On Thanksgiving Day, what used to be the world’s most powerful oil cartel will gather in Vienna to decide how much oil to produce. Right around the time that the Bears and Lions are getting underway at in Detroit, delegates of the 12-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will finish a closed-door meeting and announce to the world how much oil they intend to collectively pump over the next year.
In another setting, a group of people who sell the same product getting together to talk about ways to manipulate prices would be seen as blatant collusion. But this is OPEC—that’s basically the whole point. The founding premise back in 1960 was to wrest control of oil production—and the ability to set prices—from the handful of large Western oil companies that had taken over much of the Mideast after World War II.
By 1973, OPEC controlled roughly 53 percent of the world’s total oil production. That’s why its embargo was so effective in driving up oil prices about 400 percent within a year. Today, however, OPEC’s share of total world production is down to 42 percent, according to data from the Energy Information Agency. This comes as OPEC pumps near-record amounts. For the first time in a long time, the ability to determine the price of oil no longer clearly resides with OPEC. Instead, it’s increasingly U.S. producers at the controls.
This shift has big geopolitical implications, affecting everything from Iran’s nuclear program to the fight against ISIS. And it helps explain why most OPEC members come to the meeting having spent the past few weeks talking about the need for cuts. Venezuela and Ecuador want to “protect prices.” Libya’s wants a cut of 500,000 barrels a day. Iran may propose an overall cut of up to 1 million barrels a day, although “under no circumstance” is it willing to cut itself. Sanctions have taken more than a million barrels of Iran’s production offline since 2012. Its oil minister has vowed that Iran will not cut its production “even by one barrel.”
Russia won’t be in the room. But as the world’s top oil producer, it wants cuts, too. Over the weekend, Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed to cooperate on oil prices. And Russia is reportedly considering joining OPEC in production cuts next year—that is, if the cuts happen at all.
As of Tuesday morning, Nov. 25, traders were starting to bet that whatever cuts OPEC does make on Thursday will be limited at best. Brent oil prices tumbled on midmorning news that a meeting of Venezuela, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Russia failed to produce an agreement to coordinate a cut.
Then there’s Saudi Arabia, which is still at the wheel of OPEC as its top producer. The Saudis still enjoy some of the lowest production costs in the world, so they can sustain a much lower price and still not worry about financing themselves. That’s a luxury many OPEC members don’t have. Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and even Russia all need oil prices higher than $100 a barrel to keep their deficits in check.
Right now the Saudis are a lot less worried about the budget deficits of their fellow oil exporters as they are about what’s happening in North Dakota and Texas. The biggest threat to the power the Saudis have wielded as the de-facto head of OPEC for the past 30 years isn’t cheap oil; it’s the 9 million barrels a day coming out of the U.S. The Saudis would much rather play a game of chicken with U.S. producers than bow to the wishes of Iran, which they’re in no hurry to accommodate given their disagreements over the Assad regime in Syria, not to mention Iran’s burgeoning alliance with Iraq.
For decades Saudi Arabia has been the preferred partner of the U.S. in the Middle East. At the heart of that partnership was America’s clear dependence on Saudi Arabia for its oil. But that dependence has diminished significantly over the past few years as U.S. refiners have substituted oil from the shale boom for imported oil.
The Saudis are perfectly willing to watch the price of oil keep falling to see if they can’t drive some of those U.S. companies out of business. So the game becomes how low can they go. Recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that 19 regions across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas, and Arkansas stop being profitable at $75 a barrel. Which is roughly where things are at the moment.
But those regions account for only about 400,000 barrels of daily production. The real test will be if prices dip below $70. That could start eating into the profits of Bakken production and the hottest parts of Texas in the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford shale regions, which account for more than half of all U.S. production.