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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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Why Did Saudi Arabia Kill OPEC?

Saudi Arabia OPEC

The OPEC meeting is only a week away, but the chances of a positive result are as remote as ever. Rising oil prices, the heightened rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Saudi Arabia’s willingness to go it alone will make a deal all but impossible.

First of all, Iran is not in a cooperative mood. According to the IEA, Iran has managed to boost oil production to 3.56 million barrels per day in April, its highest level since November 2011. Oil exports also jumped 600,000 barrels per day to 2 million barrels per day. Importantly, Iran’s output now stands at pre-sanctions levels, a key threshold that the Iranian government says it needs to reach before it would consider any cooperation on production limits with OPEC. However, Iran thus far does not see it that way, insisting that it still has more ground to make up.

More importantly, however, is Saudi Arabia’s shift in attitude. In a once unthinkable development, Saudi Arabia is backing away from OPEC. The cartel’s largest, most important, and most influential member will leave the group rudderless. Countless obituaries have been written about OPEC since November 2014, but the new direction that the Saudi monarchy is heading in all but ensures diminished influence for the oil cartel. Related: Saudi Market Share Takes A Hit As Russia Doubles Oil Exports To China

Saudi Arabia’s spurning of OPEC has been building for some time. In November 2014 it abandoned any plans to limit production in order to prop up prices, a strategy to pursue market share that has led to some downsides, but has largely achieved its goals. Saudi Arabia has seen revenues plummet, but it is producing at record levels and outlasting rival producers. U.S. shale, for instance, is down about 1 million barrels per day (mb/d) from the April 2015 peak, and more than 70 North American drillers have gone bankrupt.

But Saudi Arabia has gone further to distance itself from OPEC. In April, Saudi Arabia scuttled the production freeze deal in Doha, killing what would have been only a modest agreement that put limits on oil output. By all accounts, the emergence of the young Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman led to a harder line from Saudi Arabia. The replacement of long-time oil minister Ali al-Naimi a few weeks later solidified perceptions of a new era in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has very little inclination to limit its output just as its strategy is bearing fruit, and even less of a willingness to work with Iran, its regional rival, who it is battling in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. Saudi Arabia is going it alone and oil production is now close to record levels, above 10.2 mb/d.

Crucial to Saudi Arabia’s downgrading of OPEC on its list of priorities is its ambitious project to transition the country away from an overwhelming dependence on oil sales. The “Vision 2030” economic plan will involve the partial privatization of Saudi Aramco, with proceeds to be invested in a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund, which in turn will make strategic investments in non-oil assets. If it IPO goes forward, Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil producers and still the most important player in OPEC, will be the only OPEC member without a fully state-owned oil company. Related: OPEC Head Calls for $65 Oil

Saudi Arabia’s decision to walk away from Doha, combined with the colossal economic reforms it is putting in place, all but assure that it no longer cares about cooperating with OPEC members to influence market prices for crude oil.

“The main take-away from Saudi Vision 2030 is that there’s just no role for OPEC,” Seth Kleinman, head of European energy research at Citigroup Inc., told Bloomberg in a recent interview. “Or, you can have an OPEC without Saudi Arabia, which just isn’t much of an OPEC.” Given that Saudi Arabia is the only country with significant spare capacity, which is what allows it to ramp up and down oil production, OPEC is more or less meaningless without its largest producer.

Moreover, even if Saudi Arabia was not embarking on this epochal change in the structure of its economy, there is little reason for OPEC to limit production at its upcoming meeting in Vienna. Oil prices are finally rebounding, up more than 80 percent from the February lows. Outages in supply from Canada to Nigeria have tightened markets. U.S. production is down 1 mb/d and will continue to fall for the foreseeable future. And even oil inventories appear to be leveling off.

"I don't think OPEC will decide anything," a source from a major oil producer in the Middle East told Reuters. "The market is recovering because of supply disruptions and demand recovery." An OPEC delegate told Reuters that any changes to the cartel’s policy is off the table. “Nothing. The freeze is finished,” the OPEC source said.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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