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Opinion: Stop Blaming OPEC For Low Prices

by Nick Cunningham of

We are a little more than a month away from OPEC’s next meeting, which will be held in Vienna on December 4, 2015.

OPEC altered the course of the oil markets last year when it decided to cast aside its traditional role of maintaining balance through production cuts. Instead it pursued a strategy of fighting for market share, contributing to an immediate rout in oil prices. WTI and Brent then went on to dive below $50 in the weeks following OPEC’s decision. OPEC is widely expected to continue its current strategy at its next meeting, and as such, no rebound in oil prices is expected, at least not because of the results of the group’s meeting in Vienna.

But that raises a question about what the world of oil expects from OPEC: Why is it that the responsibility for balancing the market falls on OPEC? Why should OPEC be the one to fix the imbalances in the global crude oil trade?

On the one hand, it makes a certain degree of sense that market watchers anticipated adjustment from OPEC. After all, the group has historically coordinated its production levels in an effort to control prices, or at least influence them. They could cut their collective production target to boost prices, and vice versa.

However, there is an element of imperialism and superiority in the expectation that the burden should fall on OPEC, which is largely made up of producers from the Middle East. It is a bizarre mentality to think that private companies deserve to seize as much market share as they can manage, after which OPEC producers can take what is left. Steven Kopits, President of Princeton Energy Advisors, laid out the concept very nicely in a Platts article earlier this year, in which he says the expression “call on OPEC” should be scrapped.

Kopits offers an interesting thought experiment. If the industry in question were, say, automobiles rather than oil, there is no question that such an arrangement would not be framed in the same manner. Imagine that the world thought it reasonable that GM or Ford could take as much market share as possible, and Toyota was expected to slash production if there weren’t enough customers left over. It is an absurd scenario, but not so different from the world of oil.

Why is it that we expect OPEC (and since Saudi Arabia is the only producer with the substantial ability to ratchet up and down production, we really are talking about Saudi Arabia) to cut output in order to help out American oil producers? Saudi Arabia and its fellow OPEC producers have their own interests, and if they believe producing at a certain level is prudent, it is a bit curious to argue that they are “declaring war on U.S. shale.” But that is exactly what happened last year when they decided to leave their production levels unchanged.

Moreover, while cutting production would help to increase prices, OPEC would lose out from selling less oil. It is not clear why OPEC should, in effect, subsidize higher cost production from around the world. Saudi Arabia tried to cut production in the 1980s to rescue prices from rock bottom levels, but it only led to the loss of market share. It is no wonder that the oil kingdom is not keen to go that route again.

Even leaving all of this aside, it is hard to even discern that such a “war” is actually taking place. After all, OPEC has only slightly increased output from 2014, and much of it came from Iraq, which has been trying to increase production at all costs, regardless of OPEC decisions. Iraq is not subject to the quota restrictions, and so it is pulling out all the stops to increase output.

The U.S. on the other hand, has aggressively increased output. It is easy to see that much of the responsibility for the crash in oil prices stems from a massive spending spree in the U.S. shale patch, which increased output by around 4 million barrels per day between 2011 and the peak in 2015, nearly doubling production from 5.6 million barrels per day (mb/d) to 9.6 mb/d. OPEC’s production, meanwhile, hasn’t changed dramatically over the same time period.

In this light, why is it that OPEC’s decision to leave its quota unchanged in November 2014 elicited calls that the cartel was waging war? Why is the world not calling on U.S. shale producers—which have a much higher breakeven price—to get out of the business so that other oil producers around the world can survive? In any other sector, high-cost producers are forced out of the market. Nobody expects the stronger producers to cede ground to weaker ones.

U.S. production is now down by about 500,000 barrels per day since April. Oil prices will rise over the next year or so as U.S. shale is forced to cut back. That adjustment—high-cost suppliers forced out—is how markets are supposed to work.

Nevertheless, as OPEC heads to Vienna in six weeks’ time, there will undoubtedly be more headlines about OPEC continuing its war on shale.

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Opec would not be doing this except for Obama, and his energy plan. I blame him for the low prices. The "all of the above" energy policy, the higher fuel economy standards and the strong push toward alternative fuels and EVs (which work well and for which costs are coming down) have lead to this panic by OPEC and others that an end to the need for oil is coming, and it is. So, blame Obama and his crazy administration. You see, what he never understood about americans is that they love to whine like babies. They never really did hate the oil companies, they love them. No, americans like to be abused, that is why they keep voting for tax cuts for the rich, because they love a cruel master. But Obama doesn't understand that. He thinks we want cheap oil and a good economy, but we don't we want to be held like slaves by a few billionaires who then can be responsible for all our lives. You see, we would rather whine about our cruel masters than have to live with the consequences of our own decisions. Most do not want freedom. They want someone to be responsible for them, and that is why they vote for the GOP and many of the DFL candidates too, because they treat everyone like imbecilic little children, and that is exactly what americans want.


OPEC wanted to restrict supply to RAISE prices. Saudi said no, they would not listen so they dropped the hammer.


Is it a war on US Oil Shales and Canadian Tar Sands or a war on Russian and Irak-Iranian Oil?

Either way, oil price is about where it should have been and we have to find ways to extract oil from shales and tar sands, with a decent profit, @ $40 to $50/barrel. The same applies to bio-fuels.

Total fossil and bio fuels consumption will progressively start to fall as more efficient vehicles are introduced. That will put more pressure on international prices.


They wanted to ding the tar sands, but as someone once said, the stone age did not end due to a lack of stones. They found alternatives.


“THE Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” Sheikh Yamani.

This is a very snappy quote, but it is wrong. My belief is that the Oil age will end when oil gets too expensive to extract, rather than when we get a good alternative, leaving a large amount in the ground.

Stone age people used stone to make tools, and once made, they stayed made, they were not consumed. This is not the case with oil which IS consumed as you used it.

We can see that individual automobiles can be replaced/augmented by electric vehicles. All small vehicles that mostly need short - medium range can be replaced by EVs. However, it will be much harder to replace long range trucks, ships and aircraft, and ICEs in places with no good electricity supply.

Thus, I think we will keep going till it is exorbitant to extract it.

Luckily, oil is not like Rhino Horn or Bluefin tuna where the value goes up as scarcity increases. No-one is going to say - "I just drove from LA to San Fran on a barrel of finest Arabian light", oil is oil, joules are joules.
So substitution is possible (and relatively easy, just expensive).

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The oil age will end with autonomous cars. The US spend 14 million barrels of oil per day for gasoline and diesel out of 20 million barrels per day total. Autonomous BEVs of all kinds can end that 14 million barrels per day. We will not see the first autonomous cars before 2020. Then it will take 10 more years to make all sorts of autonomous BEVs including heavy duty trucks. Another 10 years before sale of new gassers and dirty diesels ends. That means 2040. Then another 15 years before all gassers and diesels on the road are retired. So the oil age is over by 2055. Airplanes and ships can use bio-fuels made industrially in bioreactors using power from wind and solar. That bio-industry can also make materials for plastic, asphalt, etc.


The discussion here regarding tar sands and fracked oil is only partially correct. There are a number of alternative oil producing techniques that can produce oil/oil like hydrocarbon at $75-80 per barrel. It is that there has been little investment of any size in these techniques since it was and is known that a sustained high price for traditionally produced oil was not assured. fisher/tropsch of coal and waste materials breaks even at $75 a barrel. The difference is that the frackers and sand tars folk made big investments and industry was comfortable with that because it was close enough to the normal pillage and waste techniques that the industry (oil) is used to. If this whole response by the Saudis is singularly directed toward the frackers then we would see the prices begin to climb again soon. There is a common technique used in the investment industry (Goldman Sacks is the prototypical financial entity to which this applies) where prices on a commodity are raised, which increases investment by smaller entities in competitive production and then prices are reduced by the big producer to financial punish the smaller producers who then must sell their investments at a loss, allow the big entities to gain the assets at bargain basement prices. It is extremely common in the commodities world. So, if this was all about the tar sands and fracked oil, we would see consolidation of the alternative production techniques under the large bankrolled entities and we would see the price creep up over the next few years as the competition was taken out. We are not seeing that and we won't see an increase in price either. The price is where it should be and should have been given the costs and competition. $100/brl oil was always a manipulated market. The nice part about the low prices now is that these environmentally destructive techniques tar, fracked, deepwater, artic etc. will no longer be invested in because they are poor investments with big risks. That will never change because of alternatives that are or will be cost effective. GM has said that they get batteries at $143/kWh (That may factor in secondary use value), and the DOE has said that an EV will cost the same as an ICE at $125/kWh. So, the price of gasoline is about to become irrelevant to the car and EV market as EVs are poised to be cheaper than ICE. Obviously more battery production is necessary and will take some time, but that will happen. Add that the largest cellulosic ethanol plant is now on line in Iowa (DupPont) and there are other factors coming in here than tar sands and fracking.


So we run out of oil or we destroy the planet before we do, place your bets.


OPEC is the low cost producer so if they want to "control" the cost they can lower prices. If their prices go too high frackers and tar sand become viable. The net result is everybody watches OPEC and adjusts their price.

The real question is did renewables cause the glut that forced OPEC's to lower prices? Renewables only need a few percent of the market to become spoilers.


70 million boomers driving fewer miles in higher mileage cars.

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True that renewable only need a few percentages to become spoilers. But we are far from a few percentages globally for renewable for cars fuels. With low oil prices don't expect ethanol or biodiesel to grow at all. It has to come from PHEVs and BEVs that use little or no oil. So haw far are we from renewable being spoilers.

90 million barrels of oil is produced globally per day. About 60 million barrels per day is consumed by 1.5 billion vehicles. That is 0.04 barrel per vehicle per day. To spoil the global oil market we need a drop in oil demand of 3 million barrels per day. That is 75,000,000 PHEV or BEVs vehicles (= 3,000,000/0.04) need to hit the road before we the oil market is spoiled. This year only 400,000 new PHEVs and BEVs will be produced so we are many years away from any change. In other words, we need 75 million BEVs and PHEVs to replace 3 million barrells per day in oil production.

We need to go past 2025 for that to start happening.

The Saudi consider itself at war with Iran and they literally are in Iran, Yemen and Syria. The Saudis has dropped the oil price first and foremost to hurt Iran and Russia economically so that they will have lees money for their proxy wars with the Saudis. However, it is a futile strategy as the Saudis themselves will run out of money in 5 years and then they have to increase the oil again.


Strange to "blame" someone when they still have profits that would be deemed fabulous in any other market.

Imagine that the whole budget of France would be covered by the profits of wine exports. I would think the profit margins are unreasonable.

Henry Gibson

Artemis demonstrated a modified production automobile with its computer controlled hydraulic transmission that could reduce fuel use to half or perhaps even more in city driving. Changes in the size of engine could possibly reduce the fuel use on motorways to the same value but was measured without changes at a 30 percent reduction.

In many EU and US cities and others, horse drawn vehicles can be seen, so it is clear that one horse power can transport people, but a full scientific horse power, about 0.75kW would do it much faster, and with Artemis hydraulics could stop and accelerate as well as most automobiles or even better.

The low fuel use could reduce fuel prices dramatically.


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