For OPEC and the rest of the global oil industry, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is at least 15 years away. And by then, OPEC will be back as the world leader in energy.
That's how BP (NYSE:BP) views the glut in crude caused primarily by the continued oil boom in the United States. The recently adopted use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has allowed US energy companies to extract oil from shale that was previous inaccessible, contributing to a market glut and forcing down prices since June.
The price of oil fell further after OPEC decided in November not to reduce its production level of 30 million barrels a day in what Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said was a price war to reclaim market share from what he called inefficient oil producers. Fracking is more expensive than conventional oil extraction and isn't profitable if the price of oil falls below certain levels, often cited as $60 per barrel.
Nevertheless, US oil companies continue to produce fairly prodigiously, according to the annual BP Energy Outlook 2035, published Feb, 17. Already US production and OPEC's refusal to shore up prices have caused oil prices to plunge by around 50 percent in the past eight months.
For the immediate future, expect a kind of controlled chaos in the market, BP CEO Bob Dudley said in the introduction to his company's forecast. "Continuous change is the norm in our industry," he wrote. "The energy mix changes. The balance of demand shifts. New sources of energy emerge."
Among those new sources of energy, of course, has been US shale oil, also called tight oil because it is tightly trapped in underground shale formations. The BP outlook says US production will grow rapidly for the immediate future, then "flatten out." Or, as BP's chief economist, Spencer Dale, told The Wall Street Journal, "U.S. [shale] oil can't continue to grow rapidly forever."
And OPEC will be ready to fill that vacuum when the time is right.
"Middle East production expands after 2020, as North American growth slows," the report said. "Middle East output increases by a little over 5 [million barrels of oil per day] by 2035," the final year of BP's 20-year forecast.
In fact, the report said it expects that OPEC will return to energy dominance as its global market share will grow to 40 percent by 2035, in line with its average share over the past two decades. In a separate interview with Reuters, Dale concluded, "OPEC remains a central force in the oil market for the next 20 years."
That doesn't mean that the United States is out of the picture altogether, the BP report said. Shale production may flatten, but won't stop. "In the US, the increase in tight oil production, coupled with declining demand, transform its reliance on oil imports. Having imported ... 60 percent of its total demand in 2005," it said, "[the] US is set to become self-sufficient [in oil] by the 2030s."
It also doesn't mean that extracting shale oil will spread from North America to countries such as Argentina, Britain, China and even perhaps Russia, as some analysts do. When these countries need oil, they'll turn to OPEC, Dale said in a third interview.
"I've read report after report about the impending demise of OPEC," Dale told the Financial Times. "My hunch is those reports are greatly exaggerated."