By on November 15, 2011


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.

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42 Comments on “Anwyl: Should We Be Preparing For The Next Gas Price… Collapse?...”

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Hmmm… naah. The last three significant declines in oil prices were the result of weakening demand due to incipient recessions in the major oil-importing economies. The two before that were supply recoveries from artificial constraints. It’s nice to think that increasing supply will bring the price down by itself, but that hope ignores the principle of demand expanding to consume the available supply.

    • 0 avatar

      Good points Bumpy ii, and in the original post. I would argue any near-term fuel price drop is irrelevant, because none of us — car manufacturers or car buyers — use such a short time horizon when we forecast fuel costs. If I’m going to keep a car for 10-15 years, then some cheap gas for the next year or two isn’t going to matter compared to the longer-term fact that the world’s appetite for buried fossil fuel is expanding faster than our ability to extract it cheaply. In other words, I don’t think engineers can keep up with China’s thirst for very long.

      Obviously, Toyota agrees. And like me, they probably think much more about the long-term (10-20-30 years) than the next year or two.

    • 0 avatar

      My father is a petroleum geologist for ExxonMobil (he’s just a worker bee and not responsible for their business plan, so no comments on that please.) His job is to look for oil and he says the same: that there are still major sources out there and untapped reserves, etc.. But the issue is still the cost of exploration and extraction. The oil companies will only spend the money to extract if there is sufficient demand that dictates a good profitable return. If demand drops, then they have no incentive to provide the oil. They will not increase supply and have reduced prices if the demand is lowered, as there’s no profit motive to do so (basic supply and demand strategies.) ExxonMobil’s move into alternative energy sources is not because of limited oil supply, but because it has the potential to be more profitable than the oil business itself.

  • avatar

    Why is it every time one hears about peak oil, they find another 1.5 billion barrels right under our noses?

    Just heard about Colorado find this morning.

    While not a GIANT amount, it is surely better than being in league with volatile Middle East?

    Of course it will take a 10yr feasibility study, defeating Sierra club lawsuits, meeting draconian EPA rules… oh never mind.

    And now Canada is going to sell their surplus oil to Asia? Just because we don’t want a pipeline?

    Strange times indeed.

    • 0 avatar

      This article is relating hearsay from a person who is trying to stir the pot so he can make money by trying to keep the game afoot. Peak oil has occurred. The oil companies pumped less oil today than they did yesterday. 1.5 Billion barrels would last the US 78 days so even with the oil found in Colorado we found enough oil for a total of about 2 1/2 months.

      On top of all that if you don’t live near an oil drilling zone you really have no right to bitch about the environmental impact. A 10 year study is unrealistic, most likely it would be a year or two and would take into account the cost of drilling it out and the impact on the environment. The Sierra club would only sue if it would ruin the environment (which it could and likely would to some extent), and you think the EPA rules are draconian, really? They’re highly advanced and were put in place to protect the small people from large corporations who would rather skill a billion barrels over their town than worry about doing it right.

      The pipeline doesn’t need to occur and Canada can sell all the oil they want to Asia. The armchair economists I run into seem to have little grasp of how much that pipeline is a lame duck and is just trying to be an end-around to a slight cost the oil companies have to bear.

      • 0 avatar

        Americans want and need hydrocarbon energy, and virtually every other nation with hydrocarbon reserves is developing it as fast as they can. Only the US is committed to a policy of leaving energy in the ground and importing if from countries that are our enemies.

        Plus, why would we want friendly Canada selling their oil to China instead of us? If the Canadians cannot build a pipeline to export oil to the US do you think they will just leave it in the ground? Of course not; they will sell it to the next available market, and that is China. Once the infrastructure to export the oil to China is built, we will be bidding against them as long as there is oil to export from Canada.

        PS. Peak oil has not occurred. Someday it will, be we are not there yet. As has always happened with every commodity, as prices go up, more resources are extracted or alternatives are used.

      • 0 avatar

        Toad: Only the US is committed to a policy of leaving energy in the ground and importing if from countries that are our enemies.

        Isn’t that a good thing? Use up everyone else’s while keeping some in our back pocket?

      • 0 avatar

        xeranar: The oil companies pumped less oil today than they did yesterday.

        Maybe that’s because we’re in recession, Europe is teetering on the brink and China’s economy appears to be slowing?

      • 0 avatar

        Isn’t that a good thing? Use up everyone else’s while keeping some in our back pocket?

        It’s not necessarily good or bad. It’s a complex function of competing costs that vary constantly. Compare the cost of the alternative oil we use (imported, etc) vrs the benefit of waiting (and getting that oil later).

        There is no certainty – only educated guesses. The world oil market is completely interconnected (to the horror many fundamentalist environmentalists). A future with cheap oil may make it best to tap expensive domestic sources NOW while cost effective. We have surplus labor and capital in the US.

      • 0 avatar

        EPA… highly advanced? *Snicker* They do, after all, maintain the belief bordering on the fanatical/religious that CO2 is a killer!

        And as to your “most likely a year or two” assertion? Utterly baseless. I am in the wastewater business in CO. 10 year studies are the norm.

        Next nabob please……

      • 0 avatar

        The oil companies pumped less oil today than they did yesterday.

        The EIA would disagree with you. Based upon data for the period of 1980-2010, world oil supplies in 2010 were the highest on record.,&syid=1980&eyid=2011&unit=TBPD

        In any case, you need to understand what “supply” is. Oil comes in a nice big natural storage tank supplied by Mother Earth. There isn’t much reason for suppliers to radically inflate production just for the sake of lowering prices. They’ll pump to their production capacity, but they’ll be cautious about paying substantial sums to increase production in order to avoid overexpansion and the creation of a supply glut.

        In other words, “supply” is a measure of what is getting pulled out of the ground, not of what is available in total. Proven reserves have more than doubled over the last thirty years, outpacing the growth of consumption, which is also not exactly evidence of peaking. One can hypothesize that future growth may become more rapid as supplies become harder to find, but the historical data doesn’t support the argument.

    • 0 avatar

      “Why is it every time one hears about peak oil, they find another 1.5 billion barrels right under our noses?

      Just heard about Colorado find this morning.

      While not a GIANT amount, it is surely better than being in league with volatile Middle East?

      Of course it will take a 10yr feasibility study, defeating Sierra club lawsuits, meeting draconian EPA rules… oh never mind.”
      And why could this be an issue? Because the field runs right through the Denver metropolitan area, and the fracking methods used to extract the oil can easily seep into groundwater.

      No big deal.

    • 0 avatar

      @manbridge: Agreed.

      Bear in mind that Edmunds doesn’t sell cars; Toyota does, and has more to gain by scaring people into buying their product.

  • avatar

    What people really fear is price volatility.

    Sure, gasoline prices may decline, but what if they spike again when you’re in middle of that 48-month (or more) loan for the Explorer, Tahoe, 4Runner, Tundra, etc.?

    • 0 avatar

      And volatility is about the only thing I can predict with certainty. (Yes, that’s kind of a contradiction, but it’s still a useful statement, given that I’ve been skeptically reading about peak oil off and on for the last 6 years or so.)

      The actual price, I can’t say, and I can’t say which fuel will have the cheapest operating cost in 5 years . But volatility is almost a sure thing.

      • 0 avatar

        We’ll probably be looking at a new vehicle in 2012, and one of the criteria will be whether we can still afford to drive it if the price of gas increases by 25-30 percent.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m amazed by how many people are still buying full sized 4X4 trucks/SUV’s to only use them as a car. It seems people have adjusted to 3-$4 a gallon gas. Most of the folks I see buying these trucks are the least able to afford a spike in gas prices and the first to bitch when the inevitable price jump happens. Just as usual people have not learned anything from the not so distant past.

      • 0 avatar

        Really? I am amazed at how quickly it has become a faux pas among my white collar middle class neighbors to be seen in a truck or SUV. In some parts of the country this shift happened a few years ago; even here in Phoenix (aka the land of the lifted pickup) this trend has started to gain traction. My next door neighbor traded in his H2 for a Prius and the guy down the street got rid of his lifted Silverado in favor of some iteration of GM CUV.

        Green is in; Prana is the new Ed Hardy and Yoga the new UFC. I think this social trend has not been suficently accounted for in the oil use projections. Sure, most of the SUVs from 00’s are still on the road but when they wear out will they be replaced with SUV’s or hybrids? My bet is hybrids and I don’t think the primary reason will be out of control oil prices.

  • avatar

    Read Daniel Yergin, y’all.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve heard some pretty good interviews with him, and he’s rather optimistic while still acknowledging the size and scope the problem. He does have many insightful things to say.

      However, it might help the general audience on this board if you’d explain your comment, and especially what YOU mean by this shorthand reference, since most of the people on this board have never heard of him, or ventured deeply enough into the energy story to find his comments relevant. It may also be that your interpretation of what he has to say is different than mine.

      In other words, could you please enlighten the general audience about what the #3!! your comment actually means? I can guess what you meant, but most of the audience here won’t even begin to guess, and most probably have better things to do than Google for people who are mentioned without any context on a topic that they might (or might not be) interested in.

  • avatar

    The premise in the comments has been that people think long term, but buying trends show otherwise. They dump SUVs with any spike, and when the spike softens, they buy them back again. A spike induces a panic, not with respect to the then current prices of say $4.50 a gallon (U.S.) but rather that it will keep spiking to 6,7 or 8. That is what affects behavior. Fear of a catastrophic increase. Increased supply and variation in supply, weakens the cartels and reduces cycles caused by political instability. It creates a more stable price platform. We already know that with prices stable between $3.50 and $4, people will still buy thirsty cars in the U.S.

    My biggest car buying mistake was in not buying a Volvo XC90 V8 during the spike of winter 2007-08. They were giving it away. By the following fall, the same car cost $8,000 more. But I was afraid, not at the $90-something a barrel it was in December 07, but that it would hit $200 or $300 a barrel (peaked at $145 in July).

  • avatar

    Oil prices will not collapse.
    New oil sources will go online.
    The Indian and Chinese economies will cool.
    The demand for more oil will also cool a bit.
    As demand cools, demand for alternatives will also cool.
    Americans will still drive whatever they want.
    They will pay a higher percentage of their wages to do so, but will also cut back on other household costs.
    Demand will not exceed supply as long as pump prices are set correctly to reflect that market fact.


    Now, when are we going to start demanding that the White House give billions to political friends with an inefficient means of creating a Milk alternative? I mean – geez, have you seen how high milk prices have escalated?

    Far worse than gas!

    • 0 avatar

      What makes you think things will happen this way?

      • 0 avatar

        I’m basing this on what has happened before – you know – history and all. And economics – geez, when you have more demand than product, why are your prices so low? Peak Oil is a theory that is not based on real world economics. The idea that there is more demand than production referred to by this theory has an easy solution – just raise the price to reduce the demand.

      • 0 avatar

        What in particular about history and economics?

        I don’t share your assumptions about what the history means, so your conclusions look rather flimsy to me. But, your predictions are better than some of what I hear from people that seem to share your worldview, so I’d like to hear your reasoning.

    • 0 avatar

      Milk = $1.45 / Gal at my local Aldi but i can’t run my car on milk

  • avatar

    Toyota is very smart, as usual, for planning for the worst. However anyone who tells you that they know for a fact that peak oil occurred on this date or that we’re past it is a fool–these predictions have come and gone through history.

    In 2008 the Bakken formation in North Dakota was estimated to have 3 billion barrels of recoverable oil. With today’s technology, 3 years later the latest estimate is 18 billion barrels (per Wikipedia). I heard on the radio today that it could be 50 billion.

  • avatar

    It’s nice that someone thinks prices will decline as users take measures to temper use. But is there already enough infrastructure in place that demands high use; and do cars have a long enough life; and are so many non-transport uses of oil such as fertilizer and plastics not have substitutes, that the timescales of increased efficiency and increased number and speed of finding and developing new sources mismatched? Mismatch problems can be time or quantity. 120 million barrel extraction capacity in 2030 doesn’t matter if the 120 is needed in 2018 to prevent price spikes.

    • 0 avatar

      “and are so many non-transport uses of oil such as fertilizer and plastics not have substitutes”

      That’s not really true. IIRC, fertilizer is made using natural gas (which seems to be a separate issue from oil at this point), but the transport and application of fertilizer is usually powered by diesel fuel. Plastics can be made from a variety of feedstocks, including but not limited to oil.

      Also, it’s not like peak oil means someone’s going to shut off the spigot. What it means is that hydrocarbons become MORE EXPENSIVE, and that mining hydrocarbons for these purposes becomes like mining anything else — it takes more energy to extract it than you get from just burning it. Even if there weren’t alternative feedstocks, that are currently viable (such as the soy plastic used in some car interiors, and the corn plastic that is sometimes used in juice bottles).

  • avatar

    Is it possible that oil prices will plummet in the near-to-medium term? Sure, I guess. Lots of things are possible; this guy isn’t proposing a perpetual motion machine or anything.

    Will I be betting my money in that direction? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. No.

    • 0 avatar

      Oil prices are volatile, and they plummet every few days!

      At the last Thanksgiving, one of my relatives selectively listened to Fox News when they reported on oil prices falling (but when oil prices increased), and he tried to make the case that oil prices MUST be coming down, based on what he heard. I pulled up a yearly oil price graph, and that kinda ended the discussion.

      He also had some misconceptions about the relative size of ANWR and the US oil consumption.

  • avatar

    Anwyl doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that the main reason prices went down in the 1980s is that we benefited from 3 new sources of conventional light-sweet crude that were developed in the late 60s and 70s: the North Sea, Cantarell and Prudhoe Bay. In each case, we literally drilled holes in the ground and the very best grade of oil flowed out. Production has since declined precipitously in all three fields. Today, we’re talking about fields that require much more energy per barrel invested to each barrel of energy recovered. Bakken is a great example: lots of little holes will need to be drilled to extract quickly declining reserves. Or Canadian tar sands where massive amounts of plentiful (for now) natural gas and water are needed to “refine” the poor grade of oil in the ground. Toyota is spot on.

    • 0 avatar

      You assume that ingenuity and new drilling techniques will not lead to similar discoveries.

      Consider shale gas.
      Thanks to shale gas, some very smart people lost their shirts making investment bets on importing natural gas to the US. On the other hand, it’s a good thing that some farmers in northern PA are now cashing royalty checks of $3K per month.

      Of course, you may be right.

      But there’s a long, losing history of the doom and gloom set’s wrongheaded predictions about natural resources, economic growth, food production, starvation, etc. Economists like the late Julian Simon routinely destroyed predictions of economic illiterates like Paul Ehrlick.

      • 0 avatar

        Ehrlich (not EhrlicK) was almost certainly just premature. I suspect a lot of people in the world are going to be starving by the time the world gets to 9-10 billion. I attended a session at a conference earlier this year on feeding the world in 2050. One of the speakers was making a good case that there was a reasonable chance that we wouild actually be able to feed the world with 9-10 billion people. Then I asked him what global climate disruption would do to his predictions. He’d been upbeat in his presentation, but suddenly it was as if a storm cloud had come into the room and was right over his head. He just sort of shrugged his shoulders, with a helpless look on his face.

        The thing that’s wrong with Simon’s thinking is he seems oblivious to the law of diminishing returns.

  • avatar

    I think the key for an automaker is that you need to have a variety of competitive models. You need a Prius and a Sequoia, a Camry hybrid and a Highlander.

    GM went bankrupt because while it had very competitive pickups and SUVs – when prices spiked they were toast. I doubt that is a mistake any automaker is going to make again.

  • avatar

    I don’t think there will ever be a price “collapse”. Temporary downward trends? Maybe. Supply is easy to regulate and refining capacity is the current chokepoint.
    All this fuss about keystone pipeline delays causing Canada to sell our oil to China makes me laugh. If you think washed up Holly wood celebrities and Nebraska farmers are tough, just wait until you try and build a pipeline across BC. We have some of the worst enviro nazi protest lovin’ wackjob hippies in the world. Greenpeace started here after all. And then there’s the native land claims issue to negotiate. That Alberta oil ain’t going anywhere but Texas (eventually). In the meantime gas pices will stay about where they are, and if Obama wins a second term I would not be at all surprised to see a large tax increase.

  • avatar

    I generally stay away from reposting, but maybe I was late to the Toyota thread.

    Some stats from the EIA website and my conclusions below. I’m not too worried about peak oil production as a result, nor about autos being the vangaurd of a switch in fuel stock.

    World Oil consumption vs. Oil reserves in 1980 (first year of data on their site) = 0.01%

    World Oil consumption vs. Oil reserves in 2008(last year of data on their site) = 0.006% and the curve was a pretty steady decline as you might imagine.

    World NatGas consumption vs. reserves in 1980 (first year of data on their site) = 2.1%.

    That sounds kind of alarming, but:

    World NatGas consumption vs. reserves in 2008(last year of data on their site) = 1.7%.

    So people seem to discover and validate more than is consumed.

    I’m not saying energy isn’t getting more expensive in dollars, but looked at on an ounces of gold per barrel, or the more conervatively, real oil price rather than nominal, it’s not nearly as dire an increase as it looks in the long term.

    Also, with <20% of the world's energy use going to transportation (presmably about half of that in vehicles), changing over the vehicle fleet propulsion would be one of the last places to go after due to the cost. It's one of the first to go after based on life cycles, but I suspect that is more than overcome by the growth in emerging markets powerplants which would switch to the lower cost energies like Natural Gas before car fleets because there's no switch needed. It is just a decision in planning.

    Fuel cells are a great example of this. It makes so much more sense to do co-gen distributed generation with fuel cells where natural gas or biogas is prevelant WAY before it makes sense to make a fuel cell car.

    • 0 avatar

      “World Oil consumption vs. Oil reserves in 1980 (first year of data on their site) = 0.01%

      World Oil consumption vs. Oil reserves in 2008(last year of data on their site) = 0.006% and the curve was a pretty steady decline as you might imagine.”

      I’m no expert and maybe I’m missing something, but if that was oil consumption per year, wouldn’t we have 10,000 year’s supply even in 2008? I haven’t checked the figures but my guess is that the consumption vs reserves figure above is consumption per day. Then the figure would be more consistent with other estimates of remaining reserves that I’ve read about.

      But even then, isn’t it much less about the actual amount of oil than the economic cost of recovery? Isn’t that why the “reserves” figure seems to change so much. Similarly, the “peak oil” theory seems to be as much about the difficulty and cost of recovery and processing as about the actual amount of oil left (of which there seems to be a very large amount). If that’s right, the point in time when the maximum amount of oil is produced will be a reflection of the those costs as compared with the costs of substituting oil with other sources of energy. So there may be more than one apparent “peak” because, as just one factor, the technology used to recover oil is developed.

      I think that the questions of whether we’ve reached peak oil and, if not, how far away we are may be less important than the likelihood that however much oil can be produced it is likely to get ever more expensive to do it. Oil from shale and sand seems substantially more expensive to turn into transport fuel than the stuff pumped out of the ground in Saudi Arabia. In that case Toyota’s approach seems to me to be appropriately conservative. They’re hedging their bets. Given the speed at which the price of oil can change, that’s smart.

  • avatar

    I’m teaching in Saudi Arabia — mostly to students looking for work at Aramco. They don’t want high oil prices. Saudis know that if oil goes up that more money will be put into ways of cutting back oil use. If the world didn’t need oil, everyone would pull out of the Middle East and let it rot like Africa.

  • avatar

    Check your history books: the closest parallel to the present situation is ~1750 England. Before this time, their economy was powered by wood. Wood became increasingly difficult to find or “extract”, prices rose, extraction processes became more efficient and prices dropped, right up to the point there were essentially no forests on the British Isles. This drove coal extraction technologies, which led to the invention of the steam pump, followed by the steam engine. All well and good? Not quite. The resulting ecolological mess could be argued to have contributed to drops in food production and mass starvation. A given technology is often “best” and cheapest right before it becomes obsolete.

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