OPEC’s meetings in Vienna have for decades offered a heady mix of wealth, power and intrigue. The latest one may feel more like a wake.
The closest OPEC came to operating like a true oil cartel was in the early 1970s. Back then, it controlled more than half the world’s oil supply and was more or less aligned in trying to manage pricing and, for many members, throwing off the remnants of colonialism.
These days, OPEC accounts for about 40 percent of oil supplies, and it is divided on multiple fronts, be it the vast economic gulf between the haves of the Gulf States and the have-nots of Venezuela or the enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
What really threatens OPEC’s survival, though, is something it helped bring to life: shale production.
If OPEC had, like any real cartel, been able to bring on extra supply to meet surging Chinese demand in the first decade of this century, then the world may have avoided the super-spike in oil prices to over $100 a barrel. As it is, those high prices gave U.S. oil companies the encouragement, and the means, to experiment with fracturing shale rock.
Now, extra shale output lurks as a persistent threat if oil prices rise high enough. Saudi Arabia's decision to re-privatize its national oil company also hints at worries about peak demand. Instead of OPEC’s members controlling the market, the market controls them. The meetings may well continue, along with the intrigue. But the wealth is draining, and the power is all but gone.
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