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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 Under Pressure As Oil Rally Continues

The surge of Brent crude prices over the last few weeks to $70 may be rattling OPEC, raising questions about the longevity of the collective production cuts.

Top OPEC officials surely did not expect such a dramatic run up in prices, at least not this early in the year. Both OPEC and the IEA have forecasted a rebound in crude storage levels in the first half of this year, a trend that was thought to keep a lid on any price rally. The working assumption was that oil prices wouldn’t dramatically improve until mid-2018.

Against that backdrop, OPEC officials didn’t think they would have to answer too many questions about the group’s plan until its June meeting. But with Brent at $70, the market is watching for clues about OPEC’s resolve — and some tiny cracks appear to be forming.

Russia’s energy minister said last week that OPEC and the non-OPEC coalition would begin discussing the possibility of a “smooth exit” from the production cuts, according to Reuters. Russian energy minister Alexander Novak also tried to tamp down concerns about prices rising too much too fast, arguing that the rally was likely temporary. “We see that the market is becoming balanced. We see that the market surplus is decreasing, but the market is not completely balanced yet,” he told reporters. “Of course, we need to continue monitoring the situation.”

The chief of Russian oil company Lukoil said last week that Russia should exit the deal if oil prices remain at $70 per barrel for more than six months. Related: Strong Oil Demand Growth Supports Oil At $70

Meanwhile, Iran’s oil minister recently admitted that OPEC does not want oil prices above $60 per barrel. 

Although there is little chance of any change in course anytime soon, OPEC officials will be compelled to discuss the state of the market at their upcoming monitoring meeting in Oman on January 21.

Other top oil ministers recently went public to shore up the group’s resolve, or at least to reassure the oil market that the group’s cohesion was not under strain from high oil prices.

UAE’s energy minister told CNBC last week that although prices have climbed quickly, there is still more work to do. "I am expecting that we will still see corrections in 2018 and I think it's the year of... the market fully achieving the balance," he said.

Qatar’s energy minister told its state news outlet, according to Bloomberg, that OPEC shouldn’t review the accord until global inventories come back down to the five-year average, the metric upon which OPEC is basing its production cuts.

Iraq’s oil minister also sought to reassure the market about OPEC’s resolve. “There are some sources here and there indicating that the market is flourishing now, the prices are healthy, so let’s talk about terminating the freeze,” oil minister Jabbar al-Luaibi said at a conference in Abu Dhabi. “This is the wrong judgment, and we don’t agree with such a concept.” The support of OPEC’s second largest oil producer is notable.

“We hope the whole dynamic will continue throughout 2018,” al-Luaibi added. “The deal should continue. The market now is stabilizing somehow but it’s not yet stable.”

Oman — not an OPEC member but a party to the agreement — echoed these comments in a Bloomberg interview. “It’s absolutely crazy, for all of us, to increase production by 10 percent and to lose revenue by 40 percent, and this is what we did in 2014,” Oman oil minister Mohammed Al Rumhy said.

Based on all of the recent statements from key oil ministers party to the OPEC deal, there doesn’t seem to be any daylight between them – OPEC will stay the course until the market becomes balanced.

But that could come a lot sooner than the group thought if current trends continue. JP Morgan said in a recent research note that OPEC was “very likely to cut short” its deal if the market balances before the end of the year.

Still, there are reasons why OPEC shouldn’t rush to judgement and hop off of the market management train too soon. A lot of speculative money is helping to push prices up. If investors unwind those bullish bets, prices could quickly come back down.

Also, the definition of the “five-year average” for oil inventories is a moving target, one that sort of waters down the meaning of declining inventories. Because the range in that five-year timeframe increasingly encompasses a period of time of elevated inventories, the target that OPEC is aiming for is moving closer. In other words, at the same time that real world inventories are declining, the “five-year average” target is rising.

Related: Is Venezuela’s Oil Industry Bouncing Back?

The upshot is that what is considered average is a lot higher than it used to be. That means OPEC doesn’t necessarily need to panic that it is overshooting and tightening too much.

But the one factor that is probably rattling OPEC more than anything is the prospect of another wave of U.S. shale supply. Expectations of growing U.S. shale production have risen recently, with an aggressive growth scenario laid out by the EIA last week. Also, the head of the IEA said last week that oil prices between $65 and $70 per barrel risks oversupply from U.S. shale.

On top of that, if shale drillers use the recent rally to lock in hedges for 2019 and beyond, they could ensure the supply gains keep coming, regardless of a price correction. Some view that as a reason for OPEC to keep the production cuts in place — the group won’t overshoot because there is plenty of supply coming.

But, as the comments from Iran’s oil minister illustrate, some within OPEC are getting worried that the production cuts themselves are sparking too much shale supply. That raises the odds of faltering compliance this year.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • John Brown on January 16 2018 said:
    What is fascinating is that this article admits that the worlds oil supply is NOT balanced. That a subtle way of saying there is still a glut of oil sloshing around the world despite the fact that OPEC/Russia have idled millions of barrels a day of production to try and drive prices higher. With a glut of oil still sloshing around there is NO reason in the world for oil to be selling for more than $30 to $40 a barrel, but the entire industry, and support industries, and speculator are so intent to drive up prices that every oil refinery fire, every pipeline leak, every drop in inventory even if they remain at record levels is used to speculate the price of oil up. With oil at $50 for most of the year, and now WTI at or near $65 the U.S. shale oil industry should be booming, and they always exceed expectation. So even as OPEC/Russia idle millions of barrels, more oil is coming onto the market at a faster pace than ever in history. As this article points out oil nearing $70 a barrel will spur both record U.S. increases in production, renewable energy, and result in a growing glut of oil rather than one that has been slowly shrinking but is still a glut. Its amazing how everyone involved in the oil industry can collude to push prices up like this despite all the oil sloshing around the world, and production increasing at an ever faster pace in the USA. Personally I hope they continue to connive to move the price of oil even higher. Even if U.S. producers are part of the collusion they'll gradually give in and increase production and subsidized renewables will continue to gain market share until the world is floating on surplus oil and the price crashes again.
  • Mamdouh G Salameh on January 16 2018 said:
    I don’t agree that OPEC is under pressure as the oil rally continues. In fact, OPEC members are very delighted with the surge of the oil price to $70 a barrel so early in the year. And despite a statement by Iran’s oil minister recently that OPEC does not want oil prices above $60 per barrel, members particularly Saudi Arabia want prices far higher than $70/barrel to compensate for the huge losses they incurred since 2014. I personally believe that OPEC is using reverse psychology on the market by pretending that its members don’t want the price to go beyond $60/barrel when they are in effect greatly hoping that the price surge will continue much higher.

    There are four cardinal factors of which the global oil market should take note. The first is that OPEC’s actions always lagged behind fundamental changes in oil supply and demand rather than led them. Before 2014 OPEC members have announced ever-higher price goals only after the market has already delivered those high prices. As the market has soared, OPEC has followed.

    The second factor is that the production cut agreement will continue unchanged until the end of 2018. Russia and OPEC might even agree to keep it in 2019 with the proviso that they adjust the level of cuts to reflect changing market conditions. Oman, a non-OPEC member but party to the OPEC/non-OPEC production cut agreement echoed the inner thoughts of OPEC when it said “It’s absolutely crazy, for all of us, to increase production by 10% and to lose revenue by 40%, and this is what we did in 2014,” according to the Oman oil minister.

    The third factor is that OPEC members are not worried by EIA’s and IEA’s projections about increases in US shale oil production in 2018 and 2019 unbalancing the global oil market. After all, it was mostly overproduction by OPEC members to the tune of 2.5 million barrels a day (mbd) in 2014 that caused the glut in the market.

    The fourth factor is that today’s OPEC is really about Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia badly needs a price far above $70/barrel for the success of its Initial Public Offering (IPO) for the sale of part of Saudi Aramco. Moreover, Saudi Arabia does not want a repeat of the damage that low oil prices have inflicted on its economy since 2014.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • petergrt on January 17 2018 said:
    The 'oil tourists' have bid-up the prices and now hold over one billion barrels of crude contracts - that is one huge depositary that will have to be unloaded, and soon.

    At the same time the oil producers have sold those contracts and thus hedged their production for some time to come . . . . . .

    Is this the making of a perfect storm . . . . .?

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