Gustav points to a much bigger problem

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The good news on the radio as I came into work this morning was that Hurricane Gustav had weakened in intensity with forecasts that it might make landfall in the US with wind speeds of less than had been earlier feared.

But this is not the point. The point, as Jeffrey Rubin of CIBC World Capital Markets makes in his report - Supply Crunch - is that just as the US has come to rely more on US Gulf oil and gas production, the frequency of high grade storms (class 3 to 5) in the region has increased.

“With both crude and total oil production inventories running significantly lower than they were when either Katrina or Rital sidelined Gulf oil production, both oil and gasoline prices are more exposed to potential storm-related disruptions than they were three years ago,” he writes.

This blog isn’t about the short term. But the the short term tension in crude and crude-product markets created by this latest hurricane scare is the result of tightly balanced supply and demand that has long-term implications for the global economy and for our hydrocarbon-dependent way of life.

The Gulf region – now so much more important to US supply because of production problems elsewhere – has itself suffered from delays to new capacity coming on stream. The BP Thunder Horse project, for example, is behind schedule – meaning that new production has grown at a fraction of earlier predictions for the Gulf. This has compounded the crisis caused by depletion of offshore fields as existing oil wells run dry. For example “some one-and-a-quarter million barrels per day from Mexico is likely to vanish (over the next five years) as its giant Cantarell field continues to deplete at a 30% annual rate”, Rubin adds in his report.

Without getting into the argument over whether the increased frequency of severe storms in the Gulf is the result of global warming (or whether a long-term pattern of more dangerous weather has established itself – a view dismissed by some in the three years since Katrina and Rita because the region has so far escaped major hurricanes), there seems to me no dispute that supply is very stretched in the Gulf and globally.

Talk of demand destruction in the US benefiting crude pricing over the long term was earlier dismissed by Rubin. He estimated that by 2010 there will be 12 million less motorists on the road in the US. The problem is that ten new motorists in countries such as Brazil and India are buying cars for the first time for every one that leaves the roads in the States, he said.

High oil prices might slow down the pace at which people in emerging markets switch from push bikes to motorcycles and from mortorcycles to cars.

But without a global recession of a severity we have never seen before, it’s hard to see how the slowdown will be enough to result in a net reduction in global oil consumption sufficient to end the crude crisis.

Chemical prices have gone through the roof this year on higher feedstock costs, causing greater recycling, greater conservation and a slowdown in the rate of substitution of petroleum-based products for natural materials in emerging markets.

If Gustav causes severe damage to oil and gas production and any further severe hurricanes hit the region this year (Tropical Storm Hana is brewing off the coast of the US as I write this post), the chemicals industry could lose even more ground.

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