Price volatility has been a hallmark of the oil industry essentially since the first oil well was successfully drilled in the United States.
George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake made the first successful use of a drilling rig on a well drilled specifically to produce oil on August 27, 1859, near Titusville, Pennsylvania. This led to an “oil rush,” with a great wave of investment in drilling and refining oil from the western Appalachian mountains.
The first price bust occurred a little over two years later, in November 1861, because companies produced more oil than the market could handle. But demand continued to rise, sending prices soaring, attracting more investment and triggering overproduction (a boom) and another bust.
Robert Rapier, writing for Financial Sense Wealth Management, says the cycle is a result of the industry’s dependence on capital and the time it takes to execute projects. He identifies five stages to the oil industry’s boom-bust cycle:
Stage 1, the bottom of the cycle, is characterized by excess supply, which leads to lower prices and under-investment by the industry. This stimulates higher demand. In Stage 2, demand grows faster than supply and prices begin to rise. As companies earn greater revenues in Stage 3, they increase investment in new projects. In Stage 4, high prices put a dent in demand, and as new projects come online, production outpaces demand.
Stage 5 is when prices collapse, leading to contraction in the oil industry, followed by a return to Stage 1.
While the current COVID-19 pandemic is a unique event, it has created conditions the industry has seen before: excess supply, due to fewer people traveling by air and commuting by car.
Tom Blasingame, incoming 2021 president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, foresees a recovery in an interview with the Journal of Petroleum Technology published in September 2020.
“A post-COVID world will happen and people will travel again, entirely new business models will emerge (think domestic manufacturing), and perhaps most importantly, people will look to the basic industries of energy, agriculture and manufacturing to provide energy, food and products securely and with innovation,” he said.
Best-case scenarios have oil prices recovering to pre-COVID levels in 2021 or 2022. Prices may even spike, according to McKinsey & Company due to shortages caused by the lack of investment in discovering, extracting and processing oil today.
Blasingame says a hydrocarbon-based economy is sustainable for the next 100 years or more, and oil and gas reserves should last approximately 50 years more at current consumption rates. There’s also opportunities in expanding unconventional oil and gas operations, provided the process of extracting them becomes cheaper.
“The oil and gas industry is a cyclic industry and likely will continue to be so into the foreseeable future,” says Professor Jennifer Miskimins, head of the Petroleum Engineering Department at Mines. “Prospective students should know and understand that when considering petroleum engineering as a career.”
“However, with the potential risks come significant rewards for the person who has a passion for providing improved standards of living around the world, as well as helping to be part of the solution for the world’s energy and carbon neutrality needs,” Miskimins adds. “On a more personal level, the oil and gas industry offers the opportunity to work around the world on unique, high-dollar and extremely technical and rewarding projects.”
An article in the Houston Chronicle from July 2016, after the last oil industry bust, succinctly sums up the dilemma petroleum engineers face:
“That’s the catch-22 of petroleum engineering education: The best time to start a degree may be at the bottom of an oil price cycle, when students’ first instinct might be to run the other way.”