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Nick Cunningham

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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’s ‘Modest’ Aims Won’t Be Enough

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The OPEC+ meeting is just days away and it seems all but certain that the result will be some sort of increase in production, although the magnitude of the output increase remains to be seen. Another thing that seems all but certain is that the meeting will be incredibly contentious, with Saudi Arabia and Russia likely peeling off from the rest of the group.

Russia has proposed an aggressive 1.5 mb/d production increase from the OPEC+ group, but many of the OPEC members oppose any increase at all. The gap between these two positions is so wide that it seems irreconcilable.

Saudi Arabia is trying to mediate, and is trying to balance competing interests – it wants to keep up the group’s cohesion, while also trying to adequately supply the market and solidify a more permanent cooperative framework with Russia. The Saudis also want to keep prices up for its Aramco IPO, but not so high as to destroy oil demand and/or spark too strong of a response from U.S. shale. The interests may be incompatible, but it appears the Saudi strategy is to split the difference and push for medium-sized production increases of around 300,000-600,000 bpd over the next few months.

But because so many OPEC members have no ability to increase output, they are dead set against any increase. The reports that the Trump administration directly asked Saudi Arabia to boost oil production to make up for the expected shortfall from Iran following the return of U.S. sanctions has also made negotiations much more difficult. Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with the U.S., which typically hasn’t affected the inner workings of OPEC, has poisoned the well. Related: OPEC Back “In the Driver’s Seat”

That means that Saudi Arabia will likely be unable to drag the rest of OPEC along with a formal agreement on an increase in output. What could emerge is a sort of bilateral agreement between Riyadh and Moscow. While they still disagree on the precise volumes of additional oil, they both are highly interested in not only coming to an agreement, but formalizing some sort of more permanent framework for cooperation.

How all of this works out in practice remains to be seen, but it could mean the current deal is formally left untouched, and Saudi Arabia and Russia reach some sort of tacit or parallel agreement to increase output. Based on the latest reports, the middle of the range at about 500,000 bpd seems roughly where they are right now.

Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih said last week that an increase in output is “inevitable,” but he is trying to walk a fine line by reassuring the world that it won’t be a tidal wave of fresh supply. “As usual we will do the right thing,” Khalid al-Falih told reporters in Moscow on Thursday. “I think we’ll come to an agreement that satisfies most importantly the market.”

“I think it will be a reasonable and moderate agreement,” al-Falih said. “It’s not going to be anything outlandish.”

However, what makes this story even more complex is the fact that the oil market is calling for more supply. The utter collapse of Venezuelan production means that Russia’s position looks closer to the mark than the “no increase” mantra from the rest of OPEC, and arguably even Saudi Arabia’s position.

According to S&P Global Platts, even if the group increases output by 1 million barrels per day – definitely on the more aggressive end of the menu of options – the global oil market could still see inventories draw down at a rate of 400,000 bpd by the end of 2019. That assumes another 500,000 bpd loss of Venezuelan supply between now and then, plus a 900,000-bpd decline from Iran. Related: Venezuela Forced To Shut Down Production As Operations Fall Apart

In other words, the position favored by Saudi Arabia could still leave the market short on supply by next year, and could lead to much higher prices. Riyadh still seems to prefer that more “modest” option, if only to avoid a total fracturing of OPEC, but it isn’t clear that it will be enough to bridge the supply gap.

Of course, nothing is decided yet and the group is considering a range of options. Saudi officials might also look at the collapse underway in Venezuela, the potential outages in Iran, the unexpected recent outage in Libya, and come to the conclusion that it needs to be bolder. A recent report that Saudi Arabia and Russia discussed a two-step process of adding 500,000 bpd in the third quarter followed by a 500,000-bpd increase in the fourth quarter, might make more sense than the idea of only increasing by around 300,000 bpd, which was reportedly Saudi Arabia’s preferred option a few weeks ago.

The upcoming OPEC meeting is set to be the most dramatic since late 2016 at least.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on June 19 2018 said:
    I still strongly maintain that OPEC and Russia don’t need at this stage to raise production as the global oil market has not re-balanced completely and prices are still hovering around $74-%76 a barrel and not beyond $80 or higher where they should be if they to enable OPEC members to balance their budgets.

    Nobody spoke of a supply gap in the global oil market until President Trump requested Saudi Arabia to ramp up oil production to replace any shortfall in Iranian oil exports as a result of the forthcoming US sanctions. History is replete of examples of Saudi appeasement of the United States by quenching its addiction to oil, financing its wars and doing the United States’ bidding. Now the Saudi are so keen in joining the US-Israel- axis against Iran.

    The claim that the oil market is calling for more supply is not true and is based on faulty assumptions. The first assumption is that the forthcoming US sanctions on Iran will cause a shortfall in Iran’s oil exports. This is not going to happen and Iran is not going to lose a single barrel of its oil exports. The second assumption is that Saudi Arabia wants to keep prices up for its Aramco IPO. This could not be further from the truth. While Saudi Arabia wants oil prices far above $80 in order to balance its budget, it has to all means and purposes shelved the IPO as it no longer needs the money from it. The third assumption that the market needs more oil supply to offset a possible collapse of Venezuelan oil production and a reduction in Libya’s is also not true. The oil market has already factored in long time ago a steeper decline in Venezuela’s oil production and erratic Libyan production.

    While there is still a strong need for the OPEC/non-OPEC production cut agreement to ensure that the global oil market is fully re-balanced, I have always called for the OPEC deal to be metamorphosed at a future date into a permanent mechanism capable of responding quickly to a tightening in the global oil market or a return of the glut.

    It is not a bad thing if Saudi Arabia and Russia institutionalize the current OPEC deal but they should not give themselves extraordinary powers to breach the OPEC deal at well by intervening to raise or lower production as they see fit thus sidelining OPEC.

    Still, Saudi Arabia as the de facto leader of OPEC will carry the day in the OPEC meeting and force a rise in OPEC production estimated at 300,000-600,000 barrels a day (b/d). In pursuing such a course of action, Saudi Arabia will meet President Trump’s request halfway, keep the bulk of its spare production capacity (if it actually exists) virtually intact, allow the oil price to resume its upward surge and also meet Russia’s enthusiasm for a higher production rise halfway.

    The Saudis should be very mindful of the fact that if there a future collapse of oil prices in the future, their economy will be the most damaged as was the case with the 2014 oil price crash. If they breach the OPEC deal by forcing a production rise on OPEC, they risk losing any future support from the majority of OPEC members should there be a need for another production cut agreement.

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

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