Many energy analysts like to make predictions at the end of the year for the coming year. Instead, I'll point to five possible surprises in energy--surprises because few people expect them to happen. I am not predicting that any of the following will happen, only that there is an outside chance that one or more will occur. Naturally, these surprises would move markets and policy debates in unexpected directions.
1. Crude oil ends 2016 below $30 per barrel. With oil hovering in the mid-$30 range it doesn't seem implausible that at some point in the not-to-distant future, crude oil will dip below $30 per barrel, if only briefly. What would surprise most people is if the crude oil price finished next year below $30 per barrel. The conventional wisdom is that cheap oil is giving a boost to the economy that will lift worldwide economic growth and thus demand for oil. There is also a belief that high-cost producers will simply have to stop drilling new money-losing wells after more than a year of financial Armageddon in the oil markets. This will bring down supply just as economic growth is rising, sending prices much higher as the year progresses.
The alternate view is that oil in the mid-$30 range is a reflection of an economy that has been weakening since the middle of 2014 and foreshadows a worldwide recession which should hit in full force by the end of 2016. In addition, with Iran almost certain to add to the current oversupply as sanctions are lifted and with the continued determination of OPEC to destroy the viability of tight oil deposits in the United States, the oil price could surprise on the downside, even testing $20 per barrel.
2. U.S. natural gas production declines. Despite persistent low U.S. natural gas prices, U.S. production has continued to grow. Most of the growth has been coming from two places: the Marcellus Shale where ample deposits continued to be economical in the range of $3 to $4 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) and Texas where furious fracking for oil locked in deep shale deposits also produced associated natural gas without concern for the price of that gas.
With oil drilling across the United States in precipitous decline because of low oil prices, we won't see nearly as much new natural gas associated with oil drilling as we saw in 2014 and 2015. With natural gas now hovering around $2, even the very sweetest of the sweet spots in the Marcellus are unlikely to be profitable to exploit.
Having said all this, U.S. natural gas production growth has continually defied predictions that it would dip in the face of low prices. Part of this had to do with desperate drillers carrying heavy debt loads who had to produce gas at any price in order to pay interest on that debt.