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 Schneidercalled '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 circumstancesbeyond 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. ForVenezuela 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.
Gregory Brew - PhD Student in History, Energy and Foreign Relations, Georgetown University
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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.
In the past week, crude oil prices have surged to levels last seen over a year ago. The global Brent benchmark hit US$63/b, while its American counterpart WTI crested over the US$60/b mark. The more optimistic in the market see these gains as a start of a commodity supercycle stemming from market forces pent-up over the long Covid-19 pandemic. The more cynical see it as a short-term spike from a perfect winter storm and constrained supply. So, which is it?
To get to that point, let’s examine how crude oil prices have evolved since the start of the year. On the consumption side, the market is vacillating between hopeful recovery and jittery reactions as Covid-19 outbreaks and vaccinations lent a start-stop rhythm to consumption trends. Yes, vaccination programmes were developed at lightning speed; and even plenty of bureaucratic hiccoughs have not hampered a steady rollout across the globe. In the UK, more than 20% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccines, with the USA not too far behind. Israel has vaccinated more than 75% of its population, and most countries should be well into their own programmes by the end of March. That acceleration of vaccinations has underpinned expectations of higher oil demand, with hopes that people will begin to drive again, fly again and buy again. But those hopes have been occasionally interrupted by new Covid-19 clusters detected and, more worryingly, new mutations of the virus.
Against this hopeful demand picture, supply has been managed. Squabbling among the OPEC+ club has prevented a more aggressive approach to managing supply than kingpin Saudi Arabia would like, but OPEC+ has still managed to hold itself together to placate the market that crude spigots will remain restrained. And while the UAE has successfully shifted OPEC+ quota plan for 2021 from quarterly adjustments to monthly, Saudi Arabia stepped into the vacuum to stamp its authority with a voluntary 1 million barrels per day cut. The market was impressed.
That combination of events over January was enough to move Brent prices from the low US$50/b level to the upper US$50/b range. However, US$60/b remained seemingly out of reach. It took a heavy dusting of snow across Texas to achieve that.
Winter weather across the northern hemisphere seemed harsher than usual this year. Europe was hit by two large continent-wide storms, while the American Northeast and Pacific Northwest were buffeted with quite a few snowstorms. Temperatures in East Asia were fairly cold too, which led to strong prices for natural gas and LNG to keep the population warm. But it was a major snowstorm that swept through the southern United States – including Texas – that had the largest effect on prices. Some areas of Texas saw temperatures as low as -18 degrees Celsius, while electricity demand surged to the point where grids failed, leaving 4.3 million people without power. A national emergency was declared, with over 150 million Americans under winter storm warning conditions.
For the global oil complex, the effects of the storm were also direct. Some of the largest oil refineries in the world were forced to shut down due to the Arctic conditions, further disrupting power and fuel supplies. All in all, over 3 mmb/d of oil processing capacity had to be idled in the wake of the storm, including Motiva’s Port Arthur, ExxonMobil’s Baytown and Marathon’s Galveston Bay refineries. And even if the sites were still running, they would have to contend to upstream disruptions: estimates suggest that crude oil production in the prolific Permian Basin dropped by over a million barrels per day due to power outages, while several key pipelines connecting Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast were also forced to shutter.
That perfect storm was enough to send crude prices above the US$60/b level. But will it last? The damage from the Texan snowstorm has already begun to abate, and even then crude prices did not seem to have the appetite to push higher than US$63/b for Brent and US$60/b for WTI.
Instead, the key development that should determine the future range for crude prices going into the second quarter of 2021 will be in early March, when the OPEC+ club meets once again to decide the level of its supply quotas for April and perhaps beyond. The conundrum facing the various factions within the club is this: at US$60/b, crude oil prices are not low enough to scare all members in voting for unanimous stricter quotas and also not high enough to rescind controlled supply. Instead, prices are at a fragile level where arguments can be made both ways. Russia is already claiming that global oil markets are ‘balanced’, while Saudi Arabia is emphasising the need for caution in public messaging ahead of the meeting. Saudi Arabia’s voluntary supply cut will also expire in March, setting up the stage for yet another fractious meeting. If a snow overrun Texans was a perfect storm to push crude prices to a 13-month high, then the upcoming OPEC+ meeting faces another perfect storm that could negate confidence. Which will it be? The answer lies on the other side of the storm.