The European gas crunch has been hogging headlines for months now, and with good reason – the continent is still struggling to secure enough energy for its winter needs. But there may be a worse crunch looming over the world, and that would be an oil crunch. The signs are there for everyone to see should they bother to look: OPEC’s spare capacity is dwindling, new discoveries are at historic lows, and banks are growing increasingly reluctant to engage with the oil and gas industry because of the rise of ESG investing. Meanwhile, supermajors are curbing their output as they focus on growing their low-carbon business.
A capacity crisis?
“Shrinking global spare capacity underscores the need for increased investments to meet demand further down the road,” the International Energy Agency said in its October 2021 Oil Market Report, after noting that as OPEC ramped up production under its return-to-normal deal, its spare production capacity will fall considerably, potentially reaching just 4 million bpd by the fourth quarter of this year. That would be down by more than half from 9 million bpd at the start of 2021.
Spare capacity is an important indicator of production flexibility in the oil world. The IEA defines it as production that can be launched within 90 days and sustained over an extended period of time. The U.S. Department of Energy defines spare capacity as production that can be tapped within 30 days and sustained for 90 days. According to the EIA, OPEC’s spare capacity could fall to 5.11 million bpd by the end of this year.
The IEA does not seem to be sure what it wants – more investments in oil or more investments in renewable energy. It called for both on different occasions last year. But based on oil price developments, it seems the shrinking spare capacity of the world’s oil cartel is indeed a cause for concern despite the planned shift to low-carbon energy. What fuels this concern even further is that some members of the extended cartel OPEC+ are nearing the limit of their spare capacity, and Russia is among them. One of the world’s top producers, according to reports, is finding it difficult to return production to pre-pandemic levels at a time when other OPEC+ members are dealing with the same problem. This means that even if demand continues to grow at the current solid rate, supply may not be as quick to catch up.
Wanted: new oil discoveries
New oil and gas discoveries may have hit their lowest level in 75 years, Norwegian energy consultancy said in a December report. Total newly discovered resources last year stood at some 4.7 billion barrels of oil equivalent, which was down from 12.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent discovered during the first pandemic year.
At the same time, European supermajors are deliberately reducing their oil production in line with the strategy to move toward renewable energy under pressure from shareholders, activists, and governments. So, on the one hand, we have less money being spent on new supply and on the other, we have a deliberate reduction in existing supply.
The low level of discoveries means that reserve replacement rates have fallen, too, and low reserve replacement rates in the oil and gas industry are bad news for future supply. Saudi Arabia warned last year that underinvestment in new oil production could lead to an energy crisis, but since everyone expects Saudi Arabia to say something like that, not a lot of attention was paid to the warning. And even if it was, boosting the rate of new oil discoveries is not as easy as it once was.
Banks on an ESG rampage
The rise of the ESG investor has made quite a splash in the financial industry. Returns are still a priority, but it is no longer the single ultimate priority. These days, investors want to know that their money is being used in a responsible way, for the good of the planet. And this means that they are increasingly reluctant to see this money going to the oil industry.
Because of this trend, banks and asset managers are rethinking their own business strategies. Asset managers are requiring their clients to make emission reduction commitments, threatening to drop them otherwise. Banks are refusing to lend to the oil industry and also threatening to drop clients that generate a lot of carbon dioxide emissions.
It isn’t just pressure from shareholders that is guiding lenders’ hands. Regulators are also turning up the heat on banks, requiring new risk assessments based on climate change scenarios and tightening capital requirements accordingly. To avoid being hamstrung by regulations, lenders are cutting their exposure to the apocalypse-bringing oil and gas industry.
Meanwhile, demand for oil appears to be as healthy as ever, and oil price forecasts are pointing to a solid upward potential. The thing that oil bears who cite the energy transition as the reason for their bearishness seem to be forgetting is that it will take a lot more than a couple of years.
It will also be tough, as Oil Price Information Service’s Tom Cloza wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.
“Once we really start moving away from fossil fuels, it will be expensive and painful. To deny that expense is as disingenuous as denying climate change,” Cloza wrote. To argue with this and with the fact that we will continue needing millions upon millions of barrels of oil for the observable future would be a waste of time.