• The recent oil-price collapse confirms what we should have learned in 2007-8 about the influence of the last increments of supply and demand on price.
  • This also means that future oil prices should be largely independent of the size of the oil market, even in a decarbonizing world.

In 2008, near the peak of a historic oil-price spike, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) published a study projecting that opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling would reduce oil prices by no more than $1.44 per barrel, compared to their forecast without ANWR. Adding up to 1.5 million barrels per day to US production by 2028 would thus save motorists less than 4¢ per gallon. That result appeared during a Presidential election campaign that featured the slogan, “Drill, baby, drill!” and received significant attention.  I hope the authors of that study have been watching the current oil price collapse, because it provides some useful lessons in how oil prices are determined.

Oil traders and most economists understand that oil prices are ultimately set by the last few million barrels per day of supply and demand in the market, and resulting changes in inventory. The oil price spike of 2007-8 provided firm evidence for this phenomenon, as rapidly growing demand and production problems eroded global spare production capacity to a level of around 2 million barrels per day (MBD) compared to more than 5 MBD in late 2002, prior to the Venezuelan oil strike and the start of the Iraq War. This may have been obscured by the rise of the widely publicized Peak Oil meme, which provided a more viscerally appealing explanation for high oil prices until it ran out of steam recently.

A chart from one of the International Energy Agency’s recent Oil Market Reports provides a neat illustration of the main factors leading to the recent price collapse. (See below.) Here, the emergence of a sustained surplus of 1-1.5 MBD starting in early 2014–less than 2% of the global oil market of around 93 MBD–was instrumental in depressing oil prices by more than half. Another factor was that, contrary to a key assumption of the 2008 EIA study, OPEC elected not to “neutralize any potential price impact of (additional US) oil production by reducing its oil exports.” While shale technology has expanded US oil output by a multiple of what the EIA expected ANWR might add, the benefit for consumers isn’t just pennies per gallon, but more than a dollar, at least for now.

Since the price of oil is set at the margin, then the oil price is also essentially independent of the total size of the oil market. That has important implications for how we envision the future of the oil market, especially in a world that is increasingly concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to cleaner sources of energy. Even if future oil production were to be increasingly constrained by energy efficiency improvements and environmental policies, it doesn’t necessarily follow that future oil prices must be low. That would only be the case if producers mistakenly invested in more production capacity than the market actually ended up needing.

As things stand today, there is a significant risk that the industry will not invest enough in future capacity, and that prices will again rise sharply before electric vehicles and other alternatives could scale up sufficiently to fill the gap, particularly if low oil prices also deter their growth. That’s largely because without large investments in new oil output, current production will eventually decline from today’s levels. Field-level decline rates range from just a few percent to 65% per year, depending on whether we’re looking at the conventional oil reservoirs that make up over 90% of global supply, or at US shale production, which accounts for less than 5% of world oil.

Perhaps the bottom-line lesson is that we should never become complacent about the potential price volatility of what is still, at this point, an indispensable commodity. The shale revolution and OPEC’s current behavior don’t guarantee that oil prices must remain depressed, any more than previous concerns about Peak Oil meant they would remain high indefinitely.

Energy outlook