Category Archives: Resource conflicts

Trump’s promise to “stay totally independent” of OPEC is populist hype [My IBD interview]

eia_apr15_us_oil_prod-importsContrary to his campaign hype (see article below), Trump-as-president will not do anything to interfere with the free flow of oil or gas to or from the USA.  As I pointed out in the Investors Business Daily interview (Gillian Rich’s story is below), people central to Trump’s administration – such as Rex Tillerson, his designated secretary of state and former CEO of Exxon, and Harold Hamm, Trump’s fracking billionaire friend he wanted for secretary of energy – are global-market-oriented businessmen who would never agree to disconnect the USA from global energy markets.

The free flow of petroleum through the unified global market traded in US dollars – what I call the “Global Barrel” – is central to the business model of every private as well as every national oil company.  Today there is essentially one, global oil price. If you break up the global market by limiting imports or exports, you get national markets with national prices.  Then what?

If the US price went higher than the global price due to keeping out cheap foreign oil, Trump’s popular approval would dive. And, if the U.S. price went lower due to a domestic production glut of fracked oil, then his support among business would tank.

Moreover, the unified global market serves as the key element in the world’s collective energy-security system by guaranteeing equal access and prices to all suppliers and consumers.   Continue reading

Putin’s new OPEC role reflects the toll of low oil prices on Russia [IBD quotes me]

I was interviewed by Gillian Rich at Investors Business Daily (Washington, DC) on non-OPEC Russia’s role in the production cut.  The article of December 9, is below. A few points first:

1: President Putin and his minister of energy Alexander Novak‘s participation in the OPEC decision – actually making middle-of-the-night phone calls to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, plus publicly promising to cut Russian production – is totally unprecedented. Never did the Soviets, nor  post-Soviet Russia  ever do any such thing previously. Why now?

2: As Rich quotes me as saying, oil prices below $60/barrel impose severe constraints on the Russian state’s income. Indeed, the federal budget has actually been based on $50/barrel, and yet the difficulties are apparent. Although Russian oil production is now at a post-Soviet all-time high, low prices have caused the state’s oil and gas income to severely drop. Here is the EIA’s assessment as of October 2016, showing the correlation of Brent price fall (in both dollars and Rubles) on the left, and the decline in oil and gas federal budget revenue on the right:eia_russia_oil_20oct16

But, how much of Russian national export revenue is derived from oil and gas revenue? The EIA (in 2014) puts this at 68%. Here’s the breakdown:  eia_russian_oil_gas_exprot_revenue201300

Nota Bene: Crude oil and products represent 54%, while natural gas is 14% – that is, oil is almost four times as large. This left 32% of Russia’s gross export sales to “other energy and non-energy” items where the energy part includes significant coal, lignite, processed and unprocessed uranium and electricity sales.

Indeed, this is the hallmark of a rentier state, not a modern industrialized, service-sector oriented society, much less a high-tech one (with notable exceptions in weaponry, nuclear energy, and etc.)

3: So, bottom line, what does this mean for the State?  There are two emergency funds intended for use in such circumstances. One will likely be exhausted this year and a second fund, intended for pensions and such, not for replacing budget deficits, is being tapped to replenish foreign reserves. Looking at the state’s foreign reserves graphically, we have this:russia-foreign-exchange-reserves

I have made the time axis here identical to the first EIA graphs, to facilitate comparison. Note, the baseline is not zero, but $350 billion. Russia was known to have had big reserves, but given low oil prices and the US and EU oil-and-finance sanctions over Ukraine, roughly a couple-hundred-billion dollars of reserves were lost, with about $50-billion regained as oil prices rose a bit this past year.

4. The first EIA chart above also shows a big divergence between the dollar and ruble price of Brent crude, reflecting the big devaluation-to-date of the ruble. This indeed helps the economy and the state in various ways; for example, with anything it can pay for at home in rubles.  However, with Russia hot having a significant percentage of its income from manufactured goods or agricultural exports, this low-valued currency does not give the boost it would give to a diversified industrial economy such as Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada or the USA.

Lastly, if we listen NOT to predictably pessimistic western analysts, but to the Russian federal finance minister himself, Anton Siluanov (speaking to Bloomberg in January 2016), Siluanov makes clear that  cutting the budget 10% in 2016 would only account for about 1/3 of the needed cuts and that raising cash from privatizations would be necessary along with spending down the aforementioned reserve fund. Indeed, after much shady ado in the Kremlin, which included the arrest of the federal economics minister, Rosneft has indeed privatized part of its state shares, 19.6% of the company, reaping 10.3 billion euros for the state budget. In further years, areas now forbidden to be cut, military and social spending, would have to be considered. You can listen to Siluanov here.

Putin knows very deeply how badly things can go if energy prices, and especially oil prices, remain low (as they likely will). He came to power at a time following the period of dire economic hardship following the crash of 1998 Continue reading

An Oil-Price War´s Surprise Ending -My BPJ article on OPEC, Shale, Trump, Market & Geopolitics

bpj-oil-price-war-end-29nov16Here`s my latest at Berlin Policy Journal:  about  OPEC`s 30 Novermber meeting, US shale and the geopolitics from the  Trump Administration towards Iran and the Saudis. – Tom O`D.

An Oil-Price War’s Surprise Ending

No one expected shale producers to survive extended low oil prices.
, NOVEMBER 29, 2016 
The oil market’s oversupply – and the low prices that followed – was supposed to drive shale producers out of business. Instead, the economies of several large national producers have been upended, and the next act could prove even more destabilizing.

OPEC’s 171st meeting in Vienna on November 30 reflects the new paradigm of the global oil market. After two years, the Saudi-led price war to drive American shale and other “high cost” producers from the market has ended. However, to the surprise of many – not least the Saudis – shale has survived. What now?

The United States Energy Information Agency (EIA) expects persistent market oversupply to have been quenched by the second half of 2017. The Saudis view the diminishing oversupply as an opportunity to cut production by 600,000 or more barrels per day – although about twice this amount would be optimal – boosting prices from under $50 per barrel to $60 or more. The Saudis have worked intensely to reach an agreement at the OPEC summit to coordinate this production cut with Russia; any failure to achieve this highly anticipated deal would sink market confidence, pushing prices into the $30s.

The key obstacle to the Saudi plan is that Iran has refused to participate in any cut, insisting it should first be allowed to re-establish production it lost under years of sanctions. In response, the Saudis have threatened to boost their own production, punishing Iran by collapsing prices and by denying them market share. The Financial Times’ Nick Butler correctly characterizes this as “playing with fire,” and not only because of the severe pain this would impose on weaker OPEC states, but also for the geopolitical retaliation it might provoke from the new US administration as the Saudis would also bankrupt numerous shale producers in the US.

However, even if Russia, Iran, and the rest of OPEC agree to the Saudis’ cuts, US shale is widely expected to expand into the void, re-depressing prices by later next year. In all these scenarios, the future remains extremely difficult for OPEC, for Russia, and for other oil-dependent states.

A Price War Backfires

The prolonged high price of oil, starting to rise in 2002 and then dipping during the financial crisis before rising again till mid-2014, encouraged the emergence of new unconventional shale production. Driven by technical innovations in hydraulic fracturing plus abundant venture capital, by 2014 the US had added more new oil to the global market than what was lost in the Arab Spring and subsequent wars in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. By mid-2014, some two million excess barrels-per-day (bpd) were flowing into storage, and the price collapsed. Continue reading

Pipe Dream? Polish ruling complicates Nord Stream 2 pipeline for Gazprom & EU partners [My Berlin Policy Journal piece]

bpj_online_odonnell_nordstream2_cutHere’s my latest analysis in Berlin Policy Journal (German Council on Foreign Relations -DGAP).Pipe Dream? The Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is in danger of being derailed.
THOMAS W. O’DONNELL , SEPTEMBER 22, 2016 

A pipeline project to double Gazprom’s export capacity to Europe has always been controversial. A recent ruling by Poland’s competition authority could seriously undercut the support it has accrued, leaving its European backers at odds.

The proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline project has bitterly pitted European states that back the project, including Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and France, against project opponents, including Ukraine, Poland, and other former Soviet-bloc states. The project aims to double the capacity of the existing huge, 55-billion-cubic-meter-per-year Nord Stream 1 pipeline, running in parallel to it under the Baltic Sea from near St. Petersburg in Russia directly to Greifswald in Germany.

This dispute has exposed two very different views of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas-export monopoly, and of Vladimir Putin’s Russia itself – one side sees it as a “necessary” and “reliable” energy supplier, the other a dangerous and manipulative adversary. This dispute is but one more collision inflicting lasting harm on the European Project.

Polish competition authority rejects project

The latest row involves a ruling in late July by the Polish Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (Urzed Ochrony Konkurencji i Konsumentow, or UOKiK) rejecting an application by five private western European energy firms proposing to partner with Gazprom to build and operate Nord Stream 2. The firms are Germany’s E.ON (soon to be Uniper) and Wintershall, Austria’s OMV, Anglo-Dutch Shell, and France’s Engie.

Shortly before the Polish announcement, the five companies agreed to withdraw their association proposal to avoid UOKiK initiating a legal process against them. The commission’s president, Marek Niechcial, declared categorically on August 12 that the Polish rejection was definitive, asserting “This will stop the [Nord Stream 2] deal.” The five firms have nevertheless made it clear they are seeking a strategy to work around the decision, and expect to proceed as planned. Gazprom has said the same.

So why go through this proceeding in the first place? To understand these events better, I spoke with several experts and diplomats working on these matters in Moscow, Berlin, Washington, Paris, and Warsaw.

Commercial Arguments

An often-heard line of argument is that at least some of the five companies might actually have little commercial interest in the project, but need to preserve their relationships in Russia where they have large investments in energy projects. After all, the Kremlin has a track record of taking over projects from foreign partners with whom it has fallen out. A further theme in this vein is that Nord Stream 2 is not really needed in northwestern Europe, even though the Groningen field in the Netherlands and Norway’s reserves in the North Sea are declining, because future demand in northwestern Europe is overestimated and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) will be available from the United States. This view led to press speculation that the five firms likely welcomed the Polish decision, allowing them a graceful exit.

However, virtually all the experts I spoke with had no doubt Nord Stream 2 would be a lucrative commercial enterprise over the long run, and that the five firms seem genuinely enthusiastic. Continue reading

“Energy independence” won’t free the USA from global oil market & geopolitics [I’m cited: CNNMoney]

160809121848-us-oil-imports-shrink-780x439

Credit: CNNMoney, 9 August 2016

Mr. Trump promises he’d use the USA’s shale-oil revolution to deliver “complete” independence from foreign oil, telling voters in May: “Imagine a world in which our foes and the oil cartels (sic) can no longer use energy as a weapon. Wouldn’t that be nice?” But, he is confusing two quite distinct things:

“Energy independence” – in the sense of the USA producing more oil than the country consumes – is indeed possible, even “tantalizingly close” as this CNNMoney article (Aug. 9, 2016, by Matt Egan) makes clear, citing myself and other experts.  For clarity, I’ll call this “net oil-exporter status.”

However, Donald Trump asks us to “imagine” he can use this net oil exporter status, to make the US independent of the global oil market and oil in geopolitics where our “foes” and “cartels” have leverage. Continue reading

Bypass Operation: Nord Stream 2, Russia-to-Germany pipeline deal, raises questions

BPJ_online_ODonnell_NordStream2_cut

Here’s my latest at Berlin Policy Journal (DGAP):  With Nord Stream 2, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is nearing his goal of cutting Ukraine out of the gas supply picture.  October 20, 2015

On 18 June, during the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an agreement was signed to build a controversial new “Nord Stream 2” pipeline under the Baltic Sea that would go directly from Russia to northern Germany, with a capacity of 55 billion cubic meters (bcm). The project, which consists of two segments that would run along the same route as the existing two segments of the 55 bcm Nord Stream line, completed in 2011, has met with strong opposition from energy officials in Brussels, as well as leaders in Ukraine and some other EU states.

Indeed, the agreement between Russia’s Gazprom and a consortium of German, Austrian, French,, and Anglo-Dutch companies came as a surprise. After all, in January 2015 Gazprom announced it had abandoned the project, blaming both the falling price of gas over the previous year and anti-monopoly restrictions in the EU’s Third Energy Package, which prohibit suppliers of gas from also owning pipelines delivering it. This provision has prevented Gazprom from ever filling the original North Stream more than half way.[1] In retrospect, the sudden signing of a Nord Stream 2 agreement only six months after the project was supposedly abandoned, plus the fact that the consortium foresees a quick start reveals the prior cancellation to have been a political ruse. Continue reading

MY REPORT | Washington Viewpoints: Assessing Berlin’s Leadership on EU Energy Security

merkel_obama_dinner-denver_post_06jun2014

Merkel and Obama answer questions. 6 June 2014 [Denver Post]

During April and May, I interviewed over a dozen Washington-based experts in European energy and geopolitics.  My report on these interviews–along with some policy proposals in light of Brussels’ “institutional incapacities” and the “fundamental contradictions” of German leadership–is here: [PDF with a Table of Contents for navigation] or at the AICGS website [HTML].

This work was conducted as a resident fellow of the AICGS (American Institute of Contemporary German Studies) in Washington, DC and supported by a generous grant from the German Academic Exchange Office (DAAD) with additional support from the Foreign Office.  My thanks to the AICGS for their collegial support and warm hospitality.

Next, the plan is to interview in Berlin and perhaps Brussels energy experts and officials for their viewpoints on European energy vulnerabilities and on their work with the U.S. side.