June 29, 2008

A Market Price for Crude Oil

Yves Smith asks in Slate Does Anybody Know How Much Oil There is in the World? The answer appears to be mostly "no" with various technological attempts to measure reserves throughout the world sometimes receiving the climate change slur "junk science." But there is evidence that despite International Energy Agency foreshadowing of current estimates being exaggerated, there is much more oil underground than anyone has previously been led to believe.

Indeed, some old oil hands argue that the entire method for computing reserves is fundamentally flawed. Richard Pike, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, who spent 25 years in the petrochemical industry, contends in an article in the Petroleum Review that published estimates are less than 50 percent of their actual level. As the Independent summarized his argument:
Companies add the estimated capacity of oil fields in a simple arithmetic manner to get proven oil reserves. However, mathematically it is more accurate to add the proven oil capacity of individual fields in a probabilistic manner based on the bell-shaped statistical curve used to estimate the proven, probable and possible reserves of each field. This way, the final capacity is typically more than twice that of simple, arithmetic addition.

Pike is no oil-industry shill and contends that producers understand this issue but prefer show lower totals, to help support high oil prices.

So what is the actual market-based price that oil would gravitate toward without all the meddling and misinformation on the part of so many disparate interests?

Japan's oil minister said, based on fundamentals, the price of crude should be $60 a barrel, not the $130 to $140 we see today. During congressional testimony, five oil-industry CEOs each gave estimates of where oil "ought" to be, with results ranging from $35 to $65 a barrel to $90. Even the implacable Saudis are reportedly about to increase production by half a million barrels a day, a sign that they are concerned that the current price is too high. Yet BP's chief recently said current price levels are warranted, and the oil bulls at Goldman forecast a "super spike" to $150 to $200 a barrel.

That last estimate is not really a "market price" figure. It is a speculator's prediction which takes into account all of that meddling and misinformation that won't be going away anytime soon. But what if it did? That's the question the others were answering. Their figures ranged from $35 to $65, or possibly as high as $90 per barrel. This is roughly half of the current "oil shock" price. Yet it's reasonable to expect such prices to return before long.

Consider this graph of U.S. gasoline prices adjusted for inflation since April of 1979.


In the much more valuable dollar of 1979, premium gas cost about $1.20 per gallon in 1980 and, interestingly, is about the same price today (although it appears to be trending above that ceiling). But for nearly 20 years between the two "oil shock" periods noted the price was roughly half that - 60 cents per gallon in constant dollars.

These various data points give lie to the claim that oil prices are at record highs because the world is "running out" of oil. Instead they show that petroleum based motor fuels have been and continue to be the best bargain since the Louisana Purchase - excluding the backdrop of currency inflation, and absent the efforts of those who wish oil to cost more than their own "pet alternative fuel" preference.

Hat Tips: Slate article - The American Magazine; Fuel graph - johngalt's dad.

Correction: I had previously titled the graph "world oil prices" since corrected to "U.S. gasoline prices."

Oil and Energy Posted by JohnGalt at June 29, 2008 11:05 AM

Very well argued, JG.

The Refugee attended a computer-related speech by a Chevron exec some time ago. He said that you cannot unlink known reserves and price. In other words, if you say, "What are our reserves at $4/bbl, the answer is zero. Even the Saudi's can no longer produce oil at that price. However, if you say, 'What are our reserves at $200/bbl,' the answer is trillions of barrels. At that price, many options are economical. Recoverable capacity is a function of price."

Posted by: Boulder Refugee at July 1, 2008 4:42 PM | What do you think? [1]