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.
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
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It was a good run while it lasted. Almost exactly a decade ago, the military junta in Myanmar was dissolved, following civilian elections. The country’s figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest to lead, following in the footsteps of her father. Although her reputation has since been tarnished with the Rohingya crisis, she remains beloved by most of her countrymen, and her installation as Myanmar’s de facto leader lead to a golden economic age. Sanctions were eased, trade links were restored, and investment flowed in, not least in the energy sector. Yet the military still remained a powerful force, lurking in the background. In early February, they bared their fangs. Following an election in November 2020 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an outright majority in both houses of Parliament. A coup d’etat was instigated, with the Tatmadaw – the Burmese military – decrying fraud in the election. Key politicians were arrested, and rule returned to the military.
For many Burmese, this was a return to a dark past that many thought was firmly behind them. Widespread protests erupted, quickly turning violent. The Tatmadaw still has an iron grip, but it has created some bizarre situations – ordinary Burmese citizens calling on Facebook and foreign governments to impose sanctions on their country, while the Myanmar ambassador to the United Nations was fired for making an anti-army speech at the UN General Assembly.
The path forward for Myanmar from this point is unclear. The Tatmadaw has declared a state of emergency lasting up to a year, promising new elections by the end of 2021. There is little doubt that the NLD will win yet another supermajority in the election, IF they are fair and free. But that is a big if. Meanwhile, the coup threatens to return Myanmar to the pariah state that it was pre-2010. And threatens to abort all the grand economic progress made since.
In the decade since military rule was abolished, development in Myanmar has been rapid. In the capital city Yangon, glittering new malls have been developed. The Ministry of Energy in 2009 was housed in a crumbling former high school; today, it occupies a sprawling complex in the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw. While not exactly up to the level of the Department of Energy in Washington DC, it is certainly no longer than ministry that was once reputed to take up to three years to process exploration licences for offshore oil and gas blocks.
And it is that very future that is now at stake. Energy has been a great focus for investment in Myanmar, drawn by the rich offshore deposits in the Andaman Sea and the country’s location as a possible pipeline route between the Middle East and inland China. Estimates suggest that – based on pre-coup trends – Myanmar was likely to attract over US$1.1 billion in upstream investment in 2023, more than four times projected for 2021 and almost 20 times higher than 2011. The funds would not only be directed at maintaining production at the current Yadana, Yetagun, Zawtika and Shwe gas fields – where offshore production is mainly exported to Thailand, but also upcoming megaprojects such as Woodside and Total’s A-6 deepwater natural gas and PTTEP’s Aung Sinka Block M3 developments.
The coup now presents foreign investors in Myanmar’s upstream energy sector with a conundrum and reputational risk. Stay, and risk being seen as abetting an undemocratic government? Or leave, and risk being flushing away years of hard work? The home governments of foreign investors such as Total, Chevron, PTTEP, Woodside, Petronas, ONGC, Nippon Oil, Kogas, POSCO, Sumitomo, Mitsui and others have already condemned the coup. For now these companies are hoping that foreign pressure will resolve the situation in a short enough timeframe to allow business to resume. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum has already called the coup a ‘transitionary issue’ claiming that it will not affect its exploration plans, while other operators such as Total and Petronas have focused on the safety of their employees as they ‘monitor the evolving situation’.
But the longer the coup lasts without a resolution satisfactory to the international community and the longer the protests last (and the more deaths that result from that), the more untenable the position of the foreign upstream players will be. Asian investors, especially the Chinese, mainly through CNPC/PetroChina, and the Thais, through PTTEP - will be relatively insulated, but American and European majors face bigger risks. This could jeopardise key projects such as the Myanmar-to-China crude oil and natural gas pipeline project (a 771km connection to Yunnan), two LNG-to-power projects (Thaketa and Thilawa, meant to deal with the country’s chronic blackouts) and the massive Block A-6 gas development in the Shwe Yee Htun field by Woodside which just kicked off a fourth drilling campaign in December.
It is a big unknown. The Tatmadaw has proven to be impervious to foreign criticism in the past, ignoring even the most stringent sanctions thrown their way. In fact, it was a huge surprise that the army even relinquished power back in 2010. But the situation has changed. The Myanmar population is now more connected and more aware, while the army has profited off the opening of the economy. The economic consequences of returning to its darker days might be enough to trigger a resolution. But that’s not a guarantee. What is certain is that the coup will have a lasting effect on energy investment and plans in Myanmar. How long and how deep is a question that only the Tatmadaw can answer.
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The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.
But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.
Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.
Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes.
Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.
So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.
There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.
But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊
Throughout much of its history, the United States has imported more petroleum (which includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other liquids) than it has exported. That status changed in 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) estimates that 2020 marked the first year that the United States exported more petroleum than it imported on an annual basis. However, largely because of declines in domestic crude oil production and corresponding increases in crude oil imports, EIA expects the United States to return to being a net petroleum importer on an annual basis in both 2021 and 2022.
EIA expects that increasing crude oil imports will drive the growth in net petroleum imports in 2021 and 2022 and more than offset changes in refined product net trade. EIA forecasts that net imports of crude oil will increase from its 2020 average of 2.7 million barrels per day (b/d) to 3.7 million b/d in 2021 and 4.4 million b/d in 2022.
Compared with crude oil trade, net exports of refined petroleum products did not change as much during 2020. On an annual average basis, U.S. net petroleum product exports—distillate fuel oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and motor gasoline, among others—averaged 3.2 million b/d in 2019 and 3.4 million b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that net petroleum product exports will average 3.5 million b/d in 2021 and 3.9 million b/d in 2022 as global demand for petroleum products continues to increase from its recent low point in the first half of 2020.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), February 2021
EIA expects that the United States will import more crude oil to fill the widening gap between refinery inputs of crude oil and domestic crude oil production in 2021 and 2022. U.S. crude oil production declined by an estimated 0.9 million b/d (8%) to 11.3 million b/d in 2020 because of well curtailment and a drop in drilling activity related to low crude oil prices.
EIA expects the rising price of crude oil, which started in the fourth quarter of 2020, will contribute to more U.S. crude oil production later this year. EIA forecasts monthly domestic crude oil production will reach 11.3 million b/d by the end of 2021 and 11.9 million b/d by the end of 2022. These values are increases from the most recent monthly average of 11.1 million b/d in November 2020 (based on data in EIA’s Petroleum Supply Monthly) but still lower than the previous peak of 12.9 million b/d in November 2019.