Opinion: Hollywood couldn't script a plotline like what's happening in oil right now

Key Points
  • Keeping up with all the recent twists and turns in the oil market is difficult.
  • Here's where things stand as what could be a pivotal week gets underway.

The global oil market has more plotlines than an episode of TV's Dallas. Unfortunately it's not a show, and has very real world consequences.  

Keeping up with all the twists is tough. So here's a rundown of roughly where things stand right now. If there's something missing — and I'm sure there is — you'll forgive the lapse. Storylines are changing by the day, if not the hour.  

Recap: How Did We Get Here?

In brief, Russia and Saudi Arabia had a disagreement over production cuts and sparked an all-out price and market share war at the same time coronavirus began, decimating global economies and oil demand. This collapsed oil prices and obliterated many debt-heavy U.S. oil and gas company stocks. Read about it in my March 8 piece.

No deal from OPEC
No deal from OPEC

A world with too much oil is sending prices everywhere crashing, and spurring calls for some kind of global, coordinated effort to stem production.

President Donald Trump met with seven U.S. oil companies Friday at the White House to discuss this dire situation.


There was an 'OPEC++' virtual meeting discussed that was supposed to happen Monday to discuss the current situation. But then there wasn't. Sources told us over the weekend that a meeting, should it occur, is now "likely" to be held on Thursday. Few firm details have emerged so anything can happen at this point.

By the way, what's OPEC++?

OPEC is the 13-member oil organization based in Vienna, Austria. OPEC+ is the loose name given to the meeting the day after OPEC, which includes Russia and a bunch of smaller producer countries. Russia is the real show, and they help "bless" the OPEC deal made the day before. It's become an almost more important day than OPEC itself.

Oil situation likely to endure whole 2nd quarter: Fmr Saudi Aramco executive vice president
Oil situation likely to endure whole 2nd quarter: Fmr Saudi Aramco executive vice president

OPEC++ is meant to be OPEC+ on oil steroids. It's Russia, other OPEC+ members and, essentially, any other major oil producer who wants to participate. That could include Norway, Canada or even American interests. If that sounds odd and unclear, it's because it is odd and unclear. Essentially, an OPEC++ virtual meeting is meant to bring anyone in the world who produces oil together to tackle a problem impacting everyone.

From Russia without love?

As U.S. production grew, the last three years has brought OPEC and Russia closer. That relationship is now, shall we say, strained.

Vladimir Putin has said that the original OPEC+ deal was busted because the Saudis want to drive prices lower to blow out struggling U.S. shale oil producers, crushing American oil.

The Saudis made a rare public response, issuing a statement that the Russian claims are "fully devoid of truth."

Bottom line is this: the Saudis won't act on a production cut unless Russia does, but Russia may not be willing or able to cut very much in part because of their need for oil dollars and other less sexy reasons such as super cold Siberian weather and the type of oil reservoirs they use. Still, any sign by Putin & Co of a willingness to cut something may help mend fences.

Saudi Arabia's Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al-Saud and Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak at the start of an OPEC and NON-OPEC meeting in Vienna, Austria, December 6, 2019.
Leonhard Foeger | Reuters

The ultimate question is whether this is a very public permanent breakup of former global oil BFFs or just a little love spat? Trillions of dollars are on the line.

G-20 Trumps OPEC?

Perhaps ironically, this year Saudi Arabia is the rotating president of the Group of 20 nations. That gives the Kingdom an additional edge in oil diplomacy outside of OPEC and OPEC+. Additionally, the International Energy Agency is actively working to ensure all producing nations, including the U.S., are fully aware of the dire situation.

The agency's head, Fatih Birol, has been working the phones over the last few days, and there are reports of a special G-20 meeting taking place on Friday.

The message being sent is that as powerful as OPEC may be, this problem is bigger.


Trump's "10 million barrel" cut claim

President Trump said April 2 that he spoke with both Saudi and Russia leadership and that "they will be cutting back approximately 10 million barrels, and maybe substantially more."


Even in a world of famous Trump tweets, this one stuck out, because most in the oil market will gently remind you that Russian and Saudi Arabia alone cannot slice 10 million combined barrels from their production without extreme hardship.  

The Saudis have made it clear that any deal to cut must include a "fair" agreement, which is Saudi-speak for every nation needs to participate.  Any deal the Saudis would likely agree to would have to include OPEC, Russia, Canada, Norway, and, yes, the U.S. That's non-negotiable, according to Saudi sources.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable meeting with energy sector CEOs in the Cabinet Room of the White House April 3, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Doug Mills | Getty Images

So can the world get to a 10 million barrel per day cut? Yes, if everyone participates. Let's do some math.

Oil Math

Let's count to 10, using commentary and research from Tudor Pickering Holt, RBC Capital Markets and others.

Saudis = 4
As of April 1, the Saudis boosted their output to probably 12.5 million barrels per day, up from under 10 million barrels. So they could easily trim back to pre-April levels, throw in another million barrel cut and come out to a total cut of about 4 million barrels per day.

Other OPEC = 2
OPEC ex-Saudi is about 15m bpd, so assuming each member country cuts output by about 12% (probably a stretch, but hey) that's another 2 million down.

Russia = 1.5
Russia produces about 11 million barrels per day, and 1 to 1.5 million barrels per day is probably the most they could cut, for a variety of political and technical reasons (think: high water cuts in their reservoirs) far too boring to go into here.

Norway + Canada (No-Can?) = 1
Quiet oil giant Norway hasn't collaborated on coordinated oil cuts in nearly 20 years, but now they are apparently ready to talk. They can probably take 500,000 barrels from their 1.75m b/d output. Canadian producers are already cutting back as storage tanks are nearly full, so consider that another 500,000 from our friends to the north.

That brings us to 8.5 million barrels down.

U.S. = 1.5?
It's an open question how much U.S. producers will participate in any coordinated cut. We have no OPEC. We have no national producer. Rystad Energy estimates there are more than 9,000 companies producing oil or gas. The 10 largest American producers control about 30% of U.S. production. It's why Trump called them to the White House. A "mini-OPEC" if you will. (The irony shouldn't be lost on anyone, given Trump's famous distaste for OPEC and a current "No-PEC" anti-cartel bill still floating around Congress).

U.S. production is already starting to decline organically, via a massive slowdown in new drilling and well-depletion rates, as well as turning off the tap on other production. Through this, if the U.S. manages to remove 15% of our 13 million barrel production, it takes another 1.5 million barrels off the market.

10 million, the hard way.

Enter The Texas Railroad Commission

Though the U.S. has no OPEC and price fixing is verboten, there is an interesting alternative path to enforcing cuts: the Texas Railroad Commission.

Despite the name, this obscure agency can control Texas' oil production. Two Texas oil companies — Pioneer Natural Resources and Parsley Energy — have asked the TRC to enforce production cuts, something it has the power to do, but hasn't used since the 1970s. A decision to do so requires the approval of two of the three commissioners and chairman. A public hearing is scheduled for April 14. Tune in.

Talk of tariffs

If all of this isn't enough, here's another late show plot-twist: tariffs on foreign oil may be on the way. Trump says he could impose "very substantial" taxes on imported crude, though he "doesn't think [he'll] have to."

As U.S. companies and jobs suffer, there's been a growing howl for tariffs on the 6 million or so barrels we still bring in from other countries each day. It sounds like a simple fix, but like everything, it's not so simple. First, many U.S. refineries need the type of oil we import. Also, about half of all U.S. oil imports are from Canada, maybe not a country we wish to punish. Mexico is next. Saudi Arabia is just 6% of our oil imports. Oh, and if we tariff Saudi oil, maybe they'll just pull back on buying U.S. made defense equipment. Nothing is easy.

Trump expresses hope that US coronavirus cases may level off
Trump expresses hope that US coronavirus cases may level off

Will all this save many U.S. producers?

Short answer: no.  

Longer answer: Cuts could delay the worst of the pain for a few months as we all hope and pray for rapid economic rebirth.  

Global oil demand is now down somewhere between 20 to 30 million barrels per day.  So even a 10 million barrel per day cut - which once would've been unthinkable - isn't a panacea.  However, it does slow the pain. More importantly, it slows the fill.  

Global oil storage is near capacity everywhere.  Aggregating most research I've seen, at the current pace of oversupply every oil tank, pipeline, supertanker and bathtub will be full by mid to late May.  If that happens, oil prices could go negative in parts of the country. Yes, oil producers would pay you to take their oil, since they have no place to put it.  

Whiting Petroleum files for bankruptcy as oil prices plummet
Whiting Petroleum files for bankruptcy as oil prices plummet

The industry is in freefall. The average return on an oil and gas stock this year is -65%.  Many are down 80%, 90%, nearly wiped out. Whiting Petroleum filed for bankruptcy. Hundreds more chapter 11s are coming unless oil moves higher, quickly. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk in Texas, North Dakota and elsewhere.  

The global stakes have never been higher, and it will all play out over the next couple of days.