|Rex Tillerson, Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil, was recently invited to talk to the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States of America, as part of their series on CEOs.
His “on the record” briefing was uploaded to YouTube almost immediately as he made a number of very interesting comments.
The thing most commented upon was his handwaving away the significance of climate change – a little change here, a little change over there and you could almost see the traditional magician’s fez here – shazam – nothing to worry about.
In amongst all the online furore about this, was discussion of his continued Membership of the Church of Oil Cornucopia – he must have mentioned the word “technology” about seventy-five times in fifteen minutes. He clearly believes, as do his shareholders and management board, that his oil company can continue to get progressively more of the black stuff out of tar sands, oil shales or oil-bearing shale sediments and ever-tighter locked-in not naturally outgassing “natural” gas out of gas shales. At least in Northern America.
As numerous commentators with a background in Economics have claimed, well, the price of oil is rising, and that creates a market for dirtier, harder-to-reach oil. Obviously. But missing from their Law of Supply and Demand is an analysis of how oil prices are actually determined in the real world. It’s certainly not a free market – there are numerous factors that control the price of the end-product, gasoline, not least state sponsorship of industries, either through direct subsidies, or through the support of dependent industries such as car manufacture. At least in North America.
In the background, there is ongoing shuttle diplomacy between the major western economies and the assortment of regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) who still have the world’s largest pool of cleaner-ish petroleum under their feet. That, naturally, has an impact on supply and pricing : even though the strength of this bonding is not as tight-fast as it historically was, there appears to have been more of it since around 2005. Or at least, that’s when I first started monitoring it consciously.
In addition to that, there are only a limited number of players in the oil industry. It is almost impossible to break into the sector without an obscene amount of capital, and exceedingly good buddy-type relationships with everybody else in the field – including sheikhs you formerly knew from when you attended specialty schools. So, no, the market in oil is not free in any sense. It is rigged – if you’ll excuse the pun.
And then there’s foundational reasons why oil prices are artificial – and may not cause a boom in the “unconventional” production that Rex Tillerson is so excited about (in a rancher-down-the-farm kind of way). Oil is still fundamental to the global economy. In fact, the price of oil underpins most business, as oil is still dominant in the transportation of goods and commodities. Despite all the techno-wizardry, it is fundamentally more costly to drill for fossil fuels in shale, than from pressure wells where oil just gloops out of the ground if you stick a pipe in.
It’s not the drilling that’s the major factor – so the technology is not the main driver of the cost. It’s the put-up, take-down costs – the costs of erecting the infrastructure for a well, or putting underground shale heating or fracturing equipment in place, and the cleaning up afterwards. Some of the technologies used to mine shales for oil use an incredible amount of water, and this all needs to be processed, unless you don’t mind desecrating large swathes of sub-tropical scenery. Or Canada.
The price of oil production has a knock-on effect, including on the very markets that underpin oil production – so increasing oil prices have a cyclic forcing effect – upwards. It also has an impact on the prices of other essential things, such as food. One can see a parallel rise in the price of oil and the price of staple crops in the last few years – and the spiralling cost of grain wheat, rice and corn maize is not all down to climate change.
Oil companies are in a quandary – they need to have higher oil prices to justify their unconventional oil operations – and they also need good relationships with governments, who know they cannot get re-elected if too many people blame them for rising costs of living. Plus, there’s the global security factor – several dozen countries already have economies close to bust because of the cost of oil imports. There are many reasons to keep oil prices depressed.
Let’s ask that subtle, delicate question : why did Rex Tillerson espouse the attitudes he did when asked to go on the record ? Why belittle the effects of climate change ? The answer is partly to soothe the minds of American investors, (and MENA investors in America). If such a powerful player in the energy sector believes “we can adapt to that” about climate change, clearly behind-the-scenes he will be lobbying against excessive carbon pricing or taxation with the American federal administration.
And why be so confident that technology can keep the oil flowing, and make up for the cracks appearing in conventional supply chains by a frenzy of shale works ? Well, logically, he’s got to encourage shareholder confidence, and also government confidence, that his industry can continue to deliver. But, let’s just surmise that before he was shunted onto the stage in June, he’d had a little pre-briefing with some government officials. They would be advising him to show high levels of satisfaction with unconventional oil production growth (in America) – after all, this would act against the rollercoaster of panic buying and panic selling in futures contracts that has hit the oil markets in recent months.
So Rex Tillerson is pushed awkwardly to centre stage. Global production of oil ? No problem ! It’s at record highs (if we massage the data), and likely to get even better. At least in America. For a while. But hey, there’s no chance of oil production declining – it’s important to stress that. If everyone can be convinced to believe that there’s a veritable river of oil, for the forseeable future, then oil prices will stay reasonable, and we can all carry on as we are. Nothing will crash or burn. Except the climate.
Rex Tillerson’s interview on global (American) oil production may have been used to achieve several propaganda aims – but the key one, it seems to me, was to talk down the price of oil. Of course, this will have a knock-on effect on how much unconventional oil is affordable and accessible, and maybe precipitate a real peak in oil production – just the thing he’s denying. But keeping the price of oil within a reasonable operating range is more important than Rex Tillerson’s impact on the American Presidential elections, or even Rex Tillerson’s legacy.