Saudis and Russians are getting tough with oil exporters. Now they have to back up their words

Key Points
  • Oil producers will meet in Abu Dhabi next week to discuss improving compliance with a deal to cut output.
  • Saudi Arabia and Russia have recently taken a tougher stance with members who are pumping too much.
  • Analysts question whether the Saudis and Russians have the tools to back their rhetoric.
Russia's Energy Minister Alexander Novak (L) and Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih leave a news conference after a meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, Austria, December 10, 2016.
Heinz-Peter Bader | Reuters

Top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia have signaled they are ready to get tough with oil producers who are still pumping more than they promised. But it remains to be seen how they will back their rhetoric, analysts say.

The two nations have spearheaded a deal to remove 1.8 million barrels of oil a day from the market in a bid to shrink global crude stockpiles and drain a persistent glut of petroleum. Officials from oil producing nations, including Russia and Saudi Arabia, will meet in Abu Dhabi on Monday and Tuesday to figure out how to improve compliance with that deal.

The meeting comes as OPEC's overall production has ticked up in recent months, keeping a lid on oil prices even as falling U.S. crude stockpiles provide support.

Following a recent meeting of oil producers in St. Petersburg, Russia, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said it would not give OPEC members and other exporters a "free ride." Russian energy minister Alexander Novak insisted on 100 percent conformity from all countries.

"Saudi has signaled that it is going to be stern with those states with less than stellar compliance track records. But the big question is what tools does it have at its disposal to compel better behavior?" said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

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OPEC has historically relied on diplomatic persuasion and, to some degree, public finger pointing, said Andrew Slaughter, executive director of Deloitte's Center for Energy Solutions.

"There's no compliance mechanism in the sense that there's punitive actions that can be taken. OPEC doesn't work like that," he said.

There are some signs of progress. Following the St. Petersburg meeting, the United Arab Emirates, which continues to pump above its production quota, committed to reducing its shipments by 10 percent in September. That came after Saudi Arabia announced it would limit its own exports in August.

But OPEC's second largest producer Iraq is also lagging behind on compliance, and Baghdad faces a tougher time managing its oil output than its Gulf neighbors.

Baghdad does not entirely control the flow of oil from semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Much of its oil is produced in partnership with international oil companies, so it has contractual agreements that make it difficult to throttle back output.

One lever the Iraqis can pull is the pace of investment, according to an Ian Thom, principal analyst for Iraq energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. Just like U.S. drillers have cut back spending to weather the oil price downturn, Iraq can delay oil field expansions and construction of big energy-related infrastructure projects.

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That could give the country some leeway to absorb the loss in revenues that comes with limiting production or cutting exports, he said.

Analysts say the producers are likely to continue discussing a way to tackle growing output from Libya and Nigeria, two OPEC members that were exempt from the output cuts. The nations' oil output dropped through last year due to internal conflicts, but it has rocketed back this year.

Nigeria agreed at the St. Petersburg meeting to cap its output at 1.8 million barrels a day once output stabilizes at that level, but Libya has not yet agreed to production caps.

"They may discuss what to do about Libya's rapid oil recovery, although I doubt we will hear much stated publicly about that," said Chris Weafer, senior parter at Macro-Advisory.

Russia may put pressure on fellow exporters to impose limits on Libya, according to Croft. President Vladimir Putin faces a presidential election in March 2018, so Moscow needs to prevent oil prices from crashing in order to support government spending, she said.

"I could see the Russians saying, 'No more cutting them any slack,'" she said.

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