(Bloomberg) If you ever find yourself at a cocktail party with a bunch of oil executives, one phrase is a guaranteed mood-killer: “reserve replacement.”Not merely awkward to say, it is the industry’s bogeyman. Because in a business chiefly concerned with getting stuff out of the ground, you need to replace that stuff pretty consistently unless you want to, well, eventually run out of stuff.Last year, the stuff-gathering did not go so well. Not replacing your reserves can be due to several things, such as striking out on a big exploration prospect or simply dialing back investment in finding new fields.It can also just be about those fickle little things called prices.One of the things that makes proved reserves proved is a reasonable certainty they can be produced economically. A barrel of oil that costs more to get out of the ground than anyone is likely to pay for it isn’t, from any rational viewpoint, going to be produced. So, depending on the vagaries of the commodity markets, it can disappear from the books, even if it physically still lurks there beneath the ground.
Oil prices have moved little since they jumped from the mid-$40s to the mid-$50s in late November. Last week was no exception. OPEC hints about extending the price cuts beyond mid-year supported prices last week despite several indicators which suggested that the surplus may continue and it may be difficult to rebalance the markets in the short term.
Oil prices rebounded last week as the IEA confirmed that the ten OPEC members obligated to cut oil production are making good progress and obtained 91 percent of their goal by the end of January. The agency also reported that OECD crude stocks fell by nearly 800,000 b/d in the 4th quarter of 2016 although stocks continued to grow in China and other emerging economies. If OPEC and the other production cutters can maintain this level of cuts for the next five months, the IEA says that global stockpiles should drop by about 600,000 b/d during the first half of this year. This was the kind of news that many oil speculators wanted to hear. Hedge fund bets on higher oil prices have surged in recent weeks as many markets participants say they are expecting higher oil prices later this year.
With the advent of the Trump administration and Republican control of the Congress, the world oil situation seems likely to become more uncertain than usual. In the last two weeks, the new President has signed numerous executive orders that will have an impact on the oil industry in coming years. The President and the Republicans in Congress will soon have done everything they can to launch a new oil boom by reducing environmental and financial regulations; permitting whatever pipelines the oil industry wants to build; and opening federally-controlled property and offshore areas for drilling. Republicans have long held that America would be energy independent were it not for the restrictions unfairly placed on the industry. While these measures may eventually spur more drilling, for the time being, however, oil prices and the demand for oil will still determine investment decisions. Some are questioning whether the Keystone XL will be built in the near future given the relatively low oil prices and the shale oil boom that have become important since the pipeline was planned.
Prices moved slightly higher last week as the markets continued to watch the decline in oil production by most OPEC members and a few other exporters interested in seeing oil move higher. The evidence continues to accumulate that progress is being made in achieving OPEC’s 1.8 million b/d cut. In addition to a number of OPEC luminaries who assured the world that the cuts are happening and that the markets would be balanced shortly, tanker-tracker Petro-Logistics said that its information indicates that OPEC will reduce its supply by 900,000 b/d in January. This number does not include 11 non-OPEC members that are also supposed to be cutting production 600,000 b/d. The CEO of Petro-Logistics which has been monitoring tanker movements for 30 years said this suggests “a high level of compliance thus far.”
Three themes dominated the oil news last week. 1. Will OPEC with Russian help succeed in cutting production enough to rebalance the oil markets and move prices significantly higher? 2. Will the US oil industry rebound so vigorously as to offset the OPEC cuts? 3. And finally what will the be the impact of all the new energy policies the Trump administration is beginning to implement?