Putting the wind up oil

SOME CALL IT “Texarabia”. In Midland, West Texas, every bare 40-acre plot of land appears to have a pumping unit on it, drawing oil from the shale beds of the Permian Basin up to 12,000 feet (3,700 metres) below. One is toiling away in the car park of the West Texas Drillers, the local football team. The Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, on the edge of town, has an exhibition of antique “nodding donkeys” dating back to the 1930s. In a lot behind them a working one is gently rising and falling.

Drive 20 miles north, though, and the pumpjacks are overshadowed by hundreds of wind turbines whirring above them (see picture, next page). In fields of cotton, shimmering white in the early-autumn sun, it is a glimpse of the shifting contours of the energy landscape.

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You might think hardened oilmen would resent the turbines pointing the way to a future when the world no longer needs fossil fuels. But Joshua Johnson, who manages a string of oil leases in the area and proudly shows your correspondent the lustrous crude he stores in 500-barrel oil batteries, sees things differently, saying: “I think these new technologies are a wonderful thing.” In his view, renewable energy will be a vital complement to oil as the world’s demand for energy increases. But he dismisses global warming: “It’s always been hotter ’n hell here.”

The Permian Basin is oil’s latest frontier, and it is in the throes of a mini-investment boom, despite the deepest downturn in the oil market since the 1990s. The number of rigs has increased by 60% since May, whereas in other shale basins in America it has crept up only slightly. The hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, from wells that are drilled is picking up; around Midland the sight of big red lorries gathered around a wellbore like circus wagons, pumping in fluid and sand at high pressure, has become more familiar again (though the amount of drilling is still less than half its level at the peak in 2014).

So far this year Wall Street has provided funding of more than $20bn to American oil companies, mostly to acquire assets and frack them in the Permian. Some think that the prospects have been overhyped, but not Scott Sheffield, boss of Pioneer Natural Resources, one of the area’s largest producers. He reckons that the Permian, made up of many layers of oil-bearing rock 250m years old, may have as much recoverable oil as Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar field, source of more than half the kingdom’s oil riches. That is probably wishful thinking, but it suggests that morale in America’s oil industry is recovering after the price crash.

The Permian’s story is an example of how a mixture of luck, geology, technology, law and true grit can keep on delivering oil in copious quantities. Such discoveries appear to settle the industry’s perennial question about how soon the stuff will run out. In his recent book, “Market Madness: A Century of Oil Panics, Crises and Crashes,” Blake Clayton catalogues four eras when the world panicked about “peak oil”. The first was the emergence of the motor car, when oil prices started to soar. The second coincided with the second world war. The third was in the 1970s, when OPEC drove up the price of oil. The fourth began in the mid-2000s as oil began its rise to $140 a barrel. Yet the Jeremiahs have always been proved wrong. M. King Hubbert, the doyen of peak-oilers, predicted back in 1956 that global oil supply would never exceed 33m b/d. It is currently 97m b/d. According to BP, a British oil company, proven global oil reserves have risen by 50% in the past 20 years, and at current rates of production would last about 50 years (see chart).

Too much of a good thing

As concerns about climate have risen, policymakers, regulators and investors have switched from worrying about a potential oil shortage to fretting about a possible glut. In the most extreme scenarios, experts say that if there is to be a 50/50 chance of keeping global warming below 2ºC, only 35% of proven fossil-fuel reserves (mostly coal and oil) can be burned. If the target limit is to be 1.5ºC, only 10% of the proven reserves can be used. As Mr Clayton writes: “Oil will be outmoded long before the world’s oil wells run dry.”

Pioneer’s Mr Sheffield agrees, which makes him a heretic among his American peers. He reckons that global demand for oil may peak within the next 10-15 years because of slow global growth and the large-scale introduction of electric vehicles powered by renewable energy. To prepare for that day, he says, Pioneer is considering selling assets elsewhere in America to focus on the Permian, which he argues is cheap enough to compete in a world of dwindling oil demand.

Like Pioneer, some larger, integrated oil companies, especially European ones, are changing their bets on oil’s future, mostly because of the recent collapse in the oil price. For instance, Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Dutch supermajor, pulled out of the Arctic because drilling there would be too expensive. Its French counterpart, Total, is unwilling to invest more in Canada’s oil sands, for similar reasons. But they are also aware that if demand goes into long-term decline, those with the cheapest oil will survive longest. Simon Henry, Shell’s chief financial officer, says the company expects a peak in oil demand within the next 5-15 years. It intends to concentrate on what it sees as the cheapest deepwater reserves in places like Brazil where investments can be recouped within that time frame. It may also cut oil exploration. Total, too, is hoping to find low-cost oil. It has bought a small stake in a 40-year oil concession near Abu Dhabi, in the expectation that Gulf oil will always be cheap.

Largely because the most prolific reserves are in the hands of OPEC countries, and hence difficult for Western firms to get hold of, some oil majors are turning to gas as a complement to oil (see chart). This year Shell completed a $54bn acquisition of BG, a British producer of natural gas and oil, bringing gas close to half its energy mix. Oilmen say the gas business is more complex than oil; it needs more upfront capital to develop, pipelines for transport and new systems of delivery, so returns can be lower. Yet even the most pessimistic scenarios for the future of fossil fuels suggest better growth prospects for gas than for oil.

Belt and braces

Some companies are also taking out options on renewable technologies, in case they grow very quickly. Total has bought battery and solar-power businesses, though its boss, Patrick Pouyanné, insists that without profits from oil and gas it would not have been able to do so. Shell’s Mr Henry says his company’s business model may increasingly resemble that of sovereign-wealth funds such as Norway’s, which redirect the substantial cashflows from oil into lower-carbon technologies. Britain’s BP, which pioneered the concept of “Beyond Petroleum”, only to rue it later because its solar-power investments failed to make money, is gingerly considering investing more in wind for the first time in five years. When the nature of the energy transition becomes clearer, these companies say they may have to invest tens of billions of dollars to develop new energy businesses.

Philip Whittaker of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG)notes that in the past oil projects have been cash machines, because the value of an extra barrel of oil can vastly exceed the cost of production. The difference gets smaller as reserves become harder to find, but investors still like the industry’s relatively high risk-return profile. Once an oil firm has covered the costs of developing a field, it can sometimes generate cash for decades.

He says it is not clear that investing in renewables could replicate oil’s risk-return profile. The oil companies have huge balance-sheets and make commensurately large capital investments, but in the short term it is hard to see renewables reaching sufficient scale to become important parts of their business. Perhaps installing large quantities of offshore wind turbines in deep and rough seas would be similar to deep-sea oil drilling. But the more that the oil companies come to resemble electricity companies, the more their risk profile looks like that of a dull utility. They would also have to get involved with their consumers, which is not something this engineering-minded industry could get excited about.

On a much bigger scale, the Saudi government hopes to pursue a similar diversification strategy via an initial public offering of part of Saudi Aramco. Some of the proceeds, estimated at up to $150bn, will be put into a massive sovereign-wealth fund that will invest in technologies beyond oil. Some reckon that the kingdom has recently been producing oil at record levels because it is expecting an early end to the oil age. Others think it simply wants to recoup market share from other producers.

In America, meanwhile, many oil companies seem to want to keep their heads down. Some argue that market forces are better at reducing emissions than co-ordinated action by governments. The displacement of coal by shale gas, they point out, has cut emissions to ten-year lows. Many hope that the recent investment drought in the industry will lead to shortages that will send the oil price rocketing before the end of this decade. But that, says BCG’s Mr Whittaker, could be the oil market’s “last hurrah”, giving a final push to electrification.



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