The first sign of a doomed ship is said to be the urgent departure of its rats; the first sign of fire in a crowded theater is not the guy who shouts it out, but the several people with good noses who start to sidle quietly but purposefully toward the exits. In the world of America’s bogus oil and gas fracking revolution, the nostrils of the rats and the smoke-sensitive alike are beginning to twitch. Let us watch those noses.
Must we review the industry’s propaganda again here? How hydraulic fracking has changed everything, America now has abundant gas and oil, we’re surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia, we’re number one in the world again, we’re headed for energy independence? (No one has yet had the chutzpah to predict we’re going to get to energy independence, since it’s mathematically impossible, but it shouldn’t be long now, they’re getting desperate.) The latest iteration of the industry line is an essay that appeared in the New York Times titled “America’s Oil Bonanza,” a song of oil without end, amen.
Meanwhile, one of the top oil commodity traders in the world — in other words, one of the big rats who have been playing in the oil market as if it were a big casino, as if no one got hurt by their machinations — is tip-toeing down the mooring lines of the shale oil revolution in search of safer ground. His name is Andrew John Hall, and he says shale-oil production in the United States is about to fall off a cliff.
Not that he gives a frack. He is worshiped by his fellow Masters of the Universe (Yes, worshiped — they call him the god of crude oil trading) because for his skills in the oil casino he used to get $100 million annual bonuses from Citi Bank until the last flameout, when the Feds suspended them on the grounds that they were obscene. Now, he’s placing his bets and those of his worshipful clients on fracking production nosediving in the United States in about a year (and failing for various reasons to get rolling in other countries) and crude oil prices almost immediately hitting $150 per barrel.
Traders who hold long-term contracts for delivery of crude at today’s prices — $100 or a little less — will make gazillions. Hard to know how they’re going to spend it, though, since oil prices much above $100 cause nasty recessions in all industrialized countries.
Others, oil guys deeply involved with the bidness, seem to be sidling toward the exits, nostrils twitching. Royal Dutch Shell, one of the biggest players in the fields of fracking — it amassed at least $13 billion in leases in five years, starting in 2008 — appears to be leaving the building. While laying down a fog of statements about “restructuring… refocusing… renewed commitment” and the like, the company seems to have all but abandoned the North American shale business (in which, interestingly, it never made any money).
British Petroleum seems to be executing a similar tiptoe toward the EXIT sign. It has rolled all its American shale holdings into a company that doesn’t even bear its name (how low do you have to go before you’re too disreputable to be known as BP?) which is often a precursor move to a sell-off. BP’s CEO now dismisses the fracking revolution as a “lower margin, lean business” more suited to “independent operators,” otherwise known among con artists as “greater fools.” And he talks excitedly about how well the company is going to do with new deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Yeah, that ought to go well. Hard to see what could go wrong with that.
Pay very close attention to the mooring lines and the exits in the coming months. You might not want to associate with the first people fleeing (and leaving women and children to their own devices) but you might want to follow suit. For the sake of your women and children.