Energy in 2015: Expect the unexpected
In an industry as unpredictable as energy, it's best to prepare for the unexpected. Here Kurt Cobb offers five possible surprises for energy in 2015.
The coming year is likely to be as full of surprises in the field of energy as 2014 was. We just don't know which surprises! I am not predicting that any of the following will happen, and they will be surprises to most people if they do. But, I think there is an outside chance that one or more will occur, and this would move markets and policy debates in unexpected directions.
1. U.S. crude oil and natural gas production decline for the first time since 2008 and 2005, respectively. The colossal markdown in world oil prices has belatedly been followed by a slightly smaller, but nevertheless dramatic markdown in U.S. natural gas prices. The drop in prices has already resulted in announcements from U.S. drillers that they will curtail their drilling operations significantly next year.
But drilling that is already contracted for will likely go forward, and wells waiting for completion will be completed. It can be costly to pull out of drilling contracts. And, failing to complete already successful wells and bring them into production is downright foolish since the costs incurred in drilling the wells including future debt payments remain. In those circumstances, some revenue at lower prices is preferable to no revenue at all.
Having said all that, scaled-down drilling plans when combined with what's left in drillers' immediate inventory both to drill and complete may not be enough to overcome the prodigious production decline rates from existing wells in deep shale deposits of oil and gas which have provided almost all the recent growth in U.S. production. The decline rates are 60 to 91 over three years for tight oil plays and 74 to 88 percent over three years for shale natural gas plays.
If low prices continue for a second year, the cheers for "Saudi" America will disappear. It was never to be anyway. What America has left is high-cost oil and natural gas. And, even at high prices both were likely to peak and decline in the next 5 years. Now, low prices may bring peak production rates in the coming year for both U.S. oil and natural gas--peaks that may never be seen again.
2. World crude oil closes below $30 per barrel. I think that such a price would only last a short time unless the world is in the throes of the next Great Depression. But since OPEC has reaffirmed that it will continue to pump oil at current rates until non-OPEC production declines, look for this game of chicken to create increasing inventories of oil worldwide for several months. The underlying cause for rising oil inventories is slowing economic growth in much of Asia, especially China, and economic stagnation in Europe and Japan. Any pickup in worldwide growth would send oil significantly higher than where it is today as oil demand increases.
3. Developments in solar thermal energy show that it can solve the storage problem for electricity from renewable energy. The difficulty with renewable energy supplying electricity is that electricity is very expensive to store (and so we do very little of this). Storage is important because renewable energy production comes when the wind blows and the sun shines, but not always when we need it. A breakthrough in solar thermal may be in the offing that would overcome previous limits on temperatures generated by solar thermal capture devices and make it possible to store heat cheaply enough to run solar electric generating plants around the clock at high output.
4. A climate agreement in Paris calls for binding greenhouse gas emissions limits. Expectations are exceedingly low for next summer's international climate conference to be held in Paris. The aim is to agree on binding limits for carbon emissions for the world's nations. Few people think that will happen no matter what the urgency of the matter.
But we cannot know what climate events might occur between now and the Paris conference that would change the outcome. It would have to be big, on the order of an ice shelf plopping into the ocean and raising sea-level enough to notice. Nevertheless, I would say that such a disturbing event becomes more likely with time and might be necessary to move the world's nations to a binding emissions agreement.
Even some progress in the direction of a binding agreement will have the world's energy analysts talking about stranded assets, a reference to the oil, natural gas and coal that would have to be left in the ground in order to avoid breaching agreed limits on carbon emissions. That would have significant consequences for the companies whose work is extracting and refining hydrocarbons.
5. Oil prices reach $100 per barrel before December 31, 2015. This is the other extreme from surprise No. 3. Almost all analysts expect oil prices to remain low, and many believe we are now entering a new era of cheap oil. (I, of course, don't buy it.) An earlier and more dramatic drop in production than anticipated and a greater rise in demand than anticipated could easily bring prices back above $100. I think this is more likely to happen later in 2016. But the timetable for a return to prices above $100 could be accelerated by many factors not now apparent.
I regard none of these events as likely which is why they would be surprises. But even one of these surprises would result in large financial gains or losses for many. And, either of two of them--binding greenhouse gas emissions limits or a breakthrough in renewable energy storage--would have giant consequences for the entire world.