The End of Oil's Golden Age

by: UltraLong

King Oil

One can argue that the world would be very different from what it is today if we hadn’t found crude oil and invented how to leverage this very convenient and relatively cheap energy source. The energy density of oil derivatives such as gasoline is superior to any other substance in liquid or gas form. That’s why the majority of cars are propelled either by gasoline or diesel and airplanes use kerosene.

Also, approximately 15% of oil is used to make asphalt, plastics and a wide variety of critical chemical products.

Therefore, crude oil plays a key role in the modern globalized world economy. It has truly enabled a golden age for those that can afford to leverage it.


Oil derrick in Okemah, Oklahoma, 1922 (Source: Wikipedia)

Peak Oil

Unfortunately, oil is a finite resource and some day we will run out of it if we continue consuming it like we do. Long before this happens we will have serious problems - as soon as demand exceeds the supply. This is the essence of “peak oil” concept. International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated in their 2008 World Energy Outlook that oil production should not peak before 2030 if 64 million barrels per day (mb/d) of additional capacity is taken into use between 2007 and 2030.

In theory this is possible, but in practice there is a very real risk of under-investment since the required new capacity is equivalent to six times the current production of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the report concludes that an oil-supply crunch can happen as early as 2015.

It is immensely hard to estimate the maximum rate at which the oil can be extracted from all different sources, both conventional and unconventional. Therefore, it is also hard to estimate when oil production will peak. What seems fairly certain is that it will do so within the next 30 years, and I personally believe it will happen within the next 10 years.

US production already peaked a long time ago (early 1970s), as predicted by Hubbert back in 1956 using knowledge of past oil discoveries to predict the future production. Hubbert’s ideas are taken increasingly seriously by mainstream analysts.

Guardian published a very interesting article back in 2005 in which Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review, predicted that the peak would be 2008. Remember those oil prices back in 2007? The financial crisis might have actually masked the problem – for now.

The Ever Increasing Demand for Black Gold

China, India and other fast growing economies are currently far behind in per capita consumption of oil compared to the EU or U.S. Consider this: If you sort all of the countries by per capita daily oil consumption and start from the lowest consuming countries, you need to sum up the consumption of nearly 100 countries to match the daily oil consumption in the U.S. Among these countries are China and India.

Altogether the citizens of the U.S. consume the same amount of oil as 4.8 billion people elsewhere.

Crude Oil Consumption Profile Of The World [Data Source: CIA World Factbook].

In the above graph, the country with the highest per capita oil consumption (Virgin Islands) is the leftmost dot while the country with the lowest consumption (Chad) is the rightmost dot. Between those two are plotted all the countries for which I found statistics for both population and oil consumption. The two parameters are summed cumulatively for each country starting from the country with highest per capita oil consumption.

As you can see, the most oil consuming (1 billion) people spend more oil than all the rest (5.7 billion or so). Most of the so called developing nations with huge GDP growth rates happen to be in the group “rest”. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that they will increase the per capita oil spending from the current level in the future.

The Ever Tightening Supply

According to the CIA World Factbook there is about 1382 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves. In addition, there are unconventional resources such as the Athabasca oil sands region in Canada and heavy oil in Venezuela. The problem with unconventional resources seems to be that only a fraction of them are determined to be recoverable:

Source of estimates: Oxford Energy, CIA World Factbook and the Government of Alberta

Even though unconventional resources seem to be vast, they are estimated to add only approximately 10 million barrels per day to the supply side - in the best case - when taking into account all unconventional sources such as biofuels and oil from coal. For example, The National Energy Board of Canada estimated back in 2006 that the best case for oil sands production in 2015 would be 4.4 million barrels a day while the base case was 3.2 mb/d and the low case only 1.9 mb/d.

The current production rate of oil is about 84 million barrels a day, so the unconventional resources will not have a major effect in the long run given depleting conventional sources. Also, a major problem with all sources is decreasing EROEI ratio (energy return on energy invested). For oil it used to be 100 a long time ago and now it is somewhere below 20. EROEI for biodiesel is roughly 3 and for ethanol it is not much more than 1. Depending who to believe, EROEI for oil sands is between 2 and 4. Basically anything above 1 makes sense, but because we are used to a high ratio (= cheap energy), we may have a serious problem when the average EROEI of all supplies of oil goes below 5.

World oil reserves (source: Wikipedia)

The Last Hurrah of Offshore Oil Production

After pumping oil from land deposits, the industry went offshore. First submerged oil wells were drilled in late 1890s. Oil & gas production in Gulf of Mexico in 1990 was almost exclusively done in shallow waters (less than 1000 feet). By 2005, the majority of production was in deep (1000-5000 feet) and ultra deep (more than 5000 feet) water. Before the accident in Gulf of Mexico, it was estimated that by 2020 the majority of production would have come from ultra deep water wells.

However, there is one problem with all of this, in addition to the work being increasingly costly, energy consuming, difficult and dangerous: Yearly production decline in deep water wells is reported to be much higher than in shallow water wells. This makes it increasingly hard to sustain the already achieved production rate in offshore wells as production declines in older wells.

Platform P-51 off the Brazilian coast (Wikipedia/Agência Brasil)

Who Will Profit From the Raising Demand for Petroleum?

The entities owning the oil and gas reserves are certainly going to profit from peak oil as it will drive the value of their reserves and yearly production up while their costs are not likely to increase at the same rate. The big problem with the reserves is that the entity owning them right now might not be the one owning them in the long run. If oil, gas and other critical finite natural resources are not yet at the heart of national interests in some countries, they certainly will be in the long run.

High oil prices are likely to cause unrest and discontent among citizens and politicians will respond with the usual remedies: Socializing either the profits via higher taxation or taking ownership of the resources. While many of the oil majors and super majors seem to be reasonably valued and well positioned right now, one has to consider the possible outcomes of the next energy crisis. Government ownership might be actually a plus.

The companies to consider include Exxon Mobile (NYSE:XOM), Chevron (NYSE:CVX), ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP), BP (NYSE:BP), Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) and Total (NYSE:TOT), all of which were featured in an excellent SA article. In addition, companies such as CNOOC (NYSE:CEO), Statoil (STO), PetroChina (NYSE:PTR) and Petroleo Brasileiro (NYSE:PBR) are worth considering. Many of these are also heavily involved in natural gas, which is becoming an increasingly important source of energy and is likely to last much longer than oil. The companies with significant investments on the unconventional side include Suncor (NYSE:SU), Canadian Natural Resources (NYSE:CNQ), Imperial Oil (NYSEMKT:IMO) and Nexen Inc. (NXY).

The Case for Offshore Oil & Gas Drillers

The offshore drillers pop up in my stock screens often since they got the right stuff: Growing revenues, relatively low debt burden, excellent margins, low valuations in terms of P/E, P/B and price per cash flow. In exchange of all this, you have the risks which are all too familiar to everybody by now. However, these companies are less likely to experience socializing as they do not own the reserves, but only the rigs used in drilling the offshore wells.

So far it has seemed to be an excellent business and I am betting my money that it will continue to be an excellent business in the long run (5-20 years), as long as there is something worth drilling on the bottom of the ocean.

Different types of production platforms (Wikipedia, NOAA)

Drillers that have equipment used in deep and ultra deep production are the most appealing as that is the segment which is growing. This means that they have floating rigs, drill ships and such equipment either in use or under construction. The more they have these as a percentage of their entire fleet, the better.

Also, I prefer drillers with geologically diversified portfolios and big oil companies as customers (lower counterparty risk). The companies worth studying for these traits include (in the order of market cap): Transocean (NYSE:RIG), Diamond Offshore Drilling (NYSE:DO), Noble Corporation (NYSE:NE) and Atwood Oceanics (NYSE:ATW). A brief financial and valuation summary of these corporations follows:

Data source:

Disclosure: Author is long Chevron and Noble Corporation