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Among notable promises made by US President-elect Donald Trump during his presidential elections were four particular ones that attracted the attention of the world because of their geopolitical implications and their impact on the price of oil. These were the dismantling of the nuclear deal with Iran, lifting the sanctions on Russia, enhancing US oil production and a strong dollar.
Whilst most declarations made by US presidential candidates during their election campaigning would be quickly forgotten once they are installed inside the White House, it might be wise to analyse these promises in case Mr Trump stuns the world by fulfilling some or all of them.
Despite a 91% compliance by OPEC members with the production cuts implemented in January 2017 and the removal of more than 1 million barrels a day (mbd) from the global oil market, the oil price has seen a lot of volatility ranging between $53 and $57 a barrel.
And although US oil inventories have declined for the last five months consecutively according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), their levels are still close to record high. This could be due to two factors: one is rising Shale oil production and second, the glut in the global oil market might have been bigger than what was previously estimated.
Despite very positive signs in the global oil market, oil prices have never managed to break through the $60/barrel barrier since the OPEC production cuts were implemented in January 2017. On the contrary, they have declined from $57/barrel two weeks ago to just over $50/barrel today.
On the face of it, this could be due to two factors: one is rising Shale oil production and the second is that the glut in the global oil market might have been bigger than what was previously estimated. But circumstantial evidence suggests there could be a third factor, namely concerted efforts by the International Energy Agency (IEA), BP through its annual Statistical Review of world energy, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the Financial Times (FT) to prevent the oil price breaking through the $60/barrel barrier. The rationale is that a price under $60/barrel is good enough for US shale oil production to breakeven and not high enough to slow global economic growth. Let us analyse these three factors to find out where the truth lies.
The US shale revolution and the rising shale oil production have had a seismic impact on the global oil market contributing in no small measure to the steep decline in crude oil prices since July 2014. Equally US liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports could have a similar impact on the global gas market possibly weakening further current low gas prices. The irony, however, is that without relatively higher gas prices, the potential and prospects of sizeable US LNG exports could be restricted.
In 2008 the United States overtook Russia to become the leading natural gas producer in the world. Just a few years ago the US was expected to be a major importer of natural gas. The shale revolution has virtually reversed that trend and enabled the US to start exporting LNG.
In the run-up to 2014 sanctions, US oil giant ExxonMobil led by its then CEO Mr Rex Tillerson, and Russia’s oil giant Rosneft invested $3.2 billion in a project for drilling for oil in the Kara Sea in the Russian sector of the Arctic — a region that Rosneft estimated it could have more oil than the entire Gulf of Mexico. But the sanctions forced Exxon Mobil to halt drilling.
With oil prices ebbing and flowing against a background of OPEC and non-OPEC production cuts’ extension and US shale oil production inching up, nobody is paying enough attention to the fast-approaching oil supply gap.
Despite the recent dip in oil prices, industry experts are predicting a supply gap and rising oil prices by 2020. This is due in large part to an oil investment drought marked by almost three years of consecutive decline in oil prices, a statistic that has no precedent in the oil industry. This year a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that if oil investment remains stagnant over the next few years, by 2020 we will see a significant increase in the price of oil as global demand continues to climb.
Since the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia seventy nine years ago, the country has been synonymous with oil. But now the sands under which 16% of the global proven oil reserves lie are beginning to shift under the feet of its leaders.
Saudi Arabia whose beneficence, peace-making efforts, soft power and great oil wealth brought it to the forefront of influential countries in the world over a period of more than half a century, is now embroiled in a crescent of conflicts involving Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and now Qatar not to mention its uneasy relations with the United States.
With oil prices alternating so frequently between bullish and bearish conditions, a global oil deficit could be making its way stealthily through the global oil market.
Last November, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that a shortage could set in as soon as 2020, as the investment shrinkage brought on by the 2014 oil price crash bears fruit. Prices, the IEA had said at the time, could jump significantly at the end of the decade. The IEA reiterated its concerns more recently in its World Energy Investment 2017 Report adding that the rate of new oil discoveries is at its lowest level in more than 70 years. Overall, global spending on oil and gas will rise by a moderate 3% this year, compared to the 44% between 2014 and 2016.
Venezuela’s Deepening Crisis
With 300.9 billion barrels (bb) of proven oil reserves, Venezuela holds the biggest reserves in the world and also accounts for 92% of Latin America’s reserves. This is 13% bigger than Saudi Arabia’s. Still, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that there may be more than 513 bb of extra-heavy crude oil and bitumen deposits in Venezuela’s Orinoco belt region.
Venezuela, a country that should be one of the wealthiest in the world, remains mired in deepening crisis. Its currency (the bolívar) has virtually collapsed while its economy shrank by 10% in 2016 and annual inflation is poised to exceed 720% in 2017.
Geopolitics & US Self-Interest
In imposing new sanctions on Russia, the US Congress aimed to punish Russia for its alleged meddling in the US elections in 2016. Still, these sanctions were mostly motivated by US self-interest, geopolitics and blatant US efforts to delay if not prevent Russia’s emergence as the world’s energy superpower.
The target of these sanctions as in the previous ones is Russian banks and companies as well as Russian oil and gas projects. However, the most contentious issue could well be the sanctions on pipelines. Key projects such as Nord Stream II and the TurkStream pipelines are at the very heart of the sanctions.
The US has always been opposed to Nord Stream II, which it views as Russia’s attempt to solidify its hold on Europe’s energy supplies (see Map 1).
Independence has been a lifelong dream for many Iraqi Kurds and so the 25th of September 2017 referendum was met with understandable jubilation across Iraqi Kurdistan with over 90% voting for secession from Iraq.
Although the referendum was non-binding, it pointed to a deteriorating geopolitical situation between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and neighbouring countries. Baghdad urged neighbouring countries to shut down flights into the region and threatened a blockade. Iran stopped oil trade with Iraqi Kurdistan and also banned flights to the region. And Turkey, which fears stirring separatism among its own Kurdish population, has threatened similar action. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the vote “treachery” and suggested the region would "not find food or clothing" if sanctions were implemented.
Oil is like a coin: one side is Economics and the other is geopolitics and the two are inseparable.
The petrodollar came into existence in 1973 in the wake of the collapse of the international gold standard which was created in the aftermath of World War II under the Bretton Woods agreements. These agreements also established the US dollar as the reserve currency of the world.
The OPEC meeting is over and the organization has extended production cuts throughout 2018. The decision is obviously crucial to supporting oil prices, but also of the utmost importance to the vision and future of one man, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto head of government and Crown prince (the king’s son).
The oil price is key to the success of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 which aims to build a dynamic twenty-first Saudi economy.