Motor Mouth: Are we in for another oil crisis?

Motor Mouth: Are we in for another oil crisis?
In this file photo, gas prices at Costco and other select gas stations hit an all-time low in Calgary on Thursday, March 26, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.Darren Makowichuk / Calgary Herald

Of course, the problem is that for every genius that is Michael Burry — the hero of The Big Short, who sussed out 2007’s impending mortgage crisis — there are a thousand whack-jobs who think John F. Kennedy killed himself. Indeed, if the history of whistleblowing tells us anything, it is that bona fide contrarians like Harry Markopolos — the financial fraud investigator who finally brought down Bernie Madoff — are so rare that they are only recognized after our crises have passed.

That’s why I wonder how the future will treat Adam Rozencwajg. He is the energy industry analyst — a Montreal native who is now partner in New York’s Goehring & Rozencwajg — who recently predicted that we are heading into another oil crisis. Yes, I know — and is this not the very definition of contrariness? — there’s an almost universal consensus that the age of oil is over, killed by a combination of clean energy and a post-coronavirus economic doldrums.

Yet, his recent paper — On the Verge of an Energy Crisis — maps out a pretty logical, even convincing argument that Big Oil’s stranglehold on our pocketbooks is not quite as dead as we’ve been led to believe. Where others are predicting only the most modest growth prospects for crude at best, Rozencwajg predicts we’ll see worldwide shortages as early as next spring.

His argument is four-fold. First, his analysis says that our oil consumption has not dropped nearly as much as predicted. While many had speculated there would be a whopping 30 per cent — 30 million barrels per day! — plunge in fossil fuel consumption, it seems it only really dropped by 10 per cent. China, first in — and out! — of the coronavirus, has already seen petroleum demand increase by 10 per cent year over year.

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Even the 70 to 80 per cent freefall in air travel, says Rozencwajg, disguises the fact that real “global daily air traffic is only 10% lower than the start of the year,” the discrepancy explained as airlines dropping their load factors and the massive increase in cargo shipping as we all Amazon from the comfort of our La-Z-Boys. Moreover, says Rozencwajg, the reserves that have been supposedly stockpiled — further driving down prices — are nowhere near as vast as reported, his research noting there are only 400 million extra barrels languishing in OECD depots around the world; less, in fact, than during the last serious surplus (in 2016).

And those might get eaten up sooner than we think. Even as quarantining resulted in the number of miles driven dropping off early during the COVID-19 crisis, recreational “motoring” has boomed, with dirt bikes sales absolutely skyrocketing this summer and demand for RVs going through the roof. Demand for cars has largely rebounded as well, and even if demand for EVs has increased in Europe, we North Americans are buying more gas-guzzlers than ever. Ford of Canada, for instance, reports that sales of its best-selling F-Series trucks were up some 15 per cent in the last quarter. Factor in increased rail and trucking shipping and you have pent-up demand that could be, COVID willing, unleashed sooner than we think.

What makes that projection troublesome is that, according to Rozencwajg, oil exploration was already dwindling pre-pandemic. Even more problematic is that, as a result of the coronavirus, drilling for new wells has all but stopped. As Rozencwajg explains it, the only major new non-OPEC discoveries of any significance have been America’s shale oil and, says his latest analysis, drilling is down some 75 per cent compared with just four months ago. And, while the International Energy Agency claims US production will recover some 500,000 barrels per day by the end of the year, Rozencwajg says that this “simply cannot happen.”

Throw in the fact that Alberta’s oil sands are in full retreat and, just as demand may be ready to explode, our ability to ramp up supply could be dramatically curtailed. Even if, as the pundits prognosticate, the long-term prospects for oil are waning, if Rozencwajg is right, it’s still possible we’ve misjudged its short-term supply. As he says, the oil industry “operates on the margin,” meaning even a small shortfall — say, just one per cent of the world’s total 100 million barrels a day consumption — could have a dramatic effect on crude pricing.

So, what might even a mini oil crisis look like? Well, according to Dan McTeague, former Liberal member of parliament and president of Canadians for Affordable Energy, based on existing taxation, $80 a barrel crude would see Ontario gas spike to $1.40 a litre, while $100 a barrel would see “regular” hit a record $1.57. Vancouver pump prices, the most expensive in the land, could shoot up to $1.90. Even more problematic, says McTeague, is the Parliamentary Budget Office’s recent revelation that if the federal government is serious about meeting Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2030 Paris promises, the tax on gas would have to increase a further 69 cents. Yes, the future could well hold $2 a litre gasoline here in Canada.

It feels like the era of ultra-cheap gasoline might be coming to an end.

Dan McTeague

How that might affect the auto industry is anyone’s guess. On one hand, the lower “total cost of ownership” protagonists have long promised might finally spur EV sales beyond early adopters and subsidy seekers. On the other, environmentalists have been rejoicing in Big Oil’s diminished clout; a price spike would almost surely rekindle dormant exploration.

Throw in the federal government’s need to dramatically invigorate sales of electric vehicles — , the $600 million of public funds being pumped into Ford’s Oakville plant has to be justified somehow — and nothing will spur conversion to battery power more than overpriced, taxed-to-the-hilt gasoline. At the very least, a rapid price hike might finally quell our addiction to gas-guzzling pickups. Whatever the outcome, as McTeague says, “it feels like the era of ultra-cheap gasoline might be coming to an end.”

Now, I want to be clear. I have no idea whether Rozencwajg is another Burry-like soothsayer or the oil industry’s version of Alex Jones — the InfoWars wingnut who claims the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. I do know that “accepted wisdom” is the enemy of intellectual growth and that shunning opinions contrary to our own leads to the echo chambers threatening modern discourse.

Had Elon Musk, for instance, been successfully discounted as a mere kook, the automotive industry would not be in the midst of its biggest revolution in a century. And had Nils Bohlin, the inventor of the three-point seat belt, been dismissed as a “rocket scientist” — he designed ejector seats before joining Volvo — a lot more of us would have died in automotive accidents.

So, no matter how skeptical you might be, pay Mr. Rozencwajg some heed and give a boo to On the Verge of an Energy Crisis. You might surprise yourself and learn something.
News Topics :
Gas & Oil , Dan McTeague , Douglas Porter , Gas Price Forecast , Gas Prices 2014 , Gas Prices Canada , Gas Prices Toronto , Summer Gas Prices ,...
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