Category Archives: Oil & Gas – offshore
The petroleum industry includes the global processes of exploration, extraction, refining, transporting (often by oil tankers and pipelines), and marketing petroleum products.
National Oilwell Varco (NOV) has acquired 97% of the shares in Seabox for an undisclosed amount from a group of shareholders led by HitecVision.
Seabox is a Norwegian subsea technology company founded around the patented SWIT technology (Subsea Water Intake & Treatment). The technology enables treatment of raw seawater on the seabed (as opposed to on a platform) for injection into oil & gas wells for pressure support and increased oil recovery.
The company was established in 2004, and has, through a series of Joint Industry Projects backed by the Norwegian Research Council and by potential end-users such as ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Total, Statoil, GDF Suez and others, developed the technology to a level where it is now ready for commercialization. Seabox has 12 employees.
Helge Lunde, CEO of Seabox comments: “We are very excited to team up with NOV’s global organization, which will significantly increase our reach and chances of succeeding in commercializing our technology. We are both proud and happy for their recognition of our efforts and technical solutions, and their commitment to backing us through the coming growth phase. We are convinced that our growth will be faster and stronger together with NOV.”
Michael Hjorth, President of Flexibles and Subsea Production Systems, comments: “NOV has a strong history and presence in Norway, where some of our key technologies for drilling, turret mooring and deck cranes have been developed, and to a large degree also manufactured. When it comes to subsea, which is an area where NOV wants to develop and expand, Norway is pretty much the “Silicon Valley” of the industry, so it is natural for us to search for new technologies and ideas here. In Seabox we have found what we deem to be innovative yet robust technical solutions, which offer more cost effective solutions but more importantly will offer the oil & gas companies greater flexibility in optimizing their reservoir drainage and field profitability. This is a huge market, with some 250 million barrels of seawater injected daily world-wide, which is almost three times the daily oil production. We are excited to explore these market opportunities together with Seabox.”
by Raul Ilargi Meijer via The Automatic Earth blog,
Boy, did the ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ drop the ball on this one, or what’s the story. Only yesterday, Goldman’s highly paid analysts admitted they’ve been dead wrong from months, that their prediction that OPEC would cut production will not happen, and that therefore oil may go as low as $40. Anyone have any idea what that miss has cost Goldman’s clients? And now of course other ‘experts’ – prone to herd behavior – ‘adjust’ their expectations as well.
They all have consistently underestimated three things: the drop in global oil demand, the impact QE had on commodity prices, and the ‘power’ OPEC has. Everyone kept on talking, over the past 3 months, as oil went from $75 – couldn’t go lower than that, could it? – to today’s $46, about how OPEC and the Saudis were going to have to cut output or else, but they never understood the position OPEC countries are in. Which is that they don’t have anything near the power they had in 1973 or 1986, but that completely escaped all analysts and experts and media. Everyone still thinks China is growing at a 7%+ clip, but the only numbers that sort of thing is based on come from .. China. As for QE, need I say anymore, or anything at all?
So Goldman says oil will drop to $40, but Goldman was spectacularly wrong until now, so why believe them this time around? As oil prices plunged from $75 in mid November all the way to $45 today (about a 40% drop, more like 55% from June 2014′s $102), their analysts kept saying OPEC and the Saudis would cut output. Didn’t happen. As I said several times since last fall, OPEC saw the new reality before anyone else. But why did it still take 2 months+ for the ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ to catch up? I would almost wonder how many of these smart guys bet against their clients in the meantime.
I’m going to try and adhere to a chronological order here, or both you and I will get lost. On November 22 2014, when WTI oil was at about $75, I wrote:
What is clear is that even at $75, angst is setting in, if not yet panic. If China demand falls substantially in 2015, and prices move south of $70, $60 etc., that panic will be there. In US shale, in Venezuela, in Russia, and all across producing nations. Even if OPEC on November 27 decides on an output cut, there’s no guarantee members will stick to it. Let alone non-members. And sure, yes, eventually production will sink so much that prices stop falling. But with all major economies in the doldrums, it may not hit a bottom until $40 or even lower.
Oil was last- and briefly – at $40 exactly 6 years ago, but today is a very different situation. All the stimulus, all $50 trillion or so globally, has been thrown into the fire, and look at where we are. There’s nothing left, and there won’t be another $50 trillion. Sure, stock markets set records. But who cares with oil at $40? Calling for more QE, from Japan and/or Europe or even grandma Yellen, is either entirely useless or will work only to prop up stock markets for a very short time. Diminishing returns. The one word that comes to mind here is bloodbath. Well, unless China miraculously recovers. But who believes in that?
5 days later, on November 27, with WTI still around $75, I followed up with:
Tracy Alloway at FT mentions major banks and their energy-related losses:
“Banks including Barclays and Wells Fargo are facing potentially heavy losses on an $850 million loan made to two oil and gas companies, in a sign of how the dramatic slide in the price of oil is beginning to reverberate through the wider economy. [..] if Barclays and Wells attempted to syndicate the $850m loan now, it could go for as little as 60 cents on the dollar.”
That’s just one loan. At 60 cents on the dollar, a $340 million loss. Who knows how many similar, and bigger, loans are out there? Put together, these stories slowly seeping out of the juncture of energy and finance gives the good and willing listener an inkling of an idea of the losses being incurred throughout the global economy, and by the large financiers. There’s a bloodbath brewing in the shadows. Countries can see their revenues cut by a third and move on, perhaps with new leaders, but many companies can’t lose that much income and keep on going, certainly not when they’re heavily leveraged.
The Saudi’s refuse to cut output and say: let America cut. But American oil producers can’t cut even if they would want to, it would blow their debt laden enterprises out of the water, and out of existence. Besides, that energy independence thing plays a big role of course. But with prices continuing to fall, much of that industry will go belly up because credit gets withdrawn.
That was then. Today, oil is at $46, not $75. Also today, Michael A. Gayed, CFA, hedge funder and chief investment strategist and co-portfolio manager at Pension Partners, LLC, draws the exact same conclusion, over 7 weeks and a 40%-odd drop in prices later:
It seems like every day some pundit is on air arguing that falling oil is a net long-term positive for the U.S. economy. The cheaper energy gets, the more consumers have to spend elsewhere, serving as a tax cut for the average American. There is a lot of logic to that, assuming that oil’s price movement is not indicative of a major breakdown in economic and growth expectations. What’s not to love about cheap oil? The problem with this argument, of course, is that it assumes follow through to end users. If oil gets cheaper but is not fully reflected in the price of goods, the consumer does not benefit, or at least only partially does and less so than one might otherwise think. I believe this is a nuance not fully understood by those making the bull argument. Falling oil may actually be a precursor to higher volatility as investors begin to question speed’s message.
How much did Michael’s clients lose in those 7+ weeks?
Something I also said in that same November 27 article was:
US shale is no longer about what’s feasible to drill today, it’s about what can still be financed tomorrow.
And whaddaya know, Bloomberg runs this headline 51 days and -40% further along:
U.S. shale drillers may tout how much oil they have in the ground or how cheaply they can get it out. For stock investors, what matters most is debt. The worst performers among U.S. oil producers in a Bloomberg index owe about 5.7 times more than they earn, before certain deductions, compared with 1.7 times for companies that have taken less of a hit. Operations, such as where the companies drill or how much oil versus gas they pump, matter less.
“With oil prices below $50 and approaching $40, we’re in survivor mode,” Steven Rees, who helps oversee about $1 trillion as global head of equity strategy at JPMorgan Private Bank, said via phone. “The companies with the higher degrees of leverage have underperformed, and you don’t want to own those because there’s a fair amount of uncertainty as to whether they can repay that debt.”
That’s the exact same thing I said way back when! Who trusts these guys with either their money or their news? When they could just read me and be 7 weeks+ ahead of the game? Not that I want to manage your money, don’t get me wrong, I’m just thinking these errors can add up to serious losses. And they wouldn’t have to. That’s why there’s TheAutomaticEarth.com.
A good one, which I posted December 12, with WTI at $67 (remember the gold old days, grandma?), was this one on what oil actually sells for out there, not what WTO and Brent standards say. An eye-opener.
Tom Kloza, founder and analyst at Oil Price Information Service, said the market could bottom for the winter in about 30 days, but then it will be up to whatever OPEC does. “It’s (oil) actually much weaker than the futures markets indicate. This is true for crude oil, and it’s true for gasoline. There’s a little bit of a desperation in the crude market,” said Kloza.”The Canadian crude, if you go into the oil sands, is in the $30s, and you talk about Western Canadian Select heavy crude upgrade that comes out of Canada, it’s at $41/$42 a barrel.”
“Bakken is probably about $54.” Kloza said there’s some talk that Venezuelan heavy crude is seeing prices $20 to $22 less than Brent, the international benchmark. Brent futures were at $63.20 per barrel late Thursday. “In the actual physical market, it’s fallen by even more than the futures market. That’s a telling sign, and it’s telling me that this isn’t over yet. This isn’t the bottoming process. The physical market turns before the futures,” he said.
Oil prices have come down close to another 20% since then, in just one month $67 to $46 right now. And it’s going to keep plunging, if only because Goldman belatedly woke up and said so today:
Goldman Sachs said U.S. oil prices need to trade near $40 a barrel in the first half of this year to curb shale investments as it gave up on OPEC cutting output to balance the market. The bank cut its forecasts for global benchmark crude prices, predicting inventories will increase over the first half of this year.. Excess storage and tanker capacity suggests the market can run a surplus far longer than it has in the past, said Goldman analysts including Jeffrey Currie in New York. The U.S. is pumping oil at the fastest pace in more than three decades, helped by a shale boom ..
“To keep all capital sidelined and curtail investment in shale until the market has re-balanced, we believe prices need to stay lower for longer,” Goldman said in the report. “The search for a new equilibrium in oil markets continues.” West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. marker crude, will trade at $41 a barrel and global benchmark Brent at $42 in three months, the bank said. It had previously forecast WTI at $70 and Brent at $80 for the first quarter. Goldman reduced its six and 12-month WTI predictions to $39 a barrel and $65, from $75 and $80, respectively ..
Well, after that 2-month blooper I described above, who would trust Goldman anymore, right, silly you is thinking. Don’t be mistaken, people listen to GS, no matter how wrong they are.
Meanwhile, the thumbscrews keep on tightening:
North Sea oil and gas companies are to be offered tax concessions by the Chancellor in an effort to avoid production and investment cutbacks and an exodus of explorers. George Osborne has drawn up a set of tax reform plans, following warnings that the industry’s future is at risk without substantial tax cuts. But the industry fears he will not go far enough. Oil & Gas UK, the industry body, is urging a tax cut of as much as 30% [..] “If we don’t get an immediate 10% cut, then that will be the death knell for the industry [..] Companies operating fields discovered before 1992 can end up with handing over80% of their profits to the Chancellor; post-1992 discoveries carry a 60% profits hit.
And hitting botttom lines:
A closer look at valuations and interviews with a dozen of smaller firms ahead of fourth quarter results from their bigger, listed rivals, shows there are reasons to be nervous. What small firms say is that the oil rout hit home faster and harder than most had expected. “Things have changed a lot quicker than I thought they would,” says Greg Doramus, sales manager at Orion Drilling in Texas, a small firm which leases 16 drilling rigs. He talks about falling rates, last-minute order cancellations and customers breaking leases. The conventional wisdom is that hedging and long-term contracts would ensure that most energy firms would only start feeling the full force of the downdraft this year.
The view from the oil fields from Texas to North Dakota is that the pain is already spreading. “We have been cut from the work,” says Adam Marriott, president of Fandango Logistics, a small oil trucking firm in Salt Lake City. He says shipments have fallen by half since June when oil was fetching more than $100 a barrel and his company had all the business it could handle. Bigger firms are also feeling the sting. Last week, a leading U.S. drilling contractor Helmerich & Payne reported that leasing rates for its high-tech rigs plunged 10% from the previous quarter, sending its shares 5% lower.
And, then, as yours truly predicted last fall, oil’s downward spiral spreads, and the entire – always nonsensical – narrative of a boost to the economy from falling oil prices vanishes into thin air. You could have known that, too, at least 2 months ago. Bloomberg:
While stock investors wait for the benefits of cheaper oil to seep into the economy, all they can see lately is downside. Forecasts for first-quarter profits in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index have fallen by 6.4 percentage points from three months ago, the biggest decrease since 2009, according to more than 6,000 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Reductions spread across nine of 10 industry groups and energy companies saw the biggest cut. Earnings pessimism is growing just as the best three-year rally since the technology boom pushed equity valuations to the highest level since 2010.
At the same time, volatility has surged in the American stock market as oil’s 55% drop since June to below $49 a barrel raises speculation that companies will cancel investment and credit markets and banks will suffer from debt defaults. [..] American companies are facing the weakest back-to-back quarterly earnings expansions since 2009 as energy wipes out more than half the growth and the benefit to retailers and shippers fails to catch up.
Oil producers are rocked by a combination of faltering demand and booming supplies from North American shale fields, with crude sinking to $48.36 a barrel from an average $98.61 in the first three months of 2014. Except for utilities, every other industry has seen reductions in estimates. Profit from energy producers such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron will plunge 35% this quarter, analysts estimated.
In October, analysts expected the industry to earn about the same as it did a year ago. “My initial thought was oil would take a dollar or two off the overall S&P 500 earnings but that obviously might be worse now,” Dan Greenhaus at BTIG said in a phone interview. “The whole thing has moved much more rapidly and farther than anyone thought. People were only taking into account consumer spending and there was a sense that falling energy is ubiquitously positive for the U.S., but I’m not convinced.”
Well, not than anyone thought. Not me, for one. Just than the ‘experts’ thought. But that’s exactly what I said at the time. And I must thank Bloomberg for vindicating me. Don’t worry, guys, I wouldn’t want to be part of your expert panel if my life depended on it. And it’s not about me wanting to toot my own horn either, tickling as it may be for a few seconds, but about the likes of TheAutomaticEarth.com, or ZeroHedge.com and WolfStreet.com and many others, getting the recognition we deserve. If you ask me, reading the finance blogosphere can save you a lot of money. That’s merely a simple conclusion to draw from the above.
And only now are people starting to figure out that the real economy may not have had any boon from lower oil prices either:
Aren’t declining gasoline prices supposed to be good news for the economy? They certainly are to households not employed in the energy industry, but it might not seem so from the one of the biggest economic indicators due for release this week. On Wednesday, the Commerce Department is set to report retail sales for December. It’s the most important month of the year for retailers, but economists polled by MarketWatch are expecting a flat reading, and quite a few say a monthly decline wouldn’t be a surprise. [..] After department stores saw a 1% monthly gain in November, the segment may reverse some of that advance in the final month of the year.
This whole idea of Americans running rampant in malls with the cash they saved from lower prices at the pump was always just something somebody smoked. And now we’ll get swamped soon with desperate attempts to make US holiday sales look good, but if I were you, I’d take an idled oiltanker’s worth of salt with all of those attempts.
Still, the Fed, in my view, is set to stick with its narrative of the US economy doing so well they just have to raise interest rates. It’s for the Wall Street banks, don’t you know. That narrative, in this case, is “Ignore transitory volatility in energy prices.” The Fed expects for sufficient mayhem to happen in emerging markets to lift the US, and for enough dollars to ‘come home’ to justify a rate hike that will shake the world economy on its foundations but will leave the US elites relatively unscathed and even provide them with more riches. And if anyone wants to get richer, it’s the rich. They simply think they have it figured out.
Financial markets have been shaken over the past several weeks by a misguided fear that deflation has imbedded itself not only into the European economy but the U.S. economy as well. Deflation is a serious problem for Europe, because the eurozone is plagued with bad debts and stagnant growth. Prices and wages in the peripheral nations (such as Greece and Spain) must fall still further in relation to Germany’s in order to restore their economies to competitiveness. But that’s not possible if prices and wages are falling in Germany (or even if they are only rising slowly).
In Europe, deflation will extend the economic crisis, but that’s not an issue in the United States, where households, businesses and banks have mostly completed the necessary adjustments to their balance sheets after the great debt boom of the prior decade. The plunge in oil prices will likely push the annual U.S. inflation rate below 1%, further from the Fed target of 2%. [..] Falling oil prices are a temporary phenomenon that shouldn’t alter anyone’s view about the underlying rate of inflation.
On Wednesday, the newly released minutes of the Fed’s latest meeting in December revealed that most members of the FOMC are ready to raise rates this summer even if inflation continues to fall, as long as there’s a reasonable expectation that inflation will eventually drift back to 2%. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke got a lot of flak in the spring of 2011 when oil prices were rising and annual inflation rates climbed to near 4%, double the Fed’s target.
Bernanke’s critics wanted him to raise interest rates immediately to fight the inflation, but he insisted that the spike was “transitory” and that the Fed wouldn’t respond. Bernanke was right then: Inflation rates drifted lower, just as he predicted. Now the situation is reversed: Oil prices are falling, and critics of the Fed say it should hold off on raising interest rates. The Fed’s policy in both cases is the same: Ignore transitory volatility in energy prices.
There are all these press-op announcements all the time by Fed officials that I think can only be read as setting up a fake discussion between pro and con rate hike, that are meant just for public consumption. The Fed serves it member banks, not the American people, don’t let’s forget that. No matter what happens, they can always issue a majority opinion that oil prices or real estate prices, or anything, are only ‘transitory’, and so their policies should ignore them. US economic numbers look great on the surface, it’s only when you start digging that they don’t.
I see far too much complacency out there when it comes to interest rates, in the same manner that I’ve seen it concerning oil prices. We live in a new world, not a continuation of the old one. That old world died with Fed QE. Just check the price of oil. There have been tectonic shifts since over, let’s say, the holidays, and I wouldn’t wait for the ‘experts’ to catch up with live events. Being 7 weeks or two months late is a lot of time. And they will be late, again. It’s inherent in what they do. And what they represent.
Saudi Arabia Declares Oil War on US Fracking, hits Railroads, Tank-Car Makers, Canada, Russia; Sinks Venezuela
by Wolf Richter • December 1, 2014
When OPEC announced on Thanksgiving Day that it would maintain oil production at 30 million barrels per day, chaos broke out in the oil market, and the price of oil around the globe spiraled into a terrific plunge. The unity of OPEC, if there ever was such a thing, was in tatters with Saudi oil minister smiling victoriously, and with a steaming Venezuelan oil minister thinking of the turmoil his country is facing [OPEC Refuses to Cut Production, Oil Plunges off the Chart].
The bloodletting in the oil markets on Thursday led to some wobbly stability on Friday, and for a while it seemed oil had found a bottom, but then the US stock market closed early while crude continued trading, and suddenly all heck re-broke loose, and the US benchmark WTI plunged again and broke the $66-a-barrel mark before coming to a rest at $66.06. After a near 10% dive in two days, WTI is now down 37% since June!
This chart shows the Thanksgiving plunge following OPEC’s decision, the deceptive stability Friday, and the afterhours plunge:
Now more information has emerged, confirming prior “rumors” and “conspiracy theories.”
During the closed-door meetings in Vienna, Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi told OPEC members that OPEC had to combat the US fracking boom. If OPEC cut output to raise the price of oil, it would lose market share, he argued. The way to win would be to allow overproduction to depress prices to the point where they would destroy the profitability of North American producers. And they’d have to cut production, rather than OPEC.
With Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming power within OPEC, his argument won against objections from desperate members, such as Venezuela, Iran, and Algeria, which wanted a production cut to push prices back up.
“Naimi spoke about market share rivalry with the United States, and those who wanted a cut understood that there was no option to achieve it because the Saudis want a market share battle,” a source told Reuters to make sure the message got out.
Asked if this was a response to rising US production, OPEC Secretary General Abdullah al-Badri essentially confirmed OPEC had entered the oil war against the American shale revolution: “We answered,” he said. “We keep the same production. There is an answer here.”
The bloodletting is spreading.
While the US fracking boom is the official target, Canada’s tar-sands producers are getting hit the hardest. The process is expensive. Their production is largely land-locked and often has to be transported to distant refiners in Canada and the US by costly oil trains. Yet these high-cost producers are getting the least for their oil: The heavy-oil benchmark Western Canada Select (WCS) traded for $48.40 per barrel on Friday, down over 40% from June, the cheapest oil in the world.
Their shares got knocked down in sync: For example, Suncor Energy dropped 9% on Friday, down 27% since June; and Canadian Natural Resources dropped nearly 10% for the day, down 28% since June.
The US shale oil revolution is bleeding as well. Shares across the board are getting hit, many of them outright eviscerated. If the word “plunge” occurs a lot, it’s because that’s what these stocks did on Friday.
- Goodrich Petroleum plunged 34% on Friday; down 80% from June.
- Sanchez Energy plunged 29.5% on Friday, down 71% from June.
- Clayton Williams Energy plunged 25.6% on Friday, down 61% from May.
- Callon Petroleum plunged 18.6% on Friday, down 60% from June.
- Laredo Petroleum plunged 33.5% on Friday, down 66.5% from June.
- Oasis Petroleum plunged 27.2% on Friday, down 68% from July.
- Stone Energy plunged 24.1% on Friday, down 68% from April.
- Triangle Petroleum plunged 25.6% on Friday, down 62% from June.
- EP Energy plunged 25.3% on Friday, down 54% from June.
The list goes on. Even large oil companies got clobbered:
- Exxon Mobil down 4.2% for the day and 13% from July.
- ConocoPhillips down 6.7% for the day and 24% from July.
- Marathon Oil down 11% for the day and 31% from early September.
- Occidental Petroleum down 7.4% for the day and 24% from June.
- Anadarko Petroleum down 10.5% for the day and 30% since late August.
Then there is the Oil Service sector.
The Market Vectors Oil Services ETF dropped 8.9% for the day and has plummeted 34% from June. The current standout is its 10th-most heavily weighted component, Norway-based SeaDrill which had announced that it would cut its dividend to zero to deal with its mountain of debt, given the current environment. Its shares swooned on Thursday and Friday a total of 28% and are now down 70% from a year ago. The whole sector followed. This is what debt can do when the going gets tough.
Those are among the official targets of OPEC’s scorched-earth oil war. They’ve been hit, and they’re taking on water.
There is collateral damage.
With increasing amounts of oil being carried by oil trains, the railroads, which had been trading near their exuberant 52-week highs in large part due to the lucrative oil-train business, suddenly took a dive on Friday:
- Union Pacific -4.9%
- CSX -3.8%
- Canadian Pacific -8.0%
- Norfolk Southern -4.7%
- Kansas City Southern -5.1%
- Canadian National Railway -4.6%
- Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, isn’t publicly traded. But if the oil-train business gets hit, so will Buffett’s “steal.”
But this pales compared to the carnage in tank-car builders. On Friday, they plunged:
- Greenbrier -15% for the day, -28% from its September high.
- American Railcar Industries -12.9% for the day, -28.3% since August.
- FreightCar America -7.5% for the day, -21% since September.
- Trinity Industries -11.3% for the day, -36% since September.
The oil price move is already cascading through American industry. Bondholders are next. The US fracking boom was built with debt, much of it junk rated. And this pile of debt is now at the confluence of the collapsing price of oil, high costs of production, and sharp decline rates of fracked wells that force drillers to continue drilling just to maintain their revenues. It’s a toxic mix.
And there are victims of friendly fire, so to speak.
Particularly OPEC member Venezuela, dogged by the world’s highest inflation and worst budget deficit, is running out of options. On November 18, President Nicolas Maduro ordered $4 billion in loan proceeds from China to be transferred from an off-budget fund to one counted in the international reserves. The sudden appearance of $4 billion in international reserves pumped up bondholder confidence: the next day in intraday trading, Venezuelan bonds jumped the most in six years.
But it didn’t last long. Within a week, its international reserves dropped by $1.3 billion to $22.2 billion, Bloomberg reported. Venezuela had burned through one third of the Chinese money in one week. Venezuela must have much higher oil prices. Unless a miracles happens, or unless China bails it out altogether – at a steep price – the country is headed for default.
Russia, third-largest oil producer in the world, after Saudi Arabia and the US, also got hit, as did Norway, and their currencies have been brutalized [Ruble Freefall: And the Ugliest Currencies Are?]
But this time it’s different.
This time, OPEC is trying to depress oil prices. In prior years, OPEC tried to push prices as high as possible, but without killing the global economy and demand for oil. The balancing act led to high oil prices that consumers struggled to pay but that allowed the US shale revolution to bloom. If oil had remained at $40 or $50 a barrel, fracking wouldn’t have taken off. OPEC was, ironically, one of the enablers of fracking (yield-desperate investors, driven to near insanity by the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy, were the other one). And now fracking is threatening to make OPEC irrelevant.
Saudi Arabia, formerly the dominant oil producer in the world, the country whose mere words could shake up markets and manipulate US policies in the Middle East, and the master of an all-powerful OPEC, is reduced to struggling for simple market share, the hard way.
A lot of people believe that the plunge in the price of oil will be brief, and that it has gone pretty much as far as it can go, given production costs in the US and Canada. But the bloodletting in the US fracking revolution will go on until the money finally dries up. Read… How Low Can the Price of Oil Plunge?
By Mollie Hemingway October 14, 2014
As the Ebola situation in West Africa continues to deteriorate, some U.S. officials are claiming that they would have been able to better deal with the public health threat if only they had more money.
Dr. Francis Collins, who heads the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told The Huffington Post, “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.” Hillary Clinton also claimed that funding restrictions were to blame for inability to combat Ebola.
Conservative critics have pointed out that the federal government has spent billions upon billions of dollars on unnecessary programs promoting a political agenda rather than targeting those funds to the fight against health threats.
Other limited government types point to the Progressive utopian foolishness seen in opposing political factions, both sides of which seem to agree humanity could somehow escape calamity if only we had a properly functioning government. People who don’t want an all-powerful government shouldn’t blame it for not having competence when crisis strikes.
What’s particularly interesting about this discussion, then, is that nobody has even discussed the fact that the federal government not ten years ago created and funded a brand new office in the Health and Human Services Department specifically to coordinate preparation for and response to public health threats like Ebola. The woman who heads that office, and reports directly to the HHS secretary, has been mysteriously invisible from the public handling of this threat. And she’s still on the job even though three years ago she was embroiled in a huge scandal of funneling a major stream of funding to a company with ties to a Democratic donor—and away from a company that was developing a treatment now being used on Ebola patients.
Before the media swallow implausible claims of funding problems, perhaps they could be more skeptical of the idea that government is responsible for solving all of humanity’s problems. Barring that, perhaps the media could at least look at the roles that waste, fraud, mismanagement, and general incompetence play in the repeated failures to solve the problems the feds unrealistically claim they will address. In a world where a $12.5 billion slush fund at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is used to fight the privatization of liquor stores, perhaps we should complain more about mission creep and Progressive faith in the habitually unrealized magic of increased government funding.
Lay of the Land
Collins’ NIH is part of the Health and Human Services Department. Real spending at that agency has increased nine-fold since 1970 and now tops $900 billion. Oh, if we could all endure such “funding slides,” eh?
Whether or not Dr. Collins’ effort to get more funding for NIH will be successful—if the past is prologue, we’ll throw more money at him—the fact is that Congress passed legislation with billions of dollars in funding specifically to coordinate preparation for public health threats like Ebola not 10 years ago. And yet the results of such funding have been hard to evaluate.
See, in 2004, Congress passed The Project Bioshield Act. The text of that legislation authorized up to $5,593,000,000 in new spending by NIH for the purpose of purchasing vaccines that would be used in the event of a bioterrorist attack. A major part of the plan was to allow stockpiling and distribution of vaccines.
Just two years later, Congress passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which created a new assistant secretary for preparedness and response to oversee medical efforts and called for a National Health Security Strategy. The Act established Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority as the focal point within HHS for medical efforts to protect the American civilian population against naturally occurring threats to public health. It specifically says this authority was established to give “an integrated, systematic approach to the development and purchase of the necessary vaccines, drugs, therapies, and diagnostic tools for public health medical emergencies.”
Last year, Congress passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013 which keep the programs in effect for another five years.
If you look at any of the information about these pieces of legislation or the office and authorities that were created, this brand new expansion of the federal government was sold to us specifically as a means to fight public health threats like Ebola. That was the entire point of why the office and authorities were created.
In fact, when Sen. Bob Casey was asked if he agreed the U.S. needed an Ebola czar, which some legislators are demanding, he responded: “I don’t, because under the bill we have such a person in HHS already.”
The Invisible Dr. Lurie
So, we have an office for public health threat preparedness and response. And one of HHS’ eight assistant secretaries is the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, whose job it is to “lead the nation in preventing, responding to and recovering from the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters, ranging from hurricanes to bioterrorism.”
In the video below, the woman who heads that office, Dr. Nicole Lurie, explains that the responsibilities of her office are “to help our country prepare for, respond to and recover from public health threats.” She says her major priority is to help the country prepare for emergencies and to “have the countermeasures—the medicines or vaccines that people might need to use in a public health emergency. So a large part of my office also is responsible for developing those countermeasures.”
Or, as National Journal rather glowingly puts it, “Lurie’s job is to plan for the unthinkable. A global flu pandemic? She has a plan. A bioterror attack? She’s on it. Massive earthquake? Yep. Her responsibilities as assistant secretary span public health, global health, and homeland security.” A profile of Lurie quoted her as saying, “I have responsibility for getting the nation prepared for public health emergencies—whether naturally occurring disasters or man-made, as well as for helping it respond and recover. It’s a pretty significant undertaking.” Still another refers to her as “the highest-ranking federal official in charge of preparing the nation to face such health crises as earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and pandemic influenza.”
Now, you might be wondering why the person in charge of all this is a name you’re not familiar with. Apart from a discussion of Casey’s comments on how we don’t need an Ebola czar because we already have one, a Google News search for Lurie’s name at the time of writing brings up nothing in the last hour, the last 24 hours, not even the last week! You have to get back to mid-September for a few brief mentions of her name in minor publications. Not a single one of those links is confidence building.
So why has the top official for public health threats been sidelined in the midst of the Ebola crisis? Only the not-known-for-transparency Obama administration knows for sure. But maybe taxpayers and voters should force Congress to do a better job with its oversight rather than get away with the far easier passing of legislation that grants additional funds before finding out what we got for all that money we allocated to this task over the last decade. And then maybe taxpayers should begin to puzzle out whether their really bad return on tax investment dollars is related to some sort of inherent problem with the administrative state.
The Ron Perelman Scandal
There are a few interesting things about the scandal Lurie was embroiled in years ago. You can—and should—read all about it in the Los Angeles Times‘ excellent front-page expose from November 2011, headlined: “Cost, need questioned in $433-million smallpox drug deal: A company controlled by a longtime political donor gets a no-bid contract to supply an experimental remedy for a threat that may not exist.” This Forbes piece is also interesting.
The donor is billionaire Ron Perelman, who was controlling shareholder of Siga. He’s a huge Democratic donor but he also gets Republicans to play for his team, of course. Siga was under scrutiny even back in October 2010 when The Huffington Post reported that it had named labor leader Andy Stern to its board and “compensated him with stock options that would become dramatically more valuable if the company managed to win the contract it sought with HHS—an agency where Stern has deep connections, having helped lead the year-plus fight for health care reform as then head of the Service Employees International Union.”
The award was controversial from almost every angle—including disputes about need, efficacy, and extremely high costs. There were also complaints about awarding a company of its size and structure a small business award as well as the negotiations involved in granting the award. It was so controversial that even Democrats in tight election races were calling for investigations.
Last month, Siga filed for bankruptcy after it was found liable for breaching a licensing contract. The drug it’s been trying to develop, which was projected to have limited utility, has not really panned out—yet the feds have continued to give valuable funds to the company even though the law would permit them to recoup some of their costs or to simply stop any further funding.
The Los Angeles Times revealed that, during the fight over the grant, Lurie wrote to Siga’s chief executive, Dr. Eric A. Rose, to tell him that someone new would be taking over the negotiations with the company. She wrote, “I trust this will be satisfactory to you.” Later she denied that she’d had any contact with Rose regarding the contract, saying such contact would have been inappropriate.
The company that most fought the peculiar sole-source contract award to Siga was Chimerix, which argued that its drug had far more promise than Siga’s. And, in fact, Chimerix’s Brincidofovir is an antiviral medication being developed for treatment of smallpox but also Ebola and adenovirus. In animal trials, it’s shown some success against adenoviruses, smallpox, and herpes—and preliminary tests show some promise against Ebola. On Oct. 6, the FDA authorized its use for some Ebola patients.
It was given to Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, who died, and Ashoka Mukpo, who doctors said had improved. Mukpo even tweeted that he was on the road to recovery.
Back to that Budget
Consider again how The Huffington Post parroted Collins’ claims:
Money, or rather the lack of it, is a big part of the problem. NIH’s purchasing power is down 23 percent from what it was a decade ago, and its budget has remained almost static. In fiscal year 2004, the agency’s budget was $28.03 billion. In FY 2013, it was $29.31 billion—barely a change, even before adjusting for inflation.
Of course, between the fiscal years 2000 and 2004, NIH’s budget jumped a whopping 58 percent. HHS’s 70,000 workers will spend a total of $958 billion this year, or about $7,789 for every U.S. household. A 2012 report on federal spending including the following nuggets about how NIH spends its supposedly tight funds:
- a $702,558 grant for the study of the impact of televisions and gas generators on villages in Vietnam.
- $175,587 to the University of Kentucky to study the impact of cocaine on the sex drive of Japanese quail.
- $55,382 to study hookah smoking in Jordan.
- $592,527 to study why chimpanzees throw objects.
Last year there were news reports about a $509,840 grant from NIH to pay for a study that will send text messages in “gay lingo” to meth-heads. There are many other shake-your-head examples of misguided spending that are easy to find.
Indeed. The Progressive belief that a powerful government can stop all calamity is misguided. In the last 10 years we passed multiple pieces of legislation to create funding streams, offices, and management authorities precisely for this moment. That we have nothing to show for it is not good reason to put even more faith in government without learning anything from our repeated mistakes. Responding to the missing Ebola Czar and her office’s corruption by throwing still more money, more management changes, and more bureaucratic complexity in her general direction is madness.
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