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Dave Summers

Dave Summers

David (Dave) Summers is a Curators' Professor Emeritus of Mining Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology (he retired in 2010). He directed the…

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Things Continue To Get Worse

It is difficult to see any positive interpretation of the changes and conflicts that are increasingly filling the headlines of the press. Fluctuating optimism over the return to credible export production from Libya, to take but one example, is no sooner reported when the news comes of increased fighting in Tripoli, including the international airport. At the same time violence is Without a strong central government it is likely that the conflicts in that country will continue into the foreseeable future, with continued negative impacts on the export of oil from the country.

Transient attempts to maintain a cease-fire and stabilize South Sudan have apparently failed again. The fighting has shut down local oil production, while overall production from South Sudan has been cut to 165 kbd.

Capital continues to leave Russia (h/t Nick) and that flight is only likely to accelerate as the tensions over the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane continue to grow. Given that investment continues to be required to sustain Russian oil production against the current transition into decline, and that such cash is not being spent only magnifies the concern that Russian export decline will be faster and sooner than the world anticipates. (And given the critical value of Russian oil and gas exports to their economy – it provides about half the budget revenue - President Putin desperately needs a scapegoat to blame as the economic gains of the past, and future growth targets of over 5% become unrealistic dreams for that future).

With the emphasis on the daily events in all these countries (not forgetting Iraq) it is more difficult to discern the overall medium term impact that this is likely to have on oil availability, and consequently on oil and gas prices. Europe cannot function at current economic levels without the 30% of its energy that it gets from Russian natural gas, which has to be a big consideration as they discuss whether to impose more sanctions on Russia. While a recent Total study shows that, with Gazprom co-operation, Europe could cope if flows through Ukraine were stopped, without that co-operation the EU would not be able to adequately replace the lost fuel. And the conflict in Ukraine is unlikely to be resolved fairly soon, so the degree of co-operation that Western Europe can expect from Gazprom next winter is likely to lead to some fairly tense negotiations over the next few months.

One of the frustrations with watching TV pundits muse on this is that there seems to be an assumption that wells, pipelines and other necessary infrastructure will magically appear to provide immediate solutions should things start to get worse. One such today commented that President Putin is now in total control, since should the west decide not to take all of the Russian oil and natural gas that they currently consume, that he could immediately increase sales to China to replace the lost income.

That neglects the time that it is going to take to get the wells drilled in Siberia, the pipeline connections made and the receiving network in place to meet the current amount that has been sold. Even with the current agreement to increase Russian exports to China it is going to take some four years for the new gas to flow, and it took years for this agreement to be signed.

Related Article: Libya Has Resumed Oil Exports, But Will It Last?

By the same token Europe can’t turn around and expect the US to be able to replace any significant amount of Russian natural gas for about a similar period of time. Facilities cannot be created overnight, and permitting and construction take finite amounts of time.

I would expect that, if anything, the price that is charged for Russian oil and gas is going to go up for the Europeans, even as the oil supply starts to decline. As Euan Mearns has noted all the significant producers of natural gas in Western Europe are seeing declines in production and while the fall last year was not that significant, overall the continued cumulative decline will make the need for Russian gas that more critical, given that the pipelines are in place to deliver it.

Unfortunately as oil and natural gas supplies continue to tighten, the natural consequence is going to be an increase in price. And this will, in turn, affect the economic growth of the different countries around the world. The current price has slowed economic growth, but as it continues to ratchet up then the impact on global growth will become rapidly obvious, although differentiated by country depending on how dependent they are on fuel imports.

Complacency within the United States, given the assumptions of indigenous supply availabilities, is likely to be shaken as internal oil supplies stop there unsustainable growth rates, while the current low prices for natural gas will disappear as the available funds for future wells reduce on the increasing evidence that most of these wells are unprofitable at current gas prices.

It is difficult – well, to be honest, impossible - for most of us to be able to see how almost any of the growing conflicts around the world can be resolved in any short-term period. The consequent impact on oil production in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is going to lead to a tightening of the surplus between available supply and demand, particularly at current levels. And, unfortunately, when economic circumstances grow colder political rhetoric gets hotter, and there is less chance for negotiation and diplomacy to resolve the situation.

The main surprise, at the moment, is how rapidly the situation is deteriorating in so many of the countries that supply oil and gas to the world. Sadly the headlines will only cover one or two of these at a time. As a result the overall trends are missed as headlines instead focus on the very small changes driven more by sentiment and political perspective than by the realities of the medium, and even short-term oil and gas supply situation.

By Dave Summers of Bit Tooth Energy




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