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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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Is This The End Of The OPEC Deal?

Oil prices ran into a brick wall on Thursday, falling more than 1 percent on news that U.S. inventories jumped and OPEC may be considering an exit from its production cuts.

Reuters reports that some OPEC officials are privately rethinking the extension of their production cuts beyond June. To date, the prevailing consensus has been that OPEC+ would need to keep the cuts in place through the end of this year in order to rebalance the market.

But the swiftness of the rebalancing effort has surprised most analysts, and has even surprised OPEC itself. Of course, while the group has kept 1.2 million barrels per day (mb/d) off of the market since the start of this year (give or take), U.S. sanctions have knocked even more supply offline in Venezuela and Iran. In March, Venezuela’s oil production plunged by 289,000 bpd, falling to just 732,000 bpd, according to OPEC’s secondary sources. It’s a staggering figure. The widespread blackout, the economic and political crisis, and harsh U.S. sanctions have crushed Venezuela’s oil sector.

Meanwhile, Iran’s output has held up a bit better, but has still suffered from significant declines since last year. The expiration of waivers that the U.S. granted to eight countries importing Iranian crude expires in just a few weeks. As of now, Trump officials appear to be split on whether or not to take a hard line by letting the waivers expire.

In a sign of how hawkish the Trump administration has become, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now viewed as being at the softer end of the spectrum in regards to Iran policy. Pompeo has a long reputation as a hardliner on Iran, so the fact that his department is the one trying to moderate White House policy is telling. Notably, Pompeo’s State Department is worried about rattling the oil markets if the administration is too aggressive on Iran, according to Bloomberg. Related: Trump’s Executive Order Is A Gamechanger For Oil Shipping

Meanwhile, OPEC is watching all these events very closely. Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih has repeatedly suggested in recent months that the OPEC+ production cuts would likely be extended. The group seems to want to err on the side of overtightening, especially after last year when OPEC+ abandoned the production cuts and the oil market crashed.

This time around, OPEC+ will have the benefit of being able to react after the mercurial U.S. President makes a decision on Iran sanctions waivers. The surprise issuance of waivers last year is one of the main reasons why prices crashed in the fourth quarter.

If the U.S. takes a hard line, and knocks more Iranian supply offline, and Venezuela continues to see supply losses mount, OPEC could decide to increase production from current levels, according to Reuters. That report follows comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin a few days prior that seemed to suggest that Russia is growing wary of keeping supply off of the market. Putin said that he does not support an uncontrolled increase in prices. Russian energy minister Alexander Novak added that there would be no need to for an extension of the cuts if the market had reached a balance. Related: Goldman: Oil Prices Won’t Reach $80

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the EIA also reported another surprise uptick in crude inventories. Taken together – Russia’s skepticism, U.S. inventories and now the possibility that OPEC would consider a production increase – the news took the steam out of the recent rally in prices. “Now there is a suggestion that OPEC may surprise us and raise production pre-emptively if we get a price spike,” Phil Flynn, an analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago, told Reuters.

Still, no decisions have been made and nothing is inevitable. In a sign that members of the OPEC+ coalition are not all on the same page, the UAE’s energy minister Suhail bin Mohammed al-Mazroui seemed to try to tamp down speculation that Russia was losing the will to cooperate. “Russia will not increase its output unless in coordination with the rest of OPEC and OPEC+ countries,” Mazroui said. “I believe in the wisdom of Russia, and I believe that Russia has benefited from this agreement... I don’t see any reason for Russia not to continue with us.”

The higher oil prices rise, the more the cracks in the cooperative arrangement will emerge. All it will take is another supply disruption in Iran, Venezuela or Libya to kill off the deal.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Johndowns on April 11 2019 said:
    Russia has yet to cut production so why the difference if they do or not . There should be sanctions on them for their interference in Venezuela
  • Mamdouh Salameh on April 12 2019 said:
    Any decision by OPEC + either to extend the current production cut agreement or to eliminate it altogether will depend on two major factors. One is that the global oil market has irrevocably rebalanced. The second is that oil prices have surged to $80 a barrel or higher.

    This is the position of OPEC’s de facto leader and biggest producer Saudi Arabia. Any other speculation is a waste of time.

    The fact that oil prices shrugged off the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) announcement of a 7-million barrel build in crude oil inventories and continued their surge speaks volumes about the strength of the global oil demand.

    Furthermore, a big bullish influence at play today is a slowdown in US oil production and a projected production decline of 1-2 million barrels a day (mbd) mostly from US shale oil production by 2020 could translate into a US production range of 10.0-11.0 mbd in 2019 and 10.0 mbd or less in 2020.

    And despite claims to the contrary, US sanctions against Iran have so far failed to cost Iran’s oil exports the loss of even a single barrel of oil. That is why the Trump administration has no alternative but to renew the sanction waivers it issued last year to the eight biggest buyers of Iranian crude when they expire in May or issue new ones for no other reason than to use them as a fig leaf to mask the fiasco that US sanctions have failed and also the fact that the zero exports option is a bridge too far.

    Another bearish factor is that Venezuela has managed to keep its oil production steady despite US sanctions.

    And whilst the political turmoil in Libya has added a geopolitical dimension to oil prices, its impact on oil prices will be very limited since the global oil market has already factored in Libya’s oil production disruptions as a result of continued instability in the country”.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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