The Era Of Cheap Oil Has Come To An End

In its latest monthly report, OPEC revealed it had yet again failed to produce as much oil as it agreed to produce the last time it discussed output. And it wasn’t by a few thousand barrels per day, either. The shortfall was some 1.8 million barrels daily, but more importantly, that sort of undershooting of its own target has become a regular thing for the cartel. Meanwhile, the United States federal government needs to buy some oil for its strategic petroleum reserve after releasing close to 200 million barrels from it this year as a way of countering fuel price inflation. Yet U.S. drillers are not in a rush to boost production. On the contrary, it seems production growth has lost its place among these companies’ top priorities.

Of course, there are also the sanctions against Russia, which many expect will hurt the country’s oil production, and that may well happen, but it has not happened yet. In fact, the oil sanctions—in the form of a price cap on maritime exports and an embargo on exports to the EU—have had no effect on oil flows out of Russia. For now.

Investment banks expect higher oil prices, despite a recent slump prompted by expectations of an economic slowdown pretty much across the globe. The expectations, now beginning to seep into trader circles, too, are largely based on China’s reversal of its zero-Covid policy. But they also probably take into account the fact that oil remains an indispensable commodity. And the era of cheap oil may well be over for good.

Related: U.S. Begins SPR Repurchase Program As Oil Prices Crash

“We remain constructive on oil prices driven by recovering demand (China reopening, aviation recovering) amid constrained supply due to low levels of investment, risks to Russia supply, the end of SPR releases, and slowdown of U.S. shale,” Morgan Stanley said this week in a note.

Yet the situation may be a lot more serious with regard to supply, as noted in a recent market commentary by TortoiseEcoFin’s President and Portfolio Manager, Matt Sallee.

“Global oil inventory is at the lowest level since 2004, the Department of Energy has released 200 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve this year, OPEC continues to struggle to produce at their stated quota and US producers are helping but can only do so much.”

This s a pretty succinct description of the global oil supply situation, but the picture is not one that would invoke positive emotions. It is one that is more likely to evoke concern, and with a good reason. Because there is little evidence that any of these trends will change meaningfully any time soon.

OPEC, for example, has zero motivation to try and boost production, Sallee noted in follow-up comments for Oilprice. It would only do so if it knows oil will remain over $100 per barrel for a longer period of time, but there is no way to be confident about this right now.

Then there are the purely physical constraints on OPEC production, as evidenced by the consistent failure of the group to hit its own—reduced—production targets. Most OPEC members have ambitious production growth plans, but they remain plans while actual production remains subdued for reasons such as natural depletion at mature fields and, ultimately, not enough investment.

As Sallee notes, OPEC has not consistently produced more than 30 million bpd since 2015-2018 when it did so deliberately in a bid to destroy U.S. shale and, to a great extent, succeeded, temporarily. And that’s because it neither wants to nor can it do so.

Underinvestment is turning into a thing in U.S. shale as well, at least from the perspective of the White House. According to the Biden administration, all U.S. producers need to do is spend more on additional production. According to the U.S. producers themselves, the long-term outlook for oil demand is too uncertain about investing in more production.

Then there is the issue of prime acreage, which several experts have been warning is running out. TortoiseEcoFin’s Sallee is among them: “Best acreage has been drilled, the industry is struggling to attract labor and has limited sources of financing,” he told Oilprice.

According to him, U.S. oil production is unlikely to ever again record annual output increase rates of 1 million bpd or more, as it did in the recent past. A growth rate of 500,000 to 750,000 bpd is far more likely, he believes. And that’s not good news for consumers because demand, although targeted by the energy transition camp, is not going down soon.

The International Energy Agency, one of the most active members of the energy transition movement, in its latest Oil Market Report revised upwards its forecast for global oil demand next year because of an unexpected increase in consumption this year.

Chances are this is a sustainable trend in the absence of viable alternatives to oil products. And this means that demand and supply will be in a precarious balance in the future, constantly on the brink of a shortage or even deep in a shortage, should Big Oil’s pivot to low-carbon energy continue, as it requires they reduce their oil production to hit their net-zero goals. What all this means is that the era of cheap crude oil may well be over for good.