07/02/2010 02:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Petroleum Industry: Past the Tipping Point?

As Jon Stewart so beautifully satired a couple of weeks ago, American political leaders have long said "enough is enough" about the lack of a coherent national strategy regarding oil.

In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, is this time different? Will the U.S. finally be able to change its stance on petroleum? Will the petroleum industry itself be irrevocably altered?

Though I don't always agree with its perspectives, one of the better (i.e., more well-informed and reasoned) weekly energy newsletters I receive is "Musings from the Oil Patch", written by Allen Brooks, Managing Director of the boutique investment banking firm of Parks Paton Hoepfl & Brown.

In the June 8 issue, Brooks provides an excellent analysis of the future of the petroleum sector, entitled "BP Oil Spill Pushes Industry Beyond Tipping Point". The main conclusion of the essay is that the oil industry will never be the same - and all of the ways in which it will change should drive up the price of oil. His summary:

"Onshore oil and gas resources will become more valuable than offshore ones. Shallow-water petroleum resources may be worth more than deepwater ones. International markets will be more active and attractive for energy and oilfield service companies than the U.S. market. The domestic oil and gas industry will be less profitable in the future. New U.S. offshore drilling and operating procedures will become more onerous and expensive and likely require different, more capable equipment."

One of the more interesting tangents of Brooks' article is the discussion of the Obama Administration's response to the BP spill.

Some news outlets are portraying the calamity in the Gulf as Obama's Katrina, or perhaps more astutely as his Iranian hostage crisis - either of which would imply a dragging down of his Presidency. Brooks instead sees the Obama Administration somewhat more sympathetically: as "family members outside a hospital operating room following a severe auto accident. While the surgeons work their magic on the victim with techniques beyond the understanding of ordinary people to fully comprehend the knowledge and skills being applied, the family members remain powerless to influence the outcome. Rather, they stand around praying or crying as emotions overwhelm them. Soon they become angry and demand immediate justice or retribution against those responsible for the accident."

And, of course, that's what happened when President Obama determined "whose ass to kick" and exacted his pound of flesh from BP in securing their agreement for contributing $20 billion into a clean-up fund. This, in turn, raised vocal objections from Obama's opponents -- including those formerly arguing that Obama hadn't done enough about the oil spill -- about undue executive privilege. The infamous "apology" by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) to BP, and Barton's subsequent apology about the apology, was the zenith/nadir of the political grandstanding about this spill from all sides.

The ineffective posturing and inane bickering in Washington has contributed nothing towards stemming the flow of oil from the sea bottom, nor to clean up the waters and the beaches in the Gulf of Mexico. But does the venom being spewed over the airwaves from all parts of the spectrum indicate that the petroleum industry is now approaching a tipping point?

In terms of energy policy, I think not. Call me a cynic, but when it comes to national energy policy, I will always take the under on what our Federal leaders will accomplish to improve our long-term prospects.

Why am I so negative? Just like our economy is fueled by energy, our political system is fueled by money. And, there is hardly anything in the economy as wealthy as the energy sector. The industry as a whole and its leading companies are both extremely cash-rich (certainly much more so than the principal advocates of change) and willing to spend money in Washington to support/defend their entrenched interests.

For the big oil companies, it's not surprising that their primary objective is to protect the status quo, as opposed to making any transition. This point is well articulated by Deborah Gordon and Daniel Sperling in "Big Oil Can't Get Beyond Petroleum" (a clever play on BP's slogan "Beyond Petroleum"), as run June 13 in the Washington Post.

Kevin Leahy, Managing Director of Climate Policy at Duke Energy, recently gave a presentation in Columbus in which he opined that "Moderates are the new endangered species in Washington", adding that sane national energy policy requires tradeoffs and compromises that can only be achieved by crossing party lines -- which is traitorous anethema in the current political environment.

No, I don't think the politicians will have the courage anytime soon to lead us out of our energy challenges. As an economist, I think price signals may be the only way to move us in a different direction.

Absent any rules to change the dynamics of the market, energy prices will move (largely) as a function of supply and demand. (I say "largely" because the petroleum market is a classic oligopoly, controlled by a swing monopolist -- Saudi Arabia -- with the greatest supply at the lowest costs, so pricing doesn't follow pure supply/demand forces as they would in a totally free market. But, close enough.)

That's where the peak oil theory comes in. There are innumerable postings on the Internet about peak oil (see, for instance, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil), so I won't go into detail here. But, suffice it to say: in a world of increasing demand for petroleum (especially from places like China, where oil demand is growing at "astonishing" rates) and a finite planet with ancient organic matter (e.g., dinosaurs) converting to hydrocarbons not anywhere near as rapidly as hydrocarbons are being extracted, the long-term price trend can pretty much only be upward.

In the June 21 issue of ASPO's weekly newsletter "Peak Oil Review", editor Tom Whipple interviewed Jeff Rubin -- formerly the chief economist of CIBC World Markets and author of Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller: Oil And The End of Globalization. Below is a somewhat lengthy but nonetheless fascinating passage from that interview:

"Depletion does not have to be apocalyptic. It will only be apocalyptic if we continue to consume oil as we have in the past when it was cheap and abundant. Because I'm an economist and believe in the power of prices, I believe that we're going to change. I believe that a global economy, when we move resources all around the world to be assembled by the cheapest labor force and then be shipped to the other end of the world -- that's not a rational way of doing business in a world of $150-a-barrel oil. What we're going to see is a whole reengineering of our economy, and while we're going to make a lot of sacrifices in terms of our past energy consumption, we're going to find that our new smaller world has a lot of silver linings. And in a lot of ways it is going to be more livable and sustainable than the old oily world we're leaving behind. Peak oil will be an agent of change, and much of that change will be positive, not negative. If we continue to commute 60 miles each way in SUVs, we're going to get screwed. All of a sudden, peak oil will equal peak GDP; that's not just an economic recession for a couple of quarters, that's a world of no economic growth. The point of my book is that, while we can't do anything about triple-digit oil prices, they don't have to be so devastating as in the past. We have to reduce, in effect, oil per unit of GDP, and the way we do that is to go from a global economy back to a local economy because a global economy is an extremely oily way of doing business. And that switch isn't something that the Federal Reserve Board or US Treasury or the Bank of Canada or the European Central Bank is going to put in place; that is going to be the aggregate result of all the micro decisions that consumers make about what we eat, where we live and how we get around. I think triple-digit oil prices will lead us to make the right decisions on those fronts, and the result will be a very different economy than the economy we know."


I've said to many people that I'm one of a very small (and widely-disliked) minority -- and clearly Mr. Rubin is in this camp -- who believes that high energy prices are and will be a good thing, from an environmental perspective, an energy security perspective, and a technology innovation perspective. And, if Mr. Rubin's thesis bears out, high energy prices can also represent a force for reattracting much of the economic activity that has left the U.S. in recent decades to other parts of the world.

Globalization can continue for virtual things like ideas and communication, but for physical and material goods, an increasing oil price can only mean a reversion towards greater localization of economic activity.

A consistent re-migration of manufacturing back to the U.S. would really be a signal that a tipping point has been achieved. However, the big worry is summed up nicely in a quip by Mr. Leahy during his talk at the workshop "Opportunities for Ohio Businesses in a Clean Energy Economy": "In his 2006 State of the Union speech, President Bush said that 'America is addicted to oil.' To which I say, 'Unfortunately, every time America kicks the habit, the dealer drops the price.'"

While true in previous decades, price-cutting in the oil markets may not be so inevitble in the future. With the insatiable appetite for oil and the increasing challenges of supplying it from more difficult and remote resources, I don't think even manipulative actions by OPEC to "keep America hooked" via lowered oil prices can or will work for very long -- in a future world of ever-tightening supply/demand balances for black gold.

What American politicians can't do via the laws of man, the laws of petroleum engineering and the laws of economics can and will eventually do.

I doubt that there will ever be a discrete tipping point for the petroleum industry, but rather a gradual ebbing. Perhaps the ebbing has begun. If there is a tipping point, as noted petroleum analyst and banker Matthew Simmons likes to say, it will only be obvious in the rear-view mirror.