Category Archives: U.S. oil

Decoding the Oil Price War 1: Moscow seized COVID crisis to hit US shale, force sanctions relief

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The “Oil Price War of 2020” was launched at the worst possible time.  The COVID-19 pandemic was spreading to the world beyond China, promising to kill tens-of-thousands, and bring a global economic collapse.

However, this war was not preordained. Things could have gone otherwise from the start.  It was a decision, a sort of Pearl-Harbor-esque surprise attack, announced by Russian minister of energy, Alexander Novak, upon his arriving late to the OPEC-plus summit hall in Vienna on March 6.

If Moscow now abandons its all-out war on US shale, it will be because Putin has miscalculated.  He was willing to increase the pain for everyone else by exploiting the COVID-19 energy crisis in a half-baked attempt to get out from under the US sanctions.  However, the unanticipated repercussions might get too hot for Moscow.

The facts about why Putin decided to launch this oil price war are important to decode.  A key aspect to understand is that Moscow’s game plan was to blame the Saudis; and it soon began a disinformation campaign saying the Saudis launched the war.

We shall see, below and in future posts, how this blame-shifting is a stratagem designed to manipulate a section of US politicians and especially independent US oil producers, who traditionally hold strong, anti-Saudi sentiments (to be clear: they have good reasons to hold these anti-Saudi views), to preferentially sympathize with Russia against the Saudis and to lobby Trump and Congress to give Moscow relief from US sanctions.

Whether this Oil War strategy of Moscow can, at least in part, succeed in freeing Russia from US sanctions is not clear.  But, Moscow’s is highly motivated to succeed due to the significant constraints these sanctions are imposing on Russia.  They include sanctions in retaliation for its war against Ukraine, since 2014, which have undermined expansion of Russia’s domestic oil and gas sector; sanctions which have stalled Russian-German plans to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; and sanctions on Rosneft’s efforts to sustain the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela.

Today, as explained below, I would say the odds are against Moscow’s success, with the plan bordering on adventurism.  The Saudi’s initial response, in so far as it specifically targets Russia’s oil business, is rational; however, by de facto joining the Russian oil price war on US shale,  the Saudis will also provoke a backlash from powerful US oil-business and political interests, which is likely precisely what Putin and Igor Sechin hoped to bait the Saudis’ Prince MbS into doing.

Considering the pain the world is already suffering, Putin and Sechin’s callous game to exploit the COVID-19 oil-market crisis must be seen for what it is.  Most especially, one should not acquiesce to Moscow’s disinformation campaign to shift the blame elsewhere.

In Vienna: Who started the price war?

For weeks, Riyadh had aggressively lobbied the 10 OPEC and 11 non-OPEC members of the OPEC-plus alliance to agree to a major production cut.  This alliance had been born in 2016, of a newfound, market-dictated, yet grudging, Russian-Saudi mutual recognition of the reality that only such a large-scale collective effort could begin to get control of a market in long-term oversupply.  By December 2019, their OPEC-plus group had Continue reading

Putin’s OPEC tactics: Iran sanctions and the Saudis [IBD cites me]

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June 2018 OPEC meeting’s key players (AP)

Last week, Gillian Rich at Investor’s Business Daily (Washington), asked me (Berlin) and others about the OPEC’s 20-21 June meeting. Below here, I give my views in more detail, including the tie-in to the Trump project to isolate Iran and my comment about Putin likely betraying the Iranians again.  The IBD piece is here: Trump Could Make OPEC’s Next Meeting As Dysfunctional As G-7 Summit. 15 June ’18.

We spoke about market and geopolitical aspects. On the latter, I emphasized both the Trump Administration’s evolving plan to sanction and isolate Iran, and Russia’s new role as a central player with OPEC ever since the 2016 joint Russian-OPEC decision to raise production.

That’s when Putin played a new role for any Russian leader. Not only did he coordinate Russian oil policy with OPEC’s, he got personally involved in heated discussions, getting on the phone late in the last night with Iranian and Saudi leaders to get the deal sealed. Continue reading

China’s big NOCs slash prices to take market from private oil refiners ~ I’m quoted in “China Oil Week”

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A Sinopec station in China.  Sinopec and other big NOC’s are slashing prices to take business from Chna’s small private “Tea Pot” refiners.

Last week, I was quoted on my assessment of how China’s “Tea Pot” refineries (small, private outfits) will fare in the face of  China’s big National Oil Companies (NOCs) cutting  prices to grab the Tea Pots’ business.  My main point to Newsbase reporter Saw Wright was that China is far from a completely “free market” and the state can be expected to weigh in on one side or another, complicating any outcome predictions based on market and/or tech strengths and weaknesses.  I’m quoted a couple times near the article’s end, here:
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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

My CNNMoney quote & 3 points: OPEC v shale, Russia’s new role & Trump-buddy Hamm is pro Saudi price band

 

160928163540-opec-algeria-384x216I was interviewed by Matt Egan of CNNMoney. Three points, if I may:

  1. This story echoes my message in Berlin Policy Journal earlier this week and my RTRadio interview: OPEC now has to live with a new oil-market paradigm where shale  won’t disappear (for now its in the US, but soon elsewhere too).  It is a technology more akin to manufacturing than traditional oil extraction and so more amenable to technological and operating innovation in a low-price regime (or in a price war such as the Saudis et al have just given up on waging against it). And, being much smaller-in-scale means it can ramp up at much lower initial costs and more rapidly than traditional oil fields. The CNNMoney story is below here, or here’s the CNN ink .
  2. Another totally new phenomena seen in this OPEC deal was that a Russian leader was deeply involved in the tense OPEC negotiations, specifically between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia has never done this before. Historically, it has also never carried through on previous promises to support an OPEC cut, instead free-riding on higher prices effected by OPEC/Saudi cuts.  In this case, Putin was instrumental in getting the Saudi’s to agree, as they always have before, to swallow most of the cuts. But, Putin has agreed to cut too (in ambiguous language, but repeatedly). We shall now see if he and Igor Sechin (CEO of Rosneft, that produces 40% of Russian oil, and who is, by the way, a great friend of Venezuela’s miserably failing chavista leadership, where his company is now the biggest foreign oil producer) … do as they have promised OPEC and the Saudis. If they do not, the fallout with Saudis and their allies will be significant.
  3. Now, also, we shall see how US shale responds. Of course, IEA head, Fatih Birol, has understandably predicted that US shale and other producers, will likely hike production if oil reaches $60/barrel and simply eat up the present OPEC cuts in about nine months or so. (Aside: of course, the present output cuts, even if they ‘fail’ in the long run to sustain higher prices, would still have had been a significant cash-boosting relief to all OPEC states and to Russia while they lasted.)  However, take a look at the Bloomberg video link at the end of my Berlin Policy Journal piece – an interview with Howard Hamm, Trump’s billionaire fracking close-ally (who has just turned down an offer to run the Department of Energy). He had told Bloomberg he expects OPEC to make a deal because “it makes sense” and, further, that he expects/hopes his US fracking colleagues will show ‘discipline’ after the price rise, i.e., not expanding too fast so as to keep prices up.  An interesting, de facto recognition that price wars, in the end (in the long run), do not benefit either side, and goes on to approvingly say that the Saudi’s want to once again maintain prices “in a band” as they used to do. It is clear from Hamm that this would all be very welcomed from the US side. (Note, Hamm’s Continental Energy company made $3 billion in just three hours after the OPEC deal boosted prices! ) Indeed, in light of such everlasting market realities, it is difficult to imagine Trump’s attitude to the Saudi’s will be much different than other US president’s over the years. Which has geopolitical implications for Iran, of course, as the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical competition for regional influence and their parallel oil-market competition both continue to heat up.

Here’s the CNNMoney piece by M. Egan of 1 December 2016 (with my quote highlighted): 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

Saudi & Russia seek oil deal as OPEC fight v US shale fails [My RTRadio Interview]

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RT Radio-Edinburgh’s Jack Foster interviewed me on the upcoming 30 November OPEC summit where the Saudis hope to set a cap on OPEC and Russian production. Here’s the interview:   Listen from time-stamp 9:00-to-17:30 (Streaming MP3) 

This would  mark the first-ever Russian cooperation with OPEC. However, market realities look bleak for OPEC and Russia whether they reach an agreement or not. The reason is the unprecedented continuing challenge from US shale, which has dramatically cut its costs via tech and operational innovations to stay profitable at low prices. Continue reading

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

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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

What’s keeping foreign oil firms out of Iran? IRG? [CNNMoney quotes me]

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To put Iran’s recent production increases in perspective: On its own, for 37 years, Iran has struggled to produce two-thirds of its pre-revolutionary level of 6 million barrels/day. Now, domestic opposition is again limiting foreign oil companies’ participation to boost production.

Since the Obama-administration’s and Europe’s nuclear sanctions were lifted early this year (marked ‘e’ on the chart), Iran has been expanding its production and exports more rapidly than most experts had expected. Tehran has actually tripled exports since late-2015 (see point ‘f’).  But, here’s the big question: Can Iran sustain this years’ production gains?
If to, this could seriously undermine Saudi Arabia’s global oil-market share, and boost Iran’s sanctions-damaged economy to a long-awaited recovery.
The short answer: Now that foreign sanctions are finally lifted, the battle to boost Iran’s oil exports has shifted to a domestic clash over whether to allow foreign oil companies to have significant upstream involvement. This is a domestic Iranian issue with a long history.
Historical perspective
Let’s start with some historical perspective: The Iranian National Oil Company (NIOC) can only do so much on its own to boost production. After decades of sanctions, it lacks the needed technology and finance.  I told CNNMoney‘s Matt Egan, on Wednesday, that the faster Iran expands on its own, the faster production will plateau. (His CNNMoney article today quotes me .).
This was what happened after the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.(‘b’ on the chart). By about 1992, production had plateaued at almost 4 million barrels/day, under 2/3 of the pre-revolutionary, late-1970’s level of roughly 6 million barrels per day. (‘a’ on chart).  The Iranian president at the time, Rafsanjani, argued to religious conservative and nationalist members of the Majilis that only foreign oil companies’ technology and investments could expand production further. However, he only won grudging approval for an offshore project due to fears that foreigners would bring their irreligious ways ashore and/or undermine the hard-won nationalization of Iran’s oil sector.
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Aside

Last night Investor’s Business Daily NEWS’ Gillin Rich interviewed me. The title reflects some rumors, but my point of view, as she reports, emphasizes market realities that bode against any output limit – esp. if the Iranians are still intransigent … and … Continue reading

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