After years of rising gasoline prices, people are puzzled by the recent drop that has a gallon of gas at levels not seen in nearly four years. Typically in times of Middle East unrest, prices at the pump spike, yet, despite the violence in Iraq and Syria, gallon of gas is now at a national average of $3.
The public hopes it will last. The oil industry can’t afford continued price suppression.
I believe the price will tick up in the days ahead (post-election)—which will make it economic for producers to continue to develop—but the increases will not be so dramatic as to take away the economic stimulus the low prices provide.
Experts call the low cost the “equivalent to a tax cut averaging almost $600 for every household in the U.S.” while it boosts our gross domestic product by 0.4 percent. Consumers surely welcome the reprieve. But why now and why won’t it last?
As gasoline prices have made headlines, several narratives are repeated. Generally the explanations revolve around two basic truths—but, as we’ll explore, there is more.
The reasons offered for the drop in prices at the pump (which reflects the price of a barrel of oil) are 1) increased North American oil production and, 2) sluggish economic growth in Europe and Asia—which together result in a surplus, or a global glut, of oil.
Following a multi-decade decline, U.S. oil output now stands at a 28-year high—up 80 percent since 2008. Thanks to the combined technologies of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, the U.S. equaled Saudi Arabia’s production over the summer and experts predict the U.S. to become the world’s top producer by 2015. CNN Money reports: “The U.S. isn’t addicted to foreign oil anymore. The shale gas boom in the U.S. is a game changer for oil prices.” Our country’s oil imports have fallen from 60 percent of consumption to less than 30 percent. The data proves out what any beginning economics student knows: more supply + less demand = lower prices.
The U.S. has changed global oil markets, but so has ISIS. Several months ago, when ISIS first emerged as a threat to Iraq’s oil production, oil prices experienced the usual uptick. However, when the Iraqis and Kurds thwarted its southern movement and it did not take over Basra’s oil fields, prices eased.
In this new war, different from the days of Al-Qaeda, rather than blowing up oil fields to hurt Western economies, ISIS captures oil-producing regions in Syria and Iraq and uses the bounty for its own benefit.
ISIS has become a real player in the global oil markets. The territory controlled by ISIS has a pre-war capacity of 350,000 barrels per day (bpd). Estimates vary, but it is widely believed that ISIS produces 50-80,000 bpd—most of which the terror group on the black market at prices assumed to be $25-60 per barrel. ISIS reportedly funds its activities with oil revenues as low as $1 million a month to as high as $3 million a day—with $2 million a day being the most frequently cited (likely paid in cash or bartered goods). Production and revenues could easily increase if it were not for the militant’s limited technical prowess in working in the oil fields. To overcome the lack, ISIS is advertising for experienced engineers to run its oil operations (apparently the we’ll-kill-your-family-if-don’t-work approach hasn’t been successful).
ISIS doesn’t abide by any international agreements or price regulations. This is a “black market.” There are no tangible income or production numbers. We don’t definitively know all of ISIS’ customers.
The region’s long-established smuggling routes make it easy for the oil to be trafficked out of the territory. Once in the hands of middlemen, “no big traders, no serious companies are going to fool around with that oil,” says Matthew M. Reed, vice-president of Foreign Reports, a Washington-based consulting firm that analyzes oil and politics in the Middle East. He continues: “That oil is essentially radioactive at this point. No one wants to touch it.”
But, someone buys it—to the tune of millions of dollars a day. Who would buy the “radioactive” oil?
Some of ISIS’ heavily discounted oil reportedly ends up in Pakistan. A CNN article titled: “How Iraq’s black market in oil funds ISIS” states: “ISIS controls smuggling routes and the crude is transported by tankers to Jordan via Anbar province, to Iran via Kurdistan, to Turkey via Mosul, to Syria’s local market and to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where most of it gets refined locally.” As Reed pointed out, legitimate traders won’t deal in it, so it likely goes to nations that care little about the rule of law—perhaps, North Korea and China. The outlets that are soaking up the discounted oil, are not buying the full-price oil, which leaves millions of dollars, 50-80,000 barrels, a day of full-price oil, on the table, looking for a buyer.
So, U.S. oil and ISIS oil continue to put a lot of supply into the market, keeping the price low. Unless coalition forces successfully bomb the oil fields in ISIS control, the black market oil supply will grow. If Republicans, who support developing our resources, take control of the U.S. Senate, our production could well increase. Both will help keep supply high, and prices low.
The last piece in the low-priced oil puzzle is Saudi Arabia. BusinessWeek states: “With the U.S. on track to become the world’s largest oil producer by next year, it’s become popular in Washington and on Wall Street to call America the new Saudi Arabia. Yet the real Saudi Arabia hasn’t relinquished its role as the producer with the most influence over oil prices.”
The Saudi kingdom reportedly needs oil at $83.60 a barrel to balance its national budget. Yet, in September, with prices already down, due to a global oil glut, the Saudis boosted production. Then, in October, it lowered prices by increasing the discount offered to its Asian customers. Oil prices have reached the lowest level in nearly four years. Despite calls for price hikes from other OPEC nations, primarily Venezuela (which recently announced food rationing), the Saudi policy will not likely change before the November 27 OPEC meeting.
Saudi Arabia’s price war has surprised the markets and made watchers wonder what they are up to. With its government 85 percent dependent on its oil revenues, the Saudis need to protect their turf as the dominant force in oil.
Some say the move “is the result of a deliberate strategy by the Gulf nation to test the mettle of rival producers from Russia, to fellow OPEC member Iran and US shale producers.” Most experts agree that keeping prices low hurts higher-cost production such as that from U.S. shale oil and Canadian tar sands. Higher prices encourage more discovery and development. A report from Aljazeerah claims: “OPEC leader Saudi Arabia hopes to claw share from U.S. producers.”
The Financial Times reports: “The lower prices also appear to be designed to put a brake on the shale oil boom, which has been the most significant upheaval in global energy for a decade.”
Two years ago, Saudi Arabia did much the same thing—increasing production and dropping oil/gasoline prices. At that time, the U.S. faced an important presidential election where one candidate loudly supported America’s new energy abundance and the other’s energy agenda was all about “green.” Had gasoline still cost in the range of $4.00 on November 6, 2012, the party in power would have suffered; the public would have been screaming: “Drill, baby, drill.” The Saudis came in and with their unique ability to throttle production up or down, took some heat off of the Obama Administration.
Now, in the midst of another election cycle—one that is very important to the future of oil production in America, the Saudis, once again, appear to be orchestrating geopolitical outcomes. OPEC’s oil output is close to a two-year high—despite production drops in Angola and Nigeria. Saudi Arabia has made up the difference.
Some observers say the Saudis’ increased production in a time of global over-supply “is not about a political attack on the U.S.” Others see it, as “more nuanced.” Yet, last week a Saudi industry official, discussing the production/export data leaks acknowledged: “Sorry, it is politics.”
It seems clear that OPEC does not want U.S. production to increase, and Saudi Arabia is in a position to try influence American politics. Lower prices favor the party in power. A shift in control of the Senate would mean a change in America’s energy policy—one that favors our homegrown energy resources; one that Saudi Arabia doesn’t want.
However, it appears, regardless of possible Saudi meddling, the Senate leadership will shift. Once American voters make that decision on November 4, the OPEC leader will no longer have the incentive to inflict short-term pain on its own economic climate for long-term gain. Saudi Arabia will likely dial back production and the intentionally low price will stabilize—but not so much that it hurts the benefit to the American economy that abundant energy provides.
The American consumers win; American energy producers win.
(A version of this content was originally published on Breitbart.com)