oil prices


Iranians protest against Saudi Arabia after the hajj stampede  © Getty Images

Oil prices are now 50 per cent lower than they were a year ago, and less than 40 per cent of their peak in 2012. Worldwide, there is a continuing surplus of supply over demand of around 2.5m to 3m barrels a day. This is despite the loss of exports from Libya and two bloody wars – the first against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) in Syria and Iraq, the another against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Those two wars, which do not directly affect any significant oil producing areas, are proxy conflicts for the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now, however, there is a growing risk of open war between Riyadh and Tehran. Oil facilities and exports would inevitably be primary targets and in those circumstances a price spike would be unavoidable. The question is whether such an escalation can be prevented.

Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have never been close. The conflict is partly religious, partly economic and territorial. Both want to be the clear regional leader. In recent months relations have deteriorated. The latest trigger is the death of 767 Islamic pilgrims at the annual hajj in Mecca. The dead included an estimated 169 Iranians. Since the tragedy – caused by a stampede at a bottleneck as about 2m took part in the journey – Iran’s leaders have used the event as a stick to beat the Saudi authorities in general and the royal family in Riyadh in particular. The failure of the Saudis to return the dead Iranians to their own country has provoked an unspecific commitment of “retaliation” from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The heightened language indicates the tension that pervades the region. The situation is comparable to Europe in the months before the first world war, and equally dangerous. Read more

Protesters Take To Kayaks To Demonstrate Against Shell's Plans To Drill In Arctic

Protesters approach Shell's Polar Pioneer oil drilling rig in May  © Getty Images

Shell’s decision to abandon exploration in the Arctic is an acknowledgment of reality, although that makes it no more comfortable for those involved. Some $7bn (more, according to some estimates) has been lost in its Chukchi Sea campaign — the unsuccessful Burger J well must be the most expensive ever drilled, anywhere in the world. But, financially, Shell can afford it, and many in the oil company will be relieved that the issue is out of the way.

The exploration effort was a PR disaster for a company that prides itself on its environmental record. The prospect of success, followed by years of conflict over the next steps — the development of permanent facilities for actual production — worried some senior executives more than the prospect of failure. The possibility of facing up to a new US president in the person of Hillary Clinton who is on record as opposing Arctic drilling was hardly welcome for a company that believes itself distinct from companies such as ExxonMobil that take a more challenging line on climate change and other issues. These reputational issues were no doubt very important elements in the decision to pull out. Read more


Oil sprays from a well at Tuba oil field in Iraq  © Getty Images

Oil is now clearly a cyclical commodity that is in a period of over-supply. According to recent commentaries from the International Energy Agency, the excess of production over consumption was as much as 3m barrels a day in the second quarter of this year, which is why prices have fallen. The question for producers, consumers and investors is: how long will it be before the cycle turns back up?

The initial caveat, of course, is that the “normal” oil market could be overturned by political decisions at any time. The Saudis, instead of greedily trying to maximise their market share and imposing huge losses on others, could decide that the stability of the region, and of their own kingdom, would be better served by cutting production and settling for a new equilibrium. There is a chance of that, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and the Saudis are under huge pressure from other Opec members but there is a mood of rigid arrogance in Riyadh which suggests that the necessary climb down will not come easily. What follows assumes that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and his son the deputy crown prince stick to their current policy.

What then drives the cycle ? Read more

  © Getty Images

For investors who thought the situation in the oil sector could not get worse, the last few weeks have come as a bad surprise. In the US, West Texas Intermediate prices have slipped below $40 a barrel and on Monday Brent crude fell below $44. There is no obvious sign yet that the bottom of the cycle has been reached and the latest negative data from China adds further downward pressure. The next casualty of the falling price will be corporate dividends.

Much attention has been paid to the implications of lower oil prices on countries such as Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria which depend for the bulk of their national income on oil. For them, the economic and political implications are serious. As we saw at the end of the 1980s, not just in the former Soviet Union but also in Opec states such as Algeria, a heavy fall in prices undermines the social contract between governing elites and the wider population. Both those countries look vulnerable now, as do a range of others including Angola, Brazil and Nigeria. In all those cases the impact of a price fall compounds existing problems. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that one or more of these nations will see a regime change before the end of the year. Read more

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Of Saudi Arabia Visits Jordan

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visiting Jordan this month  © Getty Images

With the latest analysis from the International Energy Agency showing that oil production capacity continues to rise despite the sharp fall in prices, is Saudi Arabia ready to admit that its strategy of over-production designed to force other producers out of the market has failed?

Over the last year, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing what Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, described last week as a policy of flexing its muscles – both in the region and in the oil market. The policy is obviously failing. The question now is whether the kingdom will keep going, doubling down on its current approach, or will step back and change course. The second option would involve a significant loss of face for the new king and his favourite son. The costs of simply ploughing on, however, could be much worse. The outcome will shape the future of the region and of the international oil market. Read more

Last week’s Opec meeting in Vienna confirmed that power has drifted away from the cartel that shaped the oil market for so long. The organisation was unable, as some wanted, to cut production which across Opec is running at about 1.4m barrels a day in excess of the official target. Equally, it was unable to increase production, as others favoured, in order to drive US producers of so-called “tight oil” – that is oil from shale rocks extracted through fracking – out of the market. The conclusion of the meeting was to do nothing. This means that prices will continue to be set by supply and demand. Over the last few weeks prices which had sunk in the spring appeared to be stabilising at around $ 65 a barrel for Brent with WTI five or 6 dollars lower. But such prices were not secure and now, short of a very dramatic development such as an attack by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Saudi Arabia, all the odds are that prices will now fall back again.

Brent Crude Oil Future twelve month chart Read more

Downturn In Oil Prices Rattles Texas Oil Economy

  © Getty Images

Almost all the major oil and gas companies I know are undertaking substantial reviews of their policies on climate change. That is true in Europe and in the US. Why now, and what will be the outcome ?

First, it is important to stress that the rethinking is not being driven by the recent attacks on the companies. Describing Shell and its chief executive Ben van Beurden as “narcissistic, paranoid and psychopathic” is just childish and reduces what should be a serious debate to playground abuse. The reviews began before the latest media campaigns and are driven by corporate strategic concerns. Read more



Getty Images

The provisional agreement to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions led to another fall in oil prices on Friday as the market anticipated the lifting of sanctions and the resumption of full scale Iranian exports. The fall is now overdone and for a series of reasons we are likely to see prices rise — modestly — before the summer.

First, the Iranian agreement is provisional and depends on negotiation of crucial details before the next deadline in June. A number of concerned parties — from the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, who do not want to see the lucrative business interests they have built on the back of sanctions eliminated, to the Israeli government in Jerusalem, which does not believe that any promises from Iran can be trusted —have no interest in seeing the deal completed. Read more

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany.

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Forget Opec. If cartels can’t control output, they can’t control prices and in due course they fall apart, usually with a great deal of ill will in the process. The evidence of the last six months is that Opec can’t control the market — ask yourself how many Opec members want to see a price of $60 a barrel for their oil. Some in Saudi Arabia think a low price can squeeze out competing suppliers, but that feels like a justification after the fact of a fall which they can’t control. The question now is how the process of adjustment to the new price level will work. Read more

  © Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images

There were two contenders for this year’s award. The most obvious, and certainly the man who has won the most coverage in this (and every other) publication, is Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin has certainly been highly visible, but he has actually changed very little in the energy market. Russian gas still flows to Europe and to Ukraine, helped by western payments of outstanding debts. Europe may be rethinking its energy mix and opening new and more diverse sources of supply, but any change will be very gradual. Russia will trade more with China and India, but that was coming anyway and is a natural and logical balancing of supply and demand. Read more

As Martin Wolf has noted in the Financial Times, world oil prices have fallen 38 per cent since the end of June. A Martian listening to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement would have no idea of this. For consumers lower oil prices can have positive effects but for mature producing provinces they are very damaging and could be fatal.

Mr Osborne proposed a cut in the supplementary charge on oil company profits by 2 percentage points from 32 per cent to 30 per cent. There is to be a “cluster” area allowance to help the development of small fields which sit next to each other. The ringfence expenditure supplement is to extended from six years to 10. Wow! That will really keep the investment flowing. Read more

One of the most exhilarating aspects of working in the energy business – at least for a humble economist such as me – is that companies think and act on a timescale measured in decades. Projects are built to last for 30-40 years, and often longer still. This is in sharp contrast to the government where timescales are measured in hours and where long-term means the not-too-distant horizon of the next election. It is also in contrast to sectors such as telecommuications where the pace of change is so fast that thinking more than five years ahead makes no sense. But, as the current slide in oil, gas and coal prices demonstrates, a long-term perspective does not make investment judgments easier.

Most oil and gas fields, coal mines, nuclear power plants, wind farms and other energy sources are designed to last for decades. The construction time can be long: a liquefied natural gas plant can take six or eight years; a new nuclear power station a decade or more especially if the technology is unproven or excruciatingly complex. Payback only comes when the plants have been on stream for several years. Beyond that, however, the operating costs are usually low and the cash flow is strong and secure. Or, at least it should be. Read more

BP oil platform in the North Sea  © Reuters

After 40 years of production that far exceeded original expectations, the North Sea oil and gas industry is in serious jeopardy. At the beginning of the year, there was a degree of optimism following Sir Ian Wood’s report and the establishment of a new, more interventionist regulator considered capable of driving a further wave of activity. But with the fall in oil prices over the past four months, the mood has changed dramatically. Read more

Nowhere is the failure of the talks between the international community and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme more welcome than in Riyadh. A fudged deal would have given legitimacy to the government in Tehran and confirmed the weakness of the strategic alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US.

More important still, it would have raised the prospect of the Saudis having to make serious cuts in oil production and exports to support the price of the output from Opec, the oil producers’ cartel. These are cuts the kingdom can ill afford. But, sooner or later, Iran will be on its way back into the oil market. Read more

Oil prices are up to $115 a barrel for Brent crude on the basis of market fears that western governments will not be able to limit their involvement in Syria to a few missile strikes shot from warships located safely offshore and that the Sunni-Shia conflict will spread across the Middle East. The forward market is suggesting that spot prices will go even higher.

Maybe. The western involvement certainly looks ill-prepared and lacking in strategic purpose. The response to what is happening in Syria from the US, in particular, reminds me of the impotent response of the dying Ottoman regime to the gradual collapse of its empire across the Middle East in the years before the first world war. Read more

The Brent oil price has fallen by more than $10 – which means 10 per cent – in less than two weeks and now stands below $ 100. The precise number matters less than the trend. Now the question is how much further prices will fall.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with the ability to cut production and to keep prices up. Some feel the Saudis are using the fall to discourage investment in high-cost projects including tight oil and some deep water ventures. I am not convinced. The Saudi oil minister, Dr Al Naimi looks tired and unsuited to such a high-stakes game. I expect the Saudis to pursue the tactic of making small incremental cuts in output in the hope that the market will stabilise. I doubt if this will work. Only a cut of 1.5m to 2m b/d will suffice to maintain prices and that would squeeze Saudi revenues too much. With growing domestic demand Saudi Arabia has little room for manoeuvre. As noted last week, the Saudis seem to be in process of losing control of the oil price. Read more

The news of another excellent year for investment in the North Sea will come as a surprise only to those who do not understand the dynamic relationship between economics and technology.

The original predictions were that North Sea oil and gas – certainly in the UK sector – would be exhausted by 1990. A strict depletion policy in Norway might keep production running for a few more years. That was the received wisdom of the 1970s.

Now, 56 years after the first gas was produced at the West Sole field, the prospect for the whole province is for at least two more decades of production. Total output is down but there is a long tail. Resources which were once thought inaccessible are now being brought onstream thanks to advances in drilling and reservoir management technology. Read more

The sanctions imposed on Iran are not working. The Iranian economy is in a mess with shortages and inflation. But, as a very interesting paper just published by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute shows, it is not collapsing. Non-essential imports have been cut back and a range of exports – including minerals, cement and agricultural products – are actually growing. Iran’s main trading partners are Iraq, China, the UAE and India. Unemployment is high and no one believes the official figures, but it is probably lower than that of Spain. And, most seriously, oil sanctions are breaking down.

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The Brent oil price fell by more than six dollars last week and at $ 104 is now 20 per cent below its recent peak in the spring of 2012. No particular events have triggered the fall. There has been no deal with Iran which would end sanctions. Economic activity levels are hardly exciting but they haven’t suddenly collapsed. Uncertainties around North Korea might normally have been expected to push prices up. Read more

The death of Hugo Chávez and the prospect of a regime change in Venezuela will cause no more than a momentary blip in the oil market. This is a remarkable change from the situation a few years ago, when developments in Carcacas would have destabilised prices across the world.

In reality, Chávez diminished Venezuela’s potential role in the international oil business by undermining the status of the state company Petróleos de Venezuela SA and excluding major international investment. Production and exports from Venezuela are now well below their potential levels.

To restore PDVSA to its former glory will take time. Many of the people best able to build the company and the country now live comfortably in London or New York and will take some persuading to go back home. Oil industry investors will be circling the airport in their private jets, but there is no new consensus as yet as to the terms on which they might be allowed to return. That too will take time. Read more