The new outlook for oil: prepare for a bumpy ride in 2017

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oil-glut-sliderAfter two and a half years of opening up the taps (or rather: not closing them) OPEC has changed course in what is looking to be a gamechanger for the oil market. Market sentiment has shifted and the oil price has gone up. But that doesn’t mean we can go back to the status quo ante, writes geophysicist (ex-Shell) Jilles van den Beukel. Some things have changed permanently. Saudi Arabia’s position within OPEC has weakened, Iran’s has strengthened. US tight oil companies have shown their strength. As a result, writes Van den Beukel, volatility will be here to stay.

OPEC defeated?

Many have argued that OPEC’s decision to cut production on 30 November was a defeat. But was it really?

OPEC (and most of all: Saudi Arabia) over the last two years had been trying to deal as well as possible with the difficult situation that the 2009-2014 high oil price world had created for them.

Would they, from 2014 onwards, have defended price instead of market share, US tight oil production would have risen by about 2 mb/d (million barrels per day) by now (instead of the reduction of about 1 mb/d that actually materialised). The decline from non-OPEC conventional fields would have been 3 mb/d (instead of the 6 mb/d that actually took place). For Saudi Arabia it would have been a repeat of the early 1980s when they did defend price, resulting in a reduction of their production to a level as low as 2.5 mb/d (currently they produce over 10 mb/d) before they gave up.

Even if producers do not fully live up to their pledges, their ability to cheat and take away market share from Saudi Arabia has become limited

Thus, two years of defending market share instead of price has resulted in 6 mb/d lower non-OPEC supply than what it would have been otherwise. The large investment cuts in non-OPEC oil will reduce non-OPEC supply for years to come. That is major progress for OPEC. It has brought supply and demand close to equilibrium in 2017. Now a cut became a realistic option in order to bring on higher oil prices. A cut in 2014 would only have postponed the inevitable and increased the length of the subsequent painful rebalancing period.

They will have been disappointed by the resilience of US tight oil. US tight oil survived by drilling in the very best spots only, increased efficiencies and reduced service industry costs. Furthermore it was saved by their investors and financiers – for whom accepting severe losses was a better alternative than to let them go bankrupt.d85531c2f1fad37_size129_w1200_h677-opec at the helm-slider

In the end, OPEC did regain market share and, more importantly, some of their ability to move markets. US tight oil survived with break-even costs in the very best areas that are now at the lower end of the global non-OPEC cost curve. They both paid a heavy price. But it is high cost non-OPEC conventional oil that has lost the most in this battle.

Why cut now?

The timing of the production cut can be explained by various factors. First and foremost, markets had done their work and supply and demand were approaching a balance, enabling a meaningful cut.

Secondly, all producers were troubled by budget deficits. A country like Venezuela had been desperate for a deal. Unfortunately for Venezuela it has no clout whatsoever in OPEC. The defining push for the agreement was given by Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler) and Vladimir Putin.

The situation within their countries is such that both have good reasons to cut oil production. Bin Salman wants to solidify his grip on power. For that he needs to limit hardship for the Saudi middle class and provide hope for the rapidly growing (and increasingly unemployed) number of young Saudis. Saudi Aramco’s planned IPO will benefit from higher oil prices. Putin also wants to limit economic hardship for the Russian population. He cannot be as indifferent to the well-being of the Russian population as Stalin once was; his grip on power is more secure if he keeps the Russian middle class happy.

Iran seems in a better position to overcome periods of low oil prices than Saudi Arabia. Its economy, hardened by years of sanctions, is better equipped to do so and is less reliant on oil income

Thirdly, Saudi Arabia needed to see pledges from other producers (Iran and Russia in particular) to be able to go ahead. These others producers needed to have confidence that limited cuts will lead to a meaningful increase of the oil price – something that the initial market reaction in September after the Algiers talks provided to them. Reaching an agreement in Vienna on 30 November then became a must; failure would have implied a substantial price drop, something they could ill afford.

Finally, what should also be considered is that OPEC spare capacity is at its lowest level since 2008. Iran is back at its pre-sanctions level of production and cannot raise production any further in the short term. Russian production is at a record level. Even if producers do not fully live up to their pledges, their ability to cheat and take away market share from Saudi Arabia has become limited. Saudi Arabia can be satisfied that cuts are shared. Iran and Russia can be satisfied as well; their pledges are not a great hardship for them.

What has changed?

Yet this does not mean that OPEC is back to where it once was. Some things have changed permanently.

Saudi Arabia has lost clout within OPEC. Iraq and especially Iran are challenging its dominant position. Their combined production starts to approach that of Saudi Arabia. Both have large undeveloped oil reserves, which can be developed at low cost, and are still producing way below their potential. In the long run they are likely to further ramp up production. After having been sidelined for a long time due to wars and sanctions both are now reclaiming their natural position in the OPEC pecking order. In the long term, reaching an agreement within OPEC will not become any easier.

Let us put things into perspective. The oversupply frequently described as a glut was no larger than about 2% of global production, at its worst

Iran in particular by now seems in a better position to overcome periods of low oil prices than Saudi Arabia. Its economy, hardened by years of sanctions, is better equipped to do so and is less reliant on oil income. Saudi Arabia’s pivotal role in OPEC was based on its being the largest producer by far, its ability to maintain a substantial spare capacity and its large financial reserves that (in combination with a relatively small population) enabled it to better sit out prolonged periods of low oil prices. Some elements of this dominance are now starting to fall away and Saudi Arabia is no longer the sole pivotal nation within OPEC that it used to be.

Oil has always been linked to politics. And Saudi Arabia has also lost political clout in the Middle East. The Saudi’s are struggling to deal with a Shia encirclement. Their economy is solely dependent on oil and is not performing well in comparison with countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The religious establishment is a blocker when it comes to reforming education and increasing the role of women in the economy. Their special relationship with the USA is deteriorating now that the USA is moving towards energy independence and more reluctant to prop up fundamentalist regimes. In the meantime Russia has gained influence, by intervening in Syria and by playing a key role in brokering the recent OPEC agreement.

For a long time Saudi Arabia has been a source of stability in the region and Iran a source of instability. That is changing now.

Where do oil prices go from here?

All ingredients seem to be in place to keep oil prices in 2017 at a systematically higher level than in 2016. Compliance with the agreement will vary among the different producers, but the 700,000+ b/d cut from Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait and the UAE) in itself is sufficient to bring supply and demand approximately into balance. Even if the level of compliance of other producers will be as low as 50%, the cuts will still lead to a meaningful reduction of oil inventories.

As oil producers see that the deal delivers the promised rise in oil prices, they will be less likely to cheat – at least initially. The pledged, gradual cut from Russia involves little more than natural decline and a reduction or freeze of all short term projects.

It does not take that much oversupply to send oil prices plummeting. In the same way, it does not take that much undersupply to send them through the roof

Yet volatility will be here to stay as stories of cheating, outages and potential production increases from uncapped Nigeria and Libya abound. Notes to refiners about shipment reductions will be duly leaked to the media (something that has already started). But throughout the year we will be seeing a return to oil prices that are closer to the long term sustainable price of oil: that of the marginal non-OPEC barrel, somewhere near $60-80 per barrel. 

160928163540-opec-algeria-1024x576And let us put things into perspective. The oversupply frequently described as a glut was no larger than about 2% of global production, at its worst. OECD oil inventories have hovered around 65 days of supply in 2016; little more than 5 days above the long term average. It does not take that much oversupply to send oil prices plummeting. In the same way, it does not take that much undersupply to send them through the roof. One should not blame analysts too much for not being able to predict the oil price, but a bit of blame for underestimating uncertainties might be justified.

How will US tight oil react?

A main source of uncertainty is how US tight oil will react to higher prices. Tight oil’s shorter cycle times and faster reaction to changes in oil price compared to conventional oil may keep a lid on oil prices. But to what extent?

If we compare a recent global cost curve of oil projects with a 2014 cost curve there are two developments that stand out. Firstly, the average break-even cost has decreased substantially, from about $70 per barrel in 2014 to about $50 per barrel today. Secondly, over the last two years US tight oil has seen the biggest cost decreases and it has shifted towards the left (more competitive) side of the global cost curve.

For those US tight oil companies that have survived and that have quality acreage there now seems to be a great promise for the future: break-even prices near the lower end of the global spectrum of opportunities and huge in-place volumes. This is the background for the recent outperformance of the share price of companies active in the Permian (the US region with the lowest break-even prices). Break-even prices for the very best areas have dropped to about $30 – $40 per barrel. As a whole the US tight oil industry is estimated to need about $55-$60 per barrel to maintain a flat production level.

US tight oil will indeed keep a lid on oil prices. But to a smaller extent than what is often assumed

There is one snag: break-even prices quoted above are for current cost levels of the service industry, widely seen as being unsustainably low. How much will these costs increase once that activities pick up in earnest? Rystad Energy estimated that for the Bakken about 40% of cost savings were structural (faster drilling, better well production) and about 60% cyclical (primarily lower service industry costs, to a lesser extent drilling in the very best sweet spots only). When activities pick up significantly, break-even costs are expected to increase by about 65%. Current break-even costs for the very best sweet spot areas would be expected to increase from $30 to $50 per barrel. Non-core areas (that currently see little activity) could see an increase from $50 to $75 per barrel. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.

Quoting from a recent panel discussion at an event of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE): “If oil prices stay below $55/bbl, equipment availability can be relatively smoothly managed in the Permian. But at prices from $60/bbl to $70/bbl all of a sudden all of the other plays come back, and then for sure we reach the threshold of equipment not being available”.

I feel that many analysts overestimate the ability of US tight oil to act as a swing producer. Firstly, things take time. Hiring drilling crews to man the often less efficient rigs that have now been cold stacked takes time. Hiring fraccing crews takes time. Getting permits takes time. It took two years before the effect of low oil prices on US tight oil production had materialised in full. Secondly, costs of drilling and fraccing follow the oil price. US tight oil will indeed keep a lid on oil prices. But to a smaller extent than what is often assumed.

Editor’s Note

Jilles van den Beukel worked as a geologist, geophysicist and project manager for Shell in many parts of the world. This paper was first published on his blog JillesonEnergy.


  1. Are Hansen says

    “Let us put things into perspective. The oversupply frequently described as a glut was no larger than about 2% of global production, at its worst”

    If current growth in sales of electric vehicles continue, they will permanently displace this amount of oil consumption already from 2023:

    • Jilles van den Beukel says

      So EV’s will reduce oil demand in 2023 by some 2 %.

      If oil companies outside OPEC completely stop investing by now that will reduce non-OPEC supply in 2023 by some 50 %.

      To oil companies the energy transition implies a long term downward pressure on demand. They are taking good note of that. They are not out there to let the world, out of principle, use as much oil as possible. They are out there to make a profit.

  2. David Drury says

    It’s a fair point that while the article does a really good job of pointing out the new uncertainties on the supply side, there are also fundamental changes on the demand side. Electric cars may be part of that but there are wider changes in the energy mix and in the link between energy consumption and GDP growth (and, of course, there is a lot of uncertainty about economic growth too).

    But does this actually mean that oil prices are less uncertain or more volatile than in the past? We have seen huge swings – notably in 2008/2009, when prices went from over $140/bbl to less than $40/bbl.

    Analysts rely on concepts such as the supply/cost curve to estimate a long-term economically sustainable price, but in fact this has almost no predictive value. Not only are there huge uncertainties about the supply/cost curve, but the overall investment process doesn’t follow this neat economic model. When conditions are favourable, everyone piles in, and when they are unfavourable, investment is slashed. Also those investment decisions are based on forward estimates of the price, which are usually wrong. This leads to swings in the supply/demand balance, so that actual prices don’t bear any real relationship to “long term sustainable prices”.

    US shale oil production, which has shorter investment cycles, may well help to stabilise the situation, but I agree with the article that the swing flexibility may be less than often assumed.

    • Jilles van den Beukel says

      Good point. Perhaps we indeed should not use the supply/cost curve as a predictor for the oil price but rather as a qualitative indicator of where oil prices are going. So if oil prices are way above the cost of the marginal barrel they will tend to go down, in the long run (and the other way around). But they will more often undershoot or overshoot rather than actually land near the cost of the marginal barrel (given that relatively small amounts of under or oversupply give us such large price swings).

      There must be a case for the contrarian oil company investing during these hard times. It is happening to some extent; Total taking over a big chunk of Tullow’s assets in East Africa, Statoil increasing its share in Lundin. Tells us something about what these companies think are attractive assets (Johan Sverdrup in the Lundin case).

      I guess on demand I am looking at the energy transition, increasing efficiencies, etc as long term gradual effects. They will influence volumes rather than price (and whereas volumes matter to oil companies, price matters much more). And in the short term (politics, global economic crises) anything can happen..

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