Cheap oil? Long-term US and Canadian crude oil prices

Many corporate spokespeople, government officials, economists, and journalists are repeating a very odd line: “oil prices are low.” Others talk of “cheap oil,” “plunging prices,” and a “crash.” Here’s one example, a 2016 headline from Maclean’s: “Life at $20 a barrel: What the oil crash means for Canada.”

I will argue that talk of “low oil prices” ignores history, misconstrues energy’s role in making civilizations, and confuses our efforts to build resilient, sustainable, climate-stabilizing economies. The graph above and the table below put recent oil prices into their long-term context. The graph covers the 156-year period from the first large-scale production of petroleum oil to the present: 1860 to 2016. It shows US average crude oil prices and Canadian prices for light sweet crude and heavy tarsands crude. For comparability, all figures are in US dollars and adjusted for inflation.

This table helps us interpret the data in the graph by showing average prices for each decade.

Canada and US crude oil prices, decade-averages, US dollars, adjusted for inflation
Canada and US crude oil prices, decade-averages, inflation-adjusted US dollars

Here’s what the graph and table can tell us about current “low oil prices.”

1. The graph shows that the very high 2003-2014 prices are an anomaly.

2. The $80 average price in the 2010s is the highest since the 1870s.

3. Even with recent declines, oil prices remain above the levels that held during the century from 1875 to 1975.

4. While prices have averaged $80 in the 2010s, the average price in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was below $30. The greatest period of economic growth in global history, the postwar US boom, was accomplished with very cheap oil. As the cost of oil goes up, the cost of civilization goes up. If energy prices rise too high, we may no longer be able to afford to continue to build or even maintain our sprawling mega-civilization.

5. Many say that Canadian prices are particularly low relative to US or world prices. That isn’t the case. It’s not that Canadian oil is priced lower than US oil; rather, Canadian heavy (tar sands) oil is priced lower than US and Canadian light oil. The values in the table show this. The graph also shows this in the close correlation of US average oil prices with Canadian light oil prices. The right-wing think-tank The Fraser Institute explains that heavy oil from the tarsands and similar sources is priced lower because such oil “is more costly to transport by pipeline …. Further, the heavier the crude oil …, the lower its value to a refiner as it will either require more processing or yield a higher percentage of lower-valued by-products such as heavy fuel oil. Complex crudes containing more sulphur also generally cost more to refine than low-sulphur crudes. For these reasons, oil refiners are willing to pay more for light, low-sulphur crude oil.”

6. Western Canadians are particularly sensitive to “low oil prices” because our economy is dependent upon some of the highest-cost oil production systems in the world: the tar sands. We are the high-cost producers.

As the International Energy Agency (IEA) said recently, “Attempting to understand how the oil market will look during the next five years is today a task of enormous complexity.” I certainly cannot predict oil prices. And I’m not advocating lower prices. Just the opposite. As someone deeply concerned by climate change, I hope that oil prices rise and stay high, and that governments impose taxes on carbon emissions to push the cost of burning fossil fuels higher still. Nonetheless, we need to dispassionately interpret the data if we are to have any hope of directing our future and our economy. We need to be able to discern when energy prices are low and when they are not.

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Graph Sources: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Statistical Handbookfor Canada’s Upstream Petroleum Industry (October, 2016); and US Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. Crude Oil First Purchase Price