John Hofmeister attracted national attention in 2010 when he predicted that average U.S. gasoline prices would soar to $5 a gallon in 2012, thanks to rising crude oil prices. His forecast fell short, as the cost of filling up flirted with $4 in 2012, but never went higher.
Now, with gasoline prices at $2.14, their lowest level since May 2009, the former president of Shell Oil is issuing another warning, telling motorists that their joy ride may end sooner than they think.
“The next round of high prices is likely to start later this year, as crude rebounds to the $80s and $90s, perhaps pushing to the $100 level by late in the year or early next,” Hofmeister told me the other day after a trip to Calgary, where he was promoting natural gas as a transportation fuel.
“The triggering mechanism will be global demand growth relative to how much capital constraint gets baked into future plans for production this year and next. If new production capital is deferred and demand growth continues at 2% or more, we’ll see capacity constraints during 2016, an election year of course, drive prices higher. Whether we reach $4 a gallon or push past, it’s too early to tell.”
Moreover, Hofmeister still sees $5 gas on the horizon.
“Over the next several years, as demand growth approaches 100 million barrels a day and the industry production falls short, yes, I believe later this decade we’ll see $5 a gallon and possible shortages of fuel in some parts of the world,” he said.
Hofmeister paints a gloomier picture of gasoline prices than many analysts, including the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which predicts U.S. gasoline prices will average $2.33 this year and $2.72 in 2016. But he also feels that the perception of a “glut” in world oil production now is overstated, with supply outpacing demand by only 1 million barrels a day or so.
Some of his former peers in the oil sector share his sentiments regarding the oil oversupply, and its impact on oil prices.
“Most of us in the industry are surprised that it’s fallen as hard and fast as it has,” Ryan Lance, CEO of ConocoPhillips, said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t know that I have a real good answer to that question, other than it doesn’t feel like the fundamentals would support that kind of fall.”
Like Hofmeister, Lance said oil prices could rebound faster than anticipated, as they did in 2009, following the Great Recession.
“People were worried about the global economy, and prices went to $30, $40 a barrel, and just a matter of months later, it was back to $100 a barrel,” he said. “And that’s the kind of volatility we’re in, when we see these imbalances that are created, even though they are relatively small in absolute terms.”
Still, Hofmeister sees a solution to end the roller-coaster pattern to oil and gasoline prices: natural gas.
Since retiring from Shell in 2008, he’s been actively promoting natural gas as a transportation fuel, as the head of an organization called Citizens for Affordable Energy.
“I believe that with the right focus and development of the natural gas fuels market, we could begin to reduce global demand for oil from the 100-million-barrels-a-day level around 2020 to lower demand levels by substituting natural gas fuels,” he said. “We could pull it back to 90, 80, even 70 million barrels a day over the next two to three decades, taking enormous pressure off chronic high oil prices.”
In the meantime, though, his advice to motorists regarding gasoline is simple: “Enjoy the price, because it’s going to go back up.”