Why oil’s ‘big three’ just got bigger: Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US are still calling the shots

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Saudi Arabia’s Oil Minister Khalid Al-Falih talks to journalists at the beginning of the OPEC meeting in Vienna. (Reuters)
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Power play: The US influence on OPEC’s Vienna summit was all-pervasive as delegates from member states grappled with the question of substantial output cuts in pursuit of stable crude prices. (AFP)
Updated 10 December 2018
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Why oil’s ‘big three’ just got bigger: Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US are still calling the shots

  • Events at the OPEC meeting in Vienna two years ago constituted a profound shift in oil policy.
  • The eternal triangle — Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US — will continue to dominate the global energy business for the foreseeable future

DUBAI: The meeting of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna last week confirmed what some in the oil industry have been saying for a while: A new global energy dynamic is being created by the three-way relationship between Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US.
After a first day of deadlock over the output reduction needed to stabilize global crude prices, it took a second-day intervention by Russia to back up Saudi calls for a substantial cut, which was duly delivered.
That brought to a conclusion probably the most controversial OPEC meeting of recent times, with a crop of geopolitical factors — Qatar’s planned withdrawal from the organization, sanctions on Iran and the threat of global trade wars — all in evidence.
Although the Americans were not formally in attendance at Vienna — being neither members of OPEC nor the amorphous “OPEC+” that includes Russia and some other oil producers — their influence was all-pervasive. As the new holders of the title of “biggest producers in the world,” the US reaction was on everybody’s mind in Vienna as they calculated the output reduction needed to halt a worrying slide in prices.
Dubai-based energy expert David Hodson, managing director of Blue Pearl Management, said: “Saudi Arabia dominates OPEC, but without Russia, OPEC is not nearly as relevant. And the US industry has proved it is getting better and better. Those three producers are calling the shots worldwide.”
But in many ways, it is simply the modern oil industry’s eternal triangle. Imperial Russia was the first to develop the industrial use of oil as a fuel resource, drilling what is recognized as the first oil well in the 1840s in the Caspian region.
The Americans followed soon after, first in the eastern US and, later, in Texas and California, as oil fueled the transport revolution of the early 20th century, especially with advent of the internal combustion engine.
Saudi Arabia came along relatively late, with the first serious discovery in 1938 by what would become Saudi Aramco. But by the 1970s, the Kingdom was the biggest producer in the world and able to dominate the global industry via OPEC.
However, the dynamic of that three-way relationship has been radically altered in recent years by the emergence of the US shale industry. From mega-fields such as the Permian Basin in Texas, American technological know-how and financial resources have combined to extract oil in high numbers from areas previously deemed uneconomic.
That has made the US the current biggest oil producer in the world, and a net exporter of oil for the first time in 75 years. As a result, the US has a vital interest in what happens in global energy markets, especially under a president like Donald Trump, who is keen to keep US voters happy with cheap fuel for their cars.
Now those three produce more oil between them than the rest of OPEC combined, and are able to decide the price of oil by opening or closing the taps at will. The challenge, however, is that the will of three independent sovereign states rarely acts in unison. Each has the interests of their populations to consider, as well as the role they play in the “great game” of global politics.
Events at the OPEC meeting in Vienna two years ago constituted a profound shift in oil policy. There, for the first time, Russia and Saudi Arabia masterminded the “declaration of cooperation” aimed at halting the fall in oil prices that had begun in 2014. Khalid Al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, developed a close working relationship with his Russian counterpart, Alexander Novak.
That relationship was endorsed at the highest level in March this year when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took time out from a tour of the US to further strengthen “cooperation” with Russia over oil.
“We are working to shift from a year-to-year agreement to a 10- or 20-year agreement,” the crown prince said. “We have agreement on the big picture, but not yet on the detail.”
In Vienna last week, that detail was becoming clearer. OPEC members and their non-OPEC allies agreed to cut 1.2 million barrels of oil per day from their total output, with OPEC cutting the lion’s share of 800,000 barrels, Saudi Arabia taking the lead role in those reductions, and Russia expected to account for most of the balance.
The cuts deal proved there is plenty of market power in the Saudi-Russia alliance. Ellen Wald, US academic, consultant and author of recent book “Saudi, Inc.,” tweeted: “OPEC is still relevant, though not without Russia.”
The price of benchmark Brent oil jumped 5 percent on the news, well back above the $60 mark, with some experts forecasting a steady climb up to $70 in coming weeks. It lost some of those gains later, but at about $62 per barrel, the apparently inexorable decline of recent weeks has been reversed.
If the oil price continues to rise, that would appear to have accomplished the goals of the Saudi-Russian move. Both countries rely on crude exports for a large part of their foreign earnings, though Russia’s more diversified economy means that it has a lower “break-even” level than Saudi Arabia, where oil makes up a bigger proportion of state revenues.
Higher oil prices are good for the Saudi economy, of course, but it is not a clear-cut equation. Policymakers have to calculate the overall financial effect of a reduction in volume of output, even if at a higher price. Selling less at a higher price is not always straightforward mathematics, and some experts think the oil-dependent economies of the Gulf might lose out in aggregate because of the cuts agreed in Vienna.
Capital Economics, a London consultancy, said: “The OPEC deal means weaker growth in the Gulf in 2019,” and reduced its forecast for growth in gross domestic product next year, which would affect the ability of regional governments, including Saudi Arabia, to provide stimulus to the non-oil economy.
Whatever the domestic economic effects, the Kingdom and Russia have struck their deal, for at least the next six months. But perhaps the most intriguing questions are now in the third point of the triangle — the US, the newly crowned oil pumping kings of the world.
Complicating the US response is the relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia’s leadership. The US president was quick to thank the Kingdom when oil prices fell recently. How will he react if they begin to creep back to or above $70 a barrel?
American oil is being pulled by different economic and political forces. The president wants to keep gasoline prices as low as possible to woo consumers, but the US oil industry wants to maximize profits. Oil at $70 per barrel will be an incentive for US shale producers to boost the all-important “rig count” in places such as Texas and New Mexico.
David Hodson said: “Trump will continue tweeting about the need for lower gas prices, but the US shale industry is driven by commercial considerations, not elections. At the end of the day, rising prices will just be a bigger incentive for them to get on the rigs and pump it out.”
The eternal triangle — Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US — will continue to dominate the global energy business for the foreseeable future. But it may not always be an equilateral affair.


Squabbles erupt as G7 leaders open summit in French resort

Updated 25 August 2019
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Squabbles erupt as G7 leaders open summit in French resort

  • Disputes on trade, climate may eclipse Macron’s agenda
  • EU’s Tusk warns of lack of global unity, spars with Johnson

BIARRITZ, France: Squabbles erupted among G7 nations on Saturday as their leaders gathered for an annual summit, exposing sharp differences on global trade tensions, Britain’s exit from the EU and how to respond to the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.
French President Emmanuel Macron, the summit host, planned the three-day meeting in the Atlantic seaside resort of Biarritz as a chance to unite a group of wealthy countries that has struggled in recent years to speak with one voice.
Macron set an agenda for the group — France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — that included the defense of democracy, gender equality, education and the environment. He invited Asian, African and Latin American leaders to join them for a global push on these issues.
However, in a bleak assessment of relations between once-close allies, European Council President Donald Tusk said it was getting “increasingly” hard to find common ground.
“This is another G7 summit which will be a difficult test of unity and solidarity of the free world and its leaders,” he told reporters ahead of the meeting. “This may be the last moment to restore our political community.”
US President Donald Trump had brought last year’s G7 summit to an acrimonious end, walking out early from the gathering in Canada and rejecting the final communique.
Trump arrived in France a day after responding to a new round of Chinese tariffs by announcing that Washington would impose an additional 5% duty on some $550 billion worth of Chinese imports, the latest escalation of the tit-for-tat trade war by the world’s two largest economies.
“So far so good,” Trump told reporters as he sat on a seafront terrace with Macron, saying the two leaders had a special relationship. “We’ll accomplish a lot this weekend.”
Macron listed foreign policy issues the two would address, including Libya, Syria and North Korea, and said they shared the objective of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Trump later wrote on Twitter that lunch with Macron was the best meeting the pair has yet had, and that a meeting with world leaders on Saturday evening also “went very well.”
However, the initial smiles could not disguise the opposing approaches of Trump and Macron to many problems, including the knotty questions of protectionism and tax.
Before his arrival, Trump repeated a threat to tax French wines in retaliation for a new French levy on digital services, which he says unfairly targets US companies.
Two US officials said the Trump delegation was also irked that Macron had skewed the focus of the G7 meeting to “niche issues” at the expense of the global economy, which many leaders worry is slowing sharply and at risk of slipping into recession.
French riot police used water cannons and tear gas on Saturday to disperse anti-capitalism protesters in Bayonne, near Biarritz. A police helicopter circled as protesters taunted lines of police.
The leaders themselves were gathering behind tight security in a waterfront conference venue, the surrounding streets barricaded by police.

Spat over ‘Mr. No Deal’ Brexit
Macron opened the summit with a dinner at the base of a clifftop lighthouse overlooking Biarritz, where a menu of piperade, a Basque vegetable specialty, tuna and French cheeses awaited the leaders.
Adding to the unpredictable dynamic between the G7 leaders are the new realities facing Brexit-bound Britain: dwindling influence in Europe and growing dependency on the United States.
New Prime Minister Boris Johnson will want to strike a balance between not alienating Britain’s European allies and not irritating Trump and possibly jeopardizing future trade ties. Johnson and Trump will hold bilateral talks on Sunday morning.
Johnson and Tusk sparred before the summit over who would be to blame if Britain leaves the EU on Oct. 31 without a withdrawal agreement.
Tusk told reporters he was open to ideas from Johnson on how to avoid a no-deal Brexit when the two men meet.
“I still hope that PM Johnson will not like to go down in history as Mr.No Deal,” said Tusk, who as council president leads the political direction of the 28-nation European Union.
Johnson, who has said since he took office last month that he will take Britain out of the bloc on Oct. 31 regardless of whether a deal can be reached, later retorted that it would be Tusk himself who would carry the mantle if Britain could not secure a new withdrawal agreement.
“I would say to our friends in the EU if they don’t want a no-deal Brexit then we’ve got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty,” Johnson told reporters, referring to the Irish border protocol that would keep the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland open after Brexit.
“If Donald Tusk doesn’t want to go down as Mr.No Deal then I hope that point will be borne in mind by him, too,” Johnson said on his flight to France.
Johnson is trying to persuade EU leaders to drop the backstop from a withdrawal agreement that was negotiated by his predecessor but rejected three times by the British Parliament as the United Kingdom struggles to fulfill a 2016 referendum vote to leave the bloc.

‘Not the way to proceed’
Despite the Brexit tensions, diplomats played down the likelihood of Trump and Johnson joining hands against the rest, citing Britain’s foreign policy alignment with Europe on issues from Iran and trade to climate change.
“There won’t be a G5+2,” one senior G7 diplomat said.
Indeed, Johnson said he would tell Trump to pull back from a trade war that is already destabilising economic growth around the world.
“This is not the way to proceed,” he said. “Apart from everything else, those who support the tariffs are at risk of incurring the blame for the downturn in the global economy, irrespective of whether or not that is true.”
Anti-summit protests have become common, and on Saturday thousands of anti-globalization activists, Basque separatists and “yellow vest” protesters marched peacefully across France’s border with Spain to demand action from the leaders.
“It’s more money for the rich and nothing for the poor,” said Alain Missana, an electrician wearing a yellow vest — symbol of anti-government protests that have rattled France for months.
EU leaders piled pressure on Friday on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.
Even so, Britain and Germany were at odds with Macron’s decision to pressure Brazil by blocking a trade deal between the EU and the Mercosur group of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said not concluding the trade deal was “not the appropriate answer to what is happening in Brazil now.”
The UK’s Johnson appeared to disagree with Macron on how to respond. “There are all sorts of people who will take any excuse at all to interfere with trade and to frustrate trade deals and I don’t want to see that,” he said.