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Global Outlook

U.S. Oil & Gas Boom Turns Global Energy Industry Inside Out

December 20, 2013, Friday, 17:31 GMT | 12:31 EST | 22:01 IST | 00:31 SGT
Contributed by eResearch

The U.S. oil and natural gas boom continues to shake up the global oil industry (and, actually, the global economy.) The latest energy-shaking news comes from projections in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual energy outlook: U.S. crude production will hit 9.5 million barrels a day in 2016. That is significantly higher than the 7.5 million barrels a day that the EIA was projecting just a year ago, and close to the peak production level of 9.6 million barrels a day in 1970. (For the record, the low in U.S. crude production was 5 million barrels a day in 2008.)

U.S. oil output, the EIA estimates, will start to tail off slowly after 2020, but that projection, the agency notes, is close to a guess since no one knows the precise decline rates of wells drilled in oil shale geologies.

The EIA projects that natural gas production will keep growing indefinitely, or at least to the end of the study period. By 2040, production will be 56% higher than in 2012.

What effects can investors expect from the boom?

1. Natural gas will continue to expand its share of the market for power generation at the expense of coal. The agency projects that natural gas will pass coal in that market in 2030. (This is not good news for coal companies. How bad the news is will depend on whether current big coal export markets in China and India decide to tighten environmental regulations on coal.)

2. After changes in current rules that prohibit U.S. oil exports, exports of natural gas will boom with (surprise!) the largest volume of natural gas exports going through as-yet-to-be-built pipelines to Mexico. Shipments of liquefied natural gas will also soar. (Think of the effect on pipeline MLPs, and on economic growth in Mexico as energy prices in that country fall toward U.S. levels.)

3. Despite exports, the U.S.A. will have lower energy costs than any country outside the Middle East. (Think of the advantages to U.S. manufacturers, and of the continued movement of energy-intensive industries to the United States in order to take advantage of those lower costs. Think of the relative cost disadvantage facing European and Japanese manufacturers.)

The high cost of U.S. oil production from shale geologies will put a floor under oil prices (short of a big drop in global oil demand, of course). U.S. production volumes will also help set a rough ceiling, too.

Production from U.S. shales will be profitable at $90 a barrel and oil producers will probably be willing to pump oil from these reserves at $80 to $85 a barrel. The benchmark West Texas Intermediate sold at $97.31 a barrel today and the European benchmark Brent sold at $108.35. The U.S. floor will make life very pleasant indeed for lower-cost producers (the Middle East, for example).

The rising tide of U.S. production at these price levels is also going to call into question the investment logic of even higher cost sources, such as Brazil’s deep-water pre-salt reserves in the South Atlantic. If the U.S. oil export ban falls (and I am pretty sure it will), oil producers in high cost and infrastructure challenged regions — the Russia off-shore Arctic and some of the undeveloped reserves in Siberia — could well find it very difficult to raise the necessary, and huge, amounts of investment capital they will need.

I think we are already seeing evidence that the more hard-nosed number-crunchers in the oil industry, such as Norway’s Statoil, are already rethinking investments in high cost projects, such as Mozambique and the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline that would bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe. Statoil and Total (TOT) recently decided not to exercise options to acquire 12% and 5% of the pipeline, respectively. Projected construction costs have climbed to $12 billion from $7.5 billion. (Statoil is a member of my Jubak’s Picks portfolio