In 2008, I moved to Dallas to cover the oil industry for The Wall Street Journal. Like any reporter on a new beat, I spent months talking to as many experts as I could. They didn’t agree on much. Would oil prices — then over $100 a barrel for the first time — keep rising? Would post-Saddam Iraq ever return to the ranks of the world’s great oil producers? Would China overtake the U.S. as the world’s top consumer? A dozen experts gave me a dozen different answers.
But there was one thing pretty much everyone agreed on: U.S. oil production was in permanent, terminal decline. U.S. oil fields pumped 5 million barrels of crude a day in 2008, half as much as in 1970 and the lowest rate since the 1940s. Experts disagreed about how far and how fast production would decline, but pretty much no mainstream forecaster expected a change in direction.
That consensus turns out to have been totally, hilariously wrong. U.S. oil production has increased by more than 50 percent since 2008 and is now near a three-decade high. The U.S. is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s top producer of crude oil; add in ethanol and other liquid fuels, and the U.S.is already on top.
The standard narrative of that stunning turnaround is familiar by now: Even as Big Oil abandoned the U.S. for easier fields abroad, a few risk-taking wildcatters refused to give up on the domestic oil industry. By combining the techniques of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling, they figured out how to tap previously inaccessible oil reserves locked in shale rock – and in so doing sparked an unexpected energy boom.
That narrative isn’t necessarily wrong. But in my years watching the transformation up close, I took away a lesson: When it comes to energy, and especially shale, the conventional wisdom is almost always wrong.
It isn’t just that experts didn’t see the shale boom coming. It’s that they underestimated its impact at virtually every turn. First, they didn’t think natural gas could be produced from shale (it could). Then they thought production would fall quickly if natural gas prices dropped (they did, and it didn’t). They thought the techniques that worked for gas couldn’t be applied to oil (they could). They thought shale couldn’t reverse the overall decline in U.S. oil production (it did). And they thought rising U.S. oil production wouldn’t be enough to affect global oil prices (it was)....MUCH MOREHT: Barron's Read This, Spike That column.
One lesson from the last couple years: Life is easier if you have deliverable physical.
Then you can play all kinds of financialization and other reindeer games.