OPEC tends to live in the public mind as a monolithic, unshakeable structure—except when oil prices drop. Yet the group is not as homogenous or, indeed, unanimous as it may see. And its members' different interests may, at some point, threaten its survival.
At their last ministerial meeting in June, OPEC leaders decided to extend their voluntary production cuts into 2024. They also decided to adjust the quotas of those members that were finding it hard to reach previously agreed production levels.
Meanwhile, OPEC apparently approached Guyana with a proposal to take it on as a member. Guyana refused, saying it wanted to focus on production growth. Brazil has also resisted becoming a member of the group, preferring to go it alone.
Indonesia, for its part, left OPEC in the mid-2000s when it became a net oil importer but later rejoined the cartel. And while the possibility is remote, it may not remain the only one to do this ever.
Then there was that report from the Wall Street Journal that said the UAE was considering leaving the group. The UAE was quick to deny the report, but the doubts remained, especially as the report came during a time when political tensions spiked between the UAE and its larger OPEC partner Saudi Arabia.
At the last OPEC+ meeting, Saudi Arabia announced what its energy minister called "a Saudi lollipop": a voluntary cut of 1 million bpd in production while the UAE was allowed to boost its own production by 200,000 bpd.
Yet this may not have been the most important part of the news to come out of that meeting. In a recent article, Reuters' Ahmad Ghaddar suggested that another element of the agreement may have higher significance—the adjustment of baselines and production quotas. Related: UAE: Latest Output Cuts Are Enough To Balance The Oil Market
With the adjustment, OPEC acknowledged that some members, such as Iraq, Nigeria, and Angola simply do not have the production capacity to produce as much as their original quotas called for. So, these quotas were adjusted accordingly, reflecting, incidentally, these OPEC members' troubles in attracting foreign capital, on which they depend for developing their hydrocarbon resources.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia's voluntary cut comes amid plans to boost its spare production capacity to 13 million barrels daily over the medium term and pretty much identical plans in the UAE.
In other words, some OPEC members may be struggling to even maintain production, but others are boosting their spare capacity because they can afford to do it. According to Ghaddar, this could widen the gap between Gulf members—perhaps excluding Iraq—and African members such as Nigeria and Angola.
Gulf members already have the upper hand in OPEC, to be sure. The quota adjustment, Ghaddar says, would only increase their influence and reduce the influence of African members. It may not be too far-fetched to speculate if these African members might not decide to go the Indonesia way.
Nigeria has complained about the quotas on more than one occasion, even if it cannot reach them. So has the UAE, which is a Gulf member—a member of the dominant group in OPEC. For now, membership of OPEC and the power to dictate world prices has kept the group together, but what happens when world prices stop responding?
This is what's happening right now. Oil traders do not seem to care about oil demand and supply. What they care about is GDP reports and projections, and the latest factory activity data out of China and the United States. As a result, prices are stuck around $70-75 per barrel, and even the news that Saudi Arabia will extend its voluntary cuts and that Russia will cut exports did not help push them higher.
This state of affairs must be a source of frustration in the group, as are analyst expectations that these cuts, per Eurasia Group, "will do little to shift bearish sentiment in a market that is consumed with pessimism about the prospects for oil demand growth in the second half of the year".
Guyana could provide inspiration for some. The tiny South American country that turned into an oil hotspot in a matter of a few years has refused to join the group on the grounds that it wants to maximize the returns it can extract from its resources.
Interestingly, it was the Wall Street Journal again that reported the news that OPEC had invited Guyana to join it, following which official OPEC sources denied such an invitation had been extended.
OPEC's leader, Saudi Arabia, has consistently demonstrated that the group was united even when there were internal rifts and disagreements about production policy. Indeed, all members have made an effort to keep it united for the good of every member—any news of internal divisions sends the price of oil tumbling. The question, at a price-sensitive moment like this, is how long this unity will last if efforts to direct prices by supply control continue failing.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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