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