OPEC scrambling to keep oil prices stable (and high) amid shale oil growth

Steven Mufson (c) 2013, The Washington Post

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries meets Wednesday to weigh how best to maintain stable — but very high — crude oil prices in the face of rising U.S. shale oil production and jostling among the members of the cartel that hope to expand production in 2014.

Analysts expect OPEC to hold its production ceiling steady at 30 million barrels a day, where it has been since January 2012. But oil experts do not expect the group to resolve how much Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s main swing producer, might trim its output in the coming year to make room for potential new supplies from Iraq, Libya, West Africa, Texas, North Dakota and maybe Iran.

U.S. output has grown about 15 percent this year, adding about 950,000 barrels a day, or about 1 percent, to world supplies, according to the International Energy Agency. The new U.S. supplies have failed to significantly lower world prices as many analysts predicted, but they have helped prevent a further run-up in prices during supply disruptions in Libya, Nigeria and Iraq.

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A year ago, many analysts were forecasting lower crude prices in 2013 because of weak global demand and the boom in U.S. shale oil supplies. But international crude prices have stayed near historic highs, despite Saudi Arabia boosting its own output to record levels of more than 10 million barrels a day over the summer. The average weighted price of OPEC crude oil in 2013 has been more than $105 a barrel for the third consecutive year, four times the price a decade ago.

“To some extent, U.S. production growth is keeping the price barely tethered,” said Robert McNally, a former National Security Council member specializing in energy and now president of the Rapidan Group, a consulting firm. “We’re keeping the market at low boil by giving it all we’ve got, and that to me is not a well-managed market.”

One reason: Oil consumption has been rising slowly but steadily. On Monday, oil prices rose on news that manufacturing indexes grew faster than expected in the United States and China. The price of the benchmark crude oil West Texas Intermediate climbed 1.2 percent to $93.82 a barrel for January delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The price of Brent, the more widely used international benchmark grade of crude oil, rose 1.6 percent to $111.45 a barrel.

In a Nov. 25 speech in Vienna, OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri said that the organization expects worldwide demand to grow by 1 million barrels a day in 2014 as growth in India and China offset a slight decline in consumption in industrialized nations. El-Badri said OPEC expects supplies outside OPEC countries to grow by 1.2 million barrels a day.

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But Edward Morse, head of global commodities research at Citigroup, said supplies outside OPEC could grow between 1.5 million and 1.8 million barrels a day. “Non-OPEC production alone should be enough to satisfy demand growth,” he said. Moreover, inventories in the industrialized nations are big enough to cover 58 days’ needs, more than the five-year average. On the well-supplied U.S. Gulf Coast, Saudi Arabia is discounting some of its crude oil to maintain its share of the market there, Morse said.

A bigger threat to OPEC’s ability to control prices could come from within. In Libya, a mix of militias, tribesmen and political opponents have seized port facilities and slowed the country’s output to a trickle. An easing of the crisis could bring back about 1 million barrels a day of high-quality crude almost overnight.

If Iraq can improve security near its southern fields and protect its pipelines, it could raise output by about 500,000 barrels a day. The autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq has just signed a deal to boost oil exports to Turkey. And if Iran satisfies Western powers with its compliance to a recent nuclear deal, it could also win an easing of international sanctions and export more oil.

Citigroup’s Morse said OPEC would have to keep another 2 million barrels a day off the market to prop up prices. For some countries, high prices have become essential. On Monday, the Tehran Times reported that the government was drawing up a budget assuming that oil prices would average $100 a barrel.

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But there is little urgency about those new supplies. Oil industry experts say concern about a long-term shutdown in Libya is deepening.

“There’s no pressure in OPEC at the moment to do anything when it comes to production,” Morse said. “Prices are high enough for everyone other than the Iranians to enjoy it. The issue is what happens next year.”

OPEC, a 12-member group, has ridden a roller coaster of prices and internal battles since it was founded in 1960. But the Wednesday meeting comes against a backdrop of profound changes in the business and political climate. A decade of rising oil prices has stimulated a wave of capital spending from the Caspian Sea’s huge Kashagan field to Canada’s oil sands, from North Dakota’s shale basin to Brazil’s ultra-deep offshore waters. Those investments are starting to produce more crude.

As a result, most analysts are reducing their price estimates for 2014 by about $10 a barrel.

Morse said balancing the oil market and keeping prices over $100 could be harder than before. “Unlike a year ago, most of the issues in the market that are geopolitical in nature could lead to more oil, not less,” he said. “You can’t take any more Libyan oil off the market; you can only put it back on.”