US Demands For More Oil Could Backfire

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By Irina Slav

This week the State Department accused OPEC of hiding spare capacity exceeding 1.4 million barrels daily. It urged the cartel to use it to stop the oil price rally that has continued uncomfortably close to midterm elections. The request—or demand, depending on your interpretation—is unprecedented and it might do more harm than good.

Bloomberg quoted a veteran energy analyst from Jefferies, Jason Gammel, as saying, “This is the lowest level of spare capacity in the global system relative to demand that I’ve ever seen. Spare capacity is moving to a precariously low point.” The problem is, nobody seems to be certain exactly how much OPEC’s spare capacity is.

In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, the EIA estimated OPEC’s spare production capacity at 1.66 million bpd. But the International Energy Agency last month estimated OPEC’s spare capacity at 2.7 million bpd and is fast declining. What we do know, however, is how much spare capacity Saudi Arabia has: 1.3 million bpd, as revealed by the Energy Minister of the Kingdom during the Russian Energy Week in Moscow.

This is bad news. Until now, various sources, including the Saudis themselves and the EIA, put the Kingdom’s spare capacity at between 1.5 and 2 million bpd. In June, President Trump said the Saudis could pump 12 million bpd. The IEA concurred. Saudi Arabia’s September production rate rose to 10.7 million bpd.

From this level of production, with 1.3 million bpd in spare capacity, we get a maximum production rate of 12 million bpd, indeed. However, Khalid al-Falih delivered a worrying message: Saudi Arabia will spend US$20 billion on maintaining and boosting its spare capacity in the coming years. The news naturally cast doubt on whether the current capacity will be sufficient to cover demand.

So, Saudi Arabia has 1.3 million bpd and the rest of OPEC—except Iran, of course—would probably be able to scrounge another 100,000 bpd to fulfill Washington’s request. Prices should go down and Indian refiners should breathe a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, what should happen does not necessarily happen.

The oil market is an extremely irrational one. The latest evidence of this came just this week when the Energy Information Administration reported a huge build in U.S. commercial oil inventories—8 million barrels—and prices, after a slight dip, continued higher. True, now they are trending lower but that’s because of profit-taking. Even Russia’s Novak, who previously argued that seasonal weakness in demand would prevent oil prices from climbing much higher, now says they might reach US$100 “in a very nervous and emotional market.”

Indeed, few are those heeding advice from industry observers who say there is enough supply and this supply is coming from Iran and it will continue to be available even after the U.S. sanctions are reintroduced in early November. Few seem to be paying actual attention to warnings that the higher oil goes, the more it will weigh on demand. The oil market lives in the moment and cares not about fundamentals. What it cares about is fear.

The State Department’s request for OPEC to pump at capacity has caused fear rather than relief: “Oil markets will read it that spare production is at an all time low,” is how an analyst from IHS Markit put it for Bloomberg. “Blame speculators if you want, but this is how oil markets work,” Roger Diwan said.

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