The Rapidly Evolving Oil Landscape

After two years of plummeting prices, the outlook for the oil industry is getting brighter. Since Mexico and Iran earlier this month struck deals to tap potentially large oilfields, the trend in the industry suggests increasing investment with a view toward rising prices at the pump.

If sustained, this surge will have a ripple effect across industry. It also helps oil firms that one prospective candidate for secretary of state in the incoming Trump administration is the CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, who The New York Times describes as an “aggressive dealmaker.”

Oil prices jumped more than 5 percent on Monday after OPEC and non-OPEC producers agreed to curb oil output and ease a global glut. The agreement between OPEC and a number of other oil producing nations was the first joint action since 2001, following more than two years of low prices that strained many government’s budgets and spurred unrest in countries from the Middle East to Latin America.

The Oil Industry’s Wasted Opportunities

Rising prices from this agreement also will put pressure on trucking and other elements of the transportation industry to increase their investment in clean energy and advanced fuel-saving technologies. After drivers, diesel fuel prices are a key line item for trucking and the construction industries. The surge is going to have to be factored into balance sheets in 2017.

But not so fast. This week’s news doesn’t necessarily signal one more uptrend in a decades-long cycle. Things have changed across the world in terms of fuel and fuel prices. In an in-depth look at the industry this week, The Economist points out that the oil industry is rife with waste, poor investments, and questionable planning. Over the last half century, the oil industry has operated essentially as a cartel, with OPEC and large firms like Exxon colluding to stave off smarter investment and increased competition.

“This has encouraged a flabby complacency that other industries cannot afford,” The Economist writes. “Oil firms have routinely squandered returns in pursuit of big projects with distant payouts, in the expectation that sooner or later high prices would bail them out. OPEC’s intervention seems to hint at a return to this pampered normality. In fact, to control the oil market is harder than ever. And that means Big Oil must shape up to survive.”

The Shale Revolution is Here to Stay

The new player in the world is the United States shale industry, which is essentially the Silicon Valley of oil. It has the ability to quickly adapt to changing conditions and ramp up or down its activity based on market conditions. No longer is the United States beholden to undemocratic, highly questionable anti-market regimes like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia. In the Western Hemisphere, Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil have lost any clout they have to direct policy in Washington. The result has been increasing instability for those regimes in the hemisphere.

“Since the OPEC deal, shale firms have used liquid financial markets to lock in future oil sales at prices above $50 a barrel, giving them some scope to raise production and potentially offsetting the cartel’s cut,” The Economist points out. “These firms are egged on by Wall Street, which sees shale as a growth industry—especially under a Trump presidency—even if only the best wells make a profit at $50 a barrel, and the rest barely break even.”

The shale revolution is also spreading. Japan, a resource-poor country that has historically depended on unfriendly oil powers, is ramping up its own shale industry. The competition from solar and other advanced “green” technologies is also intensifying. Earlier this month, Google announced that its data centers and offices would become fully powered by renewable energy next year.

In order to compete, the oil industry worldwide is going to have cut waste within its own ranks and go after oil more efficiently, especially by staying out of remote regions with little infrastructure and questionable oil reserves. It also has to develop more efficient production for is technology. BP alone is sitting on $3 billion of inventory like drillbits and steel pipes in some 270 warehouses. Few industries these days would tolerate such waste, The Economist points out. “Oil firms can use even more data and technology to keep tabs on their wells, rather than high-priced engineers in hard hats.”

No Easy Answers for Fleet Owners

What all of this means for consumers is far from certain. What’s likely, though, is a much more dynamic fuel market that could be as unpredictable as the stock market. A typical fleet owner who locks in prices a few months ahead could be badly burned in an economic landscape with so many variables. Far more than simply looking at the pump, running a business is going to involve complex calculations and investments across a wide array of technologies and landscapes.