The big news around here yesterday came from Bertel’s interview with Toyota’s Chief Engineer, in which it became clear that Toyota takes the developing world’s growing demand for oil very seriously. With global demand already outstripping supply, the giant automaker’s embrace of a petroleum-constrained business model seems to make it clear that gas prices will play a significant role in the future. But markets are, by their natures, both difficult to predict, and shaped by predictions. And Edmunds CEO Jeremy Anwyl reckons that, although gas prices are high and could well go up in the short term, fears of a runaway gap between supply and demand may not materialize over the longer term. He writes:
Here’s the twist: As I said, the consensus belief (or story) on future oil prices is that they will be higher. And short term, this may be the case if and/or when the global economy recovers and/or demand grows in emerging markets.
But there is a longer-term story as well. This story suggests that peak oil may be nigh and the future holds shortages and sharply higher prices. Buying into this story, companies, acting individually, will see profit in expanding exploration, developing sophisticated new extraction technologies, etc.
The aggregate result of all these individual activities is that the future supply of oil will improve and prices will actually drop.
In fact, we have seen this paradox play out before. Through the Seventies, we were first shocked by rapid price increases and then conditioned to believe they would continue. And, of course, oil prices collapsed in the Eighties.
Anwyl butresses his argument by pointing to an NYT story on exploration of promising new reserves of hydrocarbons, arguing that new finds could stave off the kind of undersupply that has Toyota and others so worried.
From the high Arctic waters north of Norway to a shale field in Argentine Patagonia, from the oil sands of western Canada to deepwater oil prospects off the shores of Angola, giant new oil and gas fields are being mined, steamed and drilled with new technologies. Some of the reserves have been known to exist for decades but were inaccessible either economically or technologically.
Put together, these fuels should bring hundreds of billions of barrels of recoverable reserves to market in coming decades and shift geopolitical and economic calculations around the world. The new drilling boom is expected to diversify global sources away from the Middle East, just as the growth in consumption of fuels shifts from the United States and Europe to China, India and the rest of the developing world.
“Use whatever hackneyed phrase you want, like tectonic shift or game-changer,” said Edward L. Morse, global head of commodity research at Citigroup. “These sources will dramatically change the energy supply outlook, and there is little debate about that.”
The major complaint with these new “unconventional” hydrocarbon sources is that they are more carbon intensive than oil, an argument that some will find more convincing or troubling than others. But the reliance on this critique shows that unconventional hydrocarbon sources hold the potential to undermine the major impetus for the “new peak oil,” which is based solely on the economics of growing emerging-market demand outstripping global capacity increases. If these hydrocarbons prove economically viable at a price point that holds off a challenge from battery technology, we could well see the industry slow-rolling parts of its high-efficiency toolbox. After all, the last few years have proven that American consumers respond to sharp upward changes in oil prices more than the actual price. If these new reserves can keep oil closer to $100/barrel than $200/barrel, we’ll see the market evolve slowly, with efficiency improvements driven more by CAFE regulation than market demand.
On the other hand, it’s not clear how much oil prices constrain development in the fastest-growing economies around the world. If gas prices soften on the strength of these new discoveries, there’s little reason to believe that these young but strong economies won’t turn up the wick on growth, eating up new gains in production. Furthermore, “game changing” automotive technology is worth developing simply because energy markets still rely on a semblance of order in chaotic parts of the world. With chaos always one suicide bomb away and global pressure on oil supply mounting, the short-term possibilities of a dramatic spike in gas prices makes rapidly-deployable, high-efficiency technology (for example, Nissan’s unmatched investment in global Leaf EV capacity, or Toyota’s ability to hybridize most of its vehicles) a worthwhile investment policy. Even if Nissan gets a few years of panic-fueled bumper EV sales before new “unconventional” reserves (generally from friendlier, more stable regions) come online, it will have made a huge leap over unprepared competitors. And after such an event, the EV market will not go away (as the hybrid market has not completely gone away since the Summer of 2008).
Of course nobody has a crystal ball, and if anyone knew for sure what was going to happen with oil prices over the short, medium and long terms, they wouldn’t tell anyone (or, more likely, they wouldn’t be believed by anyone). But there definitely seems to be more angst about energy prices among auto industry types than we’ve seen in several years. And with billion of dollars riding on every market fluctuation, that’s the only thing about this discussion that isn’t at least a little surprising.