Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Federal Reserve Connection and the US Oil Production Boom

Ben Casselman writes:
In 2008, I moved to Dallas to cover the oil industry for The Wall Street Journal. Like any reporter on a new beat, I spent months talking to as many experts as I could. They didn’t agree on much. Would oil prices — then over $100 a barrel for the first time — keep rising? Would post-Saddam Iraq ever return to the ranks of the world’s great oil producers? Would China overtake the U.S. as the world’s top consumer? A dozen experts gave me a dozen different answers.

But there was one thing pretty much everyone agreed on: U.S. oil production was in permanent, terminal decline. U.S. oil fields pumped 5 million barrels of crude a day in 2008, half as much as in 1970 and the lowest rate since the 1940s. Experts disagreed about how far and how fast production would decline, but pretty much no mainstream forecaster expected a change in direction.

That consensus turns out to have been totally, hilariously wrong. U.S. oil production has increased by more than 50 percent since 2008 and is now near a three-decade high. The U.S. is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s top producer of crude oil; add in ethanol and other liquid fuels, and the already on top....

 One thing I learned in my years covering the industry is that oil companies, and especially small oil companies, will keep drilling for as long as they can get the money to do so.5 That means the key variable in forecasting oil production isn’t drilling costs or even oil prices; it’s Wall Street.

In recent years, investors have handed energy companies half a trillion dollars in loans. That’s partly because of all the promising new oil fields in North Dakota and Texas, but it’s also because with interest rates near zero, investors are hungry for returns wherever they can find them. Now the Federal Reserve is talking about raising interest rates, which could kill the bond bubble, even as falling oil prices make those loans look riskier than they used to. If Wall Street turns off the money spigot, drilling will slow down no matter what oil prices do.

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