Oil and Other Commodity Prices

I haven't had time to write for a while, but now I'm back with this year's first post.

One of my favourite bloggers, Stefan Karlsson, wrote about rising commodity prices today. I feel I have to comment on what he said, but since this comment is much longer than his blog post, I post it here on my own blog instead.

Stefan says "anyone who tells you that the commodity price boom reflects the alleged 'peak oil' doesn't know what they're talking about". I would instead say they are parallel developments.

Now why does Stefan say "alleged" peak oil? Isn't Stefan Karlsson convinced yet about the imminence of peak oil? I'm not saying he has to believe all the doomer stuff you can read on many peak oil sites, but I do hope he has read enough facts to understand that peak oil is here, and will most probably have profound effects on our lives.

In my opinion, the oil price does (partly) reflect "peak oil", because demand has outpaced supply. Take a look at the second chart at http://oljepris.se/statistik and you will see that world production has been essentially flat since April 2005, after rising until then. Many experts who have studied oil production, e.g. Matt Simmons, argue convincingly that the world has passed peak oil and is now on a "plateau" of oil production. Even if the peak is a number of years away, most of the "easy" oil is already taken out of the ground. What is left is (on average) much harder to extract (e.g. in remote regions, have to use more advanced techniques to extract, under deep seas etc). Extracting a barrel of oil on average costs much more now than 10 years ago. There are also other factors involved in oil prices, e.g. military conflicts etc. But price action alone does not refute the fact of "peak oil". Not even when compared to other commodity prices.

But peak oil definitely plays a strong part in oil prices. The inability to increase production in spite of rising demand and sharply rising prices over several years confirms this. If you want more detailed analysis of peak oil, you can get all the information you want (and more) from The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin.

So why have other commodities shown strong price gains too?
  1. Just like for oil, demand has outpaced supply for many commodities (e.g. metals). Starting up new mines is a long process. It takes years of prospecting, government permits etc. The global economic boom of the last few years seems to have caught miners by surprise, with a demand for commodities that by far exceeded most predictions (remember, most "predictors" are notably bad at predicting things like this in advance).
  2. Many other commodities are probably also near their global production peaks, e.g. platinum. The production of any finite resource can be Hubbert linearised to get an approximation of the production curve. A notable example of "peaked" commodities is uranium. Just take a look at a graph of global production and you will see that global production seems to have peaked in 1980, and since 1985 the shortfall in production has been made up by using military stockpiles (see for example the chart at the bottom of this article). The price action of uranium over the last few years confirms this situation.
  3. Just like for oil, the "best" ores for other commodities have been extracted first. Take the example of copper. When copper was first discovered during the stone age, naturally occuring pure copper was used. Then somebody discovered how to extract copper from certain ores, and the best ores were mined first. Gradually over the years, ores with lower and lower percentage grades of copper have been mined. During the last century we have rapidly mined our way through most of the good ores for most commodities, at a pace never seen before in history.
  4. As for food prices, we seem to have reached "peak food" rather close to "peak oil". It seems that the world is simply not capable of producing more food simply for reasons of ecological limits. Global grain stockpiles are now at something like 27-year lows. And population still growing. And demanding more and better food.
  5. Increased affluence among large parts of the world's population has created a stronger demand for everything from meat to diesel to microwave ovens. This is actually strongly connected to number 1 above.
  6. Food prices have become (loosely) connected to oil prices because of the grain-to-ethanol boom.
Now, even if we have passed "peak oil" (which I believe we have), that does not mean that oil prices cannot sink from current levels. Since the margins for world oil supply are so tight today, small differences in production or demand make big differences in price. With the coming recession, I think we will see a lot of "demand destruction", as it is euphemistically called. I therefore guess that oil prices will decline substantially later this year. $65/barrel is not impossible. This is of course blasphemy to many of my fellow "peak oilers", most of whom seem to be convinced that we will see $150 or $200 per barrel oil soon. But I predict that "demand destruction" over 1-2 years will be faster than production declines. Of course a swift economic downturn might also have a similar effect on many other commodities. Though not uranium, I suppose, because nuclear reactors will not be shut down, even if we have an economic crisis.