OPEC’s Decision to Cut Oil Production: Factual and Legal Background

This blog is by Constantinos Yiallourides, a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Aberdeen.  In this blog, he considers the most recent decision of OPEC to cut oil production and its potential implications.

On 30 November 2016 in Vienna, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (known as OPEC, or Organization) reached a historic deal to cut-down on their current collective output, leaving behind the pump-at-will policy the Organization had adopted in 2014 at the instigation of Saudi Arabia. They decided, after eight years of continuous negotiations, to reduce production by about 1.2 million barrels a day. The new limit on total OPEC output will be 32.5 million barrel per day.

The agreement follows on from a plan sketched out in the 170th (Extraordinary) Meeting of the OPEC Conference in Algiers on 28 September 2016 where OPEC countries agreed to examine how to set up a production ceiling of between 32.5 Mb/d and 33.0 Mb/d. They also emphasised the need to bring leading non-OPEC producers into the process in an effort to stabilise the oil market and avoid the adverse impacts in the short and medium-term. While certainly significant, the Algiers failed to reach a consensus on how to distribute the cuts amongst its members. Further, OPEC’s push to implement the Algiers deal and boost oil prices shifted focus to major crude suppliers outside of OPEC such as Russia. Despite some positive signs, Russia appeared reluctant to curtail its current production rates, risking scuttling the whole deal.

With the 30 November decision, a more specific implementation framework has now been agreed and the actual cuts of each OPEC country have been determined. OPEC’s Secretary-General Mohammad Barkindo stated that this cooperation will be ‘the first time OPEC [and] non-OPEC will agree to a joint, binding supply-management agreement’ according to the Wall Street Journal. Over the coming 6 months, starting from 1 January 2017, Saudi Arabia shall cut its output by 486,000 barrels a day to 10.058 million a day. Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest producer, shall reduce by 210,000 barrels a day from October levels. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait will reduce output by 139,000 barrels a day and 131,000 a day, respectively. Most crucially, Russia has agreed to cut output in the first half of 2017 by up to 300,000 barrels per day. As it turns out, this is the first time in 15 years that the non-OPEC oil-producing country Russia is officially participating in an OPEC production cut deal.

Factual and Legal Background

OPEC was created at the Baghdad Conference on September 10-14, 1960. Its current members, with years of membership, include: Algeria (1969-present), Angola (2007-present), Ecuador (1973-1992 and 2007-present), Gabon (1975-1994 and 2016-present), Indonesia (1962-2008 and 2016-present), Iran (1960-present), Iraq (1960-present), Kuwait (1960-present), Libya (1962-present), Nigeria (1971-present), Qatar (1961-present), Saudi Arabia (1960-present), United Arab Emirates (1967-present) and Venezuela (1960-present).

OPEC’s stated objective is to coordinate the petroleum policies of member countries and to determine the best means of safeguarding their interests. This includes devising ways for ensuring the stabilisation of prices in international oil markets with a view to eliminating harmful and unnecessary fluctuations. According to Article 10 of OPEC statute, the Conference is the supreme authority of the Organization. The Conference, which typically meets twice a year, consists of delegations representing all the member countries. A non-member country may be invited to attend a Conference as an observer, only if the Conference so decides. Article 15 of OPEC statute provides that the Conference shall ‘formulate the general policy of the Organization and determine the appropriate ways and means of its implementation’. That said, OPEC’s most recent Conference, after reviewing oil market developments since it last meeting in Algeria as well as the oil market outlook for the remainder of 2016 and 2017, found that it is in the interest of both OPEC and non-OPEC producing countries to bring stock levels down to normal levels in order ‘to accelerate the ongoing drawdown of the stock overhang and bring the oil market rebalancing forward’.

According to OPEC’s press release, its decision to implement a new OPEC-14 production target of 32.5 Mb/d, was based on the report of OPEC’s Secretary General’s, the recommendations made by the High-Level Committee that was set up following the Algiers framework agreement, the report of the Economic Commission Board and OPEC’s Long-Term Strategy (LTS) document. A common observation in all the documents above was that, because of the continuous oil price downfall due to oversupply, global spending on exploration and production investments has also been free-falling since 2014, and a third year of investment falls would be catastrophic. Thus, appropriate responses to bring forward the rebalancing of supply and demand, this returning sustainable stability to the market were deemed urgent.

Current and Future Implications

The recent decision of OPEC to cut production has already had a positive effect on global oil prices. At the time of writing this blog, only five days following OPEC’s decision, global oil prices have surged 15 percent with Brent crude rising from $46 per barrel up to $54.94 per barrel according to Bloomberg. Some commentators suggest that this may mark the beginning of the end of a two-year downfall in the global oil market, during which prices have plunged from $100 per barrel down to $40 and oil producing countries, such as Venezuela, have come close to financial collapse.

However, whether this upward trend is sustained, it will depend on a number of factors. First, the agreement depends on how closely the OPEC and non-OPEC countries, such as Russia, adhere to their promises to pump less, something they have not always done in the past. Indeed, there are still questions about how this deal will be monitored and enforced. For example, it is submitted that traders cannot fully monitor the implementation of Russia’s pledge to cut 300,000 b/d of production since much of its production moves via pipelines as opposed to oil tankers which are easier to monitor based on how many leave port. Thus, getting Russia to stick to this commitment may be a tougher sell than expected, according to energy analysts.

Third, there is the question about the potential implications of the shale energy revolution in the US. Indeed, if anyone is cheering the news of the OPEC deal it is US shale producers. Over the past year, with global oil prices low, the US oil production has been constrained to some extent. A likely rebound in oil prices, if OPEC members cut supplies, combined with a steep slide in drilling costs as a result of technological advances, could lead to a revival in US shale production. This scenario played out similarly in late September 2016 when oil prices increased shortly after the announcement of the Algiers deal. US shale producers swiftly put rigs back in operation sending prices right back down to where they were before the announcement. Undoubtedly, this could pose serious challenges to the Organization’s efforts to boost oil prices.

Finally, as always with oil, there is time and money at stake and the stakes are high: from what refiners, marketers, distributors, and retail station owners gain per gallon, to the future of the global oil market and the world economy as a whole. OPEC, it would appear, still has the power to shake global markets. If the OPEC agreement pushes oil above $60 a barrel in the next few weeks, as some optimistic estimates suggest, it will certainly allow some breathing space to big oil producers who have seen their profits halved since 2014. On the other hand, big oil consumers will have to move swiftly to protect themselves against soaring fuel prices. Airlines, for example, could scramble to hedge against rapidly increasing oil prices.

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