The to-may-to, to-mah-to of economic statistics

(written June 28, uploaded July 16)

There was an alarming report out a couple weeks ago alleging that China was vastly underreporting its emissions, because the coal consumption reported by the Chinese national government was smaller than the sum of consumption totals reported by various Chinese provinces. Purportedly, the Communist Party didn’t want to reveal to the outside world just how much pollution it’s emitting, trying to raise the country’s standard of living.

This was followed the other day by a report that coal inventories in Chinese ports are at record highs (in other words, it’s not being burnt as fast as it’s being imported). The theory is that Chinese provinces have been overreporting electricity production to meet national targets for economic growth. If this is the case, then the national government is correct to apply a “fudge factor” and report lower production totals than the sum total of the numbers they’re given!

In light of the high coal inventories, I’d side with the national government on this one, and assume China is slowing down. And since China consumes so much of everything (urbanizing thirty million people per year takes a lot of material!) a slowdown there would drag down prices of most of the resources Canada is so good at exporting raw and unfinished — lumber, metal ores, bitumen, and so forth. Sigh — it’s as if we suffer from a lingering “economic colony complex”…

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A Chinese slowdown would exacerbate the problems our Albertan friends are facing: the price of oil is already sagging to levels which threaten the economic viability of (some) new tar sands projects. This Globe article lists a consultant study saying $80 per barrel is needed for a variety of projects to break even. As I write this, the price of the West Texas Intermediate Crude (“WTIC”) benchmark is $79. And as the Globe article notes, our countrymen aren’t even getting this much, since oil from North Dakota is clogging south-flowing pipelines in the US, forcing Albertans (who are upstream) to sell at a discount. Selling unrefined bitumen would incur a further discount.

And it just gets worse for our Calgarian cousins/rivals: US oil consumption peaked six years ago, and is set to keep falling. Not only are fewer teens getting licenses, and fewer total miles being driven per year, but those miles are being driven in more fuel-efficient vehicles, as the gas guzzlers of the cheap-oil-era early 2000’s get traded in for more fuel efficient ones. And while electric cars won’t displace much oil demand in the near term, some truck fleets are beginning to switch to natural gas — and trucking represents a huge 12% of US oil consumption! Not all of them will switch, and natural gas will get more expensive again, but the net effect will be that US oil consumption is likely to keep… on… falling, like a Japanese stock market index. (Incidentally, kudos to our friends at Westport for persisting in that natural-gas-vehicle market long enough to get to this tipping point; it’s a good lesson for us fuel-cell folks to learn from.)

Without a path to Asia, Alberta would be stuck selling its oil into a declining market — and that would make it impossible for them to shift the heart of Canadian power westwards, as has been their dream for decades. It’s a 180-degree turn from the message everyone has told our neighbours for the past several years, namely that they faced unprecedented wealth. With stagnant US and European demand, the only way for the oil patch to keep those dreams alive is to force pipelines through BC. Which is what the Prime Minister is agitating for, with the determination you’d expect from the son of an Exxon accountant. (Harper’s dad worked for Exxon’s Canadian arm, Imperial Oil / Esso.)

If we assume those coal mountains in China mean the country is slowing down, the oil price is likely to drift lower in 2013 (commodity trader group-think suggests a bounce up in the near term; not sure what Nostradamus’ take is). A lower oil price would probably mean further gnashing of teeth and scapegoating of “BC radicals” in Calgary* though the root cause would of course be that the market is a fickle god: it giveth, and it taketh away. Not infrequently taking its cues from those godless communists. ;)

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* Misplaced anger also applies to the 1970s’ National Energy Policy. While Trudeau reduced the oilpatch boom, he didn’t actually cause the bust; in fact, when oil prices dropped in the early 80’s, Alberta got more-than-market-rates for its oil. The guys who caused the real pain in Calgary were the Saudis, who turned the spigots on enough to drive the price of oil so low, they were basically the only ones making money. (They were punishing other OPEC members for exceeding their production quotas. Every other oil producer in the world, became collateral damage.) More recently, Alberta’s Wildrose Party seems convinced that over-regulation is what caused a slowdown in bitumen development in the past few years, neatly overlooking the Massive Financial Crisis of 2008/09 that caused the oil to drop to about $40 per barrel, before gradually floating back to the low $100’s, from which it has resumed sagging.

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