Energy stocks have been tearing higher since the election on bets that the Trump administration will relax environmental restrictions and open more federal lands to oil and gas drilling. Crude oil’s staying north of $50 hasn’t hurt, either.
It is up there in part because OPEC threw in the towel and agreed to production limits. Unfortunately for OPEC, those limits don’t apply to US and Canadian shale producers. And the history of OPEC is that they all cheat like crazy, anyway.
There will be no end to oil production
I think it is entirely possible that we will see oil prices climb somewhat further by mid-year, possibly approaching $60, and then pull back as capped US production comes back online.
I also think that this year, we’ll start to see a new pattern: Production could keep rising even as prices fall. Conventional wisdom says that producers stop pumping at some point when it becomes unprofitable, but I think that is about to change.
New technology will lead to greater production and higher profits
If you are an oil producer—or really, any commodity producer—two things can improve your profit margin: higher selling prices for the resource you produce or lower production costs. Some combination of both works as well.
Now, selling prices are mostly outside the producer’s control, though adept hedging can help. Cost reduction is, therefore, the place to concentrate your attention. Back in 2015, I wrote about new drilling techniques and other technology that promised to bring oil and gas production costs significantly lower.
Now, in the last few weeks, people in the business have told me these technologies are moving rapidly toward deployment. They foresee considerably lower drilling and production costs by the end of this year.
I had a confidential briefing recently about some new energy production processes that are coming online in the oil patch. Let me just say that production from an oil well drilled with these new techniques is getting ready to increase substantially.
In some cases, the amount of oil produced per dollar spent on drilling is going to more than double. There are significant chunks of the petroleum-producing parts of the United States where $40 oil will not be a barrier to drilling and new production.
Eventually—in a few years—these techniques will begin to show up in wells around the world, and there will be an explosion of oil. Even as many oilfields dry up, there will be new fields developed from previously unprofitable sources.
This will have massive economic and geopolitical implications
This technology trend means that the current oil price range may well break lower—perhaps this year, but certainly within this decade—without energy companies losing profits.
Not every company will reap the rewards equally, of course; but the industry as a whole is excited. Energy exploration and production is quickly becoming a technology-driven industry with the US as world leader.
If Trump permits construction of more pipelines and natural gas export terminals, we could see North American exports rise considerably in the next few years.
Obviously, over time, a falling energy price will not be good for OPEC or for Russia. Those lower prices will create geopolitical challenges as well as economic ones. I don’t know how it will all shake out. We will likely see some big, energy-driven changes in the world order in the coming decades.
But that is beyond the scope of my crystal ball.
John Mauldin is the chairman of Mauldin Economics, which publishes a growing number of investing resources, including both free and paid publications aimed at helping investors do better in today's challenging economy.
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