Wednesday, 4 July 2018


It has been a tumultuous five years for the oil industry.  Back in 2013 the sector was basking in earnings they had not seen since the financial crisis and as prices reached a high of $115 a barrel in the middle of 2014, Big Oil (the world’s largest six or seven publicly traded oil and gas companies) readied itself for another year of bumper profits. But as the cyclical nature of the industry dictates, the good times had to come to an end. By early 2015, only six months after reaching new highs, oil prices had plummeted below the $50 mark and by early 2016 prices had reached the trough at just $30.
Big Oil responded as it always does: by cutting costs and spending. When times get tough the oil industry becomes amazed at how wasteful it has been when oil prices were high, and always manages to find billions in savings when forced to, albeit with a lot of help from the oilfield services industry that has to ride in their wake.  With a sector now fit for business and back in profit, oil prices have continued to climb, reaching $78 in May 2018 (its highest level in over three years) with current prices only lingering just below that.
The current support behind oil prices is largely being driven by concerns over tightening supply in the global oil market. Political instability in both Venezuela and Libya, combined with imminent US sanctions on Iran, threatens as much as two million barrels of daily supplies – equal to over 2% of global daily production. Venezuela’s oil output has already dropped off a cliff, falling by around 700,000 barrels per day over the last year or so, and there are concerns over Libya’s contribution of one million barrels per day due to militia in the country threatening to hand over key oil ports to rivals of the state-owned oil company.
For Iran, the third largest producing country in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), contributing about 3.8 million barrels per day, the situation is even more dire. Since the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and warned it would impose new sanctions on the country, it has now been reported that the US is pressuring its allies to stop all imports of crude from Iran by November, which would be a much tougher stance than many first expected. With such a large amount of OPEC’s 32.4 million barrels of daily output under threat, the organisation’s leader, Saudi Arabia, and non-OPEC member but now close partner Russia have agreed to take action to plug the gap. Following the most recent meeting, the pair announced the organisation had agreed to raise daily output by one million barrels per day. Importantly, both Saudi Arabia and Russia are looking to add the majority of that bump-up in production, helping them to steal market share from other countries. However, Iran has claimed that no other member outside of Saudi Arabia or Russia had been given the go-ahead to turn on the taps, and has said that this will see a much smaller rise in OPEC production, of around 500,000 barrels daily. While Saudi Arabia is by far OPEC’s largest producer and willing to leverage its own excess capacity to get its point across to the market, there are concerns that it does not have as much as capacity as is needed.
Although OPEC only accounts for about one-third of global production, it is the closest thing there is to a central bank for the oil industry, tasked with balancing supply and demand and steering prices. This was especially true ten years ago, when the US was solely reliant on importing oil and producing just three million barrels per day. But the take-off of US shale has revolutionised the country’s energy production industry and pushed the US’s daily output to over eight million barrels per day in January 2018.In fact, the US will produce more energy than it needs within the next decade.This will make the US an energy exporter and rebalancing the relationship between the country and OPEC after decades of being heavily reliant on energy imports, albeit mostly from Canada but also from member nations. So, if the US has a growing oil industry and is slowly becoming less reliant on imports, why does it still rely on OPEC to manage the market and why does it want lower prices?
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