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The global oil market and its leaders
2018 had seen oil prices buffeted by bullish and bearish influences with oil prices seesawing from $66.87 a barrel on the first day of the year, to a high of $87 in early November then slumping before Christmas to a disappointing $54.10.
Who gets what?
But there were other forces at play that significantly influenced the price of oil in 2018. These forces were personalities whose decisions, utterances and in some cases farsightedness impacted directly on oil prices and the global oil market and may equally do so in 2019 as well.
The Founding of OPEC
The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is an intergovernmental organisation of 15 nations founded in 1960 in Baghdad by the first five members (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) and headquartered since 1965 in Vienna, Austria. OPEC accounts for an estimated 42.6% of global oil production and 71.8% of the world’s proven oil reserves giving it a major influence on the global oil market and prices that were previously controlled by the so-called “Seven Sisters” (Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Gulf Oil, Texaco, BP & Shell) cartel of the world’s largest multinational oil companies.
Sustainability is the practice of maintaining processes of productivity indefinitely—natural or human made—by replacing resources used with resources of equal or greater value without degrading or endangering natural biotic systems. Sustainable development binds together concern for the natural systems with the social, political, and economic challenges faced by humanity.
The three pillars of sustainable development are the economy, energy and the environment. Interaction between these three pillars sustains a growing global economy which provides employment for millions of people and a decent standard of living in a healthy environment and the energy means that help enhance the quality of our life and mobility. The global economy has to be in a continuous state of healthy growth if it is to be able to feed 7.5 billion of people.
Since the withdrawal of the United States from the Nuclear Deal with Iran and its decision to re-introduce sanctions on Iran particularly Iranian oil exports, analysts and experts alike have been competing with each other in their projections about how much Iran will lose from its oil exports as a result of the sanctions. Their projections have ranged from 500,000 barrels a day (b/d) to 1.5 million barrels a day (mbd) out of estimated Iranian oil exports of 2.125 mbd.
Most of these projections were, in my opinion, based on faulty assumptions and lack of understanding of the dynamics of the global oil market and virtually bordering on daydreaming and wishful thinking.
Some experts are projecting a peak oil demand by 2036. Others like Fitch Ratings are saying that greater product awareness and technological changes could fast track the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) that could plausibly lead to a peak oil demand before 2030.
It is, however, debatable as to whether a peak oil demand could be reached during the 21st century. The one certain thing is that oil is expected to remain the world’s primary energy source throughout the 21st century and probably far beyond. A major underpinning factor is the growing world population.
The recent attack by the Houthi rebels in Yemen on two Saudi oil tankers each carrying 1 million barrels of oil in the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb and Saudi Arabia’s suspension of oil shipments through the Strait have demonstrated how vulnerable the world’s key oil chokepoints are and how easy it is to disrupt global oil traffic.
US President Trump broke all norms of diplomacy and protocol during the NATO meeting in Brussels on the 11th of July 2018, when he accused Germany of being “a captive of the Russians” because of its dependence on Russian energy supplies. He went on to say that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia because they will be getting 60-70% of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline”.
He was, of course, referring to the jointly European and Russian-financed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would deliver a total of 110 billion cubic metres per year of Russian gas supplies under the Baltic Sea, to Germany and the European Union (EU) thus bypassing the Ukraine. It will be completed by the end of 2019.
Oil prices don’t lie. They reflect the true picture in the global oil market from an economic and geopolitical angles. In the aftermath of the historic summit between US President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, oil prices were flat. What does this tell us?
The fact that the oil markets largely ignored the much-anticipated summit could mean that they viewed the summit as all flash with little substance. And though both sides hailed the summit as a breakthrough, there was nothing to show except a declaration pledging to work towards denuclearization with no details about how this is to be achieved.
US President Trump announced on the 8th of May 2018 that he is walking away from the 2015 nuclear Iran deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) into which the United States had entered with Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) in order to exclude the prospect of Iran developing an indigenous nuclear weapons capability until at least 2028.
But the Trump decision is unlikely to bring about a meaningful improvement in the security situation of the US, Israel, or the Middle East generally, nor significantly damage Iran’s strategic capabilities. However, it changes some of the dynamics with regard to the President’s anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
The 26th of March 2018 will go in history as the most momentous day for the United States’ economy, China’s economy and the petrodollar and also for China’s status as an economic superpower. In that day China launched its yuan-denominated crude oil futures in Shanghai thus challenging the petrodollar for dominance in the global oil market. And in that very day 15.4 million barrels of crude for delivery in September 2018 changed hands over two and a half hours—the length of the first-day trading session for the contract.
Exactly one week after China launched its crude oil futures, the petro-yuan surpassed Brent trading volume. How long will it take it before overtaking the petrodollar? (see Chart 1).
In February 2018, an international consortium led by France’s Total and also comprising Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek, signed two exploration and production agreements covering Blocks 4 and 9 offshore Lebanon, providing for the drilling of at least one well per block in the first three years. The consortium’s priority will be to drill a first exploration well on Block 4 next year, Total said.
As for Block 9, Total and its partners are fully aware of the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border dispute in the southern part of the block that covers only a very limited area (less than 8% of the block’s surface). Given that the main prospects are located more than 25km from the disputed area, the consortium confirms that the exploration well on Block 9 will have no interference at all with any fields or prospects located south of the border area,” the French company said (see Figure 1).
Russia’s cooperation with OPEC has led to the OPEC/non-OPEC production cut agreement credited with virtually rebalancing the global oil market and pushing oil prices towards almost $70/barrel and also putting a $60 floor under oil prices, up from $50 in 2017.
Russia and Saudi Arabia, the architects of the production cut agreement made it clear that the agreement will go beyond 2018 but in a format that reflects the changing market conditions such as a rebalanced market and rising oil prices. After all, both Russia and OPEC face a major rival: US Shale. It looks as if Russia could become a member of OPEC in all but name.
In an article I wrote for the Research Centre of Energy Management (RCEM) at ESCP Europe Business School on the 2nd of March 2017 under the title “Oil Prices Will Be Mostly Bullish in 2017”, I said that the oil price will break through the $60 level in 2017. This the oil price did when it has risen to more than $66.78 a barrel in December 2017.
And despite efforts by vested interests including the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) to dampen oil prices, I am now projecting that the oil price could be heading towards $70/barrel or even higher during 2018 and $100 in 2020.
The OPEC meeting is over and the organization has extended production cuts throughout 2018. The decision is obviously crucial to supporting oil prices, but also of the utmost importance to the vision and future of one man, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto head of government and Crown prince (the king’s son).
The oil price is key to the success of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 which aims to build a dynamic twenty-first Saudi economy.
Oil is like a coin: one side is Economics and the other is geopolitics and the two are inseparable.
The petrodollar came into existence in 1973 in the wake of the collapse of the international gold standard which was created in the aftermath of World War II under the Bretton Woods agreements. These agreements also established the US dollar as the reserve currency of the world.
Independence has been a lifelong dream for many Iraqi Kurds and so the 25th of September 2017 referendum was met with understandable jubilation across Iraqi Kurdistan with over 90% voting for secession from Iraq.
Although the referendum was non-binding, it pointed to a deteriorating geopolitical situation between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and neighbouring countries. Baghdad urged neighbouring countries to shut down flights into the region and threatened a blockade. Iran stopped oil trade with Iraqi Kurdistan and also banned flights to the region. And Turkey, which fears stirring separatism among its own Kurdish population, has threatened similar action. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the vote “treachery” and suggested the region would "not find food or clothing" if sanctions were implemented.
Geopolitics & US Self-Interest
In imposing new sanctions on Russia, the US Congress aimed to punish Russia for its alleged meddling in the US elections in 2016. Still, these sanctions were mostly motivated by US self-interest, geopolitics and blatant US efforts to delay if not prevent Russia’s emergence as the world’s energy superpower.
The target of these sanctions as in the previous ones is Russian banks and companies as well as Russian oil and gas projects. However, the most contentious issue could well be the sanctions on pipelines. Key projects such as Nord Stream II and the TurkStream pipelines are at the very heart of the sanctions.
The US has always been opposed to Nord Stream II, which it views as Russia’s attempt to solidify its hold on Europe’s energy supplies (see Map 1).
Venezuela’s Deepening Crisis
With 300.9 billion barrels (bb) of proven oil reserves, Venezuela holds the biggest reserves in the world and also accounts for 92% of Latin America’s reserves. This is 13% bigger than Saudi Arabia’s. Still, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that there may be more than 513 bb of extra-heavy crude oil and bitumen deposits in Venezuela’s Orinoco belt region.
Venezuela, a country that should be one of the wealthiest in the world, remains mired in deepening crisis. Its currency (the bolívar) has virtually collapsed while its economy shrank by 10% in 2016 and annual inflation is poised to exceed 720% in 2017.
With oil prices alternating so frequently between bullish and bearish conditions, a global oil deficit could be making its way stealthily through the global oil market.
Last November, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that a shortage could set in as soon as 2020, as the investment shrinkage brought on by the 2014 oil price crash bears fruit. Prices, the IEA had said at the time, could jump significantly at the end of the decade. The IEA reiterated its concerns more recently in its World Energy Investment 2017 Report adding that the rate of new oil discoveries is at its lowest level in more than 70 years. Overall, global spending on oil and gas will rise by a moderate 3% this year, compared to the 44% between 2014 and 2016.
Since the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia seventy nine years ago, the country has been synonymous with oil. But now the sands under which 16% of the global proven oil reserves lie are beginning to shift under the feet of its leaders.
Saudi Arabia whose beneficence, peace-making efforts, soft power and great oil wealth brought it to the forefront of influential countries in the world over a period of more than half a century, is now embroiled in a crescent of conflicts involving Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and now Qatar not to mention its uneasy relations with the United States.