The Financial Times has been investigating what the plunge in the oil price since the summer of 2014 has meant for the industry, consumers and producers. Brent crude has more than halved since June last year, with the slide accelerating after Opec’s decision last November not to cut output, despite a US supply glut and weaker than expected demand in Asia.
The drop has inflicted massive pain on oil-exporting countries, widening budget deficits and weakening currencies. Energy companies have laid off an estimated 70,000 workers and scrapped projects worth billions of dollars, especially in high-cost areas such as Canada’s oil sands and the deepwater fields of the Gulf of Mexico.
The low oil price is reshaping the industry landscape: it drove Royal Dutch Shell’s $55bn takeover of smaller rival BG Group, and triggered the fall of Nigeria-focused oil explorer Afren, which entered administration last month. Dozens of other small oil companies are limping along, labouring under heavy debts and dwindling cash flows.
Venezuela, a country whose crude oil accounts for 96 per cent of export revenues, and that loses $700m for every dollar drop in the oil price, typifies the difficulties oil exporters face. Amid slumping revenues, its cash reserves now stand at a 12-year low of $15.4bn, according to central bank data, and there are fears that the coffers could run empty in the first quarter of 2016.
But even Canada, a much wealthier country, is being squeezed. Economists are scaling back forecasts of future production, and Fort McMurray, the Albertan boomtown that was once nicknamed “Fort McMoney”, is seeing leaner times, with workers laid off and projects shelved. Unemployment in Alberta’s oil sands has doubled and councils are cutting their budgets.
It is not all bad news. Lower oil prices have benefited consumers, leading to lower petrol prices. The windfall is worth more than $200bn for the US, eurozone, UK and Japan, according to a report by Capital Economics in May, although so far there is little evidence that consumers are spending much of their spare cash. However, in the US, sales of gas guzzlers such as SUVs are up, and the country is seeing something of a renaissance in motoring.
Here are some of the main takeaways from our series.
The world’s big energy groups have shelved $200bn of spending on new projects. Wood Mackenzie, the energy consultancy, says that companies have deferred 46 big oil and gas projects with 20bn barrels of oil equivalent in reserves, which is more than Mexico’s entire proven holdings. Wood Mac says that the number of major upstream projects expected to be fully approved during 2015 could probably be counted “on one hand”.
Saudi Arabia, which drives Opec’s policy, is determined to preserve market share and squeeze high-cost rivals, and is pumping crude at record levels to achieve those goals. But a long period of low oil prices could play havoc with its public finances. Saudi officials say it is well-insulated, and it has a huge buffer in the form of foreign exchange reserves, which peaked at about $800bn in mid-2014. But it is burning through them fast: they dropped by $36bn in March and April alone. The kingdom is now trying to relieve the pressure on its finances by returning to the bond market, with a plan to raise $27bn by the end of the year. Bankers say that its central bank has been sounding out demand for an issuance of about SR20bn ($5.3bn) a month in bonds for the rest of the year.
As the lower oil price begins to bite, US shale producers, particularly those with weak balance sheets, could become targets for larger companies. Goldman Sachs says that those that could be vulnerable include Continental Resources, EP Energy and Halcón Resources, whose leverage (net debt as a percentage of capital employed) is predicted to reach 61 per cent, 49 per cent and 61 per cent respectively next year. So far M&A involving US shale has been sluggish: most companies with good positions in places such as the Bakken in North Dakota are not yet under the financial strain that would force them to seek a buyer at a knockdown price. Analysts say that the longer oil prices stay low, the more likely that is to change.
One of the worst affected parts of the oil patch has been Alberta, home to Canada’s oil sands industry. Capital spending by the Canadian oil and gas industry will total C$45bn (US$34.5bn) this year, 40 per cent lower than 2014. As a result, forecasts of future output growth are being scaled back. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that Canada will pump 5.3m barrels a day by 2030, a big drop from last year’s forecast of 6.4m b/d.
US motoring revival
The plunge in the crude price has led to big savings for American consumers. Petrol is now selling at an average of $2.75 a gallon, which is 72 cents below its level a year ago. US car sales are humming, hitting annualised rates of more than 17m in May and June, their highest levels since 2005, according to Motor Intelligence, a data provider. This has been propelled by bumper sales of SUVs and pick-up trucks. The result: the US is experiencing a motoring renaissance. The distance that the average American travelled by road last year rose for the first time since 2005.
When the oil price began its plunge last year, some said that it would have a chilling effect on investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. But that has not happened. Analysts say that is understandable: oil is used to generate just 5 per cent of the world’s electricity globally, according to the International Energy Agency, so it does not compete directly with wind, solar or other renewable sources of power.