China Opens Up to Oil Majors at the Wrong Time

A decade or so ago, such announcements might have caused international energy companies to salivate with excitement. All the fear back then was that state-owned giants like Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and Petroleos de Venezuela SA controlled all the viable assets to fuel a coming era of ever-increasing fossil fuel demand, leaving listed businesses running out of reserves. How things have changed.

For one thing, it’s national governments rather than independent companies that are now worried about supply shortages. China’s domestic oil production has fallen about 10% since peaking five years ago. India’s coal output is still edging up, but not fast enough to meet demand: Net imports have accounted for about a quarter of consumption in recent years, up from 10% a decade ago.

Meanwhile, energy companies are awash with supply. The revolution in fracking means that America’s shale patch would count as one of the world’s top three oil producers if considered on its own. It briefly overtook Saudi Arabia for the number two spot behind Russia after an attack on the Gulf country’s oil facilities in September.

Conventional oil and gas discoveries are booming, too, hitting a four-year high of 12.2 billion barrels of oil equivalent last year, according to consultancy Rystad Energy AS. Storied oil majors Exxon Mobil Corp., Total SA, BP Plc and Eni SpA chalked up some of the year’s best discoveries. On the demand side, consumption of petroleum may peak as soon as a decade from now, well within the lifetime of most conventional oilfields.

As a result, the interests of fossil fuel producers and the energy-hungry governments seeking to attract them are fundamentally opposed. Beijing and New Delhi ultimately want to boost domestic output at all costs, and hope that foreign businesses can sprinkle some innovative magic that local giants can’t muster. International oil

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