Last week, oil prices underwent their biggest weekly decline in a month as the markets lost confidence in OPEC’s ability to reduce the global oil surplus in the near future. The move was supported by reports that a glut was developing in the physical oil market in the North Sea area as lower Asia purchases, increased shipments of US crude to the EU, and more supplies coming out of storage all served to drive down prices. At week’s end, US futures were once again trading below $50 a barrel and London’s Brent below $52.
Tom Whipple is the editor of ASPO-USA’s two flagship publications, Peak Oil News and Peak Oil Review. Tom is a former senior analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Since retiring from the CIA, Tom has become a well-known researcher and writer on energy and oil issues. Tom writes a weekly column on peak oil for the Falls Church News, a daily newspaper based in northern Virginia. Tom holds degrees from Rice University and the London School of Economics.
Prices moved slightly higher last week as the markets continued to watch the decline in oil production by most OPEC members and a few other exporters interested in seeing oil move higher. The evidence continues to accumulate that progress is being made in achieving OPEC’s 1.8 million b/d cut. In addition to a number of OPEC luminaries who assured the world that the cuts are happening and that the markets would be balanced shortly, tanker-tracker Petro-Logistics said that its information indicates that OPEC will reduce its supply by 900,000 b/d in January. This number does not include 11 non-OPEC members that are also supposed to be cutting production 600,000 b/d. The CEO of Petro-Logistics which has been monitoring tanker movements for 30 years said this suggests “a high level of compliance thus far.”
“The basic feature of the petroleum industry … that matters most is that it is not self-adjusting.” The industry has “an inherent tendency to extreme crises” and “hectic prosperity is followed all too swiftly by complete collapse.”
Paul Frankel, economist, “Essentials of Petroleum,” 1946 (from energy columnist John Kemp)
Three themes dominated the oil news last week. 1. Will OPEC with Russian help succeed in cutting production enough to rebalance the oil markets and move prices significantly higher? 2. Will the US oil industry rebound so vigorously as to offset the OPEC cuts? 3. And finally what will the be the impact of all the new energy policies the Trump administration is beginning to implement?
President of American Petroleum Institute on the regulatory environment impacting the petroleum industry
“We must break from the recent past [and] re-examine the regulatory onslaught of the last few years that has proposed or imposed some 145 regulations and other executive actions on our industry, and instead work to implement smart energy regulations.”
Jack Gerard, President, American Petroleum Institute
For the last month oil prices have been stuck in a trading range in New York of between $52 and $54 a barrel. In London, oil has been trading two or three dollars higher. After a 30 percent jump in the last six weeks of 2016 in response to the OPEC production freeze, prices have stabilized as the markets wait to see the degree of compliance with the pledged production cuts. It may take several months to establish a clear trend as so many nations are involved in the cut. While a few countries, particularly the US, publish oil production and inventory statistics weekly, others do a poor job of collecting statistics. A few release incorrect production numbers they know to be untrue for a variety of political reasons.
“California can make a significant contribution to advancing the cause of dealing with climate change, irrespective of what goes on in Washington. I wouldn’t underestimate California’s resolve if everything moves in this extreme climate denial direction. Yes, we will take action.”
California Governor Jerry Brown
Most of the discussion last week focused on the year just past and what 2017 will bring. Oil prices barely moved during the holiday week closing out the year at $53.72 in New York and $56.82. During 2016, however, US futures closed up about 45 percent for the year and London about 52 percent. It was quite the year for the oil industry with prices ranging from $30 to $55 a barrel; the election of fossil-fuel-friendly Donald Trump to the US presidency; and the OPEC/Russia production cut agreement deemed responsible for the record price rebound during the year.
For the last two weeks, oil prices have hovered around $53 a barrel in New York, and a couple of dollars higher in London. Optimism that an agreement among the major oil producers will actually lead to a 1.8 million b/d production cut during 2017 is being balanced off by a stronger dollar, the revival of Libyan and Nigerian oil production, and a steady increase in the US shale-oil rig count.
“If we stay (at $55 a barrel), the world’s biggest oil companies start to make money again. If we go back down to $50 (or lower) in 2017…then those companies are in the negative territory and they go back into survival mode where they have been in the last two years.”
Angus Rodger, Wood Mackenzie’s research director for upstream oil and gas
“Significant advances in battery technology, financial support from governments, regulations and values of Millennials will be key factors leading to increases in electric vehicle adoption.”
Jim Burkhard, energy researcher for IHS Markit
On Saturday, OPEC and non-OPEC oil exporters agreed to an additional 562,000 b/d non-OPEC production cut in addition to the 1.2 million b/d cut that OPEC agreed on last week. At the meeting, Mexico pledged to cut 100,000 b/d, Azerbaijan 35,000 b/d, Oman 40,000 b/d, and Kazakhstan 20,000 b/d after strong diplomatic pressure was applied. Some analysts expressed doubt as to whether the cuts pledged by Mexico and Azerbaijan are valid reductions as their production was on course to decline by that much anyway next year due to natural depletion. The Kazakh cut, however, was seen as important as the country was due to increase production in 2017 by 160,000 b/d as its giant new oil field came in production.
“The OPEC drama is behind us (for now) with the cartel and its friends agreeing to a peak supply. But the topic that’s talked about behind the scenes in Viennese cafes is that of ‘peak demand.’ Every pundit has an opinion about when peak demand will happen. Articles, podcasts, and snappy videos mostly debate in what year our 150-year addiction to the product will begin to wane. Some think it’s as early as 2020; the authoritative International Energy Agency conjectures 2040.”
Peter Tertzakian, Chief Energy Economist and Managing Director, ARC Financial Corp.
The agreement between OPEC and Russia came as a surprise for most. Until the Vienna meeting started, there was much pessimism that a deal would be reached and all indications had been that negotiations were deadlocked over the issue of who would cut by how much. The breakthrough seems to have come when Moscow changed its position from “freeze but no production cut” to agreeing to reduce output by 300,000 b/d from the 11.2 million b/d it reached in November. This change, plus the agreement by Baghdad to cut oil production by 210,000 b/d, was enough to convince the Saudis to cut by 486,000 b/d and the other Gulf Arab states would join in for at total Gulf Arab cut of 786,000 b/d. Libya, Nigeria, and Indonesia were left out of the agreement and Tehran was allowed to increase production by 90,000 b/d to 3.8 million – somewhat short of their 4 million b/d goal. Given the bad relations between Riyadh and Tehran, allowing the Iranians to continue increasing production was the toughest part of the deal for the Saudis to swallow.
“People do tend to look at the total volumes [of conventional oil] being added in recent years and conclude that we are running out of subsurface potential, I find that unlikely. It’s our view that conventional exploration is a perfectly viable growth and renewal option, particularly for those that are good at it. In reality, a lot of exploration’s recent decline is nothing more than the fact that it’s drilling fewer wells in the downturn.”
Andrew Latham, head of exploration research at Wood Mackenzie
Oil prices were steady in the first part of the week as the markets waited for news about the OPEC meeting this week. When it was announced on Friday that the Saudis would not attend a preliminary meeting with the Russians and other non-OPEC members, prices dropped about $2 a barrel to close circa $46 in New York and $47 in London. Although analysts and market traders remain skeptical that any significant agreement will be reached, the week began with a spate of reports from “insiders” that “progress” was being made.
“It’s about 20C [36 degrees Fahrenheit] warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean, along with cold anomalies of about the same magnitude over north-central Asia…. The extreme behavior of the Arctic in 2016 seems to be in no hurry to quit.”
Jennifer Francis, an Arctic specialist at Rutgers University
Oil prices climbed on Monday but then held steady for the rest of the week as talk of an OPEC agreement balanced against a stronger dollar and increasing global oil surpluses. At week’s end, New York futures settled at $45.69, about $2 above the recent lows touched the week before last, but $7 below the tops of the speculative bubbles set in June and early October.
“I don’t think President Trump will have a big impact on oil demand or output. He’s made statements, but we haven’t seen any thought-out policies. We will have to wait for him to get a team in place and come up with policies.”
Mike Wittner, head of oil-market research at Societe Generale SA in New York
Last week oil prices suffered their fourth losing week in a row as OPEC continued to argue over a possible production freeze/cut and oil production continued to grow adding to the surplus. At week’s end, futures prices were down to $43.41 in New York and $44.75 in London. The surprising US election results roiled for a few hours on after the results became known, but prices settled on Wednesday with a small gain and were down on Thursday and Friday on new reports of oil production increases and stockpile builds.
Chief Financial Officer for Royal Dutch Shell & Executive Director of the International Energy Agency on oil markets
“We’ve long been of the opinion that demand will peak before supply. And that peak may be somewhere between 5 and 15 years hence, and it will be driven by efficiency and substitution, more than offsetting the new demand for transport.”
Simon Henry, Chief Financial Officer for Royal Dutch Shell
“The oil demand growth is not coming from cars; it’s from trucks, aviation and the petrochemical industry and we don’t have major alternatives to oil products there. I don’t buy the argument that electric cars alone will cause a peak in oil demand at least in short and medium term.”
Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency
Oil prices continued to slide last week with New York futures down by nearly $8 a barrel from the recent highs set in mid-October. The week closed out with NY at $44.07 and London at $45.58. The hype over an OPEC production freeze which has been driving prices up since last spring is no longer moving prices higher. OPEC and Russia have to come up with a significant production cut in the next three weeks or be faced with lower prices until supply and demand come back into balance from economic forces. The final OPEC meeting to approve a cut is only three weeks away (November 30th) and so far no progress has been made at preliminary meetings that were intended to work out details.
“The world’s five major oil companies are “faced with the choice of managing a gentle decline by downsizing or risking a rapid collapse by trying to carry on business as usual.”
By Chatham House, a London-based think-tank, in a report from May titled “The Death of the Old Business Model.”
Oil prices trended down last week to register the biggest loss in six weeks. At the close New York futures were at $49.27, down from $50.50 on Monday, and London was trading at $50.03. There was a brief rally during the week when US crude stocks came in lower than expected, but the week’s decline came mainly because traders lost faith that OPEC will be able to reach agreement on a production freeze.
“On the supply side, non-OPEC supply growth has reversed into declines due to major cuts in upstream investments and the steepening of decline rates. Without investment, that trend is likely to accelerate with the passage of time to the point that many analysts are now sending warning bells over future supply shortfalls and I am in that camp.”
Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, at the Oil & Money Conference in London
“I don’t quite share the same view that others have that we are somehow on the edge of a precipice. I think because we have confirmed the viability of very large resource base in North America … that serves as enormous spare capacity in the system. It doesn’t take mega-project dollars, and it can be brought online much more quickly than a 3-4 year project. Never bet against the creativity and tenacity of our industry.”
Rex Tillerson, CEO ExxonMobil, at the Oil & Money conference
Except for a brief spike on Wednesday following the release of the EIA’s stocks report, oil prices were relatively stable last week trading around $51-52 a barrel in New York and London. Little price movement can be expected until the OPEC/Russia combine agrees on the nature of a production freeze, if any. Last week, there were mixed signals from Moscow as to just what their intentions regarding a freeze would be. With several countries expecting an exemption from any production cap, the bulk of the cut would likely fall on the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab states. The IEA is still saying that it does not expect the price of oil to go much above $60 in the near future as US shale oil producers would quickly flood the markets, offsetting any OPEC freeze of the size under discussion.