December 2007: The Coming Oil Crash and $30 Oil?
The key to understanding where prices are headed is distinguishing between the short run and the long run. In a time frame of anything shorter than five years, the supply of crude is more or less fixed. Drilling for oil is an arduous and unpredictable process. Even after a new hydrocarbon reservoir is discovered, ramping up output takes years. Current production capacities reflect investment decisions made in the late 1990s or earlier.
Today, OPEC has the ability to produce about 35 million barrels of crude a day; the rest of the world can produce perhaps 50 million barrels a day. As recently as 2003, this seemed like plenty. Since then, though, global demand has grown rapidly, and a series of catastrophes—some natural (hurricanes Rita and Katrina), some man-made (war in Iraq and unrest in Nigeria and Venezuela)—have curtailed production, causing supply to dip below demand. In September 2007, the global demand for crude reached 85.9 million barrels a day, whereas global supply was just 85.1 million barrels a day, according to I.E.A. figures.
When shortages emerge in any market, prices spike. If the imbalance is expected to continue, speculators move in and drive prices even higher. Oil is no exception. In the fall, as crude inventories declined and the rhetorical battle between the U.S. and Iran escalated, trading volume shot up.
With prices close to the inflation-adjusted record, energy companies and governments are investing heavily in facilities that generate crude and crude substitutes. Consumers of fuel oil and gasoline are starting to economize, and over time, these changes in behavior will shift the balance of power in their favor. When that happens, an oil glut will emerge, and the price will plummet.