Oil prices, technology, volatility, and productivity…

Oil prices are unusually prone to volatility because both supply and demand are insensitive or “sticky” in responding to price changes in the short term, while storage is limited and costly.

Robert McNally, Rapidan Energy Group


Last week Citi’s lead oil analyst came out and said he thought oil prices might dip to $45 per barrel in 2019 and be in the $45-65 per barrel range by the end of 2019. This contrasts with Goldman Sachs ($70-80), Morgan Stanley ($85), and Bernstein ($100). I don’t have a view on the oil price, all this shows you is that intelligent, well-informed analysts, with almost endless resources, can vary in their forecasts by around ~50-100%. Read the whole story to understand how looking at exactly the same data set as all the other equally capable analysts Citi’s analyst reaches such a different conclusion.

What this really shows is model risk: a few percentage points difference in key input variables, even over a short space of time, can have a huge influence over the outcomes. And actually, there are in reality too many influences to model them all accurately: Will there be a supply outage in Libya? What will happen with Iranian oil? What will happen in Venezuela? And these are just a few of the big geopolitical questions alone. You need a forecast for many planning assumptions but in the short-run the oil price is a random walk.

A good example is this graph from the EIA showing the difference between their February prediction of US oil prediction and the current one:


If you are wondering why your jack-up, rig, or vessel isn’t quite getting the utilisation or day rate you were looking for in that graph may lie the answer? It’s a bold Board that sanctions too many projects in this environment, and in fact the one that is, Exxon Mobil with the huge Guyana finds, is getting slammed by the stock market. Barclays, summing up the “market view” saying:


Shale isn’t a swing producer as McNally makes clear, but it does have a much shorter-term impact on the market in way that nothing did prior to 2013. But it also isn’t a given that offshore will have a cost or volume advantage over offshore in 10 years time: companies need to hedge their bets if they are large portfolio corporations. McNally has published ‘Crude Volatility‘ which may make  my summer reading list.

The big area where I agree with Citi/Morse is on technology and productivity.  Morse obviously believes, as I do, that a few percentage points of recovery and technological improvement over the well lifecycle has the potential to radically alter physical oil output assumptions over the long-run. And that is before you get into the wonkish areas such as on what base you forecast the decline volume on.

Against this backdrop is a new wine in the old bottle of peak oil demand: lack of investment and the coming supply shortage. A whole host of energy consulting firms say underinvestment may cause a supply driven price rise: Rystad and Energy Aspects in this WSJ article:


This despite the fact that gross investment doesn’t reflect the increased volume of supply gained from each incremental dollar at the moment (a point Morse makes), or the fact that oil companies don’t need the same level of reserves now (and investors don’t want them to pay for them).  Woodmac, who in the latest “gotcha” on why shale won’t work (sic), has now discovered shale well rates decline faster than thought… I’ll bet by 2040 the 800k a day production cited in the article is made irrelevant by productivity improvements in extraction and production techniques. But I guess again it shows how senstive large data models are to small input changes (and how desperate research firms are to have some uncertainty and upside to discuss with certain corporate clients where an element of group think appears to be pervading Board thinking).

“Preparing for the Recovery”

Preparing for the future.png Rystad also run’s strategy days for Maersk Supply and numerous other subsea and offshore companies…. “Hang in there guys the recovery is just around the corner when the supply crunch happens…”… (however remember The Dominant Logic is dangerous?)….

Meanwhile the capital deepening in the US shale industry continues apace. Have a look at the new pipelines going in:


Once these are built the price discount will disappear, further raising E&P company profitability and some railway carriages and trucks they displace will still exist (‘unit trains’ with 100+ carriages carry >66 000 barrels). Some will be scrapped but the railway carriages are like offshore vessels: high fixed costs and commitments and low marginal costs. That is a short way of saying they will reduce their costs to compete… and the virtuous cycle will continue with the capital base even deeper.

What really matters for offshore at the moment is the competition for marginal investment dollars. Does an E&P company choose to invest onshore or offshore? The big advantages of shale are potential productivity increases and lower upfront cash costs despite a lower margin (i.e. low CapEx high OpEx), this flexibility has a number of distinct advantages in  an era when forecasts are so divergent. It is worth noting that Shell, Exxon Mobile and Chevron all underperformed the stock market last week despite oil prices having risen signficantly over the last year. Shareholders want their money back in an era of uncertainty, not mega-projects that offer future pay-offs.

In an era when the volatility of oil prices is clearly increasing you can be sure that tight oil will be favoured over long cycle production at the margin. The ability to take margin risk over commitment risk is a key part of the investment making decision process.  The graph above shows how volatile oil prices has been, in particular since 2003. It is irrational to go long on fixed commitments in a age of increasing volatility: just as it is illogical to take on a massive mortgage on a rig or vessel in the current market it is illogical to go long on too many 20 year deepwater developments, and the two symptons are obviously related to the same cause. For a baseload of demand that is logical, but that only works for the larger players with significant market share, at the margin assets and projects become harder to finance.

The other issue driving investment towards shale, in a time of capital discipline, is path dependence. Path dependence is a process where each step forward can only be achieved with the prior steps preceeding it. Deepwater followed shallow water as an extension of the skills developed there.

The productivity benefits of shale are such that larger E&P companies must fear if they miss this technology cycle catching up on the “path” may be too hard or expensive given the dependent steps they will have to get there. History matters.

Offshore will remain an important part of the energy mix. But the price rise of the past 12 months has led to only marginal increases in work and a firm commitment from E&P companies to control CapEx in a manner that breaks with the past. Price rises not increases in long term production projects are the short term adjustment mechanism at the moment. In a era of price volatility and extraordinary technical change the future could look a lot like the present.

6 thoughts on “Oil prices, technology, volatility, and productivity…

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