The clarion voices that called for action against commodity speculators have gone strangely silent as the markets punish investors in crude oil, corn and wheat. If rising prices were ever a conspiracy against the public, the same ought to be true of cheap gas and tortillas.
The truth, unpalatable to those politicians who peddle conspiracy theories, is that producers, whether of energy or food, will always chase a high price while consumers will, as far as possible, seek to avoid it. In the case of oil it means a double technology punch for oil producers: with the one fist, a global glut of oil created by investment in new drilling technology; with the other, a continuing drive to more efficient and lower energy consumption.
Canadians are experiencing this painful reality as foreign investors shelve expensive plans to mine bitumen in Alberta. It is no longer the Canadian crude price discount which worries Statoil and Total, it is the tumbling world price. North Sea Brent lost 17 per cent of its value over the last three months and if that chills the blood of Western Canadians, they should spare a thought for West Africans.
Canada still has a market on its doorstep, even if the buyer is a bit overfed and jaded. According to Argus, the oil price reporting agency, some 35 million barrels of Nigerian crude remain unsold. It's enough oil to keep all of Canada motoring for two weeks and it's due for November loading, but appetite for West African crude in the U.S., the traditional buyer, is now zero. In a desperate search for alternative customers, Nigeria and Angola are pushing their product in the Far East, but the competition is intense.
Chased out of America by the shale oil glut, the West Africans are now trying to steal markets from Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf exporters. But the motor of the biggest buyer, China, is slowing down and demand growth for crude oil in the country is slowing. OPEC is on the verge of a price war that will be ruinous for its weaker members and painful for non-OPEC rivals, such as Canada.
If you want to know the future for oil, seek it in the most sophisticated markets. The oil price surges of the first decade of this century had an enormous impact on consumer behaviour as well as public policy. Regulators in the EU and U.S. forced auto manufacturers to aggressively pursue fuel efficiency and these measures are now having a powerful impact on oil consumption in OECD countries.
According to the statistics from the Energy Information Administration, petroleum consumption peaked in 2005 at almost 21 million barrels a day but then began to slip back. The financial crash in 2008 and the recession that followed pushed consumption below 19 million barrels. The fascinating fact is that Americans are still burning fewer than 19 million barrels every day, despite population growth and economic expansion.
European consumption peaked in the same year and continues to decline, and the recent warning from the IMF about a possible triple-dip Eurozone recession will give no comfort to those hoping for a swift rebound in the oil price. But price weakness is not only about trends in GDP. It is about investment in energy efficiency and the political impetus to curb rising demand for oil.
There is enormous scope for greater efficiency and reduced consumption in the emerging markets. Consider that each person in the United States consumes about 21 barrels of oil a year. That's more than Britons who get by on just nine barrels while Canadians, to their shame, burn 24 barrels a year. Saudis, however, each require 39 barrels to get through the year and the Desert Kingdom's oil consumption has grown by almost 50 per cent since 2005 while demand in Europe and the U.S. appears to be shrinking.
It could shrink even further. According to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, more than half of the energy consumed in the U.S. is wasted. A lot of this relates to heat loss from power stations and we know that perfect energy efficiency is as likely as a perpetual motion machine. However, the Livermore Labs note that energy consumption in transport is rising at a lower rate than economic growth, an indication that the investment in more efficient technology is paying off.
The bigger question is whether the emerging world will continue to drink heavily at the pump, causing oil prices to rebound sharply. Consumers in these countries are mostly shielded from the cost of waste by very cheap road fuel, subsidized by the state. These subsidies are no longer affordable and even among the Arab oil producers, there will be questions about the sustainability of massive domestic overconsumption. As price attrition continues and the national export income dwindles, even Saudi Arabia might wonder whether it is sensible to sell petrol to its citizens below cost.
The simple game of digging up minerals from the earth and dumping them on boats has fuelled more than a decade of great Canadian prosperity. It would be unwise to assume it must continue to do so for decades to come.