The Oil and the Glory

The Weekly Wrap, CERA Week Edition: March 11, 2011

As O&G readers know, I’ve been in Houston at CERA Week — the Davos of the energy industry, hosted by oil historian Daniel Yergin — for the past five days. So in today’s wrap, the highlights of the conference: Emergencies drive the market: The news over the last 24 hours punctuated the general message of CERA ...

Bertrand Guay AFP/Getty Images
Bertrand Guay AFP/Getty Images

As O&G readers know, I’ve been in Houston at CERA Week — the Davos of the energy industry, hosted by oil historian Daniel Yergin — for the past five days. So in today’s wrap, the highlights of the conference:

Emergencies drive the market: The news over the last 24 hours punctuated the general message of CERA Week: Bad economic news sent oil prices down, unrest in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province pushed them back up, then the 8.9 magnitude earthquake off Japan’s coastline pushed them back below $100 a barrel. Finally, the oil price settled just a bit down, just over $100. The message: the market is incredibly jittery, and is holding pretty close to $100 a barrel regardless of the news.

As oil analyst Ed Morse told me, oil was probably overvalued prior to the Middle East unrest. But the turmoil there has fundamentally changed the political calculus, and with it the oil market for around the next decade and perhaps longer. A risk premium is going to remain in the price, especially since real trouble struck Saudi Arabia yesterday, as I wrote. So gasoline prices, too, are going to stay relatively high (that’s a Paris gas station pictured above). All in all, as Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of France’s Total, said, the oil industry is in a serious fix.

But what’s notable is how muted the response has been in the market. Step back and look at the absolute price movements so far since the turmoil in the Arab world began. If we had just one of these events back in the spare-capacity-short year of 2008,we would have seen huge price movements — $10 and $20 a barrel. Instead, we are getting shifts of two or three dollars one way or the other. One reason is that there is global surplus production capacity of 3 or 4 million barrels a day that can be brought to bear; another is that, in the short term, the United States and Japan can swamp any sudden oil shortage by releasing millions of barrels of oil from their strategic reserves. These petroleum reserves — totaling 1.6 billion barrels around the world — cannot create long-term price stability, because traders will always bet on spare capacity in an emergency. But they can smooth out the bumps.

The next emergencies? Where are the predictable next bumps? Today’s planned Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia became, as the Washington Post called it, a day of rest, and we cannot foresee natural disasters. Yet, some are attempting to quantify what is possible. Among those is Bloomberg, which has ranked 20 possibly troubled countries in a Combustibility Index. Of those, 18 are in the Middle East, but interestingly none of the big oil producers top the list.

The five most combustible countries, in descending order, are Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, and Egypt. The bottom five among these combustible states, again in descending order, are Saudi Arabia, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

For the quants among you, the biggest component in the Bloomberg equation is repression, which accounts for 50 percent of the weight of the variables. (To calculate that, among the factors are the size of a country’s military per capita, how a ruler came to power — whether by vote, coup or assassination — plus how long the ruler has been in power, and whether the ruler came from the military.) The other 50 percent includes GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity, unemployment, median age, income inequality and access to information.

Electric car realities: Another takeaway from the conference is how technological advances are shifting the energy equation, and geopolitics along with them. Among the technological changes are in transportation. I spoke with two big players in the electric-car space: Britta Gross, director of global energy systems for General Motors, and Steven Koonin, the U.S. undersecretary of energy for science. Both of them described the multi-year realities of creating a plug-in hybrid and electric-car industry. Gross said that one reason the GM Volt is currently so expensive is the carmaker’s strategy of creating a "wow" factor for buyers — carving out a market by loading up the Volt with exciting gizmos. When the next generation of the Volt comes out — perhaps in five years or so — it may have a lot fewer such electronics, Gross said, which will much-reduce the sticker price. In addition, the cost of parts will probably be less because there may be more competition among suppliers. Here are Gross’ remarks:

Koonin, looking at the market from the perspective of a government goal of reducing oil consumption, said that much will be gained by simple efficiencies: 25 percent less gasoline will be used when cars are lighter and engines more efficient. He said that years from now, plug-in hybrids will penetrate a much larger segment of the market and cut more oil consumption. No one is certain that advanced batteries will ever be good enough to make a purely electric car commercially competitive, he said, but the performance of hybrids may mean that they won’t be necessary. Here are Koonin’s remarks:

Possible Putin shift in pipeline politics: For much of the last decade, Russia and the West have fought a pipeline war in Europe. Russia has sought to tighten its natural gas supply grip on Europe — Russia’s Gazprom supplies about 30 percent of Europe’s gas — by building yet another big pipeline into the continent, called South Stream. The West, led by the United States, has offered up a rival pipeline, called Nabucco, that would carry gas from the Caspian Sea states of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan into Europe, and hence reduce the continent’s dependence on Russian gas. This may sound mighty arcane, but the combatants of pipeline politics treat the game quite seriously.

In any case, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin yesterday added new confusion to the state of play. He suggested that Russia may not build the pipeline after all, but instead a liquefied natural gas terminal that would ship Russia’s gas to Europe by tanker. In an interview today, South Stream pipeline director Marcel Kramer told me that he has received no new instructions, and that he is proceeding with his existing orders to make the $21 billion pipeline work. He is attempting to get a final investment decision on the pipeline by the middle of next year so that it can be built by the end of 2015. Here is a clip from our conversation:

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