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Last Updated: March 21, 2016
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It is over a year now since OPEC declared its market-share cold war against shale oil producers back in 2014, yet the cartel still can't declare "mission accomplished" and claim its victory. 

 

Following its decision not to cut oil production, OPEC expected oil prices to drop to $70 a barrel, which they thought would be enough to squeeze many shale oil producers out of the market.

 

The reality proved otherwise, shale oil producers were able to react quickly in order to reduce their costs through various cost-cutting measures to weather the storm of low oil prices. And many of them managed to survive at those prices. 

 

For OPEC, that meant only one thing; oil prices have to slump further, therefore OPEC's members pursued their market-share strategy and kept pumping. 

 

In January 2015, oil prices were down at levels around $45-$55. During that time, OPEC's Secretary-General was calling the bottom in oil prices. He offered a bullish statements during his speech in London on Jan. 26 by saying "Now the prices are around $45-$55, and I think maybe they have reached the bottom and we will see some rebound very soon." 

It was not too long after that, oil prices fell further making the remark of OPEC's Secretary-General another layer of noise. Things didn't go as OPEC expected and oil prices are still falling till today to levels not OPEC nor anyone else has expected at that time.  

 

Today, oil prices are slightly above $30 a barrel down from over $100 a barrel in 2014. U.S. average rig counts is 541, down 1068 from their recent peak of 1,609 on Oct. 10, 2014. More than 40 U.S. oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy protection, and other companies are aggressively reducing their budgets aimed surviving the current downturn. And yet, U.S. oil production is only inching downwards. 

 

Despite falling oil prices and rig counts declines, production cutbacks are relatively minor. According to EIA, in the U.S. alone, oil production has only declined 384,000 barrel a day from its peak in July 2015 of 9,598,000 barrel a day. In general, U.S. shale oil is showing a great resilience regardless of the current bearish sentiments. 

 

A point worth mentioning here is the fact that U.S. oil production dropped to its lowest point during this downturn which was 9,096,000 barrel a day on September 2015. This can be seen as a normal reaction for the crashing prices. However, the following months production started increasing till it reached 9,227,000 barrel a day last month.

Economically, low oil prices means an inevitable decline in supply and historically, low rig count leads to declining oil production. But the current downturn has proved that this is not always the case. Something changed, and a new shift in the oil industry is taking place.

 

Technological Advancement is Beating Rig Count

 

Rig count is considered as a direct measure of the health of oil industry and oil production. Falling rig count lead to a decline in oil production, but why this is not the case in this downturn? Why shale oil producers are able to maintain production?

 

The answer to the above question lays on advanced technology introduced as well as better and efficient ways of producing the oil. Many companies are now focusing on increasing efficiency and productivity of their wells. More cheaper and efficient well intervention and well completion technology, targeting richer sections of shale plays as in the case of the Permain Region -where production is in a continous increase- as well as increasing the well productivity by using more sand in each hydraulic fracturing job. All these have offset the direct effect of falling rig count on oil production. Did OPEC expected that? Highly unlikely. 

A Short-Term Lose Better Than Out

 

Another reason that explains the resilience of shale oil is the fact that many operators who are still losing despite all the cost cutting measures prefer to take a loss and wait, because they know the oil market is boom and bust by nature and they expect things to get better soon. According to a report by Wood Mackenzie, given the cost of restarting production especially in large projects, many operators prefer to continue producing oil at a loss in hope for a rebound in prices rather than to stop production. 

 

What OPEC's Members didn't Expect

 

It seems now that when the OPEC's members decided not to cut their oil output back in 2014, they didn't really expect the current resilience of U.S. shale oil. They didn’t expect the resilience of U.S. oil production despite the dramatic fall in rig count. 

 

They didn’t expect that technology will be able to offset the effect of low oil prices and rig count on oil production. And most of all, they didn't expect the oil prices to fall to its current levels. And this is not something new, they are not accurate at foreseeing the outcomes of their actions, if they were, they would have known that high oil prices will lead to the current shale oil boom in the first place.

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It was shaping up to yet another dull OPEC+ meeting. Cut and dry. Copy and paste. Rubber-stamping yet another monthly increase in production quotas by 432,000 b/d. Month after month of resisting pressure from the largest economies in the world to accelerate supply easing had inured markets to expectations of swift action by OPEC and its wider brethren in OPEC+.

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In fact, there are only two countries within OPEC+ that have enough spare capacity to be ramped up quickly. The United Arab Emirates, which was responsible for recent turmoil within the group by arguing for higher quotas should be happy. But it will be a measure of backtracking for the only other country in that position, Saudi Arabia. After publicly stating that it had ‘done all it can for the oil market’ and blaming a lack of refining capacity for high fuel prices, the Kingdom’s change of heart seems to be linked to some external pressure. But it could seemingly resist no more. But that spotlight on the UAE and Saudi Arabia will allow both to wrench some market share, as both countries have been long preparing to increase their production. Abu Dhabi recently made three sizable onshore oil discoveries at Bu Hasa, Onshore Block 3 and the Al Dhafra Petroleum Concession, that adds some 650 million barrels to its reserves, which would help lift the ceiling for oil production from 4 to 5 mmb/d by 2030. Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco is expected to contract over 30 offshore rigs in 2022 alone, targeting the Marjan and Zuluf fields to increase production from 12 to 13 mmb/d by 2027.

The UAE wants to ramp up, certainly. But does Saudi Arabia too? As the dominant power of OPEC, what Saudi Arabia wants it usually gets. The signals all along were that the Kingdom wanted to remain prudent. It is not that it cannot, there is about a million barrels per day of extra production capacity that Saudi Arabia can open up immediately but that it does not want to. Bringing those extra volume on means that spare capacity drops down to critical levels, eliminating options if extra crises emerge. One is already starting up again in Libya, where internal political discord for years has led to an on-off, stop-start rhythm in Libyan crude. If Saudi Arabia uses up all its spare capacity, oil prices could jump even higher if new emergencies emerge with no avenue to tackle them. That the Saudis have given in (slightly) must mean that political pressure is heating up. That the announcement was made at the OPEC+ meeting and not a summit between US and Saudi leaders must mean that a façade of independence must be maintained around the crucial decisions to raise supply quotas.

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With the Permian Basin focusing on fiscal prudence instead of wanton drilling, US shale output has not responded to lucrative oil prices that way it used to. American rig counts are only inching up, with some shale basins even losing rigs. So the White House is trying more creative ways. Though the suggestion of an ‘oil consumer cartel’ as an analogue to OPEC by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is likely dead on arrival, the US is looking to unlock supply and tame fuel prices through other ways. Regular releases from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve has so far done little to bring prices down, but easing sanctions on Venezuelan crude that could be exported to the US and Europe, as well as working with the refining industry to restart recently idled refineries could. Inflation levels above 8% and gasoline prices at all-time highs could lead to a bloody outcome in this year’s midterm elections, and Joe Biden knows that.

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