The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia announced yesterday that they would be cutting back daily oil production to the tune of about two million barrels per day to help shore up oil prices. I would be more concerned if OPEC wasn’t already struggling to meet its own quotas.
Chronic underinvestment and a host of technical and…other production issues have been causing significant production declines throughout OPEC member nations, particularly among African producers. Throughout much of 2022, that figure has hovered between 1 and 2 million barrels per day below OPEC production targets. Add in the rest of OPEC+ (the 13 OPEC member states and other significant oil exporters, like Russia) and that figure tips over 3 million. A reduction in target quotas might not have the long-term impact on oil prices they expect, though the market is historically notoriously speculative.
NB: at 1:57 I mention internal financing, but I should have said external. Margaritas…
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West Texas Intermediate, the oil grade most associated with American production, plunged down to -$40 April 20. You read the right. For a while yesterday, sellers had to pay people forty bucks to take a barrel of crude.
As with any product, the business of oil isn’t a once-and-done. It must be produced, shipped and processed, and then the refined product must be shipped and retailed. What happened April 20 is a bottleneck in that process. Production surged ahead of pipeline shipping capacity, leaving some producers with nowhere to put their crude.
The real kicker is that this is not the “negative prices” outcome I predicted a couple weeks back. “All” the April 20 event was was a single facility in a single country running out of future leased storage capacity for the month of May. The April 20 price crash will happen again in the same place and it will be bigger: June WTI futures contracts are now spazzing, and America’s Cushing oil storage and transport nexus undoubtedly will be actually full by then. But even this is nothing but the warmup for the big show.
That will happen when the world runs out of storage.
Numbers are fuzzy in this corner of global oil markets. In part because everyone classifies and categories their oil storage capacity differently. In part because they should (gasoline storage is functionally different from raw oil storage). In part because some countries don’t share data because they’re lazy or secretive. But no one thinks there’s a whole lot of storage capacity left. Global oversupply of crude right now is over 20mpbd (with 30mbpd seeming to be the “average” guestimate). Most folks in the know are now musing that what storage remains will be filled up completely sometime in May or early-June.
And filled up it will be, because that is the express goal of the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi price war started out as a spat with the Russians over carrying the burden of a production cut. It has since expanded into the Saudis targeting the end markets of every single one of what the Saudis’ consider to be inefficient producers. The Saudis are directly targeting markets previously serviced not just by US shale and Russian, but those serviced by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan and Libya and Iraq and Iran and Malaysia and Indonesia and Mexico and Norway and the United Kingdom and Nigeria and Chad and you get the idea.
As of this morning, there are still at least 24 supertankers carrying at least 50 million barrels of Saudi crude en route to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Most will arrive in May, seeking to fill up as much of what remains of U.S. storage as possible. Similar volumes are in route to Europe and even bigger volumes to Northeast Asia. In most cases the destinations are the transshipment nodes that enable distribution of inland-produced oil to coastal locations: Rotterdam, Suez, Singapore, Korea.
Assuming you’ve got deep pockets, and Saudi Arabia’s are some of the world’s deepest, it isn’t a stupid strategy. If the Saudis can push prices firmly negative, it will absolutely crush many of the world’s energy producers. My back-of-envelope math suggest some 20 million barrels per day of production capacity – one-fifth of global output – will go offline for years. And then Riyadh will have what it wants: the ability to raise prices as much as it wants and to reign supreme over the world of oil for at least several years. (There are still a veritable swarm of flies that will need to be dealt with in that particular ointment, but the Saudi plan seems sure of generating plenty of ointment nonetheless.)
The WTI price crash on April 20 confirms that if the Saudis didn’t realize the potential for their strategy’s explosive success before, they certainly do now. They have no reason to back down.
There are a few producers worthy of callouts.
Canada’s Alberta province has the most to lose. Not only landlocked, it must sell all its oil into the American market that is already so saturated. Its production must be shut in for years.
Venezuela was facing civilizational collapse due to mismanagement before oil prices tanked. As oil is the government’s only remaining income stream, this marks the end of Vene as a country. Its oil will not come back for at least a decade, and even then only if an outside power first physically invades the place to rebuild the country from scratch.
America’s sanctions regime against Iran has been so successful the country isn’t an oil exporter any longer. Its output will absolutely collapse this summer, and the country lacks the funds to bring in foreigners to help restart it or the skills to do the work itself.
Russian fields are in swamps and permafrost. Drilling is only possible during the winter. Any shut-ins means the wells freeze solid, necessitating completely new drilling. Last time this happened it took the Russians nearly 15 years to get production back.
Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are both dependent upon other countries (in some cases, Russia) to transit their crude to market. High production costs plus finicky neighbors equals long-haul shut-ins.
Nigeria is a mess on a good day, and the supermajors who have made Nigerian output possible have steadily moved offshore to get away from the chaos and violence. Once they turn off their wells, they won’t even consider returning until global prices rise to the point that they are once again willing to subject their staff to frequent kidnapping. That’s several years off.
Iraq has been in a state of near civil war for some 15 years. The country is now producing over 4mbpd, the income of which helps hold the place together. Negative prices will remove the “near” from the country’s political condition and (at best) make the place a ward of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
It is also worth noting that the speed that this could all go from head-spinning to head-chopping is intensely short. Right now there’s still a fair amount of spare oil tankers to shuttle about the world. The Saudis have been leasing out every tanker they can find, so before long all the the world’s tankers will be full as well.
Oil has been a panacea for all sorts of inefficient, compromised, and in some cases evil regimes for decades. Huge demand in the West and Northeast Asia allowed a raft of previously insignificant or morally reprehensible leaders and societal situations to effectively print dollars out of the ground and count the industrialized world as a hungry customer. Not anymore. Demand patterns have shifted, the United States is now an exporter of crude oil and products, and the petro-economy that has kept ayatollahs and ideologues afloat is crumbling. Before anyone cheers it’s worth remembering that things will get a lot uglier before they have any hope of improving.
For a good idea as to the flavor of ugly, my new book Disunited Nations has full chapters on three of the world’s most distorted and bizarre oil-based economies: Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their struggle with the world-to-come is going to be a crazy ride.
Join Peter Zeihan and Melissa Taylor April 30th for an in-depth discussion and presentation on the impact of COVID-19 on global agricultural production and the stability of the world’s food supply.
After the better part of five days of marathon negotiations spearheaded by Saudi Arabia with the goal of eliminating coronavirus-induced overhang in oil supply, global oil producers hammered out April 12 an agreement to reduce oil output by a record 8.5 million barrels a day.
The short version is the deal is a joke. I could spam readers with a full newsletter on just how much a joke it is – it relies upon cuts from countries who have never cut before, not all OPEC states are participating, it expects the Russians to cut as much in exports as Kuwait exports in total, the plan is to not begin the cut until May and then start rolling it back only two months later – but really it comes down to something far more basic:
Oil traders, the folks who probably have the best feel for just how much demand has dropped, estimate the global oversupply is now between 30mbpd and 35mbpd. Simply the reduction in demand for jet fuel is probably about 5mbpd. The OPEC cut is only for 5.6mbpd with another 2.9mbpd coming from non-OPEC members. Even if everyone plays along, this just isn’t enough to make a difference.
Which pushes the discussion to other directions. The world is running out of storage capacity. We’re really not quite sure how much spare storage exists in the world since everyone measures it a bit differently, while countries like Saudi Arabia and China are notoriously squirrely about just how much they have stashed around the world. Industry guesses as of the end of March ranged from 1 billion to 2 barrels, so I’m just going to split the difference and call it 1.5 billion.
If everyone sticks to the OPEC plan and if that 1.5 billion figure is correct and if the oil traders know what they are talking about, then all global storage is filled to the brim by early June at the latest. Should the OPEC deal collapse and everyone just keep pumping, zero-hour moves forward to roughly mid-May.
Or maybe sooner.
The quick and dirty of the backstory is that in addition to the coronavirus-induced demand collapse, the Saudis are engaged in a price war with the Russians. In every agreement the Saudis have hammered out with the Russians since the Soviet collapse, the Russians have never actually cut and simply made the Saudis eat the difference. Similar attitudes have prevailed in Venezuela, Iran, Nigeria and Iraq – the first two of whom are not even included in the cuts agreement.
Ok, on with the show.
On April 13 the Saudis announced sales prices for their crude shipments. They added $5 a barrel to their asking prices for American deliveries, but cut their asking prices for Asian deliveries.
US President Donald Trump has been aggressively lobbying the Saudis for a significant production cut in order to help US shale producers. While the April 12 OPEC agreement will likely keep Trump off the Saudis’ back for the time being, the change in contract prices is far more significant. They suggest the Saudis are going to stop dumping crude oil on the US market, so that the shale producers don’t drown quite so quickly. Add in that roughly half of all remaining (known) oil storage is in the United States, and most American shale producers won’t be facing chock-full infrastructure until at least late-summer. Any sort of output reductions in the American shale patches, whether caused by rapid well-decline rates or deliberate shut-ins, will extend that deadline out further.
But simultaneously, any Saudi crude that is not being shipped to the Gulf of Mexico will instead be steaming towards Asia, intensifying Saudi Arabia’s price war in countries where Russian and Iranian and Nigerian and Iraqi crudes feature. So the price war lives on, just in a more constrained economic geography. We could see a complete overload of Eurasian storage capacity in a matter of a few weeks.
All in all it’s a pretty shrewd play by Riyadh. Lead an agreement you know the Russians will violate in order to provide political cover. Reduce flows to the United States to get Donald Trump off your back. But redirect those flows to places that will really hurt your Eastern Hemispheric competition.
While things look rough for oil futures, it’s not all bad news! One area where the US supply chain is particularly resilient is regarding its agriculture. US farmers, food processors and grocer/retailers are in the strongest position in the world to continue delivering food supplies to American consumers. While consumption patterns and panic-induced hoarding will continue to empty shelves at local stores, all elements of the US supply chain have been able to continuously restock — and will continue to do so.
If you have more questions about the resiliency of the US Agricultural supply system in the face of pressures due to COVID-19, join Zeihan on Geopolitics’ Peter Zeihan for an in-depth seminar on April 20, 2020.
Rather than adjusting OPEC’s production ceiling in an attempt to raise prices, or even generate a common policy to coordinate output, OPEC instead launched a production free-for-all. No longer will there be a quota – any quota. All members can now invest as much as they want, produce as much as they want, export as much as they want. Oil producers the world over are undoubtedly shivering in terrified anticipation. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf have by far the lowest production costs in the world, and if they do truly flood the market with low cost crudes, few – if any – have a hope of competing.
The Saudis’ goal can be summed up quite simply – force as many high-cost producers out of the oil markets as possible. This is accurate, but it is also incomplete. Yes, the Saudis would like to force its competitors to the financial breaking point, and yes, U.S. shale is an industry that the Saudis would like to wreck. But cracking apart the American shale sector is only one of many goals, and it is certainly not the primary one.
First and foremost, the Saudis are targeting Iran. With the Americans steadily stepping back from actively managing the Middle East, the Saudis are finding themselves forced to deal with their Iranian adversaries themselves. In this the Saudis are poorly positioned. While Saudi Arabia has plenty of top-notch military hardware, the Saudi people have no concept of what a military culture means. Iran has 30 years of experience building up insurgent movements and has proxies sprinkled throughout the Middle East. But the Saudis know full well that such proxies are expensive, and in a game of checkbook diplomacy the Saudis simply have more income and a bigger bank account.
Once sovereign wealth funds and less orthodox financial caches are factored in, the Saudis have – very conservatively — $1 trillion to throw at this problem, and that’s not even counting the personal assets of the royal family. The Saudis can sustain themselves in a low-price environment not for years, but for decades. Compare that to Iran’s hand-to-mouth budgeting. For the Saudis timing is critical; America’s rapprochement with the Iranians heralds increases in Iran’s oil output (albeit not likely in meaningful quantities until 2017). Best to drive prices down now and try to bankrupt Iran’s ability to wage proxy wars in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as well as the internal subsides that keep Iran’s population from revolting.
While Iran is clearly Saudi Arabia’s clear-and-present-danger, it is far from the only target.
Second on the list is Russia, whose oil output has risen to a new post-Cold War high. Russia is the world’s second-largest exporter, so a friendly Saudi-Russian relationship has never been in the cards. But the rivalry between Riyadh and Moscow is about more than just oil. The two have sparred indirectly for decades over the broad swath of weaker Muslim states that lie between them, and Russia’s ongoing rivalries with the United States consistently results in Russian actions that threaten Saudi interests. Russia’s intermittent sponsorship of Iran, and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war opposite Saudi Arabia’s own proxies being cases in point. No wonder that the Saudis flooded the oil markets in the mid-1980s in a (successful) attempt to bankrupt the Soviet Union. No wonder the Saudis sponsored the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to gut the Soviet war machine. No wonder that the Saudis funded the Chechen rebellion in the 1990s. And no wonder the Saudi oil minister expressly called out the Russians when forcing upon OPEC the produce-as-much-as-you can policy.
The third target of the new policy is a bit more obvious – those high price oil producers that have eroded Saudi market share over the decades, all of which are the prime beneficiaries of Saudi Arabia’s yesteryear policies of reducing oil output to bolster prices. With very few exceptions, none of these countries have ever actually reduced output themselves, instead relying upon the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis to bear the entire burden.
Canada: the world’s highest-cost producer is likely to be the biggest loser.
Norway: the Saudis particularly hate how reliable Norwegian output has been the past 20 years.
Russia: the multi-faceted nature of Saudi Arabia’s competition with Moscow earns Russia spot in this list as well.
Iran: with the strategic contest heating up, Iran also earns a double mention.
Libya: while its production costs are not all that high, the deepening civil war there threatens to remove Libyan production from the market completely. Lower oil prices could well be the factor that forcibly devolves Libya from chaos to anarchy – and destroys the entire energy complex.
Venezuela: while an OPEC “ally” who has always argued for lower production levels, Venezuela has not only never willingly reduced output, its output surges are what broke the 1970s Arab oil embargo – something that the Saudis have neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Nigeria: like Venezuela, the Nigerians have a nasty habit of putting Saudi money where their mouth is.
Collectively these countries are responsible for over 20 million barrels of daily oil output, and that oil income is responsible for the vast majority of their export earnings as well as the social stability that is required to produce the oil in the first place. As the Saudi thinking goes, break even one or two of them and a vast quantity of crude will fall off the market.
That just leaves us with American shale. When you add in the light condensates that shale output favors that are not technically crude, U.S. oil output is now above 12 million barrels per day. Largely courtesy of shale, American imports of crude have dropped by seven million barrels per day, five million of which used to come from OPEC members. Between shale’s success and continental integration, the NAFTA trio is now only two million barrels per day of outright energy independence. And by the end of 2017 the United States will surpass Qatar, Australia and Russia to become the world’s largest natural gas exporter.
Funny thing is, the Saudis were convinced until very recently that U.S. shale was just a PR campaign. They didn’t really admit shale was for real until 2013, and it wasn’t until 2014 that they realized shale would not simply reshape global oil markets, but contribute to the end of the American commitment to Saudi security. The Saudis would love to put a bullet in shale’s head.
But that time has already passed. Sure, back in 2012 the shale producers required oil prices at $90 or more to make a profit, but after a decade of technical advancement the industry is emerging from its infancy. New technologies like multi-lateral drilling and micro-seismic are vastly improving the amount of crude produced per well while vastly reducing the per-barrel production costs. More output per well means that surface infrastructure is now comprised of fewer, larger gathering pipes rather than an expensive crazy-quilt of tiny ones. New re-fracking and re-completion techniques are resetting older wells to their original output levels – or even higher. Taken together the full-cycle break-even price for the four major shale plays – Bakken, Permian, Eagleford and Marcellus – are already below $45 a barrel. By the time these new techs fully proliferate across the industry, the shale sector’s break-even is likely to be right around $30 – and that’s likely only a year away.
Which would put the destruction of shale firmly out of Saudi Arabia’s reach. But that’s ok.
The Saudis may miss on shale, but they have a very target-rich environment in front of them. There will be plenty of casualties.