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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Oil Prices Could Surprise to the Upside This Year

  • Reuters poll: there is enough oil supply globally to keep Brent around $81 this year and WTI at some $76.50.
  • Large spare capacity of OPEC members and no clear supply disruptions in the Red Sea diminish upside for oil.
  • Goehring and Rozencwajg: the EIA may be estimating production growth where there's a production decline.
Oil refinery

Crude oil prices recently logged their second monthly gain in a row as OPEC+ extended their supply curb deal until the end of Q2 2024. The gains have been considerable, with WTI adding about $7 per barrel over the month of February.

Yet a lot of analysts remain bearish about the commodity's prospects. In fact, they believe that there is enough oil supply globally to keep Brent around $81 this year and WTI at some $76.50, according to a Reuters poll. Yet, like last year in U.S. shale showed, there is always the possibility of a major surprise.

According to the respondents in that poll, what's keeping prices tame is, first, the fact that the Red Sea crisis has not yet affected oil shipments in the region thanks to alternative routes. The second reason cited by the analysts is OPEC+ spare capacity, which has increased thanks to the cuts.

"Spare capacity has reached a multi-year high, which will keep overall market sentiment under pressure over the coming months," Kpler senior analyst Florian Grunberger told Reuters.

The perception of ample spare capacity is definitely one factor keeping traders and analysts bearish as they assume this capacity would be put into operation as soon as the market needs it. This may well be an incorrect assumption. Related: 2 Ways to Play Europe’s $800 Billion Energy Crisis

Saudi Arabia and OPEC have given multiple signs that they would only release more production if prices are to their liking, and if cuts are getting extended, then current prices are not to OPEC's liking yet.

There is more, too. The Saudis, which are cutting the most and have the greatest spare capacity at around 3 million barrels daily right now, are acutely aware that the moment they release additional supply, prices will plunge. Therefore, the chance of Saudi cuts being reversed anytime soon is pretty slim.

Then there is the U.S. oil production factor. Last year, analysts expected modest output additions from the shale patch because the rig count remained consistently lower than what it was during the strongest shale boom years.

That assumption proved wrong as drillers made substantial gains in well productivity that pushed total production to yet another record. Perhaps a bit oddly, analysts are once again making a bold assumption for this year: that the productivity gains will continue at the same rate this year as well.

The Energy Information Administration disagrees. In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, the authority estimated that U.S. oil output had reached a record high of 13.3 million barrels daily that in January fell to 12.6 million bpd due to harsh winter weather. For the rest of the year, however, the EIA has forecast a production level remaining around the December record, which will only be broken in February 2025.

Oil demand, meanwhile, will be growing. Wood Mackenzie recently predicted 2024 demand growth at 1.9 million barrels daily. OPEC sees this year's demand growth at 2.25 million barrels daily. The IEA is, as usual, the most modest in its expectations, seeing 2024 demand for oil grow by 1.2 million bpd.

With OPEC+ keeping a lid on production and U.S. production remaining largely flat on 2023, if the EIA is correct, a tightening of the supply situation is only a matter of time. Indeed, some are predicting that already.

Natural resource-focused investors Goehring and Rozencwajg recently released their latest market outlook, in which they warned that the oil market may already be in a structural deficit, to manifest later this year.

They also noted a change in the methodology that the EIA uses to estimate oil production, which may well have led to a serious overestimation of production growth. The discrepancy between actual and reported production, Goehring and Rozencwajg said, could be so significant that the EIA may be estimating growth where there's a production decline.

So, on the one hand, some pretty important assumptions are being made about demand, namely, that it will grow more slowly this year than it did last year. This assumption is based on another one, by the way, and this is the assumption that EV sales will rise as strongly as they did last year—when they failed to make a dent in oil demand growth—and kill some oil demand.

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On the other hand, there is the assumption that U.S. drillers will keep drilling like they did last year. What would motivate such a development is unclear, besides the expectation that Europe will take in even more U.S. crude this year than it already is. This is a much safer assumption than the one about demand, by the way. And yet, there are indications from the U.S. oil industry that there will be no pumping at will this year. There will be more production discipline.

Predicting oil prices accurately, even over the shortest of periods, is as safe as flipping a coin. With the number of variables at play at any moment, accurate predictions are usually little more than a fluke, especially when perceptions play such an outsized role in price movements. One thing is for sure, though. There may be surprises this year in oil.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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