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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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How High Can Trump Push Oil Prices?

Saudi Arabia wants $100 oil and Donald Trump might help them achieve that goal.

Behind the scenes, Saudi officials are eyeing $100 per barrel as a goal, which would help plug a chronic fiscal deficit, but more importantly, it would inflate the value of Saudi Aramco ahead of the company’s IPO next year.

Up until only recently, it seemed that triple-digit oil prices would never return. Soaring U.S. shale production promised to keep oil prices low forever, and for every oil analyst that predicted a rebound in prices, there was another that forecasted a downturn.

But the market is dramatically tighter than even just a few months ago. OPEC is over-complying with the production cuts, demand is growing at a rapid clip and the inventory surplus is virtually gone. Against the backdrop of a much tighter oil market, an unexpected supply outage could push things over the edge.

President Trump might be the one to do it. Within the next three weeks, the Trump administration will likely decide against re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal, which could lead to a return to sanctions. There has been constant speculation that this might occur, especially since he promised in January he would stop granting waivers for Iran absent major changes to the nuclear deal. But the oil market really began to come around to the idea of a heightened conflict with Iran in March when Trump reshuffled his cabinet and nominated some belligerent Iran hawks to his cabinet.

Related: The World’s Most Profitable Oil Major

So, in that sense, the specter of a loss of oil supply from Iran is not exactly news. But, what is new is that the loss of Iranian oil could occur against a much tighter oil market than previously expected, and it could occur at a time when Saudi Arabia may balk at stepping in and offsetting the losses. After all, Saudi Arabia has warmed to the idea of $100 oil.

A Bloomberg survey of 17 oil market analysts finds that they predict a 50-50 chance that the U.S. imposes “snap-back” sanctions on Iran, which seems oddly low given the fact that Trump has John Bolton and potentially Mike Pompeo chirping in his ear.

“It’s certainly well above 50 percent, it’s more likely than not. It firms the case for the Brent-at-$70-plus story. With Bolton, I think we go beyond the discussion of sanctions -- are we going to start thinking about regime change in Iran?” Helima Croft, chief commodities strategist at RBC Capital Markets, told Bloomberg in her response to the survey.

The big question is what new sanctions on Iran would do to the Islamic Republic’s oil exports. Iran exports around 2.1 million barrels per day, and estimates on the effect of sanctions runs the gamut. On the low end, some think the sanctions would have a minimal impact because the U.S. will struggle to stitch together the international coalition that the Obama administration put together in the years preceding the Iran nuclear deal, a group that succeeded in curtailing Iran’s exports by more than 1 mb/d.

On the upper end, one could point to the fact that it isn’t just that the U.S. is trying to prohibit countries from buying oil, but that the U.S. Treasury could ban banks and companies from doing business with the U.S. if they continue to deal with Iran. In that sense, it would still be tricky for Europe or India, for instance, to defy Washington. In other words, even without allies, the U.S. could put a lot of Iranian supply at risk.

Crucially, President Trump is wildly unpredictable and not always open to reason. The Obama administration granted waivers and grace periods to countries that would have faced hardship if they stopped purchases of Iranian oil, such as India, Korea and Japan. It’s not clear that Trump would much care about the circumstances of individual countries.

Bloomberg Gadfly notes that his administration’s indifference to the sudden turmoil in the aluminum market stemming from U.S. sanctions on Rusal, a major Russian aluminum producer, suggests Trump might shrug off oil market chaos.

Related: Why Natural Gas Prices Will Rise This Summer

Moreover, there is an even more poignant example of the Trump administration’s willingness to sow chaos without much thought to the consequences. The unexpectedly stiff tariffs on China have sparked retaliation, with major Chinese tariffs set to go into effect on U.S. soy, corn and pork. The American agricultural industry is up in arms, a constituency that largely supported Trump in the 2016 election.


Turmoil in the aluminum market is one thing, but enraging American farmers is another. If Trump can shrug that off, then he can likely handle higher oil prices. To top it off, the U.S. oil industry, another important Trump constituency, would stand to benefit from higher prices, blunting the political fallout.

To recap, the Trump administration is a few weeks away from deciding on new sanctions on Iran. That could put several hundred thousand barrels of supply at risk. His impulsiveness might mean that there is a short or no phase-in period on new sanctions, or that very few countries are granted leniency. This is occurring against a backdrop of a much tighter oil market, and any new outage could push the market into a supply deficit. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which is really the only country that has the wherewithal to do something about it, is content to let the market overtighten, allowing oil prices to shoot up.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Ted on April 20 2018 said:
    President Trump is opening enough Alaskan oil to bring oil prices down to $30/bbl.

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