Predictably, no surprises from Opec|
K S Sreekumar
Posted On » February 6 - 12, 2008 (Volume:7 / Issue 6)
At a time when oil is playing around the $100 mark, Opec, rather than boosting output, is considering whether or not to deploy production curbs next month to defend prices against a drop in demand should recession bite in the US.
This indicates that Opec, even as it rejected an appeal from Washington for more oil, is better concerned about prices getting lowered rather than the sentiments of big oil consumers like the US, China and India.
The thinking of the Opec is exemplified in the stance of Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al Naimi who says he would have pushed for an output increase if it were needed but that global supply and demand were in balance.
"The condition of the market is sound currently, supply and demand are equal and global reserves are fine," Al Naimi says.
Opec's threat to cut oil production if the US economic slowdown triggers a price fall threaten the strength of the global economy, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says.
The watchdog adds: "With the current pressures from the financial system, the economy does not need additional downward pressure on consumer spending and growth from near record oil prices."
But there is also a danger in wishing for ever-low prices.
John Westwood of energy business analysts Douglas-Westwood says in the case of energy, there is a more dangerous prospect than high prices - the danger of trying to keep energy prices artificially low - which leads to massive over-consumption and eventually even higher prices.
"One thing I have learnt in my 33 years in the oil patch is that markets are natural systems and politicians mess with markets at their peril," he notes.
But, is $100 for oil going to stay? Analysts feel that prices would soften as the year progresses but the average price for the year will still be well above previous years.
Oil averaged around $72 a barrel in 2007, rising from $66 the previous year, but is off its all-time high above $100 hit early in January.
Oil at $100 a barrel should give exporters every incentive to pump more, but their difficulty in doing so shows the world is struggling to sustain production.
A growing number of leading industry figures now question mainstream forecasts for supply, suggesting the era of "plateau oil" is nearer than many in the business have admitted.
While global oil demand is projected to grow to more than 100 million barrels per day (bpd) later this century, some argue it may not be possible to boost flows beyond the current rate of some 86 million bpd.
Supply still falls short even after so-called unconventional oils extracted from tar sands and converted from natural gas are taken into account.
In 1980, when crude first hit an inflation-adjusted high of $100, the pace of drilling by producing countries and major oil companies became fast and furious, leading to rising output and a price collapse in 1986. It remains to be seen whether they will respond the same way this time.
Non-Opec countries pump about 60 per cent of the world's oil and the 13 members of Opec make up the balance. Opec sets output limits for 12 of its 13 members.
Many countries within the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries - whether for reasons of war or sanctions, lack of investment or falling supply at ageing fields - are unable to raise output.
So the situation now is that Opec can do little to raise output as most Opec countries are producing at capacity.
Many analysts expect prices to rise further unless demand crumbles as a result of a recession - a gain that believers in peak oil put down to supply constraints.
The IEA, whose forecasts are a benchmark for the oil industry, predicts world oil output will rise to 116 million bpd by 2030, from about 86 million bpd now.
Going back to the issue of prices, besides geopolitical tensions and market manipulations, oil prices are primarily being driven by demand, from China in particular. And China is being driven by both America and the rest of the world's love of cheap consumer goods. As a result, the US balance of trade has gone badly wrong and the dollar has fallen seriously.
In heavy oil consuming countries like China and India, until the governments concerned start making consumers pay the market price, appetite for oil is likely to remain strong.