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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A month ago, the world witnessed something never thought possible – negative oil prices. A perfect storm of events – the Covid-19 lockdowns, the resulting effect on demand, an ongoing oil supply glut, a worrying shortage of storage space and (crucially) the expiry of the NYMEX WTI benchmark contract for May, resulted in US crude oil prices falling as low as -US$37/b. Dragging other North American crude markers like Louisiana Light and Western Canadian Select along with it, the unique situation meant that crude sellers were paying buyers to take the crude off their hands before the May contract expired, or risk being stuck with crude and nowhere to store it. This was seen as an emblem of the dire circumstances the oil industry was in, and although prices did recover to a more normal US$10-15/b level after the benchmark contract switched over to June, there was immense worry that the situation would repeat itself.
Thankfully, it has not.
On May 19, trade in the NYMEX WTI contract for June delivery was retired and ticked over into a new benchmark for July delivery. Instead of a repeat of the meltdown, the WTI contract rose by US$1.53 to reach US$33.49/b, closing the gap with Brent that traded at US$35.75b. In the space of a month, US crude prices essentially swung up by US$70/b. What happened?
The first reason is that the market has learnt its lesson. The meltdown in April came because of an overleveraged market tempted by low crude oil prices in hope of selling those cargoes on later at a profit. That sort of strategic trading works fine in a normal situation, but against an abnormal situation of rapidly-shrinking storage space saw contract holders hold out until the last minute then frantically dumping their contracts to avoid having to take physical delivery. Bruised by this – and probably embarrassed as well – it seems the market has taken precautions to avoid a recurrence. Settling contracts early was one mechanism. Funds and institutions have also reduced their positions, diminishing the amount of contracts that need to be settled. The structural bottleneck that precipitated the crash was largely eliminated.
The second is that the US oil complex has adjusted itself quickly. Some 2 mmb/d of crude production has been (temporarily) idled, reducing supply. The gradual removal of lockdowns in some US states, despite medical advisories, has also recovered some demand. This week, crude draws in Cushing, Oklahoma rose for the second consecutive week, reaching a record figure of 5.6 million barrels. That increase in demand and the parallel easing of constrained storage space meant that last month’s panic was not repeated. The situation is also similar worldwide. With China now almost at full capacity again and lockdowns gradually removed in other parts of the world, the global crude marker Brent also rose to a 2-month high. The new OPEC+ supply deal seems to be working, especially with Saudi Arabia making an additional voluntary cut of 1 mmb/d. The oil world is now moving rapidly towards a new normal.
How long will this last? Assuming that the Covid-19 pandemic is contained by Q3 2020, then oil prices could conceivably return to their previous support level of US$50/b. That is a big assumption, however. The Covid-19 situation is still fragile, with major risks of additional waves. In China and South Korea, where the pandemic had largely been contained, recent detection of isolated new clusters prompted strict localised lockdowns. There is also worry that the US is jumping the gun in easing restrictions. In Russia and Brazil – countries where the advice to enforce strict lockdowns was ignored as early warning signs crept in – the number of cases and deaths is still rising rapidly. Brazil is a particular worry, as President Jair Bolosnaro is a Covid-19 skeptic and is still encouraging normal behaviour in spite of the accelerating health crisis there. On the flip side, crude output may not respond to the increase in demand as easily, as many clusters of Covid-19 outbreaks have been detected in key crude producing facilities worldwide. Despite this, some US shale producers have already restarted their rigs, spurred on by a need to service their high levels of debt. US pipeline giant Energy Transfer LP has already reported that many drillers in the Permian have resumed production, citing prices in the high-US$20/b level as sufficient to cover its costs.
The recovery is ongoing. But what is likely to happen is an erratic recovery, with intermittent bouts of mini-booms and mini-busts. Consultancy IHS Markit Energy Advisory envisions a choppy recovery with ‘stop-and-go rallies’ over 2020 – particularly in the winter flu season – heading towards a normalisation only in 2021. It predicts that the market will only recover to pre-Covid 19 levels in the second half of 2021, and a smooth path towards that only after a vaccine is developed and made available, which will be late 2020 at the earliest. The oil market has moved from certain doom to cautious optimism in the space of a month. But it will take far longer for the entire industry to regain its verve without any caveats.
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020
As mitigation efforts to contain the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic continue to lead to rapid declines in petroleum consumption around the world, the production of liquid fuels globally has changed more slowly, leading to record increases in the amount of crude oil and other petroleum liquids placed into storage in recent months. In its May Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects global inventory builds will be largest in the first half of 2020. EIA estimates that inventory builds rose at a rate of 6.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in the first quarter and will increase by 11.5 million b/d in the second quarter because of widespread travel limitations and sharp reductions in economic activity.
After the first half of 2020, EIA expects global liquid fuels consumption to increase, leading to inventory draws for at least six consecutive quarters and ultimately putting upward pressure on crude oil prices that are currently at their lowest levels in 20 years.
As with the March and April STEO, EIA’s forecast reductions in global oil demand arise from three main drivers: lower economic growth, less air travel, and other declines in demand not captured by these two categories, largely related to reductions in travel because of stay-at-home orders. Based on incoming economic data and updated assessments of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders across dozens of countries, EIA has further lowered its forecasts for global oil demand in 2020 in the May STEO. The STEO is based on macroeconomic projections by Oxford Economics (for countries other than the United States) and by IHS Markit (for the United States).
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020
In the May STEO, EIA forecasts global liquid fuels consumption will average 92.6 million b/d in 2020, down 8.1 million b/d from 2019. EIA forecasts both economic growth and global consumption of liquid fuels to increase in 2021 but remain lower than 2019 levels. Any lasting behavioral changes to patterns in transportation and other forms of oil consumption once COVID-19 mitigation efforts end, however, present considerable uncertainty to the increase in consumption of liquid fuels, even if gross domestic product (GDP) growth increases.
Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) agreed to new production cuts in early April that will remain in place throughout the STEO forecast period ending in 2021. EIA assumes OPEC members will mostly adhere to announced cuts during the first two months of the agreement (May and June) and that production compliance will relax later in the forecast period as stated production cuts are reduced and global oil demand begins growing.
EIA forecasts OPEC crude oil production will fall to less than 24.1 million b/d in June, a 6.3 million b/d decline from April, when OPEC production increased following an inconclusive meeting in March. If OPEC production declines to less than 24.1 million b/d, it would be the group’s lowest level of production since March 1995. The forecast for June OPEC production does not account for the additional voluntary cuts announced by Saudi Arabia’s Energy Ministry on May 11.
EIA expects OPEC production will begin increasing in July 2020 in response to rising global oil demand and prices. From that point, EIA expects a gradual increase in OPEC crude oil production through the remainder of the forecast and for production to rise to an average of 28.5 million b/d during the second half of 2021.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020
EIA forecasts the supply of non-OPEC petroleum and other liquid fuels will decline by 2.4 million b/d in 2020 compared with 2019. The steep decline reflects lower forecast oil prices in the second quarter as well as the newly implemented production cuts from non-OPEC participants in the OPEC+ agreement. EIA expects the largest non-OPEC production declines in 2020 to occur in Russia, the United States, and Canada.