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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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 9 September 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$56/b
Headlines of the week
Detailed market research and continuous tracking of market developments—as well as deep, on-the-ground expertise across the globe—informs our outlook on global gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG). We forecast gas demand and then use our infrastructure and contract models to forecast supply-and-demand balances, corresponding gas flows, and pricing implications to 2035.Executive summary
The past year saw the natural-gas market grow at its fastest rate in almost a decade, supported by booming domestic markets in China and the United States and an expanding global gas trade to serve Asian markets. While the pace of growth is set to slow, gas remains the fastest-growing fossil fuel and the only fossil fuel expected to grow beyond 2035.Global gas: Demand expected to grow 0.9 percent per annum to 2035
While we expect coal demand to peak before 2025 and oil demand to peak around 2033, gas demand will continue to grow until 2035, albeit at a slower rate than seen previously. The power-generation and industrial sectors in Asia and North America and the residential and commercial sectors in Southeast Asia, including China, will drive the expected gas-demand growth. Strong growth from these regions will more than offset the demand declines from the mature gas markets of Europe and Northeast Asia.
Gas supply to meet this demand will come mainly from Africa, China, Russia, and the shale-gas-rich United States. China will double its conventional gas production from 2018 to 2035. Gas production in Europe will decline rapidly.LNG: Demand expected to grow 3.6 percent per annum to 2035, with market rebalancing expected in 2027–28
We expect LNG demand to outpace overall gas demand as Asian markets rely on more distant supplies, Europe increases its gas-import dependence, and US producers seek overseas markets for their gas (both pipe and LNG). China will be a major driver of LNG-demand growth, as its domestic supply and pipeline flows will be insufficient to meet rising demand. Similarly, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and South Asia will rely on LNG to meet the growing demand to replace declining domestic supplies. We also expect Europe to increase LNG imports to help offset declining domestic supply.
Demand growth by the middle of next decade should balance the excess LNG capacity in the current market and planned capacity additions. We expect that further capacity growth of around 250 billion cubic meters will be necessary to meet demand to 2035.
With growing shale-gas production in the United States, the country is in a position to join Australia and Qatar as a top global LNG exporter. A number of competing US projects represent the long-run marginal LNG-supply capacity.Key themes uncovered
Over the course of our analysis, we uncovered five key themes to watch for in the global gas market:
Challenges in a growing market
Gas looks the best bet of fossil fuels through the energy transition. Coal demand has already peaked while oil has a decade or so of slowing growth before electric vehicles start to make real inroads in transportation. Gas, blessed with lower carbon intensity and ample resource, is set for steady growth through 2040 on our base case projections.
LNG is surfing that wave. The LNG market will more than double in size to over 1000 bcm by 2040, a growth rate eclipsed only by renewables. A niche market not long ago, shipped LNG volumes will exceed global pipeline exports within six years.The bullish prospects will buoy spirits as industry leaders meet at Gastech, LNG’s annual gathering – held, appropriately and for the first time, in Houston – September 17-19.
Investors are scrambling to grab a piece of the action. We are witnessing a supply boom the scale of which the industry has never experienced before. Around US$240 billion will be spent between 2019 and 2025 on greenfield and brownfield LNG supply projects, backfill and finishing construction for those already underway.50% to be added to global supply
In total, these projects will bring another 182 mmtpa to market, adding 50% to global supply. Over 100 mmtpa is from the US alone, most of the rest from Qatar, Russia, Canada, and Mozambique. Still, more capital will be needed to meet demand growth beyond the mid-2020s. But the rapid growth also presents major challenges for sellers and buyers to adapt to changes in the market.
There is a risk of bottlenecks as this new supply arrives on the market. The industry will have to balance sizeable waves of fresh sales volumes with demand growing in fits and starts and across an array of disparate marketplaces – some mature, many fledglings, a good few in between.
India has built three new re-gas terminals, but imports are actually down in 2019. The pipeline network to get the gas to regional consumers has yet to be completed. Pakistan has a gas distribution network serving its northern industrial centres. But the main LNG import terminals are in the south of the country, and the commitment to invest in additional transmission lines taking gas north is fraught with political uncertainty.
China is still wrestling with third-party access and regulation of the pipeline business that is PetroChina’s core asset. Any delay could dull the growth rate in Asia’s LNG hotspot. Europe is at the early stages of replacing its rapidly depleting sources of indigenous piped gas with huge volumes of LNG imports delivered to the coast. Will Europe’s gas market adapt seamlessly to a growing reliance on LNG – especially when tested at extreme winter peaks? Time will tell.
The point-to-point business model that has served sellers (and buyers) so well over the last 60 years will be tested by market access and other factors. Buyers facing mounting competition in their domestic market will increasingly demand flexibility on volume and price, and contracts that are diverse in duration and indexation. These traditional suppliers risk leaving value, perhaps a lot of value, on the table.
In the future, sellers need to be more sophisticated. The full toolkit will have a portfolio of LNG, a mixture of equity and third-party contracted gas; a trading capability to optimise on volume and price; and the requisite logistics – access to physical capacity of ships and re-gas terminals to shift LNG to where it’s wanted. Enlightened producers have begun to move to an integrated model, better equipped to meet these demands and capture value through the chain. Pure traders will muscle in too.
Some integrated players will think big picture, LNG becoming central to an energy transition strategy. As Big Oil morphs into Big Energy, LNG will sit alongside a renewables and gas-fired power generation portfolio feeding all the way through to gas and electricity customers.
LNG trumps pipe exports...
...as the big suppliers crank up volumes