Why Big Oil Should Kill Itself

LONDON – Now that oil prices have settled into a long-term range of $30-50 per barrel (as described here a year ago), energy users everywhere are enjoying an annual income boost worth more than $2 trillion. The net result will almost certainly accelerate global growth, because the beneficiaries of this enormous income redistribution are mostly lower- and middle-income households that spend all they earn.

Of course, there will be some big losers – mainly governments in oil-producing countries, which will run down reserves and borrow in financial markets for as long as possible, rather than cut public spending. That, after all, is politicians’ preferred approach, especially when they are fighting wars, defying geopolitical pressures, or confronting popular revolts.

But not all producers will lose equally. One group really is cutting back sharply: Western oil companies, which have announced investment reductions worth about $200 billion this year. That has contributed to the weakness of stock markets worldwide; yet, paradoxically, oil companies’ shareholders could end up benefiting handsomely from the new era of cheap oil.

Just one condition must be met. The managements of leading energy companies must face economic reality and abandon their wasteful obsession with finding new oil. The 75 biggest oil companies are still investing more than $650 billion annually to find and extract fossil fuels in ever more challenging environments. This has been one of the greatest misallocations of capital in history – economically feasible only because of artificial monopoly prices.