(Bloomberg) The new Saudi oil minister, Khalid Al-Falih, says the oil glut is over. That means the kingdom’s war against U.S. shale producers is coming to an end, too. Who won it is a tough question to answer; on balance, it’s probably the Saudis, but they have paid a huge price, and the surviving U.S. frackers have also benefited.
In September 2014, Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s state oil company, simultaneously increased output and discounts to Asian customers, making it difficult for producers with higher costs to compete. The U.S. shale industry responded with desperate bravado, cutting costs, perfecting technologies and pumping like crazy to avoid defaulting on its debts. Yet, according to Haynes and Boone’s Oil Patch Bankruptcy Monitor , 81 North American oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy since the beginning of 2015. In Texas alone, there have been 41 bankruptcies, representing $24.3 billion in debt.
As a result, U.S. oil production has declined to late 2014 levels, while Saudi Arabia has defended and indeed increased its market share. Last year. it maintained its export volume to the U.S., while sales to China grew by 4.5 percent and to India by 18 percent.
The North American shale industry knows now that it’s at the mercy of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has more than two million barrels a day — perhaps even three million if necessary — of spare production capacity that it can use to flood the market again, drive down prices and render any ambitious American plans useless.
Al-Falih takes a long-term view and expects the oil market to grow, not decline, in absolute terms in the next two decades, despite adverse changes in the energy mix. “Even if the share of oil goes down from, say, 30 to 25 percent, 25 percent of a much bigger global demand means a much higher absolute number of barrels that will be in demand by 2030 or 2040,” he told The Houston Chronicle. So it makes more sense to fight for long-term market share rather than a momentarily high price. In that regard, the Saudis have won the oil war.