Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More Long-Term Pressure on Oil Prices

A pair of items in today's Financial Times could signal a longer run of high oil prices, even if Europe were to slip into recession and economic growth elsewhere slow. The first article (registration required) reported that Saudi Arabia has raised its target oil price to $100 per barrel, up from the $75 level that King Abdullah had previously endorsed as "fair." Meanwhile, Venezuela has announced that it would withdraw from a World Bank body for arbitrating contractual disputes, preferring them to be resolved within its own judicial system. That can't be welcome news for companies that had been considering new investments in the country's oil and gas sector. Taken together, these stories suggest both less future supply and a greater likelihood that OPEC would respond to any significant weakness in oil prices by restricting output.

With markets currently tense over the prospect that Iran might make good on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the prospect of Saudi Arabia boosting output if necessary to keep prices from going much beyond $100/bbl must seem welcome, at least in the short term. But as the FT explains, the choice of that figure, rather than a lower one, reflects the fiscal realities of a broad group of Middle East producers. The Saudis, Iran, Iraq, and the UAE all require oil prices north of $80/bbl in order to balance national budgetary requirements. Considering that the cost of producing much of this oil is likely still in either the single digits or low double-digits, that is an extraordinary commentary on just how much these countries depend on oil revenues to fund the social expenditures that maintain their respective domestic status quos. So while Saudi oil minister al-Naimi may have intended his comment to convey a comforting price ceiling, it probably said as much about his government's view of where the floor should be. With UK Brent crude currently trading at roughly the same $111/bbl level that set a full-year price record last year, I'm not sure how many of us would find that reassuring.

The decision by Venezuela's dictator to exit the World Bank arbitration mechanism shouldn't have come as a surprise, with an estimated $40 billion in international claims outstanding for his past actions in nationalizing assets and arbitrarily altering contractual terms in a variety of industries. The recent ruling by the International Chamber of Commerce in favor of an ExxonMobil claim might just have been the final trigger. Yet despite the obvious expediency of such an exit, it seems grossly counterproductive in the context of a producing country that depends increasingly on foreign investment to stem a long-term decline in output. Since President Chavez punished his nation's oil industry by firing its most capable managers and engineers following a strike in 2002-3, Venezuelan oil production has fallen by at least 15%, and it only avoided a larger drop due to the contribution of the big Orinoco production and upgrading projects built by foreign firms such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Total--some of which are now seeking compensation for expropriation of assets and other grievances.

Requiring disputes to be resolved within a court system that has been stacked with Chavez loyalists hardly seems like the recipe for reducing political risk and reassuring companies that have already seen past investments turn sour. While companies that have too much at stake to leave will try to make the best of this, others would be well-advised to steer clear. However this turns out for the industry, the likely outcome for Venezuela is lower production in the future and even greater support for hawkish price policies within OPEC, to prop up the oil revenues upon which Chavez's redistribution policies depend.

Of course none of this guarantees high oil prices in perpetuity. After all, OPEC was unable to prevent prices collapsing to below $40/bbl in late 2008, though it did restrain output enough to get them back to around $80 within a year. However, both stories should remind us that in a world in which oil prices are set to suit producers better than consumers, our primary focus should be on actions and policies that enhance our energy security. That means substituting plentiful natural gas for oil and its products where we can, promoting conservation and efficiency, pursuing cost-effective renewables, and ensuring that we have access to as much oil from domestic and trusted international sources as possible. Rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, instead of committing to find a way to make it work while addressing reasonable concerns about it, would be nothing less than a gift to OPEC.

Disclosure: My portfolio includes investment in Chevron, which is mentioned above and owns projects and facilities that could be affected by these events.

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