Saturday, April 23, 2011

B of A New Oil Price Target Suggests $4.25 Gasoline in the US by Memorial Day

While living in The Hague, Holland as a young boy I often wondered what was on the other side of that vast expanse of water known as the North Sea. How could I have known about the vast crude oil reserves lying underneath the angry waters of the North Sea and its eventual exploration by the countries surrounding it?

Economic zones in the North Sea

Brent geese would fly over my province of South Holland much like Canadian geese fly over Montana on their way south. I now live in Terry, Montana, which is a long distance from Holland and the North Sea, but the word "Brent" once again has once again become part of my every day vocabulary while discussing the reasons for the fuel price increases.

The word Brent was originally derived from the naming policy of Shell UK Exploration and Production, operating on behalf of ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, which names all of its fields after birds. In the case of their North Sea operations the field was called Brent Goose, which was later shortened by the market to Brent encompassing similar type crude oils being produced in the area.

Brent Crude, Brent Sweet Light Crude, Oseberg, Ekofisk, and Forties are all part of the Brent crude oil sourced from the North Sea and traded on the Intercontinental Exchange in London (ICE). The Brent crude oil marker is also known as Brent Blend, London Brent and Brent Petroleum and is used to price two thirds of the world's internationally traded crude oil supplies.

Why has the Brent crude oil benchmark price become so important to consumers of gasoline and diesel? The answer: It just recently replaced the New York Mercantile Exchange (Nymex) West Texas Intermediate (WTI) as the reference price for other “crude oil baskets” such as OPEC, Dubai, Russian and even Alaska North Slope crude oils.

The problem lies with the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) not having the power to regulate commodity transactions on the ICE. The big money is being moved into Brent and ICE thereby bypassing the Nymex and putting the WTI crude oil secondary to Brent. Even the Alaska North Slope crude oil posting is now tracking the Brent crude oil posting.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch recently increased its forecast for benchmark Brent crude for 2011 to $122 a barrel, and said that Brent could “briefly” surge above $140 a barrel in the second quarter of 2011. For WTI crude oil, the bank forecasted an average of $101 a barrel for this year, up from $87.

Bank of America also forecasted a 30 percent chance the price of Brent crude oil would reach $160 per barrel in 2011 with global demand for oil increasing and Libya supplying about 1 million barrels per day less than it did before the NATO coalition bombing started on March 19, 2011.

Each dollar differential in the price a barrel of crude oil represents 2.4 cents per gallon change for gasoline and diesel. When the price reaches the $140 level, it will add another 40 cent per gallon to today’s $3.856 per gallon national average price for unleaded gasoline per AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report. That means $4.25 per gallon for regular gasoline by the end of May, which is right at the beginning of the summer driving season.

The average gasoline price in the US could reach $4.75 per gallon if the Brent crude oil reaches the predicted $160 a barrel sometime this year.

Crude oil prices now are determined not so much by supply and demand but by financial markets like the Nymex and ICE. Most oil is traded using derivative financial instruments that are not based on the physical exchange of crude oil (wet barrels in the trade) between seller and buyer. In the 1990's, physical transactions accounted for about 30 percent of oil traded, but they now number less than 1 percent of contracts traded on the various exchanges.

Crude oil prices soared to new highs in 2005 when U.S. pension funds were permitted to invest their members’ retirement monies in oil futures. The US Congress convened a special hearing in 2008 after prices soared to $147 a barrel for WTI crude oil to consider the influence that speculation has on crude oil prices. Analysts calculated for each $100 million pumped into the oil market the price per barrel was pushed up by 1.6 percent.

In effect, oil has become a speculative commodity whose price is determined by how investors anticipate its value will increase or decrease at a given point in the future.
No sooner had Bank of America Merrill Lynch given its “bullish” prediction than the commodities market rallied and the price of Brent oil surpassed $120 per barrel. Nonetheless, do analysts have at least some idea of an upper limit to prices?

The two dominant theories of the 1970's and 1980's held that oil prices were limited by the prices for alternative energy sources to crude oil or, by contrast, that the price ceiling was determined by the purchasing power of oil consumers who are also unable to reduce demand. This is just partly true today.

In the end, the main “energy resource” of the past 40 years was not oil but energy efficiency, and consumers’ ability to save money by reducing consumption and using alternative energy sources as prices increased.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Keystone Pipeline: 'Just Say No' Could Mean $7 a Gallon at the Pump

U.S. Imports of crude oil by country

Route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline

Consumer studies by researchers at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs suggested a year ago that in order for the Obama administration to meet their target to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Americans will soon be spending $7 per gallon. That day may now come sooner than most Americans think.

The Opinion page of the Sunday April 3, 2011 edition of the New York Times (NYT) carried an editorial against approving the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, which was scheduled to transport crude oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma, and to the lucrative U.S. Gulf Coast by the end of 2012.

The NYT editorial is in line with the Obama Administration agenda, but will ultimately be bad for fuel consumers by hitting them where it hurts; right in their wallets, while benefiting alternative energy producers with better economics.

The following chart above this article was obtained from the EIA website shows the top 15 countries of petroleum imports of the U.S. where Canada ranks number one with increasing volume from 2010 into 2011.

This increase in imports shows the importance and U.S. reliance on Canada--the friendly neighbor to the north--to replace the more volatile crude oil supplies from countries in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Imports of petroleum products from Canada for the period from August 2010 to January 2011:

Aug-10 Sep-10 Oct-10 Nov-10 Dec-10 Jan-11

76,988 74,251 72,698 75,313 84,092 87,619

The Keystone XL pipeline, an expansion project that would raise the line's capacity by 500,000 barrels of crude per day, has already been approved by various state agencies in the U.S. through which it runs.

Two major obstacles to receive the necessary rights of way were eventually overcome with, at times, heavy negotiations. The first obstacle was the local crude oil producers obtaining ramp access into this pipeline for crude oil currently being hauled by rail car and trucks to refineries for processing into gasoline and other fuels. The second one was meeting with constituents in each of the areas being affected with their concerns not only about the interruption of their daily lives, with a massive construction project, but also by ongoing operational problems with the pipeline after it is completed.

The current administration’s Department of Energy now says the pipeline will have a minimal effect on prices since there is already sufficient pipeline capacity to double United States imports from Canada. They are thereby affirming President Obama’s campaign promise of making the U.S. less reliant or needing additional imports of crude oil.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline will cut across the Bakken and Three Forks oil shale fields from Saskatchewan into Eastern Montana, through South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas ending up at the major crude oil terminal hub of Cushing, Oklahoma. North Dakota, Montana and other state governors became involved early on in the approval process and addressed local environmental and right of way concerns.

TransCanada executives met with various private and public officials and hammered out agreements to have local oil producers gain access to this much needed pipeline to make the shipping of crude oil more economical for US domestic oil producers. In some cases, due to the lack of takeaway capacity, crude oil is being sold at $10 a barrel discount off the WTI crude oil posting, which is one of the main reasons Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota currently have some of the lowest prices for gasoline and diesel fuel in the US.

The Keystone XL would greatly improve the transportation logistic issues in the Bakken and Three Forks oil shale basins. None of the states involved have put up additional major objections.

Early this year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton initially came out, after the State Department report was issued, and said she was “inclined” to support the project. However, after criticism from environmental and alternative energy groups she called for additional environmental impact studies to be reviewed.

President Obama, in his April 2, 2011 Saturday morning radio address, said that even if we used every last drop of all the oil the U.S. has, it wouldn’t be enough to meet the long-term energy needs. So, real energy security can only come from energy efficiency and investing in cleaner fuels and greater efficiency.

The folly involved in President Obama’s approach comes from the fact that only $7 gasoline prices will ultimately justify the cost for those alternative energy projects. Meanwhile, they are supported by the taxpayers in the form of subsidies to the ethanol, solar and wind machinery manufacturers.

The Canadian government has been a staunch supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline project, and perhaps has an even greener approach to their environment and clean air issues than does the US.

The U.S. is now being boxed in from all sides on the energy front. Concerns about the future of nuclear energy, the instability of governments in oil producing countries in MENA, have all contributed to crude oil prices spiking to their highest level since September 28, 2008. What stands in the way of any major decisions to make the US energy secure are politicians not willing to make tough decisions in an orderly and efficient manner.

Meanwhile, the environmental organizations have been trying to block the Keystone XL pipeline at every turn even threatening court actions to stop the start of the construction. The State Department and the White House will have to make the final decision on Keystone XL, since it crosses the Canada-U.S. border.

But it probably will be the end of 2013 at the earliest to having any of the crude being shipped in the proposed pipeline, even if the approval is received from the Department of State by July 1, 2011. By then, there’s a good possibility that gasoline prices would be reaching a record high and the discontent from consumers will be at a fever’s pitch.