Wednesday 21 November 2018

Opec and Russia change tack with plan to open oil floodgates

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Photo: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Photo: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

George Hay

OPEC is changing course. For the past year-and-a-half, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and producers like Russia have diligently stuck to agreed oil supply cuts.

Now Russia and Saudi Arabia are discussing opening the taps by an extra million barrels per day. It's more of a reset than a rethink.

The usual problem with cartels is that individual members have an incentive to cheat. Since the cuts were agreed at the end of 2016, Opec and its supplier friends have had the opposite problem. In April, they restricted output by more than 2.4 million barrels per day, more than the agreed level of over 1.7 million barrels. On average, Opec compliance has been 110pc of the target, according to the International Energy Agency.

It may seem odd Saudi Arabia and Russia, whose oil ministers are conferring at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, see this as a problem.

The combination of their cuts and steady demand has reduced the supply glut in developed markets to normal levels, and pushed oil prices close to $80 a barrel. Lower costs due to the recent depreciation of the rouble will help state-owned Russian group Rosneft make money hand over fist.

Higher prices also prop up the Saudi budget, and support the planned initial public offering of state group Aramco.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses foreign investors during the St Petersburg Forum. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS News Agency Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses foreign investors during the St Petersburg Forum. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS News Agency Pool Photo via AP

Yet far-sighted Russians and Saudis know pushing the cost of the black stuff to $90 or beyond will be self-defeating. The desert kingdom will fear annoying US President Donald Trump, who has already tweeted his irritation at Opec's role in raising prices.

Both countries will also be wary of giving US producers an incentive to crank up production of shale oil.

That is why it's time to act. Venezuelan output has slumped from two million barrels per day in early 2017 to below 1.5 million in April due to underinvestment. Renewed US sanctions on Iran could remove as much as 800,000 barrels per day, ING analysts reckon.

Given Saudi alone has two million barrels of daily spare capacity, it could fill any gaps, increase its market share and still look like a sober steward of the oil market. In that sense, the change of direction is a no-brainer. (© Reuters Breaking Views)

Irish Independent

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