This Coronavirus thing impacts everything. The oil market is no exception. I’ve committed to some pretty strong predictions about the future of the oil market and how it means the end of the current regime in Saudi Arabia. I still stand by all of those predictions, but it’s hard to say whether this current crisis accelerates the timeline, or slows it down. Starting March 6th, Saudi Arabia went to war against every other producer in the world.
I believe that the US oil industry will be the most prominent victim. The sustained period of low oil and gas prices we are about to experience may bring us to an inevitable future more quickly. Saudi Arabia will be the last oil producer. The crucial question remains the price at which they are able to sell that oil for. It’s now possible to envision a future where Saudi Arabia controls price again… but only briefly. Today’s video explains…
I dislike reacting to events quickly, the way that this video does. But this channel obviously couldn’t let the attack on the Abqaiq refinery go uncommented on. Saudi Arabia is sort of my bread and butter, and this could very well be the biggest thing that has happened to Saudi Arabia since it’s idiotic decision to invade Yemen back in 2015. Two weeks later, I’m pretty pleased with my coverage. In the video I referred to my surprise that the oil price spike had been so small. My surprise has only grown.
As of today, the price of Brent Crude oil fell back below the 60 dollars a barrel mark. Two weeks after an attack disrupting half of Saudi Arabia’s production, oil prices are back where they were before the attack, but the oil market has changed irrevocably. In the comments, and unfortunately in the video itself, there is a lot of emphasis on how quickly or slowly Saudi production resumes. That’s important, but it’s not that important. Two weeks later, it’s still not entirely clear what the on the ground impact is. The important thing is that the market no longer seems to really care that much. Reading articles on outlets like www.oilprice.com has gotten seriously depressing. It’s become clear that high prices, not really seen since 2014, are not returning any time soon. I said it in the video, and I’ll say it again now, with two weeks of reinforcement: This is HUGE. Ten years ago, even if Saudi Arabia restored full production the within hours, prices would have spiked, and wouldn’t have come down for months. The attack itself would have sent a message of risk and worry that would jack up prices for weeks.
Now that the worst has happened, and prices haven’t gone up at all, a different message is being sent, loud and clear: Saudi Arabia just doesn’t matter that much anymore.
This video connects a few concepts to the possibility of US war with Iran that should be getting more attention. It’s quite well known that Saudi Arabia dislikes Iran, and wants the US to confront that country. But we rarely dive into why that may be. A lot of time and effort is put in to the Sunni vs. Shia myth, something I’ve dismantled elsewhere. When we want to blame religion, it’s almost always politics that’s really to blame.
And when politics are screwing something up, it’s very often economics at the bottom of it as well. That’s certainly the case for the Saudis enthusiasm for US war with Iran. This video lays out how directly this is linked to the price of oil. Simply put, war with Iran could be an economic bonanza for Saudi Arabia…
Some videos come pretty easy, and today’s video is one of them. I really like it when new ways of looking at stuff pop into my head. The more I think about it though, there are other aspects to this I should have included. The shift in the oil market here is pretty extraordinary. It’s actually the birth of a sort of “Super OPEC”. It’s also an OPEC that’s a lot more dangerous for its members. With a US president in charge, especially a US president listening to Texas oilmen, military operations become a potent tool of market making.
The world, and the US, used to have a minimal investment in the stability of petro-states. In the long term, these places should be happier without US supported perma-leaders, but the short term looks increasingly grim. As oil demand peaks, the ballooning US petroleum industry will need to be protected. The US can do this by knocking off competitors one by one. This could be an underappreciated aspect of Libya’s permanent oil crisis since 2011. Petro-states on each side of the conflict have no incentive to get their proxies on the same page and producing more. Venezuela is being knocked out. So is Iran. Destabilizing Iraq would be very easy. Saudi Arabia is super shaky. A broader war in the Middle East would be horrible, but it would be pretty great for the new head of OPEC… The US president.
I often talk about the oil price on this channel. That’s what I do with today’s video. But I don’t think I talk about what incredibly good news the death of the oil market is. For the environmentalists this is a bit of a mixed bag, but I think on balance very good. The whole “peak oil” thing has turned out to not be a problem. 30 years ago it was mostly the US, Japan and Europe that were intensively using other people’s petroleum resources. We’ve more than tripled the number of people, and probably more than tripled the amount of consumption. And we’ve all survived. That’s pretty damn cool. The downside of course is that we’re producing more and more carbon. Cheaper oil prices are not a good thing for those worried about global warming in the short term. Oil is cheaper, more of it gets consumed, and more carbon gets dumped into the atmosphere. But it can actually be a good thing in the long term.
Lower oil prices provide the same sort of good news to environmentalists that it does to geopolitics nerds. Bad people have less power. If oil is permanently cheaper, that provides less money to all the people who used to use oil wealth to steer the world. As I keep pointing out, lower oil prices are leading to a collapse in terrorism. It will also lead to a collapse in oil industry influence in the United States and other countries across the world. We can already see it happening. The fact that electric cars have been allowed to go this far is an indicator of how much power the oil industry has already lost. The days when oil execs could confidently march into the government’s most powerful positions almost certainly ended with Rex Tillerson. The Oil industry’s global warming skeptics are still churning out their reports, but they look laughable to everybody now, including the oil executives who pay for them. The oil industry’s decline in prestige will cede the climate change conversation to the scientists and their friends in the environmental lobby almost entirely. Good news all around!
Back when I started doing this channel full time, I put out a series called “Notes From The Golden Age“. Today’s video, on the defeat of OPEC, is a long delayed addition to the series. In the six minutes of the video itself, I just laid out the facts as I understand them: The fact that OPEC did its level best to raise the price of oil, and they failed. If you want to hear more about why that is, and hear some discussion of the revolution in petroleum affairs we’ve experienced over the past five years, you could do worse than this video here.
Put briefly, oil doesn’t cost what it used to. The origin of this development is probably OPEC itself. That cartel drastically reduced the oil on the market on a couple occasions in the 1970s, driving the price through the roof. Much has, quite rightly, been made of the Shale revolution in the United States. A range of technological advances has made oil extraction easier, cheaper, and viable in places that it wasn’t before. This revolution has made US production competitive with Saudi Arabia again, and caused the plummet in prices that started in mid 2014. But the Shale revolution is only the most dramatic cause.
The plummet in oil prices is the result of a range of reactions to OPEC’s obscene market power. An under-heralded one is energy efficiency. We have finally reached a point where economic growth is decoupling from growth in petrochemical use. Some of this is renewables, but more of it is the very, very unsexy business of making cars and air conditioning units run more efficiently. Another reaction to OPEC was the broadening of the search for petroleum. Coupled with Technological advances, a staggering range of countries now produce significant amounts of oil and gas. OPEC has been beaten. They largely did it to themselves.