacity/falling prices.  The length of the cycle is a function of the cost of economically viable new capacity.  If that means the the price of new seed that sprouts into salable goods in  less than a year, the cycle will be short.  If it’s $5 billion to develop a gigantic deep-water offshore hydrocarbon deposit that will last for 30 years, the cycle will be long.

boom and bust spending behavior

During a period of rising prices, cost control typically goes out the window for commodity producers.  Their total focus is on adding capacity to satisfy what appears at that moment to be insatiable demand.  Maybe this isn’t as short-sighted as it appears (a topic for another day).  But if oil is selling for, say $100 a barrel, it’s more important to pay double or triple the normal rate for drilling rigs or mud or new workers–even if that raises your out-of-pocket costs from $40 to, say, $60 a barrel lifted out of the ground.  Every barrel you don’t lift is an opportunity loss of at least $40.

When prices begin to fall, however, industry behavior toward costs shifts radically.  In the case of oil and gas, some of this is involuntary.  Declining profits can trigger loan covenants that require a firm to cease spending on new exploration and devote most or all cash flow to repaying debt instead.

In addition, though, at $50 a barrel, it makes sense for management to:  haggle with oilfield services suppliers;  do more ( or, for some firms initiate) planning of well locations, using readily available software, to optimize the flow of oil to the surface;  optimize fracking techniques, again to maintain the highest flow; streamline the workforce if needed.   From what I’ve read about the recent oil boom, during the period of ultra-high prices none of this was done.  Hard as it may be to believe, getting better pricing for services and operating more efficiently have trimmed lifting expenses by at least a third–and cut them in half for some–for independent wildcatters in the US.


This experience is very similar to what happened in the long-distance fiber optic cable business worldwide during the turn of the century internet boom.  As the stock market bubble burst and cheap capital to build more fiber optic networks dried up, companies found their engineers had built in incredibly high levels of redundancy into networks (meaning the cables could in practice carry way more traffic than management thought) and had also bought way to much of the highest-cost transmission equipment.  At the same time, advances in wave division multiplexing meant that each optic fiber in the cable could carry not only one transmission but 4, or 8, or 64, or 256…  The result was a swing from perceived shortage of capacity to a decade-long cable glut.

My bottom line for oil:  $40 – $60 a barrel prices are here to stay.  If they break out of that band, the much more likely direction is down.


which recovers first, crude oil or base metals?

I’m in the oil first camp.  (My private opinion is that it could take a decade or more for base metal prices to perk up.  Whether that turns out to be true or not is less important to a long-only investor like me than the idea that recovery is not soon.)

How so?


Leading with (the opposite of what you’re supposed to do) my weakest reason, look at the last cycle of gigantic investment in expanding natural resources production capacity.  Oil and metals prices both peaked in 1980-81  …and then plunged.  Oil stabilized and began to move up again in 1986; for metals recovery was over a decade later.

closing the supply/demand gap

There’s only a gap of a couple of percentage points between the amount of oil the world is demanding and the amount producers are willing to supply.  Growth in the car industry in China, the replacement of scooters and motorcycles with cars in other high-population countries like India and the strong increase in gasoline consumption in the US now that prices are lower all argue that the shortfall between demand and supply is, little by little, being erased.

On the other hand, the extent of base metals overcapacity is less easy to put your finger on, but is, nevertheless, massive.  Demand is also more cyclical–therefore less dependably growing, as well, but that’s less important than that mining capacity is added in gigantic chunks.

the nature of the enterprise

The up-front cost of a base metals mining project is very high.  There’s the mine itself, the huge machines that rip the ore out of the earth and the sometimes elaborate plants that crush or grind or otherwise separate it from the ordinary dirt.  Then there’s the transport link with the outside world.  All of this infrastructure can lie fallow for long periods without impairing the mine’s ability to be restarted–even expanded from its prior size–very quickly.

For oil, in contrast, finding new fields is a much more important issue.  Drilling new wells in an existing field is, too, in many cases.  As time has passed, the focus of the big oil majors has increasingly been on mega-projects that make them look much more like base metals miners than they did when I was covering the oil industry as a securities analyst in the late 1970s – early 1980s.

Hydraulic fracturing, however, has changed the industry for good.  This technology has made huge numbers of projects economically viable that have limited output that goes on for relatively short periods.  This converts 21st century oil exploration, in the US at least, into a sharp-pencil engineering business that even small firms can excel at.  Granted, the fact that production can turn on very rapidly when prices are high enough puts a cap on how far they can rise.  But the fact that several millions of barrels of daily output can be turned off equally quickly argues that the response time of the oil industry to a supply/demand imbalance will be much quicker than has been the case in the past.


oil: will falling prices reduce supply?

Ultimately, yes   …but only at lower prices than today’s., I think.

With any mining commodity, price declines normally end only when the highest-cost firms have to pay more to produce the commodity than they can sell it for.   Even then, if a production process is hard to restart or if the producers fear losing skilled workers permanently if they shut down, production often continues for a period even though cash flow is negative.

Petroleum has been an exception to this rule.  Oil had a period in the early 1980s when Saudi Arabia reduced its oil production dramatically in a vain bid to stabilize prices.  But its efforts were undone by other members of OPEC who agreed to cut production, too, but upped it instead to fill the vpoid left by Saudi cutbacks.  It took Saudi resumption of production and a consequent plunge in prices for the others to fall into line.  This time around Saudi Arabia has made it clear it won’t repeat its production-cutting mistake.

If cartel action won’t stop the current oil price decline, then we’re left with normal commodity forces to do the job.  The most likely production to shut down for cost reasons is output generated through hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota and Texas.  Estimates of cash production costs for fracked wells ranges from $40 – $60 a barrel.  In theory, therefore, production won’t be taken off the market until prices reach $60.  Even at that level, however, only a small amount of output will probably be lost–not enough for price stabilization.

One wild card:  bank loans.  Typically, smaller oil exploration companies of the type that have been successful with fracking try to boost their returns or speed their expansion by leveraging themselves financially.   Except in times of speculative excess, bank exploration companies contain restrictive covenants.  These normally mandate that the explorer must maintain reserves with a value of, say, 3x the amount of the loan.  If the value of reserves falls below a certain minimum, say 2x the value of the loan, the borrower is required to devote most or all of its cash flow to repaying its borrowings.  In other words, it can no longer pay a dividend to shareholders nor can it spend money on new drilling.  This last is potentially a big issue for frackers, whose wells tend to have relatively short productive lives.

My guess is that borrowings of the type I’ve just described will ultimately be the reason the oil price ultimately stabilizes, by halting the growth of fracking.  Two ways to gauge whether this is happening:  dividend cuts, and reductions in the number of new wells started.