Arthur Berman: The Real Cause Of Low Oil Prices

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The Oil Price Collapse Is Because of Expensive Tight Oil

The present oil price collapse is because of over-production of expensive tight oil. The collapse occurred because of the inability of the world market to support the cost of the new expensive oil supply from shale, oil sands and deep water. Demand was progressively destroyed during the longest period of sustained high oil prices in history from 2010 through 2014.

Since the early 2000s, the price of oil was largely insensitive to the fundamentals of supply and demand as long as prices were less than about $90 per barrel. The chart below shows world liquids supply minus demand (relative supply surplus or deficit), and WTI oil price.

Chart_Prod-Cons 2003-2015_WTI CPI Price 3 April 2015
Figure 1. World liquids relative surplus or deficit (production minus consumption) and WTI crude oil price adjusted using the consumer price index (CPI) to real February 2015 U.S. dollars, 2003-2015.  Source:  EIA, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

In mid-2004 and mid-2005, the relative supply surplus was much greater than it has been during the 2014-2015 price collapse yet prices continued to rise. When oil traders perceive supply limits and rising prices, price below some critical threshold is not an issue. They are willing to carry the cost of storage and interest to hold the commodity in the future when it will be more valuable.

In 2004, the relative supply surplus reached 1.9 million barrels per day and in 2005, it reached 4.1 million barrels per day.  By contrast, the greatest supply surplus in the current oil price collapse was 1.7 million barrels per day in January 2015.

During periods of supply surplus in 2004 and 2005, prices were less than $75 per barrel. The average WTI oil price between November 2010 and October 2014 was $91 and for 18 months of that period, prices were more than $100 per barrel.

Oil prices have collapsed three times because of demand destruction:  in 1979, 2008 and 2014. In all of these cases, oil prices exceeded $90 per barrel in real 2015 dollars for extended periods.  The chart below shows WTI oil price* from 1970 to the present with periods when price exceeded $90 per barrel highlighted in red.

CPI WTI GT $90 26 March 2015
Figure 2. WTI crude oil price adjusted using the consumer price index (CPI) to real February 2015 U.S. dollars. Areas in red represent periods when oil prices exceeded $90 per barrel.  Source:  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Oil prices were more than $90 in 1979-1981 for 26 months; in 2008-2009, for 13 months; and in 2010-2014, for 33 months. 2010-2014 was the longest period of oil prices above $90 in history. There were other factors at work in all three of these high oil-price episodes and their subsequent periods of price collapse.

In 1979, the trigger for oil-price increase was the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. More than 6 million barrels of oil were removed from world supply. Oil prices rose from $50 to $115 per barrel (in real 2015 dollars) between January 1979 and April 1981. Then, new production from the North Sea, Mexico, Alaska and Siberia flooded the market. By March 1986, prices had fallen to $27 per barrel.  OPEC cut production by 14 million barrels per day but oil price was unaffected because of a combination of demand destruction, crippling interest rates, and new supply from non-OPEC countries. Prices did not begin to recover until 2001.

So far, the current oil-price collapse is nothing like this.  Surplus production is about 1.0 to 1.5 million barrels per day, interest rates are near zero, and demand recovery appears strong from early data.

The oil-price collapse and Financial Crisis of 2008 were preceded by 11 consecutive months of relative supply deficit and price increase (Figure 1 above). This was largely because of a surge of consumption by China and low OPEC spare capacity. Oil prices approached $150 per barrel in June 2008, the highest price ever reached, and then collapsed below $40 by February 2009.

The record price of oil was an underlying cause of The Financial Crisis. It increased the cost of global trade, produced inflation and higher interest rates that contributed to real estate loan defaults, and caused demand destruction for oil and other commodities.

Weak demand for all commodities and loans remains a chronic artifact of the years since 2008 despite the best efforts of central banks to correct the problem.

Oil prices rebounded fairly quickly after 2008 because of a 4.2 million barrel per day production cut by OPEC in January 2009 (Figure 1). Another reason for increasing oil price was the devaluation of the U.S. dollar by the Federal Reserve Board by lowering interest rates and increasing the money supply. The chart below shows Federal Funds interest rates and the price of oil.

Federal Funds Rate & CPI-Adjusted Oil Price
Figure 3. Federal funds interest rates and WTI oil price in 2015 dollars, January 2000 – January 2015.  Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, EIA, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Oil prices rose with a weak U.S. dollar and interest rates near zero in 2009. Other factors, notably the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, also contributed to the price increase.

As prices passed $80 per barrel in late 2009, tight oil production began in earnest. Low interest rates forced investors to look for yields better than they could find in U.S. Treasury bonds or conventional savings instruments. Money flowed to U.S. E&P companies through high-yield corporate (“junk”) bonds, loans, joint ventures and share offerings. Although risk was a concern, these were investments in the United States that were theoretically backed by hard assets of oil and gas in the ground.

In the first half of 2012, flagging demand caused a relative supply surplus of 3.5 million barrels per day (Figure 1 above). WTI oil prices dropped below $90 but by early 2013, prices returned to the high $90-to-low-$100 per barrel range.

Tight oil boomed after late 2011 when oil prices moved higher than $90. An endless flow of easy money was available to fund spending that always exceeded cash flow. The table below shows full-year 2014 earnings data for representative tight oil E&P companies.

Oil-Weighted Sampled E&Ps 2014 10 March 2015
Table 1. Full-year 2014 earnings data for representative tight oil exploration and production companies. Dollar amounts in millions of U.S. dollars. FCF=free cash flow; CF=cash flow; CE=capital expenditures. Source: 2014 10-K filings, Google Finance and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

These companies out-spent cash flow by 25%, spending $1.25 for every $1.00 earned from operations. Only 3 companies–OXY, EOG and Marathon–had positive free cash flow. Total debt increased from $83.4 to $90.3 billion from 2013 to 2014. Debt must be continually re-financed on increasingly poorer terms because it can never be repaid from cash flow by many of these companies.

The U.S. E&P business has, in effect, become financialized: investment in this class of company has become the sub-prime derivative of the post-Financial Crisis period. There is no performance requirement by investors other than the implicit need to maintain net asset values above debt covenant trigger thresholds.

These terrible financial results reflect a year when average WTI oil prices were more than $93 per barrel. First quarter 2015 earnings will make these results look good.

The immediate cause of the present oil price collapse is found in increasing production and, to a lesser obvious extent, decreasing demand that began in January 2014 as shown in the chart below. Markets react slowly and it was not until June 2014 that prices began to fall.

World Liquids_Supply-Demand 2013-15
Figure 4. World liquids supply and demand, July 2013-February 2015:  Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

This was the manifestation of longer-term demand destruction following nearly 3 years of oil prices above $90. The chart below shows the same world liquids data as in Figure 1 but with demand (consumption) expressed as a percentage of supply (production).

Chart_Cons PCT_Demand PCT of Supply WTI CPI 3 April 2015
Figure 5. World liquids demand (consumption) as a percent of supply (production) and WTI crude oil price adjusted using the consumer price index (CPI) to real February 2015 U.S. dollars, 2003-2015. Source: EIA, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
(click to enlarge image)

Figure 5 shows that demand as a percent of supply was generally increasing until about September 2007 and has been generally decreasing since then. Especially weak demand since early 2014 is merely the most extreme expression of a trend that has been active for more than 7 years.

The present oil-price collapse is, therefore, because of long-term high oil-price fatigue. It reached a crescendo in mid-2008 when oil prices exceeded $140 per barrel but was not specifically recognized as more than another of the factors that contributed to the Financial Collapse that followed. It is now clear that oil price was a central cause of that collapse.

The artificial low interest rates that have been imposed by central banks since the Collapse have weakened the U.S. dollar and pushed the price of oil above $90 per barrel for the longest period  in history.

The quest for yields in a low interest rate world led investment banks to direct capital to U.S. E&P companies. Capital flowed in unprecedented volumes with no performance expectation other than payment of the coupon attached to that investment. Tight oil boomed despite poor financial performance.

The current oil-price collapse is because of expensive tight and other unconventional oil and the market’s inability to support its cost. $90 per barrel WTI price appears to be the empirical threshold for demand destruction. Only the best parts of core areas of the Bakken and Eagle Ford shale plays make some profit at $90 per barrel and almost nothing makes money at present oil prices.

Low price will eventually cure weak demand. At the same time, the effect of reduced oil and gas spending on the U.S. economy is unclear but a weaker economy could lower demand despite low pricesAllen Brooks and Euan Mearns have explained the case for demand destruction in excellent detail.

The present oil-price collapse is severe because of the accumulated, long-term price fatigue that has existed since late 2007. Although the immediate cause of the collapse is over-production of tight oil, the key to recovery is demand.

Demand is more difficult to cure than over-supply so that is where efforts must be directed. Over-production of non-commercial tight oil must slow and eventually stop before the market can balance itself. I am more optimistic than most that this is already underway but it distresses me to see increased capital flow thus far in 2015 to what Christopher Helman aptly calls “zombie” companies.

The problem is structural and systemic and firmly rooted in the irresponsible funding of under-performing U.S. tight oil companies since at least 2010. The first step to price recovery is the severing of capital supply to companies that could not fund their operations from cash flow when oil prices were more than $90 per barrel. If this does not happen, we could be in for a long period of low oil prices.

The Real Cause Of Low Oil Prices: Interview With Arthur Berman

By James Stafford, 04 January 2015,

With all the conspiracy theories surrounding OPEC’s November decision not cut production, is it really not just a case of simple economics? The U.S. shale boom has seen huge hype but the numbers speak for themselves and such overflowing optimism may have been unwarranted. When discussing harsh truths in energy, no sector is in greater need of a reality check than renewable energy.

In a third exclusive interview with James Stafford of, energy expert Arthur Berman explores:

• How the oil price situation came about and what was really behind OPEC’s decision
• What the future really holds in store for U.S. shale
• Why the U.S. oil exports debate is nonsensical for many reasons
• What lessons can be learnt from the U.S. shale boom
• Why technology doesn’t have as much of an influence on oil prices as you might think
• How the global energy mix is likely to change but not in the way many might have hoped

OP: The Current Oil Situation – What is your assessment?

Arthur Berman: The current situation with oil price is really very simple. Demand is down because of a high price for too long. Supply is up because of U.S. shale oil and the return of Libya’s production. Decreased demand and increased supply equals low price.

As far as Saudi Arabia and its motives, that is very simple also. The Saudis are good at money and arithmetic. Faced with the painful choice of losing money maintaining current production at $60/barrel or taking 2 million barrels per day off the market and losing much more money—it’s an easy choice: take the path that is less painful. If there are secondary reasons like hurting U.S. tight oil producers or hurting Iran and Russia, that’s great, but it’s really just about the money.

Saudi Arabia met with Russia before the November OPEC meeting and proposed that if Russia cut production, Saudi Arabia would also cut and get Kuwait and the Emirates at least to cut with it. Russia said, “No,” so Saudi Arabia said, “Fine, maybe you will change your mind in six months.” I think that Russia and maybe Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria and Angola will change their minds by the next OPEC meeting in June.

We’ve seen several announcements by U.S. companies that they will spend less money drilling tight oil in the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shale Plays and in the Permian Basin in 2015. That’s great but it will take a while before we see decreased production. In fact, it is more likely that production will increase before it decreases. That’s because it takes time to finish the drilling that’s started, do less drilling in 2015 and finally see a drop in production. Eventually though, U.S. tight oil production will decrease. About that time—perhaps near the end of 2015—world oil prices will recover somewhat due to OPEC and Russian cuts after June and increased demand because of lower oil price. Then, U.S. companies will drill more in 2016.

OP: How do you see the shale landscape changing in the U.S. given the current oil price slump?

Arthur Berman: We’ve read a lot of silly articles since oil prices started falling about how U.S. shale plays can break-even at whatever the latest, lowest price of oil happens to be. Doesn’t anyone realize that the investment banks that do the research behind these articles have a vested interest in making people believe that the companies they’ve put billions of dollars into won’t go broke because prices have fallen? This is total propaganda.

We’ve done real work to determine the EUR (estimated ultimate recovery) of all the wells in the core of the Bakken Shale play, for example. It’s about 450,000 barrels of oil equivalent per well counting gas. When we take the costs and realized oil and gas prices that the companies involved provide to the Securities and Exchange Commission in their 10-Qs, we get a break-even WTI price of $80-85/barrel. Bakken economics are at least as good or better than the Eagle Ford and Permian so this is a fairly representative price range for break-even oil prices.

Related: Low Prices Lead To Layoffs In The Oil Patch

But smart people don’t invest in things that break-even. I mean, why should I take a risk to make no money on an energy company when I can invest in a variable annuity or a REIT that has almost no risk that will pay me a reasonable margin?

Oil prices need to be around $90 to attract investment capital. So, are companies OK at current oil prices? Hell no! They are dying at these prices. That’s the truth based on real data. The crap that we read that companies are fine at $60/barrel is just that. They get to those prices by excluding important costs like everything except drilling and completion. Why does anyone believe this stuff?

If you somehow don’t believe or understand EURs and 10-Qs, just get on Google Finance and look at third quarter financial data for the companies that say they are doing fine at low oil prices.

Continental Resources is the biggest player in the Bakken. Their free cash flow—cash from operating activities minus capital expenditures—was -$1.1 billion in the third- quarter of 2014. That means that they spent more than $1 billion more than they made. Their debt was 120% of equity. That means that if they sold everything they own, they couldn’t pay off all their debt. That was at $93 oil prices.

And they say that they will be fine at $60 oil prices? Are you kidding? People need to wake up and click on Google Finance to see that I am right. Capital costs, by the way, don’t begin to reflect all of their costs like overhead, debt service, taxes, or operating costs so the true situation is really a lot worse.

So, how do I see the shale landscape changing in the U.S. given the current oil price slump? It was pretty awful before the price slump so it can only get worse. The real question is “when will people stop giving these companies money?” When the drilling slows down and production drops—which won’t happen until at least mid-2016—we will see the truth about the U.S. shale plays. They only work at high oil prices. Period.

OP: What, if any, effect will low oil prices have on the US oil exports debate?

Arthur Berman: The debate about U.S. oil exports is silly. We produce about 8.5 million barrels of crude oil per day. We import about 6.5 million barrels of crude oil per day although we have been importing less every year. That starts to change in 2015 and after 2018 our imports will start to rise again according to EIA. The same thing is true about domestic production. In 2014, we will see the greatest annual rate of increase in production. In 2015, the rate of increase starts to slow down and production will decline after 2019 again according to EIA.

Why would we want to export oil when we will probably never import less than 37 or 38 percent (5.8 million barrels per day) of our consumption? For money, of course!

Remember, all of the calls for export began when oil prices were high. WTI was around $100/barrel from February through mid-August of this year. Brent was $6 or $7 higher. WTI was lower than Brent because the shale players had over-produced oil, like they did earlier with gas, and lowered the domestic price.

U.S. refineries can’t handle the light oil and condensate from the shale plays so it has to be blended with heavier imported crudes and exported as refined products. Domestic producers could make more money faster if they could just export the light oil without going to all of the trouble to blend and refine it.

This, by the way, is the heart of the Keystone XL pipeline debate. We’re not planning to use the oil domestically but will blend that heavy oil with condensate from shale plays, refine it and export petroleum products. Keystone is about feedstock.

Would exporting unrefined light oil and condensate be good for the country? There may be some net economic benefit but it doesn’t seem smart for us to run through our domestic supply as fast as possible just so that some oil companies can make more money.

OP: In global terms, what do you think developing producer nations can learn from the US shale boom?

Arthur Berman: The biggest take-away about the U.S. shale boom for other countries is that prices have to be high and stay high for the plays to work. Another important message is that drilling can never stop once it begins because decline rates are high. Finally, no matter how big the play is, only about 10-15% of it—the core or sweet spot—has any chance of being commercial. If you don’t know how to identify the core early on, the play will probably fail.

Not all shale plays work. Only marine shales that are known oil source rocks seem to work based on empirical evidence from U.S. plays. Source rock quality and source maturity are the next big filter. Total organic carbon (TOC) has to be at least 2% by weight in a fairly thick sequence of shale. Vitrinite reflectance (Ro) needs to be 1.1 or higher.

If your shale doesn’t meet these threshold criteria, it probably won’t be commercial. Even if it does meet them, it may not work. There is a lot more uncertainty about shale plays than most people think.

OP: Given technological advances in both the onshore and offshore sectors which greatly increase production, how likely is it that oil will stay below $80 for years to come?

Arthur Berman: First of all, I’m not sure that the premise of the question is correct. Who said that technology is responsible for increasing production? Higher price has led to drilling more wells. That has increased production. It’s true that many of these wells were drilled using advances in technology like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing but these weren’t free. Has the unit cost of a barrel of oil gas gone down in recent years? No, it has gone up. That’s why the price of oil is such a big deal right now.

Domestic oil prices were below about $30/barrel until 2004 and companies made enough money to stay in business. WTI averaged about $97/barrel from 2011 until August of 2014. That’s when we saw the tight oil boom. I would say that technology followed price and that price was the driver. Now that prices are low, all the technology in the world won’t stop falling production.

Many people think that the resurgence of U.S. oil production shows that Peak Oil was wrong. Peak oil doesn’t mean that we are running out of oil. It simply means that once conventional oil production begins to decline, future supply will have to come from more difficult sources that will be more expensive or of lower quality or both. This means production from deep water, shale and heavy oil. It seems to me that Peak Oil predictions are right on track.

Technology will not reduce the break-even price of oil. The cost of technology requires high oil prices.

The companies involved in these plays never stop singing the praises of their increasing efficiency through technology—this has been a constant litany since about 2007—but we never see those improvements reflected in their financial statements. I don’t doubt that the companies learn and get better at things like drilling time but other costs must be increasing to explain the continued negative cash flow and high debt of most of these companies.

The price of oil will recover. Opinions that it will remain low for a long time do not take into account that all producers need about $100/barrel. The big exporting nations need this price to balance their fiscal budgets. The deep-water, shale and heavy oil producers need $100 oil to make a small profit on their expensive projects. If oil price stays at $80 or lower, only conventional producers will be able to stay in business by ignoring the cost of social overhead to support their regimes. If this happens, global supply will fall and the price will increase above $80/barrel. Only a global economic collapse would permit low oil prices to persist for very long.

OP: How do you see the global energy mix changing in the coming decades? Have renewables made enough advances to properly compete with fossil fuels or is that still a long way off?

Arthur Berman: The global energy mix will move increasingly to natural gas and more slowly to renewable energy. Global conventional oil production peaked in 2005-2008. U.S. shale gas production will peak in the next 5 to 7 years but Russia, Iran, Qatar and Turkmenistan have sufficient conventional gas reserves to supply Europe and Asia for several decades. Huge discoveries have been made in the greater Indian Ocean region—Madagascar, offshore India, the Northwest Shelf of Australia and Papua New Guinea. These will provide the world with natural gas for several more decades. Other large finds have been made in the eastern Mediterranean.

There will be challenges as we move from an era of oil- to an era of gas-dominated energy supply. The most serious will be in the transport sector where we are thoroughly reliant on liquid fuels today —mostly gasoline and diesel. Part of the transformation will be electric transport using natural gas to generate the power. Increasingly, LNG will be a factor especially in regions that lack indigenous gas supply or where that supply will be depleted in the medium term and no alternative pipeline supply is available like in North America.

Related: Economic Inefficiency Means Low Oil Prices Are Here To Stay

Of course, natural gas and renewable energy go hand-in-hand. Since renewable energy—primarily solar and wind—are intermittent, natural gas backup or base-load is necessary. I think that extreme views on either side of the renewable energy issue will have to moderate. On the one hand, renewable advocates are unrealistic about how quickly and easily the world can get off of fossil fuels. On the other hand, fossil fuel advocates ignore the fact that government is already on board with renewables and that, despite the economic issues that they raise, renewables are going to move forward albeit at considerable cost.

Time is rarely considered adequately. Renewable energy accounts for a little more than 2% of U.S. total energy consumption. No matter how much people want to replace fossil fuel with renewable energy, we cannot go from 2% to 20% or 30% in less than a decade no matter how aggressively we support or even mandate its use. In order to get to 50% or more of primary energy supply from renewable sources it will take decades.

I appreciate the urgency felt by those concerned with climate change. I think, however, that those who advocate a more-or-less immediate abandonment of fossil fuels fail to understand how a rapid transition might affect the quality of life and the global economy. Much of the climate change debate has centered on who is to blame for the problem. Little attention has been given to what comes next namely, how will we make that change without extreme economic and social dislocation?

I am not a climate scientist and, therefore, do not get involved in the technical debate. I suggest, however, that those who advocate decisive action in the near term think seriously about how natural gas and nuclear power can make the change they seek more palatable.

The great opportunity for renewable energy lies in electricity storage technology. At present, we are stuck with intermittent power and little effort has gone into figuring out ways to store the energy that wind and solar sources produce when conditions are right. If we put enough capital into storage capability, that can change everything.

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3 Responses to Arthur Berman: The Real Cause Of Low Oil Prices

  1. The socio-economic dislocation resulting from 2 degree warming will be much worse than abandoning the luxuries of our carbon based consumer society. NASA climatologist James Hansen has calculated that even if the whole world stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, we would still get another 0.6 degree C warming from the CO2 already in the atmosphere.

    PROGRESS ON CARBON BUDGETS – hearing in House of Commons
    May 2013

    On my website I have done these calcs on oil:

    Half of oil burnable in 2000-2050 to keep us within 2 degrees warming has been used up as we hit 400 ppm

  2. CHarls Hall says:

    Right on Art, as usual.

  3. Pingback: Il fondo del barile #7 | Risorse Economia Ambiente