Lower Oil Prices Here to Stay?

Those enjoying relatively low prices for petroleum products probably figure it cannot go on for very long (gasoline is back up over $3.00 a gallon here in California after a brief, giddy plunge to levels not seen in some time). I’d say the CW for non-experts is that the Saudis will engineer a global price spike once they are satisfied with their long-range market share (and/or when shadier geopolitical objectives are reached, given the economic wreckage occurring in places like Iran and Russia).

But Bradley Olson has a convincing piece up at Bloomberg Business that suggests relatively low oil prices are indeed here to stay, at least for a while, and maybe for a good while.

A growing consensus is emerging from the likes of BP Plc, the International Energy Agency, shale wildcatters and even the Saudis that a near-term recovery to $100-a-barrel crude isn’t in the cards. Instead, expect a range of $50 to $60 for at least the next few years.

When oil prices plunged sharply in 2008, they rebounded almost as quickly. Several months ago, industry and government touted the same U or V-shaped recovery this time out. On closer examination, a new factor in the marketplace — shale oil — has changed their minds.

“This is the new normal,” Dennis Cassidy, co-leader of the oil and natural gas practice for consulting company AlixPartners, said in an interview. His group sees an L-shaped chart that could extend for three to five years.

Unlike other petroleum formations, the nature of shale — with multiple inexpensive, short-lived wells — means producers can stop and start drilling on a dime. On the one hand, this allows them to quickly cut costs in a downturn; on the other, every time prices tick up, so will their output — renewing downward pressure on prices.

In other words, OPEC doesn’t really call the shots at the moment. Sure, the Saudis can open the spigots to depress prices, but they have a limited ability to push them back up given the impact of higher prices on shale production.

If this is right, the political consequences are pretty clear for places that produce and consume petroleum products. It could be a long, cold winter for the former–not just nations, but U.S. states that depend on extraction taxes and other economic activity generated by the oil industry–and at the same time could help protect fragile economic recoveries in the U.S. and Europe.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.