Explaining The WTI-Brent Spread Divergence

Something totally bizarre has happened in the last three years. Oil in America has become much, much cheaper than oil in Europe. Oil in America is now almost $30 cheaper than oil in Europe.

This graph is the elephant in the room:

3 year brent spread

And this graph shows how truly historic a move this has been:

brent-WTI-spread

Why?

The ostensible reason for this is oversupply in America. That’s right — American oil companies have supposedly been producing much, much more than they can sell:

This is hilarious if prices weren`t so damn high, but despite a robust export market for finished products, crude oil is backing up all the way to Cushing, Oklahoma, and is only going to get worse in 2013.

Now that Enterprise Products Partners LLP has let the cat out of the bag that less than a month after expanding the Seaway pipeline capacity to 400,000 barrels per day, The Jones Creek terminal has storage capacity of 2.6 million barrels, and it is basically maxed out in available storage.

But there’s something fishy about this explanation. I don’t know for sure about the underlying causality — and it is not impossible that the oil companies are acting incompetently — but are we really supposed to believe that today’s oil conglomerates in America are so bad at managing their supply chain that they will oversupply the market to such an extent that oil sells at a 25% discount on the price in Europe? Even at an expanded capacity, is it really so hard for oil producers to shut down the pipeline, and clear inventories until the price rises so that they are at least not haemorrhaging such a huge chunk of potential profit on every barrel of oil they are selling? I mean, that’s what corporations do (or at least, what they’re supposed to do) — they manage the supply chain to maximise profit.

To me, this huge disparity seems like funny business. What could possibly be making US oil producers behave so ridiculously, massively non-competitively?

The answer could be government intervention. Let’s not forget that the National Resource Defence Preparedness Order gives the President and the Department of Homeland Security the authority to:

(c)  be prepared, in the event of a potential threat to the security of the United States, to take actions necessary to ensure the availability of adequate resources and production capability, including services and critical technology, for national defense requirements;

(d)  improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the domestic industrial base to support national defense requirements; and

(e)  foster cooperation between the defense and commercial sectors for research and development and for acquisition of materials, services, components, and equipment to enhance industrial base efficiency and responsiveness.

And the ability to:

(e)  The Secretary of each resource department, when necessary, shall make the finding required under section 101(b) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(b).  This finding shall be submitted for the President’s approval through the Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.  Upon such approval, the Secretary of the resource department that made the finding may use the authority of section 101(a) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(a), to control the general distribution of any material (including applicable services) in the civilian market.

My intuition is that it is possible that oil companies may have been advised (or ordered) under the NDRP (or under the 1950 Defense Production Act) to keep some slack in the supply chain in case of a war, or other national or global emergency. This would provide a capacity buffer in addition to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

If that’s the case, the question we need to ask is what does the US government know that other governments don’t? Is this just a prudent measure to reduce the danger of a resource or energy shock, or does the US government have some specific information of a specific threat?

The other possible explanation, of course, is ridiculous incompetence on the part of US oil producers. Which, I suppose, is almost believable in the wake of Deepwater Horizon…

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When Solar Becomes Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels

Solar power has been getting cheaper and cheaper:

20130110_stc001

Current estimates suggest that solar might be as cheap as coal by the end of the decade, and half the cost of coal by the end of the next decade:

If the trend continues for another 8-10 years, which seems increasingly likely, solar will be as cheap as coal with the added benefit of zero carbon emissions. If the cost continues to fall over the next 20 years, solar costs will be half that of coal. These predictions may in fact be too conservative given that First Solar have reported internal production costs of 75 cents (46 pence) per watt with an expectation of 50 cents (31 pence) per watt by 2016.

When applied to electricity prices this predicts that solar generated electricity in the US will descend to a level of 12 cents (7 pence) per kilowatt hour by 2020, possibly even 2015 for the sunniest parts of America.

What does that mean? Cheap, decentralised, plentiful, sustainable energy production. This would be a massive relief to global markets that have been squeezed in recent years by the rising cost of oil extraction, which has been passed onto consumers. Falling energy prices — all else being equal — mean more disposable income to save and invest, or to spend.

Some will say that solar is inherently unviable due to the difficulty of storing energy. But huge advances have been made on that front in recent years, and improvements continue.

This — if it comes to pass — would be a basis for a period of strong growth. Independence from foreign oil. Independence from falling EROEI yields on conventional energy. A robust decentralised grid. A new sustainable energy supercycle — and new growth in other industries that benefit from falling energy costs. This has the potential to reverse so many of the negative trends we have seen emerge in recent years, and prove wrong the Malthusians who claim that humanity has over-extended itself and that the era of growth is over.

In the long term, this makes me pretty bullish. But unfortunately this is all still years away. Maybe five, maybe ten, maybe twenty years. We’re not out of the woods yet. Not for a long time.