Barron's Oil Prices: A Pause, Then Up

Oct 16, 2006 (Dow Jones Newswiresfrom Barron's)

Interview with Charles Maxwell Senior oil analyst, Weeden & Co.

You want an independent and informed appraisal of the outlook for energy? Then Charley Maxwell's your man. For almost 50 years, Maxwell in one way or another has been involved in the oil and gas industry: from when he started working for Mobil in 1957 to when he moved to Wall Street in 1968 and was routinely lauded as the No. 1 oil analyst throughout the 'Seventies and 'Eighties. For more than 20years, he's belonged to an elite group of industry executives and OPEC members that meets at Oxford University twice a year to assess trends. We dialed him up last week at Weeden & Co., the institutional trading company in Greenwich, Conn., that he's called home since 1999. Here are Maxwell's thoughts on the current energy scene.

Barron's: Did somebody say energy crisis?

Maxwell: We often say there are not a lot of advantages to getting old except that we have seen it all before. After a big move upward, there is always some counterreaction. We saw it during the 1973-74 crisis, in the '79 to '86 crisis and then in the two wars with Iraq. These crises were manipulations of the oil market by human beings. War, economic problems, but particularly military considerations, were creating, as they say, facts on the ground that worked into shortages that were real, but they were shortages created by the actions of man not nature. It is terribly important to differentiate between past periods and now.

Q: How is that?

A: There are four huge impediments to expanding production in a world in which we need to do this. Hubbert's Peak, the theory that says oil production will peak on a global basis, is a natural impediment. It is not yet the predominant factor but as these crises continue it is the one growing exponentially and by, say, 2015 or 2020 I expect it will dominate the outlook.

Q: What then is the biggest problem now?

A: About three-quarters of the world's production of oil today is lifted by national oil companies. Companies like Saudi Aramco, Petrobras, the Iran national oil company, the Iraq national oil company, the national companies that operate in Algeria and Libya, produce conservatively 75% of the world supply. Most of them were nationalized in the '70s and early '80s and they have real structural problems today. They bring in a lot of money but most of it goes to support the national Treasuries and the various political constituencies that are in favor in the various countries, whether it's the army or a host of other bureaucratic ministries. In the end, in the political battle for budgetary support the national oil companies tend to be a constituency with little or no political influence. All in all, the national oil companies have been shortchanged and held on a poverty diet for a long time.

Q: What are the other structural challenges they face?

A: What came out of the 1986-1987 collapse in prices was a huge overcapacity of about 20% in the world's oil production system. The international oil companies began to adjust their capital spending quickly to adapt to that and they more or less serviced a 1% increase in demand each year. The capacity surplus began to come down naturally. We have now had 20 years and taken that surplus down to about 2% to 3%. For efficiency in the energy industry, given the weather factors and political factors and so on, we need something in the 7% to 8% range of excess capacity in order to cover the mountains and the plains of demand and weather and political events. But when the surplus got down to those levels between 1997 and 2000, the companies didn't add to capacity at a fast enough rate.

Q: Bring this back to your point about the national oil companies.

A: The national oil companies didn't react at all. At least the big international oil companies were producing the 1% to 2% each year that was required, but the national oil companies just tooled along on the backs of the surplus while it got smaller and smaller. The big international oil companies saw all this and didn't prepare for possible future tightening. One reason the NOCs, as the national oil companies are called, didn't respond was lack of money. Also, the NOCs, because of political patronage, have a shortage of skilled workers and experienced managers. Only Saudi Aramco is quite efficient and they are doubling and redoubling their efforts to find oil in the peninsula. They've gone from 10 rigs to 100 rigs and are headed to 125 rigs. They are modern and up to date. They've got a core of around 3,000 expatriates that are well paid and doing a helluva job. But this is unusual.

Q: Where does this lead?

A: I don't know how we get around the problem of the NOCs. They control so much of the world's production and they are bloody helpless. They don't have enough money and they don't have prestige and they don't have professionalism. These are big factors, any one of which would have been a strike against them and with all three it is a difficult situation.

The multinationals have the money but they haven't been that willing to spend it.

That's another big issue: the problem for the oil companies is coming to grips with the size of the production problem.

Q: Can you elaborate on that.

A: The oil companies, as a group, seem to believe the future production potential of the world is very large, very wide open and yet their production numbers don't indicate this is so. ExxonMobil (ticker: XOM) took out an advertisement earlier this year saying oil is not peaking, nor is there any peak visible that's going to impinge on production in the next 20 to 30 years and claims there is no practical limit to the oil it can find and there are new supplies that are developable. They are not alone in this thinking, though Dave O'Reilly [Chairman and CEO] of Chevron (CVX) has come around. But John Browne [CEO] of BP [INTV-ANS](BP)[INTV-ANS] is in the Exxon camp as is industry consultant Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Q: The technology-will-save-the-day camp.

A: I'm not downplaying technology at all. But technology will save General Motors, too, if you believe that. Technology can't do everything. I'll give you an example of the vision of the oil companies.

Q: Go for it.

A: As we understand it, Exxon is not taking on any leases for deep-water drilling after 2008. They haven't leased anything. If you think deep-water leases are going to be very important, and the recent big discovery in the Gulf of Mexico suggests they will be, you would have contracted for the future use of rigs. But if you think the deep-water leases aren't going to be important because the oil found will be more expensive than the common garden-variety Texas oil from 6,000 foot down, and that you will have lots of oil coming from sources like that then you don't need these high-cost leases down the road. On the other hand, many major oil companies have taken these rigs to 2010 and 2012 and 2014 and are pre-empting Exxon's ability to get these rigs. Exxon is putting itself at a huge disadvantage if there should be a need for this type of deep oil. I find that remarkable.

Q: What's the gamble there?

A: The gamble is they won't need the deep-water leases because there will be big and lush supplies of oil spilling around at $30 a barrel and people will relinquish the rig contracts they've signed. Then Exxon would have the choice of picking up some of these contracts at 50 cents on the dollar, or maybe they won't need to pick them up at all. I think they are dead wrong.

Exxon has gone out of its way to take out advertising and make speeches saying there'll be plenty of future supplies. It verges on the irresponsible because it says to the government there is no problem. It says to the media there is no problem. It says to the public there is no problem. So we are now likely to march with fife and drum, banners flying, into the maw of destruction without so much as a sideways glance because Exxon tells us that the problem is resolved.

Q: It has been suggested they benefit from talking down the price of oil.

A: There is all kind of speculation on that. Another obvious thought would be if they wanted to buy, say, Yukos, which they had hopes of two years ago, they certainly wouldn't want to indicate they thought that the price of oil was going to go much higher down the road because of shortages. Some people think Exxon is cynical. I don't. I really think they believe what they say. It's a lack of vision. Last year, they spent more money on share repurchases and dividends than they did on exploring and developing oil reserves. Most big oil companies tend to be backward looking. They were slow, for instance, in seeing that sulfur standards for gasoline and diesel would be required in this country and getting their refineries set up to meet them. That's why we've had these advances in gasoline prices in the summers of 2005 and 2006 -- fear that the refining system in America and in Europe would be unable to handle these new standards. Oil companies will find it difficult to solve a tightening oil production problem if they don't recognize that it is tightening around their necks.

Q: That's the third impediment of four. What's left?

A: We as Americans think that because we want more oil these other countries should produce more oil. But there are increasing issues, brought on not just by President Bush and his policies, but also by a feeling that the developed world is imperialistic by nature and is intent on leaving the undeveloped world without resources. All these claims are greatly overdone, but nevertheless, it is a fact that if you live in Iraq you believe the oil companies, or the Americans, are there to get the oil. My point is the people in the Middle East are sophisticated enough to understand this could be Bedouin-to-Bedouin in Saudi Arabia in five generations.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Well two generations ago, many of these people were Bedouins. The majority of people working in the petroleum industry in Saudi Arabia today -- the supervisors and the drillers and so on -- had grandparents who were herding sheep or camels. They fear their great grandchildren could end up doing the same.

Q: Because?

A: Because the oil will be all gone. The image we have in this country of tumbleweeds running down the streets of abandoned Western mining towns is now beginning to stalk the public consciousness in the Middle East. About three months ago, they realized the second largest oil field in the world, Burgan in Kuwait, had peaked. They didn't expect it and they couldn't believe it. The No. 1 field in the world, the Ghawar, is pretty close to peaking if it hasn't already. These are people who have long believed that Allah was bestowing these oil gifts on them in perpetuity and there would be infinite production. The concept of Hubbert's Peak has only penetrated the Middle East in the last five years in the same way that it has only penetrated Europe in the last five years.

The non-OPEC world, 175 countries, of which only 30 produce meaningful amounts of oil, will peak around 2010. Then we become dependent on OPEC for all future growth in barrel needs and that should put us in a pretty difficult situation and the price of oil will begin to rise a little faster.

Q: Are the non-OPEC countries that close to peaking?

A: Eleven of the non-OPEC countries have peaked already, representing 34.3% of non-OPEC production. There are three on the cusp of peaking, and one of them is Mexico which may have already peaked and represents 7.9% of production. China will probably peak this year, or next, or in 2008. But they are at flat production levels now so it doesn't matter and they contribute 8.5%. More than 50% of the non-OPEC production will therefore have peaked. There are all kinds of issues as to when the whole world peaks. I use a range from 2015 to 2020, which depends on when the rest of the world wakes up to the need to conserve, which could delay the peak.

Q: What about a peak in gas production?

A: That's much, much further out. There is a lot of what they call stranded natural gas, big discoveries that are not tied to any local needs, or any local distribution system, and they will be tapped and brought in, in liquefied form to our country and to Europe and to Asia. The peak of natural gas now roughly looks like it will be in 2035 to 2040. There is a finite supply that is being drawn down, but it hasn't been exploited nearly as much as oil. The run-up in natural gas prices in the past year or so was because production in this country has peaked, and natural gas is more expensive and difficult to move from one continent to another, and we don't really have the means to do that yet. We are getting there and the big liquefied natural gas expansion is starting, and soon we are going to have interchangeability between continents. When one continent is short we can move gas there, which will keep prices down.

Q: Where are oil prices headed?

A: We are now getting a reaction to the higher oil prices. It is translating into slower economic growth and, of course, it is allied with a rise in interest rates. Don't think that it is just that rising oil prices equal lower economic growth. It is a question of rising oil prices and less liquidity and higher rates that's a triple threat. The bottom could be in the high 40s, though that wouldn't be sustainable. On a yearly average, we will stay in the 60s, but we'll spend a lot of time in the 50s. Then they'll start up again in 2008-2009 and go up for some time. When we get to 130 or 150 there will be another pullback.

Q: How do you get to those numbers?

A: In 1930 we found 10 billion new barrels of oil in the world and we used 1.5 billion. We reached a peak in 1964 when we found 48 billion barrels and used approximately 12 billion. In 1988, we found 23 billion barrels and used 23 billion barrels. That was the crossover when we started finding less than we were using. In 2005, we found about 5 billion to 6 billion and we used 30 billion. These numbers are just overwhelming.

Q: How are you advising people when it comes to the oil stocks?

A: You want to buy companies that have long- life reserves and are developing them, it's as simple as that. The average oil company, because they are all in the non-OPEC world, will by definition peak around 2010 or thereabouts. I estimate Exxon will peak in 2011. BP will peak in 2012. Total (TOT) in 2012. ConocoPhillips (COP) in 2013. Marathon Oil (MRO) in 2009. Royal Dutch (RDS-B) in 2009 and Hess (HES) in 2010. But a company like Suncor Energy (SU), which operates in the Canadian tar sands, will peak around 2045. It is a completely different world. EnCana (ECA), the big Canadian gas and tar sands producer, will peak around 2020. Canadian Natural Resources (CNQ) is another. I also like Nexen (NXY), another Canadian tar sands producer, and Lukoil (LUKOY) of Russia. The only one I'm recommending at the moment is EnCana because it has a large component of natural gas. The gas market is at a bottom now, whereas I see the oil market bottoming in the spring or summer of 2007, or even early 2008 if we have a recession.

Q: Why Lukoil?

A: Lukoil isn't owned by the Russian government. They've adopted Western accounting standards because they want to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange and raise capital and become a regular oil company. Lukoil has about 20 billion barrels of reserves and Exxon is No. 1 in the world with 21 billion. But the capitalization of Lukoil is one-sixth that of Exxon. So you are getting a huge advantage in oil barrels per share for a lot less money.

Thanks, Charley.

Copyright (c) 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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