Trump has vowed to lead a fossil-fuel revival to underpin job growth and has made climate change denial a cornerstone of his energy policy, according to analysts.
To that end, Trump has stacked his administration “with the most hard-right ideological, fossil fuel-oriented cabinet appointments we’ve ever seen,” David Goldston, Director of Government Affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council told NBC News.
They include Texas Gov. Rick Perry as energy secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as interior secretary, Scott Pruitt as environmental protection secretary and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.
Yet, it’s hard to fathom Trump’s oil obsession, simply because the world right now is awash in crude.
A global oil glut has driven down prices by more than half over the past two years from a high of $100 a barrel in 2014 to a low of $30 in February–a 70 percent decline.
Not surprisingly, the impact has been devastating for the oil industry. Its prolonged bust cycle goes back to the 1990s, if not earlier, according to The New York Times.
Scores of companies have gone bankrupt and an estimated 250,000 oil workers — about half in the United States — have lost their jobs.
Of course, the United States could be an energy powerhouse. It now has more recoverable oil reserves than both Saudi Arabia and Russia combined, according to a new independent estimate of world oil reserves by Rystad Energy.
The caveat is more than 50 percent of the nation’s reserves are tied up in unconventional, hard-to-recover shale, which bring with it environmental consequences.
Shale oil recovery is not only costly, it requires significant amounts of water, typically between one and five barrels of water per barrel of shale oil, depending on technology, according to industry references.
At current prices–around $50 a barrel today–even conventional wells are unprofitable. The “break even” price of shale oil production ranges widely from $95 to a low of $35 a barrel depending on the nature and location of the deposits.
What’s more, the oil industry, once bitten, is now twice shy. It made a major investment in shale oil production in the early 1980s and was slammed when prices collapsed.
Executives think it will be years before oil returns to $90 or $100 a barrel, a range that would make shale and other hard-to-recover sources economical, according to The Times.
Against that backdrop, Trump is promising even more oil production. Say what?
As president, however, he will have little leverage over prices, which are set by OPEC production quotas and worldwide demand.
In fact, his anti-free trade statements and and his willingness to impose trade tariffs directly undermine his oil policy.
Amrita Sen, an analyst with Energy Aspects, a think tank that tracks oil demand, said Trump’s trade pronouncements “will have huge negative implications for Asia, given how much their GDP is tied to trade with the U.S.”
“Hence it is negative for growth and oil demand, at least due to the uncertainty that Trump creates,” he said.
Prize-winning U.S. oil historian Daniel Yergin explained the situation this way in a Reuters interview:
“Buckle up your seatbelts for a more turbulent and uncertain global economy that is ahead. The outcome of the U.S. election adds to the challenges for the oil exporters because it will likely lead to weaker economic growth in an already fragile global economy. And that means additional pressure on oil demand.”
Iran is another wild-card in the world outlook for oil production and demand.
With the lifting of Western sanctions, it’s ramping up oil production. Congress, however, has just passed legislation to reimpose sanctions, causing even more uncertainty.
While Iranian oil could be crimped by renewed sanctions, Iraq is increasing oil production. It will more than make up for the difference in world supply.
On the demand side, Europe and developing countries have weak economies, and broadly, vehicles are becoming more energy-efficient. Outside of the United States and China, oil consumption is expected to be soft for some time to come, according to industry estimates.
If Trump could find a way to boost prices, it would have another negative consequence–consumers would be slammed at the gas pump. His blue-collar supporters who use home heating oil would face significantly higher prices and businesses would also suffer.
As it is, consumers could be facing a squeeze in the coming year, which would undercut another Trump promise, higher economic growth.
In November, OPEC agreed to cut production for six months starting in 2017. Cartel leader Saudi Arabia will cut 486,000 barrels per day, or about five percent of what it produces, according to The Times.
Russia and other oil producing nations also agreed to lower their output to shore up prices.
In light of those cutbacks, it’s hard to see how Trump can ramp up U.S. production as he promised.
Trumps views on oil appear to be rooted in the 1970s. Arab petroleum exporters imposed an embargo in Oct. 1973 on the United States and other Western nations in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
The resulting oil shortage sent prices skyrocketing and caused rationing at the gas pump. U.S. energy independence has been a goal of every presidential administration ever since.
But the world is much different today. Global markets are linked and oil, like most natural resources, is a global commodity, not easily subject to manipulation even by Trump’s oil industry dominated administration.