OPEC oil deal is not really a deal, it's more of an ‘agreement to agree’

Yergin: What's the real deal with OPEC?
Yergin: What's the real deal with OPEC?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to curb production for the first time since 2008 on Wednesday, but just a day later, energy market analysts are questioning the meaning of the deal.

OPEC minted a preliminary plan to cut production to as little as 32.5 million barrels a day, from about 33.2 million barrels in August, sources told Reuters. But output quotas for each of the cartel's 14 members would be left undecided until its annual meeting Nov. 30.

A lack of concrete detail has left some questioning whether the agreement is any deal at all — and wondering what might potentially derail things between now and November.

"I think what this really is is an agreement to agree at some point two months from now, and there are big questions around the allocations. Is this a freeze or a cut? What's the real deal with Iran going to be?" energy analyst and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dan Yergin told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Thursday.

Mohammed Al-Sada, Qatar's minister of energy and industry and president of OPEC
Akos Stiller | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Ahead of Wednesday's meeting of producers in Algeria, Saudi Arabia reportedly offered to reduce its production if regional rival Iran agreed to cap its output at the current level of 3.6 million barrels per day. Tehran has said it wants to produce 4 million barrels a day following the lifting of sanctions in January.

On Tuesday, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said that Iran, Libya and Nigeria may be allowed to pump "at maximum levels that make sense," Reuters reported.

The treatment for those three countries, which are all seeking to significantly ramp up production, remains an uncertainty, said Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Markit. Iran's output in particular will be a source of conflict over the next two months, he said.

A question mark is also hanging over Russian cooperation, Yergin added, noting that Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak did not take part in the informal OPEC meeting, having departed Algeria when producers failed to agree to a firm plan. Russia is not a member of OPEC.

The Russians "were actually the original advocates of the freeze, and to mix metaphors, they got burned when there was no freeze," he said.

Again Capital founding partner John Kilduff said Thursday that the numbers behind the deal don't work, because Russia recently boosted output by as much as 400,000 barrels to 10.7 million a day as it started new production this summer.

He also pointed to reports that Russian oil companies are aiming to increase production of hard-to-extract hydrocarbons.

On Thursday, Novak said in a statement that Russia would hold talks with OPEC in the coming months, but the country plans to maintain production at near-record levels.

Even if a deal is reached in November, the Saudis could have a tough time enforcing it, in Kilduff's view.

"OPEC's track record on adhering to production cuts to quotas is ridiculously poor … if not nonexistent. You can't believe they're going to come through on this one either," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Low oil prices have produced domestic budget deficits in Saudi Arabia, forcing it to cut perks for its huge pool of public sector employees. Meanwhile, Iran's return to oil markets and sanctions relief have improved the situation in the country, whose economy struggled under the weight of international sanctions for years, Kilduff said.

"The Iranians see an opportunity to squeeze the Saudis, the way the Saudis saw an opportunity to squeeze the Iranians back in 2014," he said, referring to the year Riyadh declined to cut output.

Both Kilduff and Yergin cautioned against reading too much into the plan to initially dial back production by 200,000 to 700,000 barrels a day. Top exporter Saudia Arabia would be reducing output in any case as the summer heat abates, as it experiences declining domestic demand for air conditioning, they said.

Should a deal get hammered out by Nov. 30, the oil market would enter "a new OPEC era," said Rob Thummel, a portfolio manager at Tortoise Capital with $15 billion in energy assets. An agreement would likely boost crude prices and bring stability to the market, in his view.

In that scenario, oil prices would likely move into a range of $50 to $60, a level that would keep demand for oil products strong and allow some U.S. crude producers to generate adequate returns, Thummel said.

"When OPEC freezes production, somebody will need to fill the growth in global oil demand and regions like the Permian Basin are poised to do so," he told CNBC in an email, referring to a major oil-producing area in Texas and New Mexico.

The Saudi oil policy has forced high-cost U.S. producers to cut rigs from about 1,600 two years ago to just more than 400 today, resulting in a decline of about 900,000 barrels per day of output from American fields.