Despite OPEC Production Cut, Another Year Of Low Oil Prices Is Likely

An OPEC production cut offers oil producers hope for higher prices in 2017. But there is a dark cloud hanging over that expectation. Global storage inventories must be substantially reduced before higher oil prices can be sustained. Some of U.S. tight oil has nowhere to go but into storage because it can neither be refined nor exported.

If all OPEC cuts take place as announced, it will be at least a year before sufficient inventory reductions allow prices to move much higher than current levels. If not, lower oil prices will last even longer.

The OPEC Production Cut and Spare Capacity

OPEC agreed to cut production in November partly because it was incapable of sustaining output at 2016 levels. Announcing a cut is a good way to cover the reality that commercial reserve limits have been reached.

Analyst narratives have created the unfounded but widely accepted belief that OPEC has a strategy, and that strategy involves a price war with U.S. tight oil producers. The cartel's inaction since 2014 more probably reflected an unwillingness to repeat the mistake of cutting output between 1980 and 1985: those cuts had little effect on world over-supply and damaged OPEC market share and revenue.

The possibility of a production freeze  was suggested in February 2016 when oil prices were less than $30 per barrel. Expectation of OPEC action and improving fundamentals lifted prices to an average of $43 per barrel in 2016.

Failure to act in November probably would have sent prices into the mid-$30 range. As my colleague Allen Brooks remarked just after the cut was announced, this is more about setting an oil-price floor than about raising prices.

By July 2016, OPEC surplus production capacity had fallen to only 0.92 mmb/d  (million barrels per day).  The all-time low was 0.71 mmb/d in late 2004 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Low surplus production capacity was a key factor in the OPEC output cut. Incremental spare capacity volumes are shown relative to the minimum levels in the time series; in this case, December 2004. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The negative correlation between oil price and OPEC spare capacity is obvious. Low OPEC surplus after 2004 along with increased demand from China corresponded to rising oil prices that reached $146 per barrel in June 2008. The exception to the correlation in late 2006 resulted from demand destruction when real oil prices (2016 dollars) exceeded $85 per barrel for the first time since 1982.

A production cut may bring higher short-term prices but it should also result in higher OPEC spare capacity, a negative factor for higher prices.

Massive Oil Inventories Are The Problem

After the 2008 Financial Collapse, declining OPEC spare capacity, falling OECD inventories, low interest rates, and record-high oil prices produced a classic oil-production bubble.

The bubble burst in 2014 as over-production resulted in swelling inventories (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Oil prices collapsed because of inventory imbalance and will not recover until balance is restored. Incremental inventory volumes are shown relative to the minimum levels in the time series; in this case, November 2013. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

There is little chance that oil prices will return to the $70-80 range that many analysts predict until OECD storage falls approximately 400 million barrels to its 5-year average. If all the announced output cuts take place and extend beyond the 6-month term of the agreement, that will take at least a year.

The idea that there was a price war between OPEC and tight oil producers arose largely from a story line that analysts promoted. It was accepted and maintained largely by American hubris.

An over-supply of oil was the enemy if there was one and it negatively affected OPEC as much as other world producers. It resulted from the longest period of high oil prices in history. Brent was more than $90 per barrel from October 2010 through October 2014.

It is true that tight oil over-production was the biggest single offender in the supply glut and price collapse but all global producers contributed their share. It is likely that OPEC would have cut production in late 2014 if Russia had agreed to participate.

Ali Al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister at that time said, “We met with non-OPEC producers, we asked ‘what are you going to do?' They said nothing. We said the meeting is over.”

Tight Oil Is Not A Threat To OPEC

Tight oil has never been a long-term threat to OPEC because the reserves are relatively low. EIA year-end 2015 data indicates that U.S. tight oil proven reserves are less than 12 billion barrels.

Canada's and Venezuela's combined oil sands reserves exceed 350 billion barrels. Oil sands are Saudi Arabia's and OPEC's chief reserve competition, not U.S. tight oil (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Oil Sands Are Saudi Arabia's Chief Reserve Competition, Not U.S. Tight Oil. Source: EIA, Hyperdynamics and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

In fact, tight oil production is a plus for OPEC. The U.S. must import increasing amounts of OPEC heavier oil for blending in order to refine the ultra-light oil produced from tight oil plays.

OPEC'S share of U.S. imports has increased 9% since January 2015. Total U.S. crude oil imports have increased about 1 million barrels per day and most of the increase has come from OPEC countries (Figure 4).

Figure 4. U.S. Total Imports of Crude Oil and Imports From OPEC Countries Have Increased 1 Million Barrels Per Day Since Early 2015. Trend lines represent polynomial fits. Source: EIA, Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc. and Crude Oil Peak.

Canada could provide almost unlimited amounts of heavy oil to the U.S. but the Obama Administration's decision to block the Keystone XL Pipeline means increasing reliance on OPEC.

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