The crude reality of declining crude oil prices

Hisham Melhem writes: The crashing price of oil, which dominated the world of energy in the last six months, and promises to stay with us for much of 2015, has brought cheers to American consumers and tears to the oil tsars of Russia, Iran and Venezuela in particular. If the price of oil remains in the neighborhood of $60 per barrel (bbl) for much of this year, the economic impact on Russia, Iran, Venezuela and maybe Iraq, Algeria, Nigeria and Libya could be ruinous. The sharp decline in oil revenues could force both Russia and Iran to review and maybe reduce their financial and material support for the Assad regime in Syria. Some optimists speculated that the crude reality brought about by the changing energy landscape may force Iran to show more flexibility in its nuclear negotiations with the P 5 + 1 in return for a quicker process of sanction relief. The precipitous fall in the price of oil has forced governments all over the world as well as the international financial institutions to review their investments and risk assessments for 2015 and beyond.

The foreign currency reserves that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have accumulated will help them navigate the turbulent markets in the immediate future, but even these economies will be forced to adjust their balance payments and maybe cut back on subsidies and social programs, in the absence of a market “correction” that would restore the price range that prevailed in the last 5 years. A sustained low price of oil could lead a country like Venezuela to default on its debts, a severe contraction in the Russian economy, and dramatic and unprecedented consequences on the Iranian economy, which is – like Russia’s economy- already teetering because of painful international sanctions. In Iraq, Libya and Yemen, very low oil prices could plunge these countries deeper into violence. So far, the three largest economies in the world; the United States, China and Japan (two major importers of oil) have benefitted from the decline of oil prices. However, if the current low price prevails for some time, this could impact those American companies that have invested large resources in the production of shale oil in States like Texas and North Dakota, who incur higher production costs.

The story of energy, specifically the production of oil and gas in the last 20 years has been one of wild transient fluctuations in global oil prices. Prices swung from a record high of $145 bbl in July 2008 to a precipitous low of $30 bbl in December of the same year in the wake of the financial crisis. The price of oil completely collapsed in 1998 to an incredible low of $10 in the middle of the Asian economic crisis. Last June, the price of Brent crude hovered around $115, by January 2, benchmark Brent has plummeted to $57.11 bbl. But for all the turmoil in the energy markets in the last few decades, most analysts kept saying that the “fundamentals” of the market i.e. energy prices will continue to rise, that the market will remain susceptible to the production levels of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other major producers notably Russia, and that we are not likely to see a radical change in this supply model any time soon. But a “made in America” revolution may be changing some of the old energy assumptions. [Continue reading…]


Venezuela, Iran, and Russia hit hard by plunging oil prices

Following OPEC’s decision not to cut oil production, Daniel Yergin writes: No country clamored more loudly for OPEC production cuts than Venezuela. Once an oil powerhouse, Venezuela depends on oil revenues for up to 65% of government spending. But its production has fallen by a third since 2000. Owing to gross mismanagement, Venezuela’s economy is already in chaos, its political system in crisis and unrest is mounting. And Venezuela would be the No. 1 loser if the Keystone XL pipeline is built, as production from Canadian oil sands would displace Venezuelan heavy oil from its largest single market, the U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

Iran also clamored loudly for a production cut. High prices earlier this year give Tehran some budget cushion, but the government has little leeway for the next fiscal year. Iran depends on oil for half of its budget, and the country is already suffering from sanctions, which have cut its oil exports almost in half. Lower prices will prolong Iran’s recession.

A few days ago President Vladimir Putin said that Russia, the world’s largest oil producer and not a member of OPEC, is preparing for lower, even “catastrophic” oil prices. Oil provides over 40% of the Russian budget, but Mr. Putin has built up foreign exchange reserves worth a few hundred billion dollars, in part to cope with an oil-price collapse. Still, in an economy that is heavily dependent on imports of food and consumer goods, the falling value of the ruble means rising prices for imports, in effect slashing the incomes of consumers. Combined with the effect of sanctions from the Ukraine crisis, this means Russia is headed for recession. [Continue reading…]


OPEC said to consider sparing Iraq, Iran and Libya from oil cuts

Bloomberg reports: OPEC is considering exemptions for three nations from any potential oil-production cuts, two people with knowledge of the proposal said. Saudi Arabia’s oil minister said he doesn’t anticipate a difficult meeting when the group meets on Nov. 27 to decide its response to slumping crude.

Iraq, Iran and Libya wouldn’t have to reduce supplies should the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries agree to cut output at its gathering in Vienna, according to the people, who asked not to be identified in line with their national policies. Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, told reporters in the Austrian capital yesterday that it’s not the first time the oil market has been oversupplied.


America’s diminishing dependence on Middle East oil will be short-lived

The New York Times reports: The boom in oil from shale formations in recent years has generated a lot of discussion that the United States could eventually return to energy self-sufficiency, but according to a report released Tuesday by the International Energy Agency, production of such oil in the United States and worldwide will provide only a temporary respite from reliance on the Middle East.

The agency’s annual World Energy Outlook, released in London, said the world oil picture was being remade by oil from shale, known as light tight oil, along with new sources like Canadian oil sands, deepwater production off Brazil and the liquids that are produced with new supplies of natural gas.

“But, by the mid-2020s, non-OPEC production starts to fall back and countries from the Middle East provide most of the increase in global supply,” the report said. A high market price for oil will help stimulate drilling for light tight oil, the report said, but the resource is finite, and the low-cost suppliers are in the Middle East.

“There is a huge growth in light tight oil, that it will peak around 2020, and then it will plateau,” said Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency. The agency was founded in response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, by oil-importing nations.

The agency’s assessment of world supplies is consistent with an estimate by the United States Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration, which forecasts higher levels of American oil production from shale to continue until the late teens, and then slow rapidly.

“We expect the Middle East will come back and be a very important producer and exporter of oil, just because there are huge resources of low-cost light oil,” Ms. van der Hoeven said. “Light tight oil is not low-cost oil.” [Continue reading…]


How the NSA and GCHQ spied on OPEC

Der Spiegel reports: America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ are both spying on the OPEC oil cartel, documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal. The security of the global energy supply is one of the most important issues for the intelligence agencies.

Documents disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal that both America’s National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have infiltrated the computer network of the the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

In January 2008, the NSA department in charge of energy issues reported it had accomplished its mission. Intelligence information about individual petroleum-exporting countries had existed before then, but now the NSA had managed, for the first time, to infiltrate OPEC in its entirety.

OPEC, founded in 1960, has its headquarters in a box-like building in Vienna. Its main objective is to control the global oil market, and to keep prices high. The 12 member states include Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq.

When the NSA used the Internet to infiltrate OPEC’s computers, its analysts discovered an internal study in the OPEC Research Division. It stated that OPEC officials were trying to cast the blame for high oil prices on speculators. A look at files in the OPEC legal department revealed how the organization was preparing itself for an antitrust suit in the United States. And a review of the section reserved for the OPEC secretary general documented that the Saudis were using underhanded tactics, even within the organization. According to the NSA analysts, Riyadh had tried to keep an increase in oil production a secret for as long as possible. [Continue reading…]


Iran threatens to close Strait of Hormuz if West imposes oil sanctions

The New York Times reports: Iran issued a blunt warning on Tuesday that it would block the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil transit point, if Western powers attempt to impose an embargo on Iranian petroleum exports in their campaign to isolate the country over its suspect nuclear energy program.

The warning, issued by Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, came as Iran’s naval forces were in the midst of a 10-day war games exercise in a vast area of the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow passage that connects the Gulf of Oman to the Persian Gulf, is the route for one third of the world’s oil-tanker traffic.

“If Iran oil is banned not a single drop of oil will pass through Hormuz Strait,” Mr. Rahimi was quoted as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency at a conference in Tehran.

“We are not interested in any hostility,” he was quoted as saying. “Our motto is friendship and brotherhood, but Westerners are not willing to abandon their plots.”


The U.S., oil and the Middle East uprisings


OPEC rulers pay their subjects $1 trillion to keep quiet

Bloomberg reports:

Saudi Arabia will spend $43 billion on its poorer citizens and religious institutions. Kuwaitis are getting free food for a year. Civil servants in Algeria received a 34 percent pay rise. Desert cities in the United Arab Emirates may soon enjoy uninterrupted electricity.

Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members are poised to earn an unprecedented $1 trillion this year, according to the U.S. Energy Department, as the group’s benchmark oil measure exceeded $100 a barrel for the longest period ever. They are promising to plow record amounts into public and social programs after pro-democracy movements overthrew rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and spread to Yemen and Syria.

Unlike past booms, when Abu Dhabi bought English soccer club Manchester City and Qatar acquired a stake in luxury carmaker Porsche SE, Gulf nations pledged $150 billion in additional spending this year on their citizens. They will need to keep U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil at more than $80 a barrel to afford their promises, according to Bank of America Corp.

“A sharp increase in spending to accommodate social pressures has averted potential disquiet over governance in most countries, though in the longer-term economic reforms will be needed to buoy private-sector growth and job creation,” Jean- Michel Saliba, a London-based economist at Bank of America, said in an e-mail Sept. 8. “Without the social spending, Gulf protests would possibly move the nations toward constitutional monarchy.”


WikiLeaks: Saudis often warned U.S. about oil speculators


NEWS & ANALYSIS: The sliding dollar

The dollar’s decline: from symbol of hegemony to shunned currency

The decline of the dollar, symbol of US global hegemony for the best part of a century, may have become so entrenched that some experts now fear it is irreversible.

After months of huge and sustained turmoil on the money markets, lack of confidence in the world’s totemic currency has become so widespread that an increasing number of international traders are transferring their wealth to stronger currencies such as the euro, which recently hit its highest level against the dollar.

“An American businessman over here who is given the choice would take anything but the dollar,” David Buik of Cantor Index said yesterday. “I would want to be paid in yen, and if not yen then the euro or sterling.” [complete article]

Critics assail weak dollar at OPEC event

A rare meeting of the heads of state of the OPEC countries ended here today on a political note, with two leaders — President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran — blaming the weakness of the United States dollar for high oil prices.

Despite the best efforts of the host country, Saudi Arabia, to steer the meeting away from politics and promote OPEC’s environmental concerns, the leaders of Venezuela and Iran let loose some show-stealing statements.

“The dollar is in free fall, everyone should be worried about it,” Mr. Chávez told reporters here. “The fall of the dollar is not the fall of the dollar — it’s the fall of the American empire.”

During a news conference after the meeting, Mr. Ahmadinejad added: “The U.S. dollar has no economic value.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad said that oil, which was hovering last week at close to $100 a barrel, was being sold currently for a “paltry sum.” And Mr. Chávez predicted that prices would rise to $200 a barrel if the United States were “crazy enough” to strike at Iran, or even at his own country. [complete article]

See also, Dollar continues near record lows (BBC).