Why Peak Oil Pundits Got It Wrong

June 13, 2013Energyby The Energy Report

Why Peak Oil Pundits Got It Wrong

Many investors believe that global oil production would start to decline from 2014-15, a prediction based on the so-called peak oil theory that the world demand for oil would soon outstrip supply and send oil prices through the roof. For several years in the middle of the last decade, as oil prices climbed past $100 a barrel and analysts were betting it would cross $200, peak oil pundits were sure they had it right.

Stepping away from the pack, Andrew Coleman of Raymond James Equity Research is making a contrarian forecast for an oil glut in 2014. Shale oil production is on the ascent, with the United States joining Saudi Arabia on the supply side, while China's hunger for oil may be sliding and demand in developed countries remains in decline. In this interview with The Energy Report, Coleman explains his thinking and names the producers best positioned to capitalize on the turbulence ahead.

The Energy Report: Why are you expecting an oil glut in 2014?

Andrew Coleman: Because of the evolution of North American shale oil plays, we are on track to add about 3 million barrels (3 MMbbl) of new supply over the next five years. Yet we know oil demand has been falling across the developed nations and is still weak coming out of the global financial crisis. Those developments point toward a glut.

TER: Saudi Arabia surprised you last year by cutting production when oil was more than $110 per barrel ($110/bbl). Why would Saudi or other suppliers not do that again?

AC: What hurt production outside the U.S. last year—and helped keep the demand side a little more in balance—was that Saudi cut 800,000 barrels a day (800 Mbbl/d) in Q4/12, sanctions in Iran reduced exports by about 800 Mbbl/d as well, conflict in Sudan took 300 Mbbl/d offline and the North Sea average was lower by about 130 Mbbl/d. These reductions kept last year's supply more balanced than we thought it would be. Going forward, Saudi's ability or willingness to cut is certainly going to be tested, because by our model the country may need to cut 1.5 million barrels a day (1.5 MMbbl/d), about double what it cut last year. It would have to do that for a longer period of time, given the amount of excess storage that could show up on the global markets.

Related: Why Shale Will Not Solve Peak Oil: Dave Summers Interview

Related: An Alternative Theory For The World’s Limited Oil Supply: Gail Tverberg

TER: But, as you just pointed out, Saudi Arabia's cut came in the context of actions by other players. The other players are going to be as unpredictable as they were last year, aren't they?

AC: Certainly. That's a big risk to our call. The other players are very unpredictable as well. I think Saudi has two years of foreign currency reserves at its current spending level. The country doesn't have a deficit right now, so the question is, would it be willing to tolerate a deficit? Most other countries have deficits, but that doesn't mean Saudi will. It is hard to predict because we're dealing with personalities and governments, as opposed to hard numbers. We're going to keep watching, and we'll adjust our forecast if some of those scenarios play out.

Related: Can the US Dethrone Saudi Arabia as the World’s Top Oil Producer?: Chris Faulkner Interview

TER: Was Saudi Arabia's production cut driven by a policy change?

AC: Saudi Arabia cited internal demand issues in its production cut. The cut may also reflect an adjustment to offset the start-up of Manifa, which occurred last month.

TER: If the glut does occur, which benchmark crudes will be most affected, whether by going up or going down?

AC: In the U.S., production of light oil will dramatically increase due to the shales. Without the ability to export, we are already seeing prices of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) reflecting that "stranded" lighter barrel. We see light imports being backed out of the U.S. as early as this summer as well. Finally, as infrastructure bottlenecks are removed onshore, we see risk to Gulf Coast prices (e.g., Light Louisiana Sweet). With much of the U.S. refinery infrastructure having been geared to process heavier barrels, the large growth in light barrels has already driven WTI prices to a discount with Brent. Risks to Brent could come down the road if European and Chinese demand remains tepid.

TER: Will Venezuela's production decline continue?

AC: With Nicolas Maduro running things down there now, we see Venezuelan production remaining flat for the next couple of years. Volumes declined each of the past four years.

Related: Hugo Chavez’s Legacy: A Socialist Economy In Disrepair

TER: What role will other players in the oil space have in either creating or preventing the glut?

AC: Prior to about 2009, we were in a world where there was one marginal producer of oil (Saudi), and one marginal buyer of oil (China). Now we're in a world that has two marginal suppliers of oil, those being the U.S. and Saudi. We have not added any new marginal buyers of oil. The question remains, is that marginal buyer of oil—China—as hungry for oil as it has been in the past? We also know that as economies develop, they become less energy-intensive. And, factoring in the potential growth of natural gas consumption, that drives our caution.

TER: Do you have any parting thoughts on the oil and/or gas markets that you'd like to share?

AC: Yes. From our macro view, we're cautious about the oil outlook. We've got a lot of production, and we're unclear about the strength of demand on the oil side in the next 6–18 months, going through 2014. On the gas side, after bottoming last year, gas looks like it is poised to be higher down the road, which makes us more constructive there. We have to see more evolution on the demand side, be it in the short term with power plant construction or in the longer term with the quest for use of compressed natural gas as a transportation fuel.

If the price spread between oil and natural gas remains wide, we'll see continued evolution toward natural gas use across our economy. That will be good for everybody. It should help unlock value for the manufacturing space. It should also unlock value for consumers, who won't have to spend quite so much to heat their homes and fuel their cars. It would ultimately kick-start the next big wave of economic expansion on the back of affordable natural gas in the U.S.

TER: Andrew, thank you for your time.

AC: My pleasure.

By Tom Armistead, The Energy Report

This is an abbreviated version of Potential Oil Glut! Raymond James Analyst's Contrarian Forecast republished with permission from The Energy Report.

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