WASHINGTON – I am not at all surprised to see that the Doha oil talks aimed at finding an agreement about stabilizing output among major producers failed. Saudi Arabia would have liked to freeze production at current levels, which means at the Kingdom’s highest level in modern times, (more than 10 million barrels a day).
No deal with Iran
However, it was obvious that Iran could not possibly have agreed to freeze its own production at current levels. Tehran wants to ramp production up to its pre-sanctions peak. And how could anybody have assumed anything else? Of course the Iranians want to increase their oil production and regain lost market share.
Therefore, no deal. As a consequence, oil prices are once again headed lower. There was a time in which low prices were really good news in the West. But now it is a mixed bag, especially in the U.S.A.
Oil was good news in America
And how so? Well, because “unconventional oil” exploration and recovery –we are talking about shale oil– has been one of the brightest spots in the otherwise timid U.S. post 2008 economic recovery. Tens of thousands of new, high paying jobs made things better in many oil-producing states, from North Dakota to Texas.
U.S. oil in recession
But now, lower prices are bad news for a sector composed primarily of small to medium-sized companies, many of them under capitalized and highly indebted.
For small U.S. energy companies it was easy to get bank loans when oil was at $ 100 a barrel, and therefore future profitability was not in question. But now it is at $ 40, possibly headed even lower. And therefore the U.S. oil patch is in a recession. Moody’s just downgraded many U.S. energy companies. Tens of thousands of good jobs have already been lost, with more losses to come. This will have a nasty effect in the affected regions, and some negative impact on the overall American economy.
Things are not awful across the board. In fact, the shale oil sector has proven to be much more resilient than most analysts had predicted. A combination of aggressive cost cutting and vastly improved production technologies allows at least some shale oil companies to stay profitable even with oil at $ 40. But this is only about some companies.
The other good news is that shale oil production is relatively flexible. It is not too complicated to shut down wells and then start production again in better times, when prices have recovered. Still, idled wells do not generate any income. Weak producers close down, or go bankrupt. Some may be bought by bigger competitors with deeper pockets.
Sure, at some point this cycle will end. Saudi Arabia cannot afford huge budget deficits for ever. Its bizarre policy of keeping production at these levels, (this way depressing prices), while the Kingdom needs to get into debt in order to fund current government operations (and that includes almost the entire country getting some money from the Royal Family) will end. But it will take a while. In the meantime, hard for U.S. oil workers to find other jobs that will pay so well.
Good news for consumers
That said, depressed oil prices, while they hurt an important sector of the U.S. economy, on balance are positive. America is still a major net oil importer. Lower prices translate into a smaller balance of trade deficit. And for the average consumer cheap oil must be good news. Who can complain when finding lower prices at the pump? For tens of millions of American drivers low gasoline prices are equivalent to a tax cut. More money in their pockets.
The future of oil
That said, going forward, the real challenge for the U.S. oil sector is not Saudi Arabia flooding the global market. The real challenge will be new, non oil-based technologies.
Despite its uncertain beginnings, the electric car sooner or later will become economically viable. Elon Musk of Tesla has bet everything on making affordable, mid-sized electric vehicles, EVs. We are not there yet. Money losing Tesla may be will fail. But even if it does, others will follow. And when someone will hit the sweet spot with easy to recharge, attractive EVs with a good range that the average consumer can afford, it is good-bye to oil.
And that will be a real good-bye. It will not be about temporary sector recessions, or fluctuating prices due to Saudi shenanigans. It will be the end of the oil era.
Here in the U.S. at least someone will be prepared for this gigantic transformation. But economies such as Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia which depend entirely on oil revenues to fund “everything” will be in deep, deep trouble.
All told, better to be in America. This society, with all its problems, is still capable of promoting change while embracing it when it comes.