By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*
The sharp drop in the benchmark Brent crude price of oil from just under US$115 per barrel in June 2014 to its current perch around US$50 has important ramifications for the Western Hemisphere. For Venezuela, which earns some 95 percent of its foreign exchange from petroleum exports, it is a potential disaster. Underlying political tensions will be exacerbated if there is no money to continue funding social welfare programs or heavily subsidizing gasoline. It probably also spells the end of PetroCaribe’s generous repayment holidays and what are in essence below-market interest loans for Caribbean and Central American nations. Sharply lower oil prices also put at risk major energy projects such as the development of Brazil’s pre-salt reserves, which require a minimum price of $50 to $55 to be economically viable. Equally tenuous are Argentine efforts to regain energy self-sufficiency by exploiting its vast shale oil and gas reserves and Mexican plans to attract foreign investors to participate in deep-water oil exploration and drilling. The minimum price for a barrel of oil below which new investment projects in Canada’s oil sands are no longer attractive is around $65. Shale oil producers in the United States are also being squeezed by low petroleum prices.
On the other hand, net energy importers such as Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay benefit from sharply lower oil prices. Although being weaned off PetroCaribe will be painful for the Caribbean and Central America in the short term, they will be able to seek oil at the lower prices elsewhere. The pressure on the Obama administration to lift the ban on U.S. crude oil exports, in response to a glut of domestic shale oil production, could also redound in favor of the Caribbean and Central America by lowering international oil prices further through increased global supply. Already, 2015 began with U.S. companies authorized to export an ultralight crude called condensate.
In hopes of rallying OPEC to stabilize oil prices, Venezuelan President Maduro last weekend rushed off to lobby Saudi Arabia, which just two months ago refused to decrease production in order to raise prices, but oil industry sources say there’s little chance of a policy change. Meanwhile, the environment may turn out to be among the biggest beneficiaries of lower oil prices. Less investment in shale oil production reduces the risk of leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as decreases flaring. Similarly, slowing down oil sands production in Alberta and Saskatchewan means that the very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting crude oil from bitumen (not to mention the negative impact on water resources) is diminished. Although lower fossil fuel prices traditionally have undermined incentives to move to greater reliance on renewable and non-traditional energy resources, this may no longer be true. For one thing many governments around the world are now embarked on ambitious efforts to reduce carbon emissions by, among other things, raising the costs associated with petroleum usage through cap and trade regimes that force companies to buy government-issued pollution permits. Still others have enacted outright carbon taxes on utilities and large factories per metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, the heavy initial capital investment that was previously associated with things like wind, solar and geothermal power are falling. For example, a combination of technological advances and Chinese overproduction have resulted in much lower prices for solar panels so that the cost of generation from a large photovoltaic solar plant is now almost 80 percent less than five years ago. Geothermal energy may be the renewable that most benefits as drilling rigs idled by lower oil prices are now available at a lower cost for geothermal projects.
*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and teaches at the Villanova University School of Law.
January 13, 2015