OPEC digs in on oil price as it enters 'danger zone'
Spurred by a weak dollar, oil prices exceeded $90 per barrel after Christmas, the highest since October 2008. Last week the International Energy Agency revealed that the oil import costs for the 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have soared by $200bn to $790bn.
Fatih Birol, the chief executive of the IEA, said that oil prices were "entering the danger zone", arguing that the rising cost of oil was becoming a threat to the global economic recovery.
David Cameron also entered the fray, saying that he understood the pain people were suffering as the cost of fuel rose past £1.30 a litre at the pumps. From filling up the car to running national economies, the price of oil has an impact on everyone's life.
The question is, how high is too high and which way will the price go? Brent oil future contracts for February are trading at over $90 per barrel on London's ICE Futures exchange.
Comments from OPEC oil ministers are mixed on what levels prices can reach without jeopardizing growth. United Arab Emirates considers above $80/barrel as good.
For Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of oil, they can reach $90/barrel and this would still be acceptable to producers and consumers: a fair price, however, is more likely to be $70-80/barrel.
But Shokri Ghanem, chairman of Libya's National Oil Corporation, has said that $100 per barrel oil prices would be more comfortable for producers as higher food prices and a weaker dollar are eroding their income.
The man with a significant degree of power over this crucial debate is OPEC's Secretary General, Abdallah El-Badri. He has stressed that if prices reach $100 per barrel due to speculation, OPEC will not move: any changes in output must be based on the fundamentals of supply and demand.
He does not like to be drawn into future projections for oil prices and, at its December meeting, the OPEC production quota of 4.2m barrels a day was maintained.
Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph ahead of a visit to London in December, El-Badri described his three year tenure to date as an "extraordinary experience".
"We have witnessed unparalleled turbulence and volatility in both the global oil market and the world economy in general," he said.
He blamed record high oil prices - at one point in 2008 oil reached $147/barrel - on speculation in the market. Other analysts have said it was driven by low global inventories, strong demand, and rising production costs.
"Such volatility is very damaging for producers and consumers," El-Badri said.
Today, the most prevalent criticism of OPEC relates to controlling oil markets by cutting production to raise the cost of oil.
"Our history is quite unique, we are the only organization from the third world which has been able to survive for fifty years," says El-Badri. "Underlying many of these challenges is the need for energy security.
"Without greater clarity with regards to the future demand for oil, investments in expanding future oil capacity could be threatened. There is no shortage of oil, but bringing it to the market will become increasingly challenging. Escalating production costs and a lack of skilled human resources are also issues that we need to tackle."
In today's landscape compared with the 60s and 70s, interdependency between producers and consumers is a priority. With hundreds of billions of dollars needed to develop exploration and production, refining, and oil transportation projects, producers can't guarantee steady oil supplies unless they know the demand is there.
Reaching this understanding has required relationship building and El-Badri says he is proud of how these have matured.
"We now enjoy a close working relationship, for example, with the European Union," he said. "The work we have performed together, especially with relation to the impact of the financial markets on oil price volatility is testimony to this."
However, the new mood has its limits. Consumers are troubled by the fact that oil majors do not enjoy full access to oil reserves - OPEC has 80pc of the world's proven reserves at 1064 billion barrels.
Welcoming foreign investment also varies amongst OPEC members: Libya has limited opportunities, harsh terms and can be hostile towards investors; Angola has many major oil companies like BP and Total working on its deepwater acreage whereas Saudi Arabia offers service contracts where companies are paid fees to develop its reserves with less risk and less reward.
This leads to related problems such as verifying OPEC's proven reserves, which are produced by members which have the incentive to inflate them to boost their production quotas. Iraq, which is excluded from the production quota system, could transform the dynamics of the group if it successfully achieves the increases in oil production to 12 million barrels/day by 2017 from 2.5 million barrels/day now. It would then match Saudi Arabia although doubts persist on whether Iraq can reach this target.
The IEA is unconvinced, arguing Iraq could take another 20 years to achieve even half of that due to the problems constructing infrastructure in a challenging environment along with Iraq's failure to resolve its dispute with Iraqi Kurdistan over oil-rich areas in the north. Iraq's target now is to reach 3 million barrels/day by the end of 2011, up from around 2.6 million barrels/day.
"OPEC Member Countries will support Iraq when it needs a bigger production allocation," says El-Badri. "This will only be necessary when the country's new projects are in operation and its oil production has increased. It will take time for this to happen - perhaps five or six years from now. When the time comes, we will assess the market and then we will be happy to explain how we will progress."
A Libyan with over 40 years of oil industry experience, El-Badri's focus has been to raise the profile of the OPEC Secretariat's oil market research and analysis to position them as reference points. Industry players complain that poor data transparency in the oil market makes investment decisions and striking deals difficult.
It also makes it harder to understand the reasons behind dramatic movements in oil prices. El-Badri acknowledges improving data reliability is required. "I will continue to strive to make it more and more efficient," he said.
OPEC has responded to this criticism by creating the Joint Oil Database Initiative with the International Energy Forum and other partners, including the United Nations and the Statistical Office of the European Communities.
However as the IEF's Secretary-General, Noe Van Hulst, observes: "The IEF also wants upstream and downstream oil and gas capacity expansion data over the next 4-5 years to further improve transparency. We don't have a timetable yet on when we can publish that as there are so many countries and organisations that need to contribute to the collection of collecting this information."
Is there room for OPEC to expand its membership? El Badri's answer is that OPEC welcomes "new members that meet our criteria, we never actively seek new members".
Petrobras, Brazil's state controlled oil company, is ambitious to produce 5.2 million barrels/day by 2015 - driven by its deepwater oil reserves. These will change it to an exporter. Russia's relationship with OPEC has meandered, where sometimes it has added oil to the market when OPEC has held back.
For Russia, which is the world's second-largest exporter after Saudi Arabia, oil is strategic weapon and not just a means to raise cash.
What is troubling is uncertainty about future oil demand, the impact of vague and unrealistic environmental policies on planning oil projects and the pace of global economic recovery.
Publishing its medium term outlook in December, OPEC revised its oil demand forecasts for 2010 to 1.3 million barrels a day, an increase of 190,000 barrels.
It is encouraged by fast-improving economic prospects in industrialized countries from different stimulus plans. For 2011, its projection for global consumption growth next year is 120,000 barrels a day to 1.2 million barrels a day.
"A big concern for us is what will happen when governments start to remove their financial stimulus packages," El-Badri said. "We are also concerned that the private sector has not played any concrete role in aiding the economic recovery.
This situation needs to be addressed. Remember that the economic front is facing a two-track prospect of a strong growth trend in much of the emerging economies versus greater risk in the OECD."
Over the next two decades worldwide energy demand is forecasted to grow by 40pc -l ed by Asia - as lifestyles improve for a rising global population.
Of this increase, 85pc will be met primarily by fossil fuels and so oil still has a major role to play despite increasing pressure to shift to alternative fuels. By 2030 renewables will only increase from 2pc to 4pc in the global energy mix where concerns centre on its intermittent nature and high costs.
El-Badri welcomes diversity in the overall energy mix, but notes: "All other sources of energy face more challenges than oil. For instance, biofuels face water and food competition.
Nuclear energy faces safety and intensified capital investment. They all contribute to the energy mix but they all start from a low base."
Last year, OPEC brought 30 projects onstream, which added 1.5 million more barrels/day of net crude and liquids capacity. "Over the next four years, we expect the completion of an additional 140 projects that will add about 12 million barrels/day of gross crude and liquids capacity," he says. "As you can see from our future plans, we believe it is too early to speak of a post oil era."
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