The economics of oil have changed. Some businesses will go bust, but the market will be healthier.
The official charter of OPEC states that the group’s goal is “the stabilisation of prices in international oil markets.” It has not been doing a very good job. In June, the price of a barrel of oil, then almost $115, began to slide; it now stands close to $70.
This near-40% plunge is thanks partly to the sluggish world economy, which is consuming less oil than markets had anticipated, and partly to OPEC itself, which has produced more than markets expected. But the main culprits are the oilmen of North Dakota and Texas. Over the past four years, as the price hovered around $110 a barrel, they have set about extracting oil from shale formations previously considered unviable. Their manic drilling – they have completed perhaps 20,000 new wells since 2010, more than ten times Saudi Arabia’s tally – has boosted America’s oil production by a third, to nearly 9m barrels a day (b/d). That is just 1m b/d short of Saudi Arabia’s output. The contest between the shalemen and the sheikhs has tipped the world from a shortage of oil to a surplus.
So the economics of oil have changed. The market will still be subject to political shocks: war in the Middle East or the overdue implosion of Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy would send the price soaring. But, absent such an event, the oil price should be less vulnerable to shocks or manipulation. Even if the 3m extra b/d that the United States now pumps out is a tiny fraction of the 90m the world consumes, America’s shale is a genuine rival to Saudi Arabia as the world’s marginal producer. That should reduce the volatility not just of the oil price but also of the world economy. Oil and finance have proved themselves the only two industries able to tip the world into recession. At least one of them should in future be a bit more stable.