Seismic Shift.

It’s probably hard for most people to accept this, but economic growth raised incomes all around the world by 28 percent between 2005 and 2013. All that growth required a rise in oil production of 19 percent. That rise in oil production never happened. In large part, it never happened because Saudi Arabia and other major producers never increased their production.[1] They preferred a stable target price of $100 a barrel. Instead, oil prices held steady. By June 2014, West Texas crude was selling for $107 a barrel. Revenues flowed in to oil-producers. But, as the Germans said about the Greeks, “they’ve had their fun.” Nemesis was at hand.[2]

It has been a long time coming. In October 1973 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) launched the first “oil shock” against the industrial democracies. The target countries responded in a variety of ways. Some of the responses were ludicrous, but some had important long-run consequences. In the United States, Congress approved construction of a pipeline from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, tried to foster nuclear power generation, first imposed fuel-economy standards on car manufacturers, and created the Energy Research and Development Administration. All these were efforts to prepare a long-term strategy.

Eduardo Porter has argued that federal support for research and development paid big dividends.   In particular, Porter touts the role of government “industrial policy” in the developments that led to the recent shale revolution. The government helped pay for the development of “directionally deviated drilling,” the antecedent to the horizontal drilling that is used in “fracking.” The government pioneered large-scale hydraulic fracturing. The government subsidized the “polycrystalline diamond compact bits” that do the drilling. Micro-seismic imaging, originally developed in government labs to trace coal mine collapses, found application in identifying fracturing sites. The Reagan administration ended obstructive price regulations that had hindered investment.

The shale revolution took decades to develop. Recovering natural gas from shale formed the initial target. When natural gas produced by “fracking” entered energy markets in large quantities a few years ago, natural gas prices started dropping. The drillers’ effort shifted to releasing oil. By 2013 it began to pay off. That year American producers generated 3.5 million barrels of oil derived from shale. From June 2014 to January 2015 the price of oil fell from over $100 a barrel to $45 a barrel.

Why didn’t OPEC cut its own production to push the price back up? Probably because they could not cut back enough to off-set the rise in American production. Cutting production would just cede market-share to the Americans. They are hoping that prices will bounce back up in the future. A revival of world economic growth will increase the demand for energy. This will off-set the expansion of American production to a degree. Shale oil is expensive to produce in comparison to “regular” oil. The current low price will cause many American producers to shut down their operations until prices rise to a profitable level. However, no one now expects oil prices to rebound to anywhere near $100 a barrel. A ceiling of $70 a barrel is more likely.

Falling oil prices have dragged down prices for gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and natural gas. Consumers all around the world are enjoying the equivalent of a tax cut, which in the US amounts to $1,000 a year. That is a valuable prop to growth when strong growth tarries.

[1] Excluding a brief fun-up to counter the 2008 economic collapse.

[2] Eduardo Porter, “Behind Drop in Oil Prices, A Federal Role,” NYT, 21 January 2015.

 

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