Opinion

The indispensable OPEC+

Reports of “the death of OPEC” have proved greatly exaggerated, as the cartel and its allies have shown their continuing relevance this year

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Rumours of “the death of OPEC” have been circulating for almost as long as the organisation has existed. Just three years after the cartel was founded in 1960, it almost broke up after Iran agreed to cut its posted prices for its oil following pressure from the US. The shale boom of the past decade, which made the US the world’s largest oil producer, was regularly described as having made OPEC obsolete or irrelevant.

Yet this year, when demand for oil plunged at a rate not seen since the 1930s, OPEC proved that it could still play a central role in rebalancing the market. To be precise, it is the OPEC+ group, which includes other countries including Russia, Mexico and Kazakhstan, that has shown its value. The OPEC+ agreement, announced on April 12, to cut production by 9.7 million barrels a day in May and June has been an important factor in the subsequent rebound in crude prices.

If it had been left solely to the price mechanism to rebalance oil production and consumption, the impact on market-based industries in countries such as the US, the UK and Canada, which has already been brutal, would have been even worse.

So this week, as the OPEC+ countries debated the time of their next meeting and its possible conclusions, the world was again watching closely. Tensions have emerged since the April agreement: as is often the case with OPEC, some countries have done more than others to comply with the production cuts that they signed up to. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait cut their output sharply in May, Reuters estimated, but Iraq and Nigeria continued to produce significantly more their agreed limits.

There were also disagreements over when to hold the group’s next online meeting. It had previously been scheduled for June 9-10. Algeria, which holds OPEC’s rotating presidency, suggested that it should be brought forward to June 4, but other countries were sceptical. The signs of dissension inside the OPEC+ group were unsettling for the oil market, raising questions about whether the countries could agree to extend the full 9.7 million b/d production cut into July and beyond. Under the April agreement, the cut was supposed to step down to 7.7million b/d from July 1 to the end of the year.

By Friday, the argument over scheduling had been resolved. The meeting will be held on Saturday, with its conclusions announced in the afternoon, Central European Summer Time. The markets breathed a sigh of relief, and Brent crude rose 3% to trade at about $41.20 a barrel on Friday morning.

The crucial questions to watch over the weekend will be whether the OPEC+ group does indeed extend the cuts at their full 9.7 million b/d level, and if so, for how long. In spite of all the times that OPEC has been written off, the world will still be paying attention, even on a Saturday.

US oil shut-ins mostly stay shut in

Despite the rebound in West Texas Intermediate crude to $37 a barrel this week, US exploration and production companies have not yet rushed to restart shut-in production. About 2.22 million barrels a day of US of oil production was shut in at the end of May, according to Wood Mackenzie’s Genscape service, and most of it remains that way.

Some US E&Ps are starting to open the taps again. Parsley Energy said this week it would restart all but 2,500 barrels a day of the 29,000 b/d gross that it had shut in. Montage Resources also said this week it had brought back “substantially all” of the oil and natural gas liquids production that it had curtailed. Genscape estimates that about 85,000 b/d of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico has been restarted.

However, ConocoPhillips last month gave a “teach-in” presentation, explaining why it was in no hurry to restart shut-in production. If a company’s cost of capital is low enough, and the contango in crude futures is steep enough, it can be a profitable strategy to keep barrels shut in so they can be sold at higher prices later.

Parsley also said this week that it was planning to start drilling and completing wells again. It plans to run four to five rigs in the second half of the year if WTI stays close to $30. That represents a sharp slowdown from the start of the year, when it was running 15 rigs, but right now it is not doing any drilling at all.

So far Parsley has been out on its own in announcing increased activity. EOG also talked about its intent to “accelerate” production in the second half as oil prices recover, but has not set out any firm plans.

Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, told Bloomberg TV that he thought oil at about $40 a barrel was still too low to stimulate a significant increase in activity in the US shale industry. “We need to get up to $45 to $50 before you see people adding rigs and adding frac fleets,” he said.

A worrying indicator for coronavirus in Texas?

Governor Greg Abbott of Texas this week announced the move to phase three of the state’s reopening after its lockdown. Bars, gyms and outdoor swimming pools can now open at up to 50% of full capacity, and businesses such as hair salons and tattoo studios can operate at higher rates so long as they keep at least six feet between work stations.

The move is part of the widespread attempt to return to normal in the US. Americans are increasingly choosing to drive, although still reluctant to fly. US gasoline sales last week were 7.55 million b/d, down 20% from the equivalent week of last year, according to the Energy Information Administration, but jet fuel sales were down 79%.

As economic activity recovers, however, there have been some troubling signs of a pick-up in coronavirus cases in some states. Texas reported 1,949 new cases on Sunday, a record high for the state, and the trend has been rising. Florida similarly reported a record number of new cases on Thursday.

These numbers will be important to watch over the next few weeks. If the numbers of new cases continue to rise, states may be forced to delay further reopening, and possibly reverse some of the relaxation of restrictions that they have allowed so far.

In brief

Eni has announced a radical restructuring, intended to accelerate its progress towards its target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The company will have two main business groups. One, called the Natural Resources division, will include all the upstream oil and gas operations, LNG, carbon capture and storage, and emissions offsets using forest conservation. The other, called Energy Evolution, will include chemicals, refining and marketing, power and biofuels. Claudio Descalzi, chief executive, said in a statement: “This new structure reflects Eni’s pivot to the energy transition.”

Total, meanwhile, is making its first significant move into offshore wind, buying a 51% stake in a project off the coast of Scotland for GB£70 million.

A couple of days before Eni’s announcement, Liam Denning of Bloomberg wrote a column arguing that the oil majors should spin their renewable energy businesses off into separate companies.

The big five European electricity markets — Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain — will source the majority of their power from wind, solar and other renewables as early as 2023, Wood Mackenzie analysts say. For now, those high levels of variable resources on the grid mean that bac-up from gas peaking plants is essential. But by 2030, battery storage will be the cheapest option for balancing Europe’s grid.

Electricity is increasingly cheaper from renewable sources than from coal-fired power plants, according to Irena, the International Renewable Energy Agency. The agency has calculated that replacing the world’s most expensive 500 gigawatts of coal capacity with solar and wind would save up to US$23 billion per year and reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 5% from last year’s level.

Germany’s government has agreed a €130 billion stimulus package, which includes increased subsidies for electric vehicles but nothing for petrol and diesel cars. Germany will also require all fuel stations to provide electric car charging.

A collapsing tank at a power station near Norilsk in northern Russia has spilled about 20,000 tons (roughly 140,000 barrels) of diesel fuel into a river, contaminating an area of 350 square kilometres. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has declared a state of emergency in the area. Reports have suggested the tank collapse was caused by subsidence result from the permafrost melting in unusually warm weather for this time of year.

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order calling on the heads of government agencies to identify projects that could be exempted from the requirements of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. The law mandates government bodies to assess the environmental impact of any “major federal actions”, but allows exceptions in the case of emergencies. President Trump argues that the huge economic shock caused by the coronavirus counts as an emergency, and wants to accelerate projects that could create jobs without the need for a lengthy environmental review.

And finally: when WTI crude futures prices briefly turned negative in April, there was a spate of jokes about people expecting to be paid to fill their tanks. For some EV drivers in Britain, it became a reality for a while last month.

Book of the week

The discussion of OPEC’s history above draws on Giuliano Garavini’s excellent book The Rise and Fall of OPEC in the Twentieth Century. Highly recommended if you want to understand the historical background to today’s disputes.

Other views

Simon Flowers — Why the oil price recovery has further to run

Simon Flowers — How will Covid-19 change corporate strategy?

Gavin Thompson — As US LNG cancellations kick in, Asian buyers are sticking to the script, for now

Rory McCarthy — Power system flexibility is key to Europe's net zero targets

Mfon Usoro — After the crash: Five key changes in the US Gulf of Mexico

Alan Gelder and Gordon McManus — What’s the mid-term outlook for the refining sector after coronavirus?

John Kemp — Global diesel use is likely to be depressed all year

Jonathan Ford — Britain needs new nuclear, and the government should fund it

Quote of the week

“The temporary economic lockdown triggered by the 2020 pandemic is giving us a glimpse into a not-too-distant future where the transformation of our energy system could disrupt demand on a similar scale. Disruption breeds opportunity, and forward-looking companies and countries will need to step up and lead.” — Mark Little, chief executive of Suncor Energy, and Laura Kilcrease, chief executive of Alberta Innovates, a corporation backed by the province, co-wrote a joint bylined article arguing that Canada’s government should support innovation in low-carbon technologies that could be developed by the oil and gas industry. They added: “we’re optimistic that the Canadian energy industry is up to the challenge and best positioned to invest in and lead energy transformation.”

Chart of the week

This chart, put together by Prashant Khorana, Wood Mackenzie’s principal consultant for power and renewables, comes from a recent opinion column and presentation on the industry’s sources of capital. When financing for renewable energy is discussed, people often look at the large utility groups, and perhaps the European oil and gas majors that are diversifying into power as they pursue their ambitions to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, however, those companies account for only a minority of the investment going into renewable energy. The 25 largest utilities will finance about 25% of the global total this year, and oil and gas companies a further 5%. More of the capital comes from listed and unlisted funds and pension funds, which together are expected to account for about half of the total deployed this year. Unlike the oil and gas industry, those funds still have plenty of liquidity. As Khorana puts it, the long-term funds “remain open for business”, and they are increasingly looking for investments with superior ESG ratings.

The result is that the capital deployed into renewable energy this year is expected to total about US$202 billion, up 6% from last year’s $190 billion, in spite of the huge shock the world economy has suffered this year.