According to the International Energy Agency, to avoid an oil supply shock, there must be new upstream oil investments to fill the supply-demand gap.  Cenovus photo.

Oil supply shock could occur despite rising US production

This article was published by the International Energy Agency on Nov. 27, 2018.

In the detailed energy model that underpins World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2018, new sources of oil supply steadily come online at the right time to meet changes in oil demand and keep the system in equilibrium.

This smooth matching of supply and demand minimizes oil price volatility, which is why our price trajectories in each scenario are smooth, and would likely be a desirable outcome for many of the world’s oil consumers (it could also be better in the long run for many of the world’s producers).

But commodity markets don’t work this way in practice. The oil price drop in 2014 led to multiple widespread impacts on markets, not least of which was that the number of new upstream projects approved for developments plummeted.

With the rapid levels of oil demand growth seen in recent years, there are fears that supply could struggle to keep up, bringing with it the risk of damaging price spikes and increased volatility.

On the flip side, with shale production in the United States continuing to grow at record levels and increasing attention on executing upstream projects that can quickly bring oil to market, there are also arguments why a future oil supply “crunch” be safely ruled out. What does the WEO 2018 have to say on this matter?

Why invest in new supply?

The discussion about investment in oil projects typically focuses on the outlook for demand. But this is only a small part of the story – the main reason why new investment is required, in all our scenarios, is because supply at existing fields is constantly declining.

In the New Policies Scenario, there is a 7.5 million b/d increase in oil demand between 2017 and 2025. But without any future capital investment into existing fields or new fields, current sources of supply (including conventional crude oil, natural gas liquids, tight oil, extra-heavy oil and bitumen, processing gains etc.) would drop by over 45 million b/d over this period – this is known as the “natural decline” in supply.

If there were to be continued investment into existing fields but still no new fields were brought online – known as the “observed decline”– then the loss of supply would be closer to 27.5 million b/d. A 35 million b/d supply-demand gap would therefore still need to be filled by investments in new fields in the New Policies Scenario in 2025 (there’s also a 26 million b/d gap in 2025 even in the demand-constrained world of the Sustainable Development Scenario).

Part of this 35 million b/d gap is filled by conventional projects already under development. There is also growth in conventional NGLs, extra-heavy oil and bitumen, tight oil in areas outside the United States, and other smaller increases elsewhere.

In total these sources add around 11 million b/d new production between 2017 and 2025. Another portion of the gap would be filled by new conventional crude oil projects that have not yet been approved.

Around 16 billion barrels of new conventional crude oil resources in new projects are approved each year in the New Policies Scenario between 2017 and 2025: these provide around 13 million b/d additional production in 2025.

This leaves around 11 million b/d. In the New Policies Scenario, this is filled by US shale liquids – also known as “tight liquids” – which includes tight crude oil, tight condensates and tight NGLs.

Shale liquids production in the United States in 2017 was just over 7.5 million b/d. If investment were to have stopped in 2017, shale liquids production would have fallen by around 4 million b/d to 2025. However, we have seen that investment and production has actually soared over the course of 2018, and average production in 2018 is set to be close to 9.5 million b/d.

In the New Policies Scenario, shale liquids grow by another 5 million b/d to 2025 (i.e. total growth of 7 million b/d from 2017).

So from 2017, and including the production to offset declines, US shale liquids provide the additional 11 million b/d production that is required to fill the remainder of the supply-demand gap.

This would represent a huge increase in oil production: the growth between 2015 and 2025 would surpass the fastest rate of growth ever seen previously over a 10-year period (Saudi Arabia between 1967 and 1977).

If conventional investment doesn’t pick up…

It is worth looking in more detail at the assumption that 16 billion barrels resources are approved in new conventional crude oil projects each year from 2018 onwards.

In the years since the oil price crash in 2014, the average annual level of resources approved has been closer to 8 billion. The volumes of conventional crude oil receiving development approval would therefore need to double from today’s levels, alongside robust growth in other sources of production, if there is to be a smooth matching of supply and demand in the New Policies Scenario.

What if this does not occur and annual conventional approvals remain at around today’s level? This would mean that some of the supply-demand “gap” would remain and another source would need to step into the breach.

The most likely candidate to do so would likely be for US operators to increase tight liquids production at a much faster rate than is projected in the New Policies Scenario.

… then the US would need to add another ‘Russia’ to the global oil balance in 7 years.

In this case, US tight liquids production would need to grow by an additional 6 million b/d between now and 2025. Total growth in US tight liquids between 2018 and 2025 would therefore be around 11 million b/d: roughly equivalent to adding another “Russia” to the global oil balance over the next 7 years.

With a sufficiently large resource base – much larger than we assume in the New Policies Scenario – it could be possible for US tight liquids production to grow to more than 20 million b/d by 2025.

However increasing production to this level would require a level of capital investment and a number of tight oil rigs that would far surpass the previous peaks in 2014. It would also rely on building multiple new distribution pipelines to avoid bottlenecks that could prevent or slow the transport of oil away from production areas.

What if demand were to follow a different trajectory?

In the Sustainable Development Scenario, with concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, demand peaks in the early 2020s and falls by 1 million b/d between 2017 and 2025.

We do not yet see the policies in place or on the horizon that would lead to this outcome (if we did, they would be incorporated already in the New Policies Scenario), but it is of course possible that a lower demand trajectory also helps to avoid the risk of market tightening in the 2020s.

In the Sustainable Development Scenario, shale liquids, conventional NGLs and EHOB all grow from today’s levels in this scenario, albeit to a lesser extent than in the New Policies Scenario given a lower oil price.

Filling the remainder of the gap would require approvals of around 8 billion barrels between now and 2025. This is very similar to the level seen over the past few years.

This places the implications of “peak oil demand” in context. Even with a near-term peak and subsequent reduction in demand of around 1 million b/d by the mid-2020s, there remains a need to develop new upstream oil investments to fill the supply-demand gap.