The Take

Oil and gas price forecast for 2014

Oil and gas price forecast for 2014

Posting in Energy | From Issue 06 December 30, 2013 & January 6, 2014

Whither the world of energy prices during the next 12 months? Energy analyst Chris Nelder grades his 2013 oil and gas price forecast, and gazes into the crystal ball for his 2014 predictions.

It's the end of the year, and that means it's time to review my oil and gas price forecast for 2013, look into my crystal ball, and foretell prices for 2014.

Reviewing my 2013 forecast

At the end of 2012, I forecast that Brent Crude (the London benchmark price, which serves as a global proxy for oil prices) would average $105 per barrel (bbl) in 2013, and that West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the North American benchmark, would average $90 to 95/bbl.

In the spring, gas prices shook off 20 straight months of unprofitably low levels and shot over $4 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). Accordingly, I updated my gas call in May to $4.50/MMBtu by the end of the year, and left my oil price calls unchanged.

With no articles on my publishing schedule until late January, this seems a good time to run the numbers.

As of this writing, with 49 weeks of data available for 2013, Brent has been $108/bbl and WTI has been $98/bbl on a daily averaged basis. Spot natural gas is selling for $4.24 and front-month gas futures now stand at $4.40/MMBtu. Natural gas prices have charged straight up from $3.60/MMBtu in mid-November; a cold winter is forecast; and gas in storage is 3 percent below the five-year average and 7 percent below year-ago levels. It seems quite possible that my $4.50 target will be achieved by the end of the year.

My oil calls were only $3/bbl under the actual averages in a year in which the spread between the highest and lowest prices was $22 for Brent and $24 for WTI. That's close enough to trade profitably. And, as I detailed in my forecast one year ago, it's about as accurate as the majority of the analysts that Reuters surveyed, and far more accurate than the aggressively bearish or bullish calls made by analysts at Raymond James, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and a few other research shops.

Therefore, I'm going to count all three calls successful. I'm also chalking up the third year in a row that I have won the oil price bet with a small group of oil-literate friends.  

The demand picture for 2014

At this point, readers unfamiliar with my oil price model may want to revisit it, along with my June 2012 update of the model.

Predicting average prices for 2014 is harder than it was for 2013. 

One year ago, it was quite clear that spare capacity would remain at comfortable levels, and that the effects of the recession in OECD (developed world) countries would keep demand sufficiently muted through the rest of the year to accommodate burgeoning demand in the developing world. The thesis I laid out in March 2012 remains intact: Asia is still firmly in the driver's seat as the global source of demand growth. Indeed, non-OECD demand recently overtook OECD demand globally for the first time in history.

But now the sort-of economic recovery is pulling demand higher in OECD countries as well. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), weekly product supplied has recovered from a low of 18 million barrels per day (mb/d) in February 2012 to 21 mb/d in the second week of December 2013, a level last seen in the pre-crash days of 2008. (So much for "peak demand.") U.S. demand appears to be in a gradually rising trend.

European demand has also risen steadily from a 12.8 mb/d low in January 2013 to 14.1 mb/d in July (the most recent month for which EIA has data). In its November Oil Market Report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) showed European demand for the third quarter at 14 mb/d.

In fact, oil demand appears to be growing globally. IEA forecasts that global demand in 2014 will climb to 92.4 mb/d, 1.2 mb/d more than the 2013 level, which would be a new all-time high. Meanwhile, inventories have "plummeted" in industrialized countries as rising demand in the second quarter ended two straight years of declines, according to Bloomberg

The supply picture

The question then becomes: Can supply keep up? 

Here, we must look to U.S. tight oil production, for it has been responsible for the vast majority of oil supply increase for the past several years. But we have good reasons to believe that the trend of the last two years, where tight oil production added 1 mb/d each year, will not continue in 2014.

Data in the EIA's Drilling Productivity Report indicates that 70 percent of new production in the Bakken shale, and 77 percent of new production in the Eagle Ford shale, will be needed just to make up for the decline of rapidly depleting legacy wells. Unless drilling rates increase substantially from current levels (and there is no indication that they will), growth is set to moderate considerably in 2014.

David Hughes, the Canadian geoscientist whose refreshingly transparent work on shale gas and tight oil I have regularly featured, presented persuasive new data at the 2013 Transatlantic Energy Security Dialogue event I attended on Dec. 10 in Washington, D.C.

In March, I highlighted his model for U.S. tight oil production, which forecast that it could peak in 2016 at a level not much higher than today. With almost a year of additional data to go on, Hughes now calculates that Bakken production could peak at just over 1 mb/d in 2015, and the Eagle Ford could peak at around 1.4 mb/d in 2016. (This assumes that drilling gradually declines from 5,500 wells per year currently to 3,000 wells per year when the fields are drilled out.) Hughes estimates that the two plays will likely see an end to drilling in 2025, and that their combined production will likely fall to nearly zero by 2035. This scenario, in which the combined total recovery from both fields is 11 billion barrels (1.5 billion barrels have been recovered so far), assumes there are no constraints on capital expenditures ("capex") for drilling, and that 80 percent of more than 70,000 drilling locations are accessible and economic.

Hughes estimates there may be 0.7 - 0.8 mb/d of remaining growth between those two fields, which collectively make up 74 percent of all U.S. tight oil production. The other tight oil plays (the Permian, Niobrara and Utica, to name the main ones) have been pretty lackluster thus far, and as I wrote in my last column, we shouldn't expect much if anything from the Monterey Shale.

More ominous is the continued rise in oil production costs pegged to these diminishing production returns. Hughes estimates that 48,000 more wells will be needed to complete his production model for the Bakken and Eagle Ford, at a cost of roughly $450 billion, and that those wells will be increasingly less profitable than the wells drilled so far as drillers saturate the "sweet spots" and begin drilling less prospective areas. If investor appetite should wane at all, many of these new wells might never be drilled, and production from these fields would fall below current levels sooner than his model suggests.

Mark Lewis, the former chief oil and gas analyst at Deutsche Bank, took up that story line during the Dialogue event via a videoconference link from the simultaneous session held in London. He noted that many companies in the oil and gas sector are being forced to liquidate assets to pay for the rising cost of drilling for new reserves, because cash flow from production isn’t sufficient to pay for it. The increased production from new unconventional sources like tight oil has only been possible because oil prices tripled, he noted, but prices have been flat since 2011 while industry capex has risen another 20 percent. Further, that investment has been made at a time of record low interest rates in real terms. If the divergence between price and costs continues -- and especially if interest rates rise back to normal levels -- investors will get cold feet and supply growth will falter.

So while we will probably get some additional growth from U.S. tight oil in 2014, it won't be another million barrels per day. Globally, I don't see where significant new production will come from. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to increase production unless prices become uncomfortably high. Even with the easing of sanctions against Iran, its production won't increase much in 2014. Canada and Brazil are now the global poster children for rising costs, so I expect their production gains to be very modest.

Given Hughes' data on U.S. tight oil trends, I am particularly dubious about the IEA's forecast for non-OPEC supply to rise by 1.7 mb/d in 2014. I expect less than a 1.0 mb/d increase from those countries; perhaps as little as a 0.5 mb/d increase.

For OPEC, IEA notes that supply has been falling in recent months as "[r]enewed disruptions in Libya and smaller drops in Nigeria, Kuwait, the [United Arab Emirates] and Venezuela more than offset higher output in Iran, Iraq and Angola." IEA's estimate for OPEC supply next year is 29.3 mb/d, well below November's 29.7 mb/d output for the group.

One final point of consideration: In his London presentation, Lewis offered a chart showing that global crude oil exports have been declining since 2005, as major producers (particularly in the Middle East) consume more of their own oil to fuel their growing economies. This little-considered factor will continue to support prices, as growing demand meets shrinking supply.

Moving from tight oil to shale gas, Hughes' latest data shows that output is only increasing in the Marcellus Shale (located in Pennsylvania and West Virginia). Excluding the Marcellus region, U.S. shale gas production peaked in August 2012, and has declined 5 percent since. Excluding the Marcellus and associated natural gas produced from tight oil plays, U.S. shale gas production peaked in November 2011 and has since declined 12 percent. Between the top five shale gas plays, constituting 81 percent of U.S. shale gas production, the average field decline rate is now 37 percent per year.

Even so, production is still growing significantly from the Marcellus, driving total U.S. gas supply higher. Total gas production rose slightly more than consumption did in 2013. After working over the noisy monthly data in the EIA's Drilling Productivity Report, it became clear that Hughes' insight about the Marcellus being the main driver of increasing production is key. EIA's data (through September) indicates that the Marcellus was responsible for 97 percent of the 2013 growth in the combined gas production from the Bakken, Eagle Ford, Haynesville, Marcellus, Niobrara, and Permian plays, as declining production from some plays canceled out increasing production from others.

My forecast for 2014

The most recent monthly Reuters survey of 27 energy analysts projected that Brent will average $104.10/bbl in 2014, $4 lower than the 2013 average, and $102.60 in 2015. WTI is forecast to average $97.30/bbl in 2014, just slightly below this year's average. The main reasons given for the expected price decline are excess supply -- primarily due to booming U.S. tight oil production -- and subdued demand growth, partly due to an expected easing of quantitative easing (if you will), aka the dreaded "taper."

The EIA's Annual Energy Outlook 2014, released this week, forecasts that WTI will average $98.50 -- basically a continuance of 2013's prices.

I believe the majority of analysts have gotten carried away with the U.S. tight oil euphoria and are underestimating global demand growth. If OPEC output is going to remain subdued, and non-OPEC supply increases less than than the IEA's expected 1.7 mb/d, then spare capacity could fall sufficiently far to put upward pressure on prices. I also expect the Fed to approach the "taper" cautiously, and back off from it if they see any indication that economic growth is slowing.

As for headline risk, analysts generally aren't talking it up anymore, which in itself is worrisome. After several years of major geopolitical events that didn't exert strong or long-lasting effects on oil prices, I wonder if we haven't become too complacent about that factor. But at the moment I don't see any major risks on the horizon, so headline risk doesn't carry much weight in my forecast for 2014 either, though I do see increasing risk from 2015 onward.

Therefore I am sticking with my June 2012 call that oil prices will remain bound by the "narrow ledge," holding Brent prices between $105 and $125 for most of the year. The actual low for Brent in 2013 was $96.84 and the actual high was $118.90, but the price was only below $105 for 58 days of the 49 weeks thus far. Generally, I expect prices to rise and sit more solidly within the "narrow ledge" range in 2014, with a few possible spikes over $125.

I am also sticking with my forecast that in late 2014/early 2015 the "Goldilocks" period of relatively stable prices we have enjoyed since 2010 will come to an end, kicking off another phase of volatility as oil tries to reprice higher to accommodate the rising share of expensive unconventional oil.

Therefore, I am breaking with the crowd and forecasting higher, not lower, oil prices. In 2014, I expect Brent prices to average $112/bbl. For WTI, my target is $103.

Forecasting natural gas prices, however, continues to be more guesswork than anything else. 

While it's true that "dry" gas prices still need to be above $4/MMBtu to be truly profitable in the cheapest plays, and higher still (some say $6 or more) for the majority of U.S. dry gas, the more-valuable associated natural gas liquids from the "wet" plays like the Marcellus are still making gas production worthwhile at sub-$4 prices. While production from the Eagle Ford and Marcellus is still increasing, dry gas prices could remain at unprofitably low levels. And as we do not yet know when those growth trends will end, nor have any clear way to forecast it, I must conclude that gas prices in 2014 will look much the same as they did in 2013, if not a bit lower.

Spot natural gas has averaged $3.70/MMBtu so far this year, which feels like a level it could hold for another year. Prices completed their long climb out of the doldrums this year, and I think the days of ridiculously cheap gas are behind us now. For the 239 days of available data thus far in 2013, gas prices never dipped below $3, were under $3.25 for only 11 days, and were under $3.50 for only 59 days. That's in a year in which the spread between the high and low was $1.30 -- a huge range, relatively, compared to oil and most other commodities. I expect the range to be tighter in 2014, but I don't see a reason to forecast significantly higher or lower gas prices.

Therefore, for lack of a special insight one way or another, I am forecasting that in 2014, U.S. natural gas prices will stay exactly where they have been in 2013, at an average $3.70/MMBtu.

With that, I wish you all a restful and peaceful holiday. Here's to one more year, hopefully, of relative stability in the oil and gas sector.

(Photo: Mr. Muggles/Flickr)

Share this

Chris Nelder

Columnist (Energy)

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure