Many of the world’s oil consuming nations, led by the US, shocked oil markets this week as the International Energy Agency agreed to release 60m barrels of oil from strategic reserves over the coming month. The move was intended to offset price pressures brought about by Libya’s supply cut and comes in response to Opec’s recent inability to formally endorse new supply increases. The IEA action is also an example of growing concern over higher oil prices in Washington, where the White House is managing political fallout from high gasoline prices as next year’s presidential elections loom just over the horizon.
Yet, a year from now, we’re likely to look back on this moment and find that fears for supply have diminished. There are three reasons.
First, the most substantial fallout from the Arab world’s recent upheaval is behind us. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad continues to fight for survival and Yemen continues to flirt with failed-state status, but the Gulf’s major oil-producing states are quite stable. So are other major producers. Even in Iran, with its leaders infighting, the green revolution has moved off the streets for now. While there are plenty of long-term structural challenges for many major economies – just ask China – for the moment there are no more Libyas left to explode. IEA action and the ongoing Saudi supply increases will neutralise what remains of the oil price’s political risk premium.
Second, big additional supply is coming, and it’s not all priced in. Offshore Brazil and Canadian oil sands are no longer new stories, but their collective impact has not yet been fully felt and is often undervalued. Iraq still draws undue scepticism but production there is showing serious promise. The country could add up to 300,000 barrels this year, with more contracts, more exploration and more drilling already in the works. Barring an unlikely and total implosion of the government, it is hard to see production slowing down this decade. The same is true for “tight oil” coming from unconventional sources. We are seeing this begin to play out in North American fields such as the Bakken in North Dakota. As technology and investment are dispersed over the coming year, oil supply should positively surprise.
Third, Saudi supply increases are not dependant on Opec. The country’s oil minister Ali Naimi left the cartel’s Vienna meeting earlier this month with complaints that the organisation had just endured one of its most contentious and least productive gatherings in many years. But that is only because the major oil players were not prepared to pretend that there was agreement on output quotas. With Iran chairing the meeting, an annoyed Venezuela in attendance and an embattled Libya looking on, it was much harder to get the group to put aside their differences and smile for the cameras. The Saudis have the most influence on price-moving output decisions and they increased production just as they had planned before the meeting proved so difficult. Economically stressed oil producers such as Iran and Venezuela always want higher oil prices. But the Saudis and other Gulf Co-operation Council producers maintain a longer-term moderating outlook and they are the ones with the spare capacity to make the difference.
Add that to your favourite economist’s projection on the softness of the global economy, and we may soon be asking whether or not this latest IEA move was worth it.
The writer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, and author of ‘The End of the Free Market’