Oil battle is sticky, but OPEC may be forced to act

Saudi holdout could be OPEC death knell: Pro
Saudi holdout could be OPEC death knell: Pro   

Even with less drilling, U.S. oil production next year should help keep world markets awash in crude and that may prompt OPEC action by the middle of next year, analysts say.

Saudi Arabia reportedly sees $60 as the level where prices will stabilize, after OPEC last week opted not to cut its production quota. U.S. oil futures Friday closed at $65.84 per barrel, the lowest since 2009 and nearly 40 percent off its June high. Brent was just under $69 per barrel, and both had been trading lower after reports Saudi Aramco cut its January prices to Asia and the U.S.

"The problem for OPEC is if they don't blink. And let's say they do shut down the rate of production growth in the U.S., and they get a price back to where they like it to be, U.S. production growth starts again," said Edward Morse, head of global commodities research at Citigroup.

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Saudi holdout could be OPEC death knell: Pro
Saudi holdout could be OPEC death knell: Pro   

Morse said he expects oil prices to stabilize, but that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will likely be forced into taking action and could cut production in the April, May time frame, when prices can be seasonally weaker after the winter.

Saudi Arabia can easily weather lower prices, but other OPEC members cannot. If OPEC does not cut, West Texas Intermediate could drop to about $58 per barrel, he said. Morse expects Brent to average $80 per barrel in the first quarter, and it would fall closer to $60 if OPEC does not cut.

"This is a fast moving, changing situation and we'll see how it goes through the winter. But I think they could have an emergency meeting, particularly as winter fades into spring," said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS.

Yergin said that many in the industry were surprised Saudi Arabia did not act to support that price, since it had been the traditional swing producer. "They're out of that business," he said. "They changed the algorithm for the global oil business."

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Yergin expects U.S. production growth to stay strong in the first half of 2015, but by the second half it should start to slow.

"We see the possibility they call an extraordinary meeting sometime next year," said Dominic Haywood, crude and products analyst with Energy Aspects. "We think they're going to address countries not living within their quota." OPEC has a quota of 30 million barrels a day, but it has been producing more.

The question is how long is Saudi Arabia willing to withstand low prices, regardless of its motivation. The U.S. shale industry is relatively new, and some analysts say it really is not clear what the impact will be.

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"It's a threshold of pain. Saudi Arabia has enough money," said Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst at Oppenheimer. He said the Saudis could take low prices for more than a year. But other countries, like Iran, Venezuela and Russia, will be increasingly impacted. "Saudi Arabia is applying pressure on Iran. They have to bring Iran to its knees to bring it to the negotiating table, … and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has to put his shirt back on and stop acting like a thug."

The OPEC gathering was just days after negotiations between Iran, the U.S. and five other nations on Iran's nuclear program were extended after failing to reach an agreement by the Nov. 24 deadline.

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Iran's oil minister, in comments to Reuters post-OPEC's Thanksgiving Day meeting, said the Saudis are taking direct aim at the U.S. shale industry. Iran requires a higher oil price of about $100, and it had pushed for a production cut. But Iran and Venezuela closed ranks with the rest of OPEC last week in Vienna.

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Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi has said the kingdom believes the markets should set the oil price, and analysts see that as Saudi Arabia's effort to maintain its market share in the face of new global supply.

"It's hard to figure out what the Saudis are trying to do," Morse said. "Market share is part of it. I think what they're really doing is saying, 'We can test out U.S. production now while we have a lot of money in the bank, and if production turns out to be robust we can figure out another course of action.'" If the Saudis instead cut production, shoring up prices, they could see it as subsidizing U.S. production while not solving the supply problem, he added.

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Morse and other experts expect the U.S. to keep drilling, and with new production in the Gulf of Mexico and continued production in the shale plays, it could continue to grow, with estimates ranging from an additional 500,000 barrels to 1 million barrels a day, depending on prices. In November, the U.S. began pumping 9 million barrels a day for the first time since 1986.

"Perhaps, they're waiting to see if the U.S. buckles first. If U.S. production gets cut, that eases the oversupply in the Atlantic and gives them more room," Haywood said.

The Fed, in its Beige Book on Wednesday, highlighted U.S. oil production and the impact of falling prices. It said production had increased in North Dakota in November, even with lower prices, and North Dakota officials expect shale production to continue to increase over the next two years.

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There is also more oil coming to market from other sources in the next year. Morse said a new pipeline though Chicago should carry another 300,000 barrels a day of Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast in 2015.

More supply could also come from outside North America. "Iraq and the Kurds just agreed on revenue sharing. We're going to see a lot more exports out of Kurdistan over the course of the next year," said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates. "Oil could take a run at $60."

Some crude will also come off the market as producers pull back from high-priced operations.

Russia, for instance, is feeling the pinch of sanctions and has lost the assistance of Western drillers.

"Russian production is going to slow down. It's going to reverse," Morse said, estimating the potential loss of 200,000 barrels a day next year. "Most of the areas where they need production, it's not occurring because they can't get the technology."