Oil Markets Are a Mess. Can World Leaders Straighten Them Out?

Oil Markets Are a Mess. Can World Leaders Straighten Them Out?

Usually it’s the world’s major oil-producing countries that step in when a big drop in prices roils the oil market. But these are not normal times.

On Friday, a day after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producers led by Russia are set to hold their own meeting, representatives of the Group of 20 wealthy nations are expected to hold a virtual conference to try to stem the recent plunge in energy prices.

The volatile oil markets of recent weeks threaten to bankrupt energy companies across the world, causing enormous job losses and threatening financial institutions that have backed the industry.

The pandemic has played a critical role in this drama, but there is also a lot of jockeying among the three oil superpowers: Saudi Arabia and Russia, two longtime petro-rivals, and the United States, whose rising prominence as an oil exporter has disrupted the industry.

It is far from clear that the G20 meeting will calm volatile markets. The fact that the meeting is occurring, though, may signal the beginning of a very different approach that could be a first step in restoring confidence.

“A lot of countries, including those with strong free-market beliefs and credentials, seem to be coming over to the view that the global oil business needs to be managed to an extent, at least from time to time,” said Bhushan Bahree, an executive director at IHS Markit, a research firm.

But are the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia ready to agree? The unusual approach underscores the turmoil in the markets.

Demand for oil has evaporated as commercial aircraft are grounded, road traffic has been sharply reduced and about half the world’s population is under some sort of order to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed over 82,000 people.

The world is using about 25 percent less oil than it typically does, a jarring collapse in an industry known for only gradual fluctuations in demand.

But fighting among some of the largest producers has aggravated the volatility.

Instead of curtailing production to meet the reduced appetite for oil, the Saudis and allied producers ramped up output in a tiff with Moscow, as an agreement between Russia and OPEC on trimming output expired.

This helped drive prices even lower. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, scraped the $20-a-barrel level in late March. Some crude in the United States fell well below $10 a barrel. Prices at this level could prove catastrophic for the U.S. shale industry — a likely goal of Saudi and Russian oil producers.

Faced with steep job losses in oil states like Texas and Oklahoma, President Trump is pressuring Saudi Arabia and Russia to end their feud.

The Saudis, worried by the political pressure from the United States, are showing signs that they are willing to try to find a solution.

The Saudis are thinking, “We need to get the heat off of us in terms of U.S. anger,” said Robert McNally, a White House energy adviser in the George W. Bush administration. He added, “There is a risk of a rupture there that Riyadh cannot take too lightly.”

Oil analysts who track Saudi Arabia said the price war with Russia had been incited by frustration by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, with Russia for not abiding by previous agreements on output aimed at keeping prices up.

Prince Mohammed could have been looking for other benefits as well. In the long term, the kingdom realizes that its vast reserves of oil could lose value as concern about climate change spreads, so it wants to get as much from its reserves as possible to invest in other sectors. Prince Mohammed also wanted to chip away at the market share held by U.S. shale producers, whose production costs per barrel are much higher than Saudi Arabia’s.

“They don’t mind if the U.S. industry goes somewhat down the drain, because that will cut some production, but they really want Russia to bend to their view,” said Jean-François Seznec, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

But in starting the price war by ramping up the kingdom’s own production, Prince Mohammed drastically underestimated how greatly the coronavirus pandemic would reduce demand. The move has caused consternation among other oil-producing nations, which has led Saudi Arabia to start looking for a new deal on production limits.

“Every oil producer in the world is howling about this,” said Jim Krane, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

In addition, low prices are damaging the Saudi economy, reducing the crown prince’s resources as he pushes ambitious plans to diversify it away from oil.

Still, if the Saudis do manage to persuade others to join in cuts, the pain may be worth it, from Riyadh’s point of view.

The Saudis will “have preserved the principle that everyone must honor their commitments,” said Helima Croft, analyst at RBC Capital Markets, an investment bank.

For years, Russia had been watching nervously as a surge in shale production turned the United States from a large oil importer to an increasingly important exporter.

In the view of Russian nationalists, earlier production-cut agreements with OPEC helped Russia by lifting the global price of oil, a critical export, but also helped the U.S. shale oil industry.

Last month, Russia dug in its heels, seemingly at the worst time for oil markets. At a meeting in Vienna on March 6, the energy minister, Aleksandr Novak, refused to go along with a Saudi request for deeper production cuts, and the two countries’ 2016 oil policy agreement unraveled. The rupture handed a victory to Igor I. Sechin, the head of the Russian state oil giant Rosneft, who had argued that price supports helped the Americans.

“Is there any point in cutting production in the future if other countries are going to increase?” Mr. Sechin asked in an interview with Russian state television as oil prices tumbled in late March.

Russia’s relatively cheap production costs, he said, could also help it hold out in a price war with Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, with prices having plummeted and some U.S. oil producers crying foul and willing to talk, Russian officials are at least showing an interest in going back to the table. On Friday, President Vladimir V. Putin said Russia was ready to resume cooperation with the Saudis and even to cooperate with the United States. But how much production Russia will agree to cut remains to be seen.

It is hard to see how a global solution can be reached without the United States, now a top-three oil power.

American producers and the Trump administration share a goal: balance the market to stabilize oil prices and save the industry from a rash of bankruptcies and the potential loss of more than 100,000 jobs. But there is little common ground on how to do that beyond industry support for Mr. Trump’s jawboning of Saudi Arabia and Russia to cut production by 10 million barrels or more.

Mr. Trump has long been a critic of OPEC and a cheerleader for lower gasoline prices. Now faced with suggestions of U.S. coordination with OPEC, he has signaled resistance to forcing American companies to drop production. A few, however, seek some form of coordination.

Pioneer Natural Resources and Parsley Energy, two medium-size Texas oil companies, are calling on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state oil and gas regulator, to mandate large production cuts across the state, which is by far the biggest U.S. producer. The commission plans a hearing on the proposed cuts on Tuesday and a vote on the proposal a week later, well after OPEC and its associate countries meet on Thursday. Only one of the three commissioners has voiced support for the measure, which Exxon Mobil and other large producers oppose.

“The industry is totally at odds with each other,” said Scott Sheffield, Pioneer Natural Resource’s chief executive.

Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the main industry lobbying group, said oil companies opposed tariffs on Saudi and Russian oil — a suggestion from some Republicans in Congress — as an infringement on free enterprise and free trade. On the other hand, Mr. Sommers said that the current glut was “80 percent a demand issue related to the coronavirus,” and that American production would naturally decline as producers cut investments in exploration and production.

“Already production is being hemmed in, and I would suspect a lot more is going to be,” he added.

Analysts say producing countries are working toward an announcement of cuts on the order of 10 million to 15 million barrels a day.

Just where such cuts would come from is likely to be the subject of difficult negotiations.

Relatively straightforward trims might be found among OPEC’s members and affiliate countries. In the United States, although coordinated cuts would be unlikely, production might decline through slower drilling and planned shutdowns.

American oil production between January and March declined by 300,000 barrels a day to 13 million barrels, according to Energy Department estimates, and will fall by two million barrels more by the end of the year.

But that may not be enough for Russia, Saudi Arabia and its OPEC allies. On Wednesday, a Kremlin spokesman said natural declines in the United States should not count as cuts.

The cuts being discussed would probably make only a modest dent in the oversupply that is filling up global oil tanks and tankers at sea. Even a cut of up to 15 million barrels “will only be enough to scratch the surface,” said Bjornar Tonhaugen, head of oil markets at Rystad Energy, a Norwegian consultancy.

He added that oil storage “could fill within 30 days” and cause sudden shutdowns in production from Canada to Asia.

On the other hand, while few analysts expect announcements of sufficiently large and verifiable production trims to head off the glut, the burst of activity has bolstered prices and lightened the gloomy mood in the markets.

“The fact that this meeting is coming together in such a difficult geopolitical context is a good signal, “ said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based watchdog.

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.

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