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The oil industry and low oil prices

Oil prices will remain below $60 per barrel for the foreseeable future. At least this is what is being assumed by most oil producing companies. In the more distant future, prices may rise as investment in fracking, tar sands and new wells dries up. In meantime, however, marginal costs are sufficiently low as to make it economically viable to continue extracting oil from most sources at current prices.

The low prices are partly the result of increases in supply from large-scale investment in new sources of oil over the past few years and increased output by OPEC. They are also partly the result of falling demand from China.

But are low prices all bad news for the oil industry? It depends on the sector of the industry. Extraction and exploration may be having a hard time; but downstream, the refining, petrochemicals, distribution and retail sectors are benefiting from the lower costs of crude oil. For the big integrated oil companies, such as BP, the overall effect may not be as detrimental as the profits from oil production suggest.

Articles
BP – low oil price isn’t all bad new BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (27/10/15)
Want to See Who’s Happy About Low Oil Prices? Look at Refiners Bloomberg, Dan Murtaugh (31/10/15)
Low prices are crushing Canada’s oil sands industry. Shell’s the latest casualty. Vox, Brad Plumer (28/10/15)

Data
Brent spot crude oil prices US Energy Information Administration
BP Quarterly results and webcast BP

Questions

  1. Why have oil prices fallen?
  2. What is likely to happen to the supply of oil (a) over the next three years; (b) in the longer term?
  3. Draw a diagram with average and marginal costs and revenue to show why it may be profitable to continue producing oil in the short run at $50 per barrel. Why may it not be profitable to invest in new sources of supply if the price remains at current levels?
  4. Find out in what downstream sectors BP is involved and what has happened to its profits in these sectors.
  5. Draw a diagram with average and marginal costs and revenue to show why profits may be increasing from the wholesaling of petrol and diesel to filling stations.
  6. How is price elasticity of demand relevant to the profitablity of downstream sectors in the context of falling costs?
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