Oil Hike on the way?

Looks like we’ll be soon confronting higher oil prices again. But the paradox is that the prices will remain low as long as the economy is in a slump. The moment it picks up the pace and starts wanting more fuel to power its machine the prices will start flying.

This Economist report quotes analysts as predicting the arising of more ‘super cycles’ where the usual boom bust commodity cyles are interrupted and longer periods of price increases are seen as developing economies start absorbing and draining resources and thereby initiating prolonged (and potentially destructive) demand cycles.

The main reasons behind the initial price hike have apparently remain unchanged. All the easy-to-access oil fields are in the hands of governments and the Big Oil firms are having to increasingly resort to drilling in nooks and crannies to find more oil. Also a slump in oil prices back in the 80s have limited investment in oil reserves amd therefore most of current sites not new ones.

The Big oil firms claim to be heavily investing in new oil fields and technology although the benefits will only be reaped in a decade or so. Government companies Like Saudi’s Aramco and Brazil’s Petrobas have invested heavily in more capacity but other governments like Iran and Venzuela are reluctant to do this due to the current low prices in the market.

Countries like Russia and Venezuela are facing serious cash flow problems and are pressurizing private investement and sub-contractors with more taxes and no wages. In Nigeria the fighting around the Niger Delta with forces such as the MEND are creating some serious barriers to development of production

So oil firms have no new oil to speak of and other pressures on goverment firms will prevent them from increasing output. All except for the Saudi’s who have about three times the current capacity of production up their sleeves.

McKinsey, the consultants, argue that governments can help overcome this problem with a few simple measures. The more practical of which are increasing lorry load limits to increase fuel efficiency, increasing emmission standards and efficiency standards even more in the long run will undoubtedly help to curb demand.

Other measures that have been carried out in the past include investment in alternate energy sources, but the disastrous impact of bio fuels should have taught us a thing or two about the importance of thinking out such steps in detail. Electric cars are also a good option and it is encouraging to see quite a few global car makers coming out with models.

But all this has taken a back seat to the financial crisis. When the oil prices dropped so drastically everyone stopped thinking of the ‘oil problem’ in the classic short termist fashion characteristic of world governance. Bigger problems were at hand and opportunities to perhaps lay a foundation for a whole new energy culture were probably too far fetched and unimportant to care about then.

So now as the economy picks up again we may be confronted with bigger problems because now we won’t have a sub-prime morgage crisis to pull us away from strangling each other in a scramble for natural resources. Already oil futures markets are indicating a potential rise in prices.

Which brings me to McKinsey’s other suggestion; convincing developing economies to remove oil subsidies. This is something that these economies will definitely not agree to. They will argue that subsidies are essential to their growth. Moreover, they will question the fairness of such a request as economies that are ‘developed’ today got to such a state by the unrestricted consumption of all the resources they could lay their hands on.

China’s Oil demand has risen to pre-crisis levels (and unrelated note: their military prowess has arisen to previously unheard of levels), but global demand is still on a downward trend as decline is still apparent from other big world economies. But as long as oil remians a critical resource, the problem faced a few months ago will materialize again, and specultion will drive the prices even higher, with a corresponding increase in other commodity prices worldwide.

Steps need to be taken starting immeditely to make sure that oil is not a  critical resource, but to this end there is also a lot of disincentive for powerful oil economies and lobby groups. There is always money to be made for the oligarchs, and high oil prices are something they will definitely welcome with open arms.

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