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Just a couple months ago, some were declaring the old oil order dead after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) failed to agree on coordinated action at its April meeting in Doha.

That meeting was meant to bring about a production freeze to arrest the downward spiral of prices that began in July 2014. Instead, the Doha meeting was over before it began. Iran refused to slow production until it had regained its pre-sanctions position in the market, so Saudi Arabia canceled the freeze and continued to produce at peak levels.

This week, with oil trading at six-month highs, OPEC members once again had high hopes to show that the organization remains relevant as they gathered in Vienna. Yet, once again, the meeting ended without agreement, resulting in no change to the current policy of essentially unlimited production.

So does the verdict that OPEC is dead still stand, signaling the end of an era in which it supposedly ruthlessly controlled the price of oil? In fact, that era barely existed in the first place. The failed meetings confirm a longstanding truth: the world’s most famous cartel has never really been a cartel.

Rather than the arbiter of global energy, OPEC is and has always been a dysfunctional, divided and discouraged organization.

My recent research has taken me through the history of oil, particularly the relationship between oil revenues, economic development and the geopolitical balance of power in the 1960s and 1970s. Oil’s history has been dominated by a struggle for balance, a contest between competing interests, both economic and political, and between the fundamental market forces of supply and demand.

OPEC has never been shielded from or been able to fully thwart these forces.

Early days: divided and powerless

When it was created in 1960, OPEC was meant to offer members a greater say in how their oil was produced and priced, addressing the disproportionate power wielded by private Western corporations. Its larger goal, to bring order to the chaotic world of global energy, has always been elusive.

OPEC was formed from frustration. In the 1950s, the world was awash in oil as small nations in the Middle East and Latin America discovered enormous deposits, and Western oil companies sought to tap them to meet rising demand.

To gain access to those deposits, the major oil companies (known as the “Seven Sisters”) signed concessionary agreements with local governments, allowing them to pump, refine, transport and market a nation’s oil in return for a royalty, typically 50 percent of profits.

This arrangement gave the companies control over the oil – they set production levels and prices – while governments simply collected a check and had little influence on anything else.

In February 1959, amid an oil glut, the Seven Sisters decided that a price correction was necessary. And so they unilaterally began cutting the posted price, from $2.08 to $1.80 by August 1960. (Back then, oil prices didn’t always follow market forces and were typically set by producers.)

The cuts meant a significant loss of revenue for the oil-producing states. In protest, the oil ministers of Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait met in Baghdad that September and formed OPEC to achieve a more equitable arrangement with the Sisters.

In reality, the oil-producing states could do little to coerce the companies into offering better terms. The Seven Sisters dominated global markets and were capable of shutting out individual producers. Oil was abundant, and nationalization seemed out of the question because the companies could successfully exclude an offending country from the market, as they did with Iran in 1951.

In addition, the United States itself was the world’s top producer and immune from supply shocks thanks to import quotas.. If OPEC threatened to take production offline in order to put pressure on the companies, the U.S. could increase its own to make up the difference, as it did during a partial Arab oil boycott in 1967.

In the end, OPEC did not possess enough market share to make a meaningful impact.

A new balance of power

Besides being relatively impotent, OPEC couldn’t agree on a consistent policy among its members. Saudi Arabia wanted to keep production levels low and prices consistent, preserving the global economy and the political status quo. Iran and Iraq, with huge military and development budgets, wanted prices pushed as high as possible in order to maximize revenue.

According to scholar and oil consultant Ian Skeet, an attempt to extract more favorable terms from the Sisters in 1963 was sabotaged by the shah of Iran, who sought a separate agreement.

During the 1960s, OPEC met, debated and released grandiose statements on their rights, yet failed to form a united front.

Nevertheless, significant changes were occurring at the time. Demand for oil shot up, while production in the U.S. stagnated. The ability of the Seven Sisters to control the market was undermined by international competitors drilling new fields in North Africa, where Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi threatened to shut off supply if he didn’t get higher prices.

The companies were under more and more pressure to deliver satisfactory terms to the OPEC members. The price of oil, which had held steady at $1.80 a barrel for years, began ticking upwards. American import quotas ended, leaving the U.S. more vulnerable to supply shocks as its production capacity steadily declined.

These conditions, while not the result of actions by OPEC, gave the organization an opportunity to influence the market and upset the balance of power.

The oil price revolution

This shift accelerated in the 1970s as war broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, creating an opportunity for OPEC to wrest control from the Western oil companies.

To punish the U.S. for supporting the Jewish state, Arab oil producers (not OPEC, as popularly believed) cut production and declared an embargo. Together with the war, this destabilized energy markets as demand outpaced supply.

Amid the fighting, OPEC met with the Seven Sisters in Geneva and demanded an increase in the posted oil price. After rejecting a small change, OPEC announced it would double the price to $5 and later doubled it again to $11.65.

This triggered a massive shift in economic power, what Stanford University professor Steven Schneider called “the greatest non-violent transfer of wealth in human history.” With the uptick in oil revenues, OPEC states spent lavishly on economic development, social programs and investments in Western industry and steadily nationalized their domestic industries, pushing out the Seven Sisters.

How did the balance of power seem to shift so suddenly? Among other reasons, the major oil companies could not agree among themselves on a new price and were actually tempted by the high profits that would result. In other words, OPEC had seized control of the oil market largely due to circumstances beyond its control.

The oil crisis

Despite its victory, OPEC had come no closer to resolving its internal divisions. This became evident when another energy crisis hit.

In January 1979, the shah of Iran fled amid revolution, and global oil markets panicked. Prices soared, from $12.70 to over $30 by 1980. Iran’s 6 million barrels per day (bpd) disappeared, and other OPEC states eagerly seized the opportunity to sell oil at costly premiums, sending the price even higher.

In the ensuing years, Saudi Arabia tried to impose a quota system, with overall production capped at 20 million bpd. Most members ignored their quotas or over-produced to gain greater revenue.

Meanwhile, the West worked to improve energy efficiency and invested heavily in non-OPEC oil sources, including Alaska, Canada and the North Sea. By 1985, OPEC’s market share had fallen below 30 percent. OPEC dropped its production quota to 19 million bpd, then 17 million, to account for diminishing demand, but only the Saudis obeyed the rules, losing market share as other producers pumped above the quota level.

By 1986, the Saudis had had enough. Without warning, the Saudi oil minister announced that Saudi production would increase. Overnight, Saudi production shot up more than 2 million bpd, flooding the market and sending prices plunging below $10 a barrel. Sick of watching other OPEC members cheat them out of profits, the Saudis chose to enforce new discipline through an artificial market shock.

Just as the kingdom did in 2014, this move indicated Saudi willingness to use its massive reserves to “correct” the market and push out high-cost producers, even at the cost of its OPEC allies.

Feeling the pain

OPEC’s fortunes have oscillated since the 1986 shock. Cooperation remained elusive.

A 2011 meeting, dubbed “the worst ever” by recently-removed Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi, produced disagreements over production levels. Acrimony reigned as OPEC states ignored calls for economic diversification in favor of oil-fueled economic growth.

High prices during the early 2000s accounted for a huge boom in oil revenues for OPEC members. For Venezuela and Nigeria, oil accounts for over 90 percent of all exports. Most OPEC states believed that high demand would last forever, that high prices could fund government programs and that the good times would never end.

Yet the good times appear to be over. OPEC has failed to control the downward spiral in prices, reportedly begun by Saudi Arabia in November 2014 to flood the market with cheap crude to put new and old competitors – U.S. shale producers and Iran – out of business. Saudi Arabia pursued its political interests and existing market share, leaving other OPEC members to fend for themselves.

The death of OPEC has been announced in some quarters, with its long-term decline seemingly assured as global energy enters a new era.

It is possible that Saudi Arabia may emerge from this current crisis unscathed, free to embark upon its recently announced Vision 2030 plan for an “oil-less” economy, however dubious that plan might appear. It’s possible that OPEC may succeed in concerted action in the future. But its recent failures suggest that political interest will be more likely to divide OPEC and prevent mutual self-interest from uniting its members.

By Gregory Brew

Middle East OPEC crude oil oil prices oil exports
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Your Weekly Update: 11 - 15 March 2019

Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 March 2019 – Brent: US$66/b; WTI: US$56/b

  • Global crude oil prices continue to remain rangebound despite bearish factors emerging
  • News that Libya was restarting its 300,000 b/d Sharara field could weaken the ability of OPEC to control supply, while a report from the US EIA hints that the market was moving into a glut
  • The EIA report showed that commercial crude inventories in the US rose by 7.1 million barrels, far higher than the 1.6 million barrel increase predicted, with a 873,000 barrel increase at Cushing and a 12% y-o-y drop in crude imports
  • By the end of 2019, with American output surging and Saudi Arabia curtailing production, the US could export more oil and liquids than the world’s largest exporter
  • Meanwhile in OPEC, PDVSA has received some aid from Russia with Rosneft agreeing to send heavy naphtha to Venezuela – a product necessary to thin heavy Venezuela crude to move by pipeline to the coast that have been affected by the American sanctions
  • On the demand side, Morgan Stanley has predicted that China’s oil consumption will peak in 2025, some 5-8 years earlier than most expectations, driven by a shift in cars towards electric vehicles and high-speed rail
  • The US active rig count fell for a third consecutive week, following a 9 rig fall with an 11 rig drop last week, with nine oil sites and two gas sites scrapped
  • Despite the bearish factors, it looks like crude has found a new comfortable range with Brent at US$65-67/b and WTI at US$56-58/b for the week


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Despite security concerns, Libya has restarted its largest oil field, with output at 300,000 b/d Sharara expected to reach 80,000 b/d initially, throwing a new spanner in the OPEC goal of controlling supply
  • A one-year delay to Enbridge’s Line 3 conduit in Canada due to regulatory issues has thrown new troubles onto Alberta’s beleaguered crude industry
  • ExxonMobil is planning a major acceleration of its Permian assets, aiming to produce more than 1 mmboe/d by 2024, an increase of nearly 80%
  • China has announced plans to form a national oil and pipeline company, part of a natural energy industry overhaul that will give the new firm control over at least 112,000 km of oil, gas and fuel pipelines currently held by other state firms
  • Equinor, with Petoro, ConocoPhillips and Repsol, have announced a new oil discovery in the North Sea, with the Telesto well on the Visund A platform potentially yielding 12-28 million barrels of recoverable oil
  • Aker Energy has reported a new oil discovery at the Pecan South-1A well offshore Ghana, with the Pecan field expected to hold 450-550 mboe of oil
  • Production declines at Kazakhstan’s three main oil fields will see the country slash crude exports by 2% to 71 million tons this year, with cuts mostly to China

Midstream & Downstream

  • Canadian Natural Resources is looking to ease pressure on the Alberta crude complex by bringing its 80 kb/d North West Redwater refinery online this year
  • Work has begun on the upgrade and expansion of Egypt’s Middle East Oil Refinery near Alexandria, with the project expected to boost capacity to 160 kb/d and quality to Euro V through the installation of a new CDU and VDU
  • Bahrain’s BAPCO has announced plans to expand its Sitra oil refinery by early 2023, growing capacity from 267 kb/d to 360 kb/d

Natural Gas/LNG

  • India has started up its first LNG regasification facility on the east coast, with the Ennore terminal expected to service the major cities of Chennai and Madurai
  • Total has signed an agreement with Russia’s Novatek for the formal acquisition of a 10% stake in the Arctic LNG 2 project, bringing its total economic interest in the 19.8 mtpa project in the Yamal and Gydan peninsuals to 21.6%
  • Thailand’s PTTEP has announced a new offshore gas find in Australia’s portion of the Timor Sea, with the Orchid-1 well striking gas and expected to be incorporated into the Cash-Maple field with 3.5 tcf of resources
  • Crescent Petroleum and Dana Gas’s joint venture Pearl Petroleum Company is aiming to boost gas production at Khor Mor block in Iraq’s Kurdistan region by 63% with an additional 250 mmscf/d of output
  • Petronas’ 1.2 mtpa PFLNG Satu – the world’s first floating LNG vessel – has completed its stint at the Kanowit field and will now head to its second destination, the Kebabangan gas field offshore Sabah
  • Chevron is looking to revisit its Ubon wet gas project in Thailand after a period of hiatus as the supermajor recalibrated its development costs
  • Nigeria’s NLNG Train 7 LNG project is expected to reach FID in the third quarter of the year after multiple delays
  • ExxonMobil and BP have agreed to collaborate with the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation to advance the Alaska LNG project
  • Energean Oil and Gas has started its 2019 drilling programme in Israel, focusing on four wells, including one in Karish North near the Karish discovery
March, 15 2019
Latest issue of GEO ExPro magazine covers New Technologies and Training Geoscientists, with a geographical focus on Australasia and South East Asia

GEO ExPro Vol. 16, No. 1 was published on 4th March 2019 bringing light to the latest science and technology activity in the global geoscience community within the oil, gas and energy sector.

This issue focuses on new technologies available to the oil and gas industry and how they can be adapted to improve hydrocarbon exploration workflows and understanding around the world. The latest issue of GEO ExPro magazine also covers current training methods for educating geoscientists, with articles highlighting the essential pre-drill ‘toolbox’ and how we can harness virtual reality to bring world class geological locations to the classroom.

You can download the PDF of GEO ExPro magazine for FREE and sign up to GEO ExPro’s weekly updates and online exclusives to receive the latest articles direct to your inbox.

Download GEO ExPro Vol. 16, No. 1

March, 14 2019
Norway’s Retreat in Oil Investments – Politics or Economics?

In 2017, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global – also known as the Oil Fund – proposed a complete divestment of oil and gas shares from its massive portfolio. Last week, the Norwegian government partially approved that request, allowing the Fund to exclude 134 upstream companies from the wealth fund. Players like Anadarko Petroleum, Chesapeake Energy, CNOOC, Premier Oil, Soco International and Tullow Oil will now no longer receive any investment from the Fund. That might seem like an inconsequential move, but it isn’t. With over US$1 trillion in assets – the Fund is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world – it is a major market-shifting move.

Estimates suggest that the government directive will require the Oil Fund to sell some US$7.5 billion in stocks over an undefined period. Shares in the affected companies plunged after the announcement. The reaction is understandable. The Oil Fund holds over 1.3% of all global stocks and shares, including 2.3% of all European stocks. It holds stakes as large as of 2.4% of Royal Dutch Shell and 2.3% of BP, and has long been seen as a major investor and stabilising force in the energy sector.

It is this impression that the Fund is trying to change. Established in 1990 to invest surplus revenues of the booming Norwegian petroleum sector, prudent management has seen its value grow to some US$200,000 per Norwegian citizen today. Its value exceeds all other sovereign wealth funds, including those of China and Singapore. Energy shares – specifically oil and gas firms – have long been a major target for investment due to high returns and bumper dividends. But in 2017, the Fund recommended phasing out oil exploration from its ‘investment universe’. At the time, this was interpreted as yielding to pressure from environmental lobbies, but the Fund has made it clear that the move is for economic reasons.

Put simply, the Fund wants to move away from ‘putting all its eggs in one basket’. Income from Norway’s vast upstream industry – it is the largest producing country in Western Europe – funds the country’s welfare state and pays into the Fund. It has ethical standards – avoiding, for example, investment in tobacco firms – but has concluded that devoting a significant amount of its assets to oil and gas savings presents a double risk. During the good times, when crude prices are high and energy stocks booming, it is a boon. But during a downturn or a crash, it is a major risk. With typical Scandinavian restraint and prudence, the Fund has decided that it is best to minimise that risk by pouring its money into areas that run counter-cyclical to the energy industry.

However, the retreat is just partial. Exempt from the divestment will be oil and gas firms with significant renewable energy divisions – which include supermajors like Shell, BP and Total. This is touted as allowing the Fund to ride the crest of the renewable energy wave, but also manages to neatly fit into the image that Norway wants to project: balancing a major industry with being a responsible environmental steward. It’s the same reason why Equinor – in which the Fund holds a 67% stake – changed its name from Statoil, to project a broader spectrum of business away from oil into emerging energies like wind and solar. Because, as the Fund’s objective states, one day the oil will run out. But its value will carry on for future generations.

The Norway Oil Fund in a Nutshell

  • Valued at NOK8.866 trillion/US$1.024 trillion (February 2019)
  • Invested in 9,138 companies in over 73 countries
  • Holds 1.3% of all global stocks
  • Holds 2.3% of all European stocks
  • Holds 2.4% of Shell, 2.3% of BP
March, 13 2019