Last week, the Atlanta Fed's Energy Advisory Council convened to share industry experience during the last several months since gathering in November. I recapped some of the discussion elements following the November meeting here. At that time, the price of oil had declined by about 40 percent since its mid-June 2014 peak. From that time through last week, the pricing trend continued along a downward trajectory (though February saw a slight rise that tapered in March), with both Brent and West Texas Intermediate spot prices down by more than 50 percent from last year's peak (see the chart).
Also, when the council met in November, exploration and production (E&P) firms—marginal producers in particular—were the focus of concern as a result of falling energy prices and had begun to reevaluate business models and technologies and renegotiate cost structures with service providers. At that time, the council acknowledged that sustained or declining oil prices may lead to capital spending reductions. During last week's meeting, the general sentiment descended somewhat, and the discussion shifted from potential to definitive reductions in business activity, investment in particular.
Council members shared their opinion that energy investment had indeed slowed in the region, listing billions of dollars of project delays and cancellations of efforts not already underway, including more than just E&P firms. Oil-field service providers, industrial construction companies, and manufacturers of pipeline and other industrial equipment also felt the effects of low energy prices through reduced business activity. Furthermore, council participants reported that drilling permits for new oil wells declined in the region, which is a national trend that continues in the face of mounting production and supply of oil. (You can see updated drilling rig count information.) This reduced investment is important considering that nationally, energy is a big contributor to gross domestic product growth, as described in a recent Atlanta Fed macroblog post. In a nutshell, expectations for growth in 2015 declined among most advisory council members with direct ties to oil and gas production and/or support. However, they shared a general sense that the industry will see a pick-up after 2015 and that delayed projects will resume.
Conversely, two other sectors represented on the Energy Advisory Council continued to expand. Growth in utilities was strong, particularly the industrial segment, and the petrochemical industry experienced expansion in most business segments. In fact, we continue to receive reports about petrochemical investment along the Gulf Coast from council members and business leaders in the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network. These industry exceptions were not a big surprise considering that both industries use oil and gas products as feedstock for operations; for them, lower energy prices are good for business.
So, where is the oil and gas industry headed, and will investment pick back up? Many factors are at play—for example, global economic growth and its relation to supply and demand, geopolitical events, oil storage levels, to name a few—and they are clouding my crystal ball. Nevertheless, on the whole, Energy Advisory Council members indicated that they will continue to approach 2015 cautiously and pay close attention to energy prices as a driver of decisions, and they expect that oil and gas investment and projects will accelerate beyond 2015.