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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Oil Prices Drop As Markets Await Washington’s Response To Saudi Attack

It was a wild ride, but oil prices fell again on Wednesday, pushing them back near levels seen earlier this month. Despite the largest supply outage in oil market history, the spike could prove to be shockingly brief.

Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman soothed market fears on Tuesday when he stated that roughly 40 percent of the disrupted capacity at Abqaiq was back online, and that the facility would return to pre-attack levels by the end of the month. It appears to be a startlingly swift rebound for such a massive attack.

There are uncertainties, however. “Don’t get too excited. There is clear risk of a slower restart of Saudi Arabian oil production despite the optimistic guidance by Saudi Aramco,” Rystad Energy chief oil market analyst Bjørnar Tonhaugen said in a statement. Rystad estimates that around 1.6 million barrels per day (mb/d) of Arab Light and 0.35 mb/d of Arab Extra Light production would remain shut-in on average through October. “In our view, there is a clear risk of a slower resumption towards full capacity,” Tonhaugen added.

The confident tone from the press conference might have been calculated to ease fears heading into the Saudi Aramco IPO. “It is possible that this public display of optimism is related to the planned IPO of Saudi Aramco, as this requires a positive market environment and the trust of investors,” Commerzbank wrote in a note.

Nevertheless, for an oil market that is only temporarily tight, and is facing a huge supply surplus in 2020, even a delay of returned capacity might not alter the overarching dynamic in the market. Supply is growing and demand is weak. In any event, the Saudi energy minister added that export levels would be uninterrupted as the country plans to use inventories to make up for the production shortfall over the next few weeks.

With that said, the next question is how Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the United States, might respond. “Today, Saudi Arabia plans to present proof that Iran was involved in the attacks. If this proof holds water, retaliatory measures by the US and Saudi Arabia will become more probable,” Commerzbank said on Wednesday. “This would justify a higher risk premium on the oil price.”

Both Riyadh and Washington have sent mixed messages on this front. Immediately after the attack, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly blamed Iran. President Trump said the U.S. was “locked and loaded,” and was “waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Related: US To Supply More Than Half Of Global Gas By 2035

After a firestorm erupted in Washington surrounding Trump’s decision to essentially hand over U.S. foreign policy and military decision-making to the Saudi monarchy, he backtracked. Hours later, Trump struck a different tone, saying that he didn’t want war with Iran. And when a reporter asked Trump whether or not he promised to protect the Saudis, his fealty to Riyadh didn’t seem as rock solid. “No, I haven’t. No, I haven’t. I haven’t promised the Saudis that,” he said. “We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. And the Saudis want very much for us to protect them, but I say, well, we have to work. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.”

The whiplash in the American position continued. Pompeo jetted off to Saudi Arabia, where he said on Wednesday that the Abqaiq attack was carried out by Iran and was “an act of war.” However, the Wall Street Journal has reported that the Saudis themselves said that evidence from American intelligence regarding Iran’s involvement “wasn’t definitive.”

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia presented its case that they say implicates Iran, although as the New York Times pointed out, the evidence didn’t appear to be definitive proof either.

Still, the working theory is that Iran was behind the attack, a case that the Pentagon could bolster if it releases an assessment later this week. The Houthis have claimed responsibility, but many analysts question their ability to carry out an attack alone.

On Tuesday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted that Trump’s last minute decision not to attack Iran in June following the downed American drone “was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness.” Trump responded on twitter: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”

Against this messy and confusing backdrop, it is not immediately clear what the response might be. Many analysts have suggested that the U.S. might opt for a narrower retaliation, such as a cyberattack against Iran. “We’re working to build out a coalition to develop a plan to deter them,” Pompeo said in Jeddah on Wednesday.

Even if Iran was heavily or even directly involved, the Pentagon has privately urged caution, not an aggressive response, according to the Washington Post. Top military officials reportedly are wary of another war in the Middle East, especially in response to an attack that involved no Americans.

More importantly, they recognize that despite Trump’s brash confidence, a war would likely be catastrophic. “Pentagon officials have also stressed the risks to the at least 70,000 U.S. personnel stationed under U.S. Central Command, which stretches from Egypt to Pakistan, if tensions with Iran spin out of control,” the Washington Post wrote. Related: How An Oil Supply Outage Could Paralyze Asia

In the interim, Trump announced a tightening of sanctions on Iran. The most surprising thing about that move is that there is hardly anything left in Iran that is unsanctioned.

Meanwhile, news reports suggest that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani might not attend the UN General Assembly meeting in New York next week due to delays in obtaining a visa from the U.S. government. That at least puts to rest the question about whether there might be a Trump-Rouhani meeting, potentially closing off at least one (albeit unlikely) avenue of de-escalation.

The problem for Riyadh and Washington is that if Iran was behind this, as many think, then it demonstrates their ability to disrupt the oil market. Because of punishing American sanctions, Iran has lost most of its oil exports, so it has much less to lose. With Trump heading into a reelection campaign, he doesn’t have the appetite to start a regional war, which could drive up gasoline prices. Iran’s gambit is risky, but there are also enormous risks for Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in retaliating.

Saudi Arabia has pressed the U.S. for years to take a hard line on Iran, and the U.S. government has confidently pushed Iran’s back against the wall over the past year and a half. But now with a major war closer than ever, neither Riyadh nor Washington are no longer sure they want it.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Bill Simpson on September 18 2019 said:
    Unless the Iranians kill US troops, there will be no response from Trump. He knows an oil cut off will doom any chance he has for reelection in November 2020. They shot down a US drone in international air space and Trump did nothing, so they know they can do more without any response from the US.
    Expect further attacks on Saudi Arabia, or the UAE from Iran. Maybe the tanker loading facilities next time?
  • Mamdouh Salameh on September 19 2019 said:
    It is ironic that the raging trade war between the United States and China is playing a pivotal role in calming the global oil market in the aftermath of the destructive attacks that disrupted more than 50% of Saudi oil production.

    The reason is that the glut in the global oil market has been enhanced by the trade war which has been creating uncertainty in the global economy and depressing global demand for oil and prices.

    Both the US and Saudi Arabia are pointing the finger at Iran for the responsibility of the attacks. However, both are unable to produce a definite proof which could stand scrutiny.

    And while the initial rise in oil prices has been halted, they will soon resume their ascent on the realization that the repairs of the Saudi-damaged oil infrastructure might take months rather than weeks. This realization could send oil prices towards $80 a barrel.

    As for Saudi Aramco IPO, I have been on record saying that this will never see the light of day because of persistent question marks about Saudi proven oil reserves and the Congress-approved legislation relating to 9/11. The IPO that Saudi Aramco might get away with is a petrochemical IPO since investors can see petrochemical assets but can’t tell Saudi proven reserves for lack of an independent audit of these reserves.

    Saudi Arabia can’t retaliate against Iran because this could mean the destruction of its major oil assets including the Ras Tannura loading terminal, the world’s largest. This could cripple Saudi oil exports altogether and precipitate a global oil crisis.

    As for the United States, a war with Iran will not be an easy ride. It will be the end of its national interests in the whole Middle East. Moreover, thousands of US troops inside the US Embassy in Baghdad and in Deir ez-Zur in Syria could be taken hostages or killed. In addition, US naval assets including Aircraft Carries could be within range of Iranian missiles. As a result, oil prices could surge to $140 a barrel impacting adversely on the US economy and costing President Trump the 2020 presidential elections.

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

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