The future strength of oil prices hangs in the balance as new oil-production techniques sweeping North America spread around the world and unlock new energy supplies.
Russian, Chinese, European and Saudi companies are rushing to adopt the drilling and fracturing technology that has opened up a wealth of new oil and gas reserves in Canada and the U.S. The stage is set for international price pressure, much like the the way new output has weighed on oil and gas prices in Canada and the U.S. in recent years, Daniel Yergin, chairman of energy research firm IHS CERA, warned Tuesday.
"This technology is not going to migrate. It's already migrating," said Mr. Yergin, a respected voice on energy issues. "And I think in three or four or five years, if we want to talk about surprises that are there, it might be the global impact of these technologies."
He pointed to the partnership between Rosneft and Exxon Mobil Corp. , which will provide the Russian firm insights into developing so-called "unconventional resources," and Saudi efforts to explore for shale gas. Countries such as Poland have also seen growing interest in using new technology to bring energy to surface, and "(the) Chinese are intensely interested in unconventional gas, shale gas and coal-bed methane, and are certainly very committed to mastering the technology."
The impact of that technology is not theory. In North America, the explosion of shale gas supplies has severely depressed prices of natural gas. The development of so-called "light, tight" oil plays, such as the North Dakota Bakken, has also had an impact, said Mr. Yergin, who was brought to Calgary by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.
"U.S. oil production is up 20 per cent since 2008. If we hadn't added one million barrels per day of supply in the U.S., we'd be looking at much higher oil prices," he said. "You have a spare capacity of between one- and two-million barrels per day in the world market. You take away one million, you don't have much spare capacity at all."
The development of new oil and gas sources around the world stands to have a similar impact, but on a much larger scale.
And there is no question that it's happening. Boyden, a top-flight global executive search firm, is already doing work for companies looking to buy up North American expertise.
"Australia and Eastern Europe are starting to open up their own shale plays, and they're all trying to poach the pool of talent and ability that exists in the U.S. and Canada," said Jim Hertlein, who leads the firm's global energy practice.
At the same time, a series of factors stands to erode oil demand, even in the face of continued growth in much of the developing world. China's thirst for oil and new cars is rising fast. But elsewhere, cars are losing some of the allure that once drove heavy demand.
The current generation of young people "doesn't have the same intense attachment to automobiles that earlier generations had," Mr. Yergin said. "And it's not just in North America. It's in Europe, too."
Today's oil prices are high enough to effect change, he added. "Last year, on an inflation-adjusted basis, oil prices were higher than they've ever been since the 1860s. And if that persists for a few years, that will be a tremendous stimulus to innovation, substitution, greater efficiency."
That's not to say that oil prices are likely to crater. For one, the entrepreneurial energy that motivates North America's energy industry – where competition between hundreds of companies leads to rapid adoption of anything new and profitable – doesn't exist elsewhere. That factor is likely to moderate the global spread of technology, as are political obstacles, such as France pushing away fracturing technology.
In addition, the drilling and fracturing used to unlock new energy supplies are inherently expensive.
"Many of these new developments in tight oil, oil sands and offshore oil don't exist at $20-a-barrel oil," Mr. Yergin said.