The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently issued a new working paper called 'The Future of Oil: Geology versus Technology' (free PDF), which should be of interest to people who are following 'peak oil' issues. This is a research paper that is being published to elicit comments and debate; it does not necessarily represent IMF views or policy.
The paper considers two different approaches for modeling future oil supply:
- The economic/technological approach, used by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and others, and
- The geological view, used in peak oil forecasts, such as forecasts made by Colin Campbell and forecasts made using Hubbert Linearization.
The analysis in the IMF Working Paper shows that neither approach has worked perfectly, but in recent years, forecasts of oil supply using the geological view have tended to be closer than those using the economic/technological approach. Since neither model works perfectly, the new paper takes a middle ground: it sets up a model of oil supply where the amount of oil produced is influenced by a combination of (1) geological depletion and (2) price levels.
This blended model fits recent production amounts and recent price trends far better than traditional models. The forecasts it gives are concerning though. The new model indicates that (1) oil supply in the future will not rise nearly as rapidly as in the pre-2005 period and (2) oil prices are likely to nearly double in 'real' (inflation-adjusted) terms by 2020. The world economy will be in uncharted territory if this happens.
It seems to me that this new model is a real step forward in looking at oil supply and the economy. The model, as it is today, points out a definite problem area (namely, the likelihood of oil high prices, if growth in oil production continues to be constrained below pre-2005 rates of increase). The researchers also raise good questions for further analysis.
At the same time, I am doubtful that the world GDP forecast of the new model is really right-it seems too high. The questions the authors raise point in this direction as well. Below the fold, I discuss the model, its indications, and some shortcomings I see.
The Two Models
Economic /Technological Approach. With the economic/ technological approach, the assumption is made that high oil prices will encourage substitution and/or new oil production. Because of this, high oil prices are not expected to persist. Instead, the most important consideration in determining future oil supply is the level of future demand. The level of future demand, in turn, is primarily driven by anticipated GDP growth, since world GDP growth and world oil production growth tend to be highly correlated.
In effect, models of this type assume that whatever oil supply is needed will be available; they don't consider the possibility that geological considerations may limit oil supply over the long term. As an example of how well these models have worked for prediction, the paper shows a graph of historical EIA forecasts (Figure 1, below).
Figure 1. Graph showing that oil production forecasts by the US Energy Information Administration have been revised downward, year after year, from paper.
Each year, EIA's forecasts have been adjusted downward, because actual oil supply growth was lower than forecast.
Models Based on the Geological View. The paper considers forecasts of oil supply such as those of Colin Campbell (shown in ASPO-Ireland Newsletters) and forecasts based on Hubbert Linearization to be models based on the Geological View. The paper observes that forecasts of oil supply based on geological view have tended to be too low, but not by as big a margin as those made using the economic/technological approach. As an example, it gives the following graph of changes in forecasts by Colin Campbell.
Figure 2. Colin Campbell Forecasts of Future Oil Supply, from paper.
A review of the two methods by the IMF group indicates that neither works precisely as hoped, but each has some validity. While oil production did not rise as fast as the economic/technological view would predict, higher oil prices have allowed oil production to stay on more or less a plateau after 2005, rather than declining as predicted by geological methods. The new model in the IMF Working Paper combines indications from both points of view, using an approach that allows them to estimate the relative contribution of geological impacts vs higher prices.
How the Two Methods are Combined
The oil supply equation in the new model is set up so that there are two different ways that the forecast oil supply can change. There is a downward tug from oil depletion at the same time that there is an upward tug from oil prices. It is expected that in the short run, high prices will get producers to utilize spare capacity, and over a longer period (estimated at 4 to 6 years), it will get producers to add new capacity. I will not try to explain all the variables and coefficients, but the blended supply equation is
Figure 3. Oil Supply Equation
In the above equation, qt is the quantity of oil produced in year t and Qt is the cumulative quantity produced in year t, so the ratio qt / Qt produces the familiar downward-sloping line one sees in charts used for Hubbert Linearization. The first two terms to the right of the equal sign are the ones based on the geological approach to depletion. The later terms depend on pt, which is price of oil at the time 't'. Adding the pt terms tends to raise the line at later periods so it does not slope downward as quickly as if depletion were the only factor affecting the relationship.
Growth Rate of GDP
In the model, high oil prices have some impact on GDP, but as we will see in Figure 5, below, not very much. There are two places in modeling GDP where high oil prices come into play. The first is in the Potential Growth Rate of GDP. According to the paper,
The growth rate of potential world GDP is specified as fluctuating around an exogenous long-run trend, with oil price changes making the fluctuations more severe. Oil prices are allowed to have persistent but not permanent effects on the growth rate of GDP. . . The estimated steady state world potential growth rate of potential GDP equals four percent. The average annual growth rate of real oil prices, which is the growth in oil prices at which the model assumes zero effect of oil prices on output growth, is seven percent. The results indicate that an oil price growth that is higher than that historical average has a small but significant negative effect on the growth rate of potential. [emphasis added]
Interesting-the model assumes real oil price growth of 7% per year has no impact growth rate of GDP. Perhaps this is supposed to be picked up by the second place where high oil prices come into forecasting GDP, called Output Gap. This is an excerpt from what the paper says about Output Gap:
Apart from allowing for an effect of higher oil prices on the growth rate of potential output, the model also allows for the possibility that higher oil prices can cause fluctuations in the amount of excess demand in the economy. . . . Similar to the equation for potential, the coefficient estimates show that high oil prices have a small but significant negative effect on excess demand, and that this effect is highly persistent.
When all is said and done, what does the IMF model forecast?
Figure 4. Oil Output Forecast with Error Bands, (in gigabarrels per year), from report.
The forecast for future world oil supply, shown in Figure 4 above, is similar to EIA's most recent forecast of world oil supply (but lower than earlier EIA estimates). Oil supply is expected to rise a 0.9% per year. An alternate tighter oil supply forecast is given as well.
The forecast for world GDP growth (shown in Figure 5 below) is not too much different from standard estimates, either. The point forecast is about four percent per year.
Figure 5. World GDP (in logs) forecast with error bands, with 2011 world GDP normalized to 1.00, from report.
The thing that is different in this analysis is oil prices (in inflation adjusted dollars). Forecast oil prices are expected to be much higher that what the EIA is estimating.
Figure 6. Oil price forecast with error bands (in 2011 Real $) from report.
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