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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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OPEC Fears Another Downturn In Oil

Oil prices have fallen so far in the past month that OPEC is clearly growing concerned about a downturn.

Saudi Arabia and Russia will explore the possibility of a production cut for 2019, a move intended to head off a renewed supply glut. Surging U.S. shale production, plus higher output from Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq and Libya, has more than offset the declines from Iran, at least so far. Inventories have climbed sharply in the U.S., and shale production in recent months has exceeded expectations.

Nevertheless, a production cut would be a dramatic turnaround for the oil cartel, which until recently had to repeatedly reassure the oil market that supplies were adequate and that they were prepared to meet any hypothetical shortfall with fresh supply.

The course correction is jarring. “The message from OPEC looks like: fasten the seat belts,” Bob McNally, president of Rapidan Energy Advisors LLC, told Bloomberg. OPEC will essentially “put pedal to the metal to boost production, and then immediately slam the brakes pretty hard and talk about cutting supply.”

Saudi Arabia has been worried about this scenario for several months at least. When oil prices were rising over the summer, and again in September, Saudi officials pointed to upcoming seasonal demand weakness in the winter. “There are more demand threats next year compared to supply threats,” an unnamed Saudi source told Reuters in September. Still, the markets were concerned about shortages, Brent jumped to the mid-$80s per barrel, and there was widespread speculation about the extent of Saudi spare capacity.

A month and a half on, Riyadh and Moscow are mulling over a production cut. A lot has changed in such a short period of time. Libya restored a huge amount of disrupted supply. Saudi Arabia ramped up production to 10.7 million barrels per day, up 700,000 bpd since the OPEC meeting in June. Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. has been producing a lot more oil than previously thought. In August, production jumped by more than 400,000 bpd from June levels, an unbelievably large increase.

Related: U.S. Oil Production Is Set To Soar Past 12 Million Bpd

On Wednesday, the EIA reported yet another large crude oil inventory increase, with stocks jumping by 5.8 million barrels in the first week of November, up to 431.8 million barrels. Shockingly, the EIA said the U.S. produced an astounding 11.6 mb/d for the week ending on November 2. The weekly figures tend to be a bit less reliable, and are subject to revision later on. But the figure is still a sign that shale production is growing very rapidly.

“The US Energy Information Administration now predicts that it will increase to 12 million barrels per day in the second quarter of 2019. Originally this was not expected to happen until late 2019,” Commerzbank said in a note. “This will force OPEC to reverse its latest increase in oil production by roughly 1 million barrels per day again if it does not want to risk a massive oversupply and a further slide in oil prices.”

To top it off, the Trump administration’s decision to grant waivers to eight countries importing Iranian oil takes a lot of the edge off the market. This alone helps explain a lot of the motivation behind Saudi Arabia’s renewed interest in production cuts for next year. If around 1 mb/d of oil exports from Iran is no longer going offline, that almost completely removes the need for more Saudi supply. With Iran still online, the rest of OPEC may now need to reduce production.

Which is exactly what the Iranians are saying. “Saudi Arabia and Russia have increased production, and prices have come down $15 a barrel,” Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, Iran’s representative to OPEC, said in a Bloomberg interview. “They have over-balanced the market,” and now need to eliminate 1 mb/d of production.

Related: Is Shale The Future For Big Oil?

To top it off, the global economy is facing some major questions marks, especially as we head into 2019. Any slowdown will hit crude oil demand. “They will absolutely want to at some point next year try to arrange a reduction in production,” said Ed Morse, head of commodities at Citigroup Inc., according to Bloomberg. “Everything points to a fairly weak balance: the world economy is decelerating, the China trade tensions are having a visible impact on demand.”

It would be difficult to achieve consensus from the more than dozen OPEC member countries, but then again, Saudi Arabia and Russia have demonstrated that they can do what they want on their own, even if the rest of OPEC opposes them.

The bottom line is that even the mere rumor of a production cut offers some evidence that the oil market is a lot looser than it was a few weeks ago. The head of the IEA warned that the oil market is “not out of the woods yet,” pointing to the “free-fall” in Venezuelan production. However, sentiment has clearly shifted. “The market has yet to prove that it can hold onto a rally, so the short-term mood is still very negative,” Phil Flynn, analyst at Price Futures Group, told Reuters.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • austin millbarge on November 09 2018 said:
    opec/russia should force texas to supply all of america's oil needs. it can't. then idiotic energy analysts will learn the difference between condensate, and oil.
  • Mike Kom on November 09 2018 said:
    I love this. I'm not anti-oil. I'm just anti-Brooks, The Armpit Of Alberta. The more that town suffers, the happier I am.
  • Mamdouh G Salameh on November 09 2018 said:
    When you make a claim, you have to support it with facts otherwise it will be depicted as fake by your readers.

    I am referring to your unsubstantiated claim that higher output from Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq and Libya has more than offset the declines from Iran. What declines are you talking about? Iran’s output and exports have not declined by a single barrel. So the onus is on you to provide figures to prove your point.

    Since the current robust fundamentals of the global oil market have not changed since October when oil prices hit $87 a barrel, there could be two simple explanations why prices have been declining lately.

    The first explanation is that the global oil market is giving a sigh of relief having realized that Iran has not lost a single barrel from its oil exports as a result of the sanctions. The market has been bombarded before the sanctions went to force with projections that Iran could lose between 500,000 barrels a day (b/d) to 1.5 million barrels a day (mbd) of its exports. This has not materialized. Furthermore, the issuing of sanction waivers to eight countries who don’t need them in the first place and who would have continued to buy Iranian crude waivers or no waivers is the clearest admission by the United States that their zero option is out of reach and that sanctions are doomed to fail.

    The second explanation is that the global oil market has not re-balanced completely and that there is a small pocket of glut capable of taking care of outages in Venezuela and elsewhere, something I have been saying for quite a while. This means that Saudi Arabia’s decision (under intense pressure from President Trump to save his neck in the November Congressional elections) and Russia’s to add 650,000 b/d three weeks ago to keep prices down was a serious error. President Trump’s republican party lost control of the US House of Representatives and the 650,000 b/d added to the market have enhanced whatever glut existed in the market. Liby’a s production surge to more than 1 mbd has also added to the glut.

    Saudi Arabia and Russia need not explore a production cut on behalf of OPEC+. It would be far more advisable to withdraw from the market the 650,000 b/d they added three months ago.

    Claims by the EIA that US oil output hit 11.6 mbd in November are normally discounted by the global oil market along with utterances by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The EIA’s weekly figures are normally 700,000 b/d to 1 mbd higher than the monthly figures. So production figures could have been estimated at 10.6 -10.9 mbd if any. The EIA has always worked on the premise that by the time it published its monthly figures, the global oil market would have forgotten about its exaggerated claims in the weekly figures.

    Still, I am convinced that oil prices will soon recoup their losses and head towards $80-$85 a barrel before the end of the year buoyed by robust fundamentals of the global oil market and also surging Chinese oil imports. It looks to me like the calm before the storm.

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

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