EC To Be Sustainable, Green Energy Must Generate Adequate Taxable Revenue

When oil companies are asked about their required price to break even, a wide range of answers is possible. Do they just quote the expense of pulling the oil from the ground? If so, a very low answer is possible. If shareholders are involved in the discussions, this is the answer that they would like to hear. Or do they give realistic estimates, including the taxes that their governments need? Furthermore, if the cost of extraction is rising, there needs to be enough profit that can be set aside to allow for the drilling of new wells in higher-cost areas, if production is to be maintained.

Because of the need for tax revenue, OPEC countries often publish Fiscal Breakeven Oil Prices, indicating how high the prices need to be to obtain adequate tax revenue for the exporting countries. For example, Figure 4 shows a set of Fiscal Breakeven Oil Prices for 2013 – 2014.

Figure 4. Estimate of OPEC breakeven oil prices, including tax requirements by parent countries, by APICORP.

If a country tries to maintain the same standard of living for its population as in the past, I would expect that the fiscal breakeven price would rise year after year. This would occur partly because the population of OPEC countries keeps rising and thus more subsidy is needed. The fiscal breakeven price would also tend to rise because the easiest-to-extract oil tends to be depleted first. As a result, new oil-related investments can be expected to have higher costs than the depleted investments they are replacing.

In fact, if a person looks at more recently published fiscal breakeven prices, they tend to be lower than the 2013-2014 breakevens. I believe that this happens because oil exporters don’t want to look desperate. They know that attaining such high prices is unlikely today. They hope that by using more debt and reducing the standard of living of their citizens, they can somehow get along with a lower fiscal breakeven price. This is not a long term solution, however. Unhappy citizens are likely to overturn their governments. Such a result could completely cut off oil supply from these countries.

[3] A cutback in oil production is not surprising for the OPEC + Russia group, nor for the United States, given the chronically low oil prices. The profitability was too low for all of these producers.

Figure 5. Inflation-adjusted historical average annual Brent oil price for 1965 through 2020 from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2021. 12-Jul-2021 amount is the actual Brent spot oil price for that date.

Oil prices fell in late 2014. Fiscal breakeven prices calculated before that date likely gave a somewhat reasonable estimate of the needed prices for oil exporters to make an adequate profit, at that time. By early 2019, when the first decreases in oil production began, these countries were beginning to become fed up with chronically low oil prices.

It is interesting to note that Qatar, the country with the lowest breakeven price on Figure 4, decided to withdraw from OPEC effective January 1, 2019, rather than reduce its oil production. For Qatar, oil prices in late 2018 and early 2019 were close to adequate. Qatar mostly produces natural gas, rather than oil.

The decrease in US shale oil production reflects somewhat the same low profitability issue as OPEC + Russia exports, with an additional factor added. Besides low prices, there seems to be a well-spacing issue. There are reports that the spacing of shale wells gradually got closer and closer until the closer spacing became counter-productive. The more closely spaced wells “cannibalized” the output from nearby wells. The extra drilling may also have released needed pressurization, reducing oil availability.

Such a problem would have been a difficult issue to pick up from EROEI analyses because there are not enough of these EROEI studies to see sudden changes. Figure 6 shows the timing of the drop in US oil production, relative to the drop in oil prices:

Figure 6. Monthly average crude oil and condensate production and prices for the United States excluding the Gulf of Mexico, based on US Energy Information Administration data. Oil prices are West Texas Intermediate spot prices, not adjusted for inflation. Amounts shown are through April 2021.

Figure 6 omits oil from the Gulf of Mexico, because its quantity tends to bounce around, especially when a hurricane hits. Because of this exclusion, the oil shown in Figure 6 reflects a combination of declining oil production from conventional oil wells plus (after about 2011) rising production from shale wells.

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