But while U.S. oil production continues to rise, and gasoline consumption continues to fall, gas prices have remained stubbornly high: The national average was about $3.65 last week.
And that trend is expected to continue, with the United States surging past Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer of crude oil as soon as 2020. Meanwhile, U.S. gasoline demand is at its lowest in more than a decade - down to 8.7 million barrels a day.
Facts like that have led some pundits to predict falling oil prices. Last year, some politicians were promising that stepped-up U.S. oil production could lower gasoline prices to $2.50 a gallon.
Frustrated U.S. drivers struggling to cope with high gas prices were eager to believe such promises, no matter how unlikely.
Unfortunately, all that new U.S. oil, while helpful in some ways, will not have much effect on gas prices - either now or in the foreseeable future.
"The problem is that prices are not just reflective of new supplies, either too much or too little," explained Money Morning Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors. "By focusing only on how much is there, these analysts provide a fundamentally distorted view of the oil market."
High Oil Prices: The Truth About Obama's Misguided Witch Hunt
It has been less than a month since President Obama declared war on those evil oil speculators.
Standing in the Rose Garden on April 17th, the president laid out a $52 billion initiative to increase federal supervision of oil markets in an effort to crack down on oil price spikes.
At the time, oil was trading at $117.41 a barrel and $5 a gallon gas seemed all but inevitable.
According to the p resident, evil speculators had been working behind the scenes to screw the rest of us while engorging themselves on riches beyond our wildest dreams.
I said it then and I'll say it again...the president is chasing a ghost he'll never catch. Spending $52 billion on additional oversight is a complete waste of money and a misguided witch hunt.
I mean, think about it. If speculators are the same ones responsible for high oil prices, ask yourself why they're the ones getting raked over the coals these days as oil prices fall.
The short version: It's because speculators don't control oil prices and never have.
The Real Culprits Behind High Oil PricesPricing inputs - for better or worse - are driven by geopolitics, supply constrictions, war, tyrants with spigots and buyers who will only purchase as long as the prices are low enough.
This is not complicated. Any time there are more buyers than sellers, prices go up. When there are more sellers than buyers, prices go down.
Whether or not what's happening now turns out to be short- term noise or a long- term trend remains to be seen.
As I noted in a widely read article on April 20th, legitimate speculation has a valuable and essential role in the markets. It's very different from the already illegal manipulation that the president seems to confuse with speculation.
Oil prices are driven by two groups of participants - hedgers and speculators.
The former are typically producers or suppliers with a vested interest in securing as high a price as possible for their output. They can also be manufacturers who depend on procuring as low a price as possible for their raw materials. Both parties are interested in delivery as a function of pricing.
Speculators don't care about delivery and, in fact, go to great lengths to avoid it.
They profit from price changes that would otherwise hold hedgers apart while also providing liquidity to other market participants.
Here's an example that may help bring this to life.
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EPA Official Resigns over Crucifixion Comments
On Friday, we discussed the regulatory philosophy of certain Environmental Protection Agency officials in how they regulate the U.S. oil and gas sector.
Dr. Alfredo Armendariz, the EPA regional administrator for Region 6, was overly candid in a 2010 policy discussion in which he said that the agency's stance is to "crucify" a few oil and gas companies in order to set an example and force the rest of the industry to submit to new rules.
"You make examples out of people who are not complying with the law," he stated.
Now, it looks like those comments have cost him his job.
Morgan Little at the LA Times explains.
"Alfredo Armendariz, a regional administrator for theEnvironmental Protection Agency, has resigned in the wake of criticism for comments made in Texas two years ago comparing the methods of the EPA to those of Romans using crucifixions to conquer foreign lands."
The resignation is certainly a starting point in order to limit the political damage.
Stable Oil Prices are the Key to Chinese Growth
Last week, oil prices dropped on concerns that Chinese demand might begin to slip.
It appears those concerns are going to be short lived.
According to a report by the IMF this morning, Chinese GDP will rebound strongly to 8.8% in 2013, up from a dip to 8.2% in 2012, propelled largely by increased domestic consumer consumption.
That's important to note since the Chinese also need reliable energy sources to continue this remarkable, ongoing boom.
After all, China needs to procure oil supplies from around the globe to facilitate this sort of growth.
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Oil and Gasoline: A Tale of Two Prices
A number of you have contacted me asking some variation of the same question.
How can the price of oil be declining, yet the price of gasoline remain so high?
At close of trade yesterday, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) benchmark futures crude oil contract for the near out month in NYMEX trade had declined 2.6% for the week and 4% for the month.
However, the same contract for RBOB (Reformulated Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending) - the NYMEX gasoline futures standard - was up 1.6% for the week and 4.2% for the month.
Normally, we expect that movements in the crude oil price, as the single-largest component in oil product prices, would pretty much dictate where gasoline is headed.
And in normal circumstances, that is usually the case.
Welcome to the Unusual Pricing CaseThe current gasoline phenomenon results from several factors:
- Refinery capacity utilization;
- The continuing outsized spread between WTI and Brent oil prices in London; and
- The mix of increasing unconventional domestic oil flow (shale, heavy, tight oils produced in the U.S., synthetic oil from oil sands coming down from Canada); and
Put simply, while we are using more of this new "replacement oil" than we ever have (a good thing for those concerned about reliance on imports from abroad), its use is also adding to the price at the pump.
Of greater importance, however, is the second element: the WTI-Brent pricing environment.
We have talked about this spread on a number of previous occasions. Brent is again selling higher by about 20% to the price of WTI.
That's important when factoring in the actual cost of the feeder stock for refineries.
While the WTI price has been going down (until this morning), Brent has been more subdued. In fact, the Brent price is down only 0.5% over the past month and is slightly higher (also about 0.5%) over the past week.
This year, the U.S. market is likely to be importing on average about 45% to 47% of what it needs on a daily basis. Only a few years ago, that market was dependent on imports for two-thirds of its requirements.
Additionally, American domestic daily production will be close to 10 million barrels, a level not seen since the mid-1990s. That is a result of the acceleration in unconventional extractions in places like the Bakken in North Dakota, the Monterey in California, and Eagle Ford in Texas, as well as for prospects for new basins like the Utica in eastern Ohio.
There's another important question that needs to be asked at this point.
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Not Even Saudi Arabia Can Save Us From High Oil Prices
With oil prices soaring ever higher, Saudi Arabia stepped in last week and vowed to increase its production by 25% if necessary.
But while that assurance managed to siphon a few dollars off of oil futures, the reality is there's nothing Saudi Arabia - or anyone else, for that matter - can do about rising oil prices.
In fact, crude is still on track to reach $150 a barrel by mid-summer.
As Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi pointed out last week, current oil supplies already exceed global demand by 1 million-2 million barrels per day.
For its part, Saudi Arabia is already breaking its own OPEC-imposed production quota limit, churning out about 10 million barrels of oil per day - close to its 12.5 million barrel capacity.
Yet the effect of that production has been negligible.
Oil is still trading at $106 a barrel on the NYMEX - something that has clearly flummoxed the world's largest oil producer.
"I think high prices are unjustified today on a supply-demand basis," said Naimi. "We really don't understand why the prices are behaving the way they are."
Naimi and his colleagues may not understand oil's price gyrations, but Dr. Kent Moors, an adviser to six of the world's top 10 oil companies and energy consultant to governments around the world, does.
"Despite the excess storage capacity in both the U.S. and European markets and the contracts already at sea, oil traders set prices on a futures curve," said Moors. "In a normal market the price is set at the expected cost of the next available barrel. During times of crisis, on the other hand, that price is determined by the cost of the most expensive next available barrel."
And with tensions with Iran running high, we are currently in crisis mode. Pushed to the brink by Western sanctions, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz - the narrow channel in the Persian Gulf through which 35% of the world's seaborne oil shipments and at least 18% of daily global crude shipments pass.
If Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz, crude oil prices will pop by between $30 and $40 a barrel within hours. Should the strait remain closed for 72 hours, oil trading will push up the barrel price to $180 in New York, and closer to $200 in Europe.
The situation is further complicated by potential military conflict - such as an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
And with indications that Iran will have the ability to develop nuclear weapons in the next 18 to 24 months, Western powers have apparently shifted their focus from halting Iran's nuclear program to sowing instability in the country with the hopes of catalyzing a regime change.
So what does that mean for investors?
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Prepare for Iran's Energy Market Chaos with the United States Oil Fund LP (NYSE: USO)
Iran kicked off the New Year with aggressive messages for the Western world, setting the stage for heightened political tensions and a huge oil price push in 2012.
Oil futures finished at their highest level in eight months yesterday (Tuesday), with West Texas Intermediate crude jumping 4.2% to settle at $102.96 a barrel on the on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).
The surge came after Iran warned a U.S. aircraft carrier to stay out of the Persian Gulf. The message fueled speculation that Iran will make good on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers.
An average of 14 supertankers carrying one-sixth of the world's oil shipments every day pass through the Strait, a narrow channel which the U.S. Department of Energy calls "the world's most important oil chokepoint."
With global oil demand expected to rise to a record 89.5 million barrels per day in 2012, a major disruption to oil exports from Iran would drastically affect pricing.
Even though Iran has made such threats repeatedly over the past 20 years, tighter sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe may have pushed the country to its breaking point. Iran just concluded a 10-day military exercise intended to prove to the West that it can choke off the flow of Persian Gulf oil whenever it wants.
Now Iran is expected to trigger oil market performance similar to spring 2011, when Libya's civil war caused oil prices to spike close to $115 a barrel.
In fact, if the Iranian government made good on shutting down the Strait, oil prices would probably shoot up $20 to $30 a barrel within hours and the price of gasoline in the United States would rise by $1 a gallon.
While we can't control Iran's actions, we can control how we prepare for whatever political and economic turmoil it inflicts. That's why it's time to buy the United States Oil Fund LP (NYSE: USO).
Global Political Tensions Will Bolster US Oil FundIran is trying to scare the world out of imposing more sanctions against it, which drastically limit the country's ability to conduct business.
The latest sanctions, signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama last Saturday, will make it far more difficult for refiners to buy crude oil from Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil exporter.
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Should We Be Worried About Iran?
If the Iranian government makes good on its recent threats to stop oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, oil prices would shoot up $20 to $30 a barrel within hours and the price of gasoline in the United States would rise by $1 a gallon.
Such a steep spike in crude oil prices would plunge the United States and Europe back into recession, said Money Morning Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors.
Iran just concluded a 10-day military exercise intended to prove to the West that it can choke off the flow of Persian Gulf oil whenever it wants.
The world's fourth-biggest oil producer is unhappy with fresh U.S. financial sanctions that will make it harder to sell its oil, which accounts for half of the government's revenue.
"Tehran is making a renewed political point here. The message is - we can close this anytime we want to," said Moors, who has studied Iran for more than a decade. "The oil markets are essentially ignoring the likelihood at the moment, but any increase in tensions will increase risk assessment and thereby pricing."
One reason the markets haven't reacted much to Iran's latest rhetoric is that although it has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz many times over the past 20 years, it has never followed through on the threat.
But a fresh wave of Western sanctions could hurt Iran's economy enough to make Tehran much less cautious.
The latest sanctions, signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday, will make it far more difficult for refiners to buy crude oil from Iran. And looming on the horizon is further action by the European Union (EU), which next month will consider an embargo of Iranian oil.
"The present United Nations, U.S. and EU sanctions have already had a significant toll," said Moors. "They have effectively prevented Iranian access to main international banking networks. Iran now has to use inefficient exchange mechanisms."
Because international oil trade is conducted in U.S. dollars, Moors said, Iran must have a convenient way to convert U.S. dollars into its home currency or other currencies it needs, such as euros.
Pushed to the BrinkThe impact of the sanctions combined with internal political instability has driven Iran to turn up the volume on its rhetoric.
"Tehran has limited options remaining," Moors said, noting Iran has historically used verbal attacks on the West to distract its population from the country's problems. "The Iranian economy is seriously weakening, the political division among the ayatollahs is increasing, and unrest is rising."
Analysts worry an Iranian government that feels cornered would be more prone to dangerous risk-taking in its dealings with the West. So while totally shutting down the Strait of Hormuz isn't likely, Iran could still escalate a confrontation beyond mere talk.
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Why Oil Prices Won't Stay Down For Long
Oil prices, like stocks, took a few big hits last week.
West Texas Intermediate crude last week dropped below $80 a barrel before bouncing back up to $87 a barrel this week. Meanwhile, Brent crude fell to a six-month low below $100 a barrel before climbing back to $110 a barrel this week.
To hear the mainstream media tell it, much of the drop is based on the assumption that global growth is waning and oil demand is soon to follow.
But that couldn't be more wrong.
Energy is one of the most highly leveraged and most liquid trading vehicles on the planet. A good portion of the decline we've experienced in recent weeks can be explained by nothing more than trading houses raising cash to meet margin calls or redemption requests from hedge funds, pension funds, and other investors.
That's all there is to it. Firms simply need cash and are selling the most easily sellable assets they've got. In the past that's been gold, but lately it's been oil.
Longer-term, demand is still going up and $120 a barrel oil is our next stop, followed by prices of $150 or more in the years ahead.
What's happening now with the markets and energy prices is like being in the eye of a hurricane.
That is, it won't be long before we're once again caught up in the whirlwind growth of emerging markets and energy demand shoots sharply higher.
The Looming Demand DownpourGlobal demand is still rising - and it's not going to slow down any time soon. There are huge swaths of the world now adopting gasoline engines.
Let me give you two examples.
Take the farmers in Cambodia. Many put up sheets in their fields at sunset. They then mount small incandescent light bulbs on sticks behind the sheets. The bulbs are powered by small gasoline generators to ensure they stay on all night.
In the morning, those farmers go back and harvest the thousands of crickets that have collided with the sheet after having been drawn to the lights. They wrap up the fallen bugs and head to the markets where they are sold as food.
It's much the same situation in Africa, where small villages require simple engines to pump water.
You may think bugs and small farm pumps are no big deal, but there's an even greater energy revolution going on in the transportation industry.
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Crude Oil Prices: What's Behind the Spike to $112 – And Why There's More to Come
Crude oil prices rose for the third straight day yesterday (Thursday) - with more of the same to come.
West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude for June delivery rose to $111.50 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and traded as high as $112.48, the highest intraday price since April 11. Crude prices are up by a full third so far this year.
Brent crude is trading at $123.70 a barrel on the ICE Futures Europe exchange in London.
The latest surge in oil prices is not a result of new geopolitical developments - although they continue to weigh on the market.