The energy markets' collapse has stalled or canceled industry investments, which likely means squeezed energy supplies in the future.
From the plains of North Dakota to the deep waters of Brazil, dozens of major oil and gas projects have been suspended or canceled as companies scramble to adjust to the collapse in energy markets.
In the short run, falling oil prices are leading to welcome relief at the pump, with gasoline in the United States down from its summer record to an average $1.66 a gallon, and still falling.
But the project delays are likely to reduce future energy supplies, and analysts think they may set the stage for another surge in oil prices once the global economy recovers.
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Oil markets have had their sharpest-ever spikes and their steepest drops this year, all within a few months.
Now, with a global recession at hand and oil consumption falling, the market’s extreme volatility is making it harder for energy executives to plan ahead. As a result, exploration spending, which had risen to a record this year, is being slashed.
Up and down
When demand drops and prices fall, companies curb investments, leading to lower supplies. When demand recovers, prices rise again and companies start to invest in new production, starting another cycle.
The changes this time are at record speed. In June, some analysts forecast oil at $200 a barrel and companies scoured for new places to drill; now, no one knows how low prices may fall.
“Prices have come down so far and so fast, it’s become a shock to the supply system,” said Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of “The Prize,” a history of the oil business.
The list of projects delayed is growing by the week: New refineries have been postponed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and India, and ambitious plans for drilling off the coast of Africa are being rethought.
Investment in alternative energy sources like biofuels could dry up if prices stay low, analysts said, and banks are now reluctant lenders.
These delays could curb future global fuel supplies by the equivalent of 4 million barrels a day within the next five years, according to Peter Jackson, an analyst at Cambridge Energy Research Associates. That is equal to 5 percent of current oil supplies.
“We’re in remission right now,” said Marvin Odum, the vice president for exploration and production for Royal Dutch Shell in the Americas. But once the economy picks up, he said, “the energy challenge will come back with a vengeance.”
Oil prices have declined by more than $100 a barrel since July, returning to levels last seen more than four years ago. They settled at $44.51 a barrel, down $1.77, on Monday in New York, as concerns about the economy outweighed efforts by oil producers to stem the slide in prices.
Prices could drop below $30 a barrel, say Merrill Lynch and other forecasters, if the Chinese economy slows drastically next year, which looks increasingly likely.
Different companies have different price thresholds, but across the industry, a price drop this big has “a dampening effect,” according to Odum of Shell. “The big uncertainty is how long this economic environment is going to last.”