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Briefing

Oil at a turning point – no, really

Modes of thought

Once OPEC nations wielded price-shaping clout. But a US fracking boom, the return of Iran to world markets, and global urgency about carbon emissions changed the mind-set for OPEC titan Saudi Arabia.

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    Bahrain's Minister of Energy Abdul Hussain bin Ali Mirza arrives to a meeting between OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers, in Doha, Qatar, on April 17. Despite low oil prices, the meeting failed to yield an accord to constrain oil production.
    Ibraheem Al Omari/Reuters/file
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Oil has entered a new era. For the first time in decades, no entity is trying to regulate oil supplies. Not the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Not Saudi Arabia. The implications are huge.

Is OPEC really dead?

In effect, yes. The organization still exists but its members no longer function anything like the supply-regulating cartel of yore. The titan of OPEC – Saudi Arabia – has decided it’s better off pumping as much oil as it can. This is not a temporary tactic. It’s the nation’s new worldview of energy.

Once the US boom in hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) took hold, attempts to reduce supply to keep prices up looked futile. Plus, the Saudis are competing with Iran for leadership of the Middle East. Iran wants foreign companies to invest in its oil industry and rebuild its production. By keeping prices low, the Saudis are making that investment as unattractive as possible. Finally, they foresee the world turning away from oil-based transportation to alternatives such as electric-powered cars. From the Saudi perspective, it’s better to sell as much as possible now than to wait until prices could well be lower.

“That [OPEC] era is over. It’s done. It’s gone,” says Jim Burkhard, head of oil market analysis at market researcher IHS in Washington. “The concern has changed from ‘Will there be enough supply in 50 years?’ to ‘Will there be enough demand in 50 years?’ ”

If the world is producing more oil, why are gas prices going up?

Production is growing, but world demand, fueled by low gasoline prices, is growing even more. As a result, the oil glut is shrinking. By the end of the year, and perhaps as early as next quarter, production worldwide could fall below world demand. That would be the first time that’s happened since 2013.

Recent cuts in production have helped to boost prices. The wildfires in Alberta have temporarily knocked out more than 1 million barrels per day, almost half of the Canadian province’s oil sands production. Nigeria’s problems are smaller but more intractable. Multiple attacks on pipelines by a new militant group called the Niger Delta Avengers have taken some 500,000 b.p.d. of capacity off-line, pushing Nigerian production down to a 22-year low. Brazil’s oil and gas production fell 7 percent in the past year as the scandal surrounding Petrobras, the state-run oil company, deepened.

Iran, by contrast, has ramped up production faster than expected and is now pumping 3.6 million b.p.d., its highest level in five years.

Will oil prices surge back to $100 a barrel?

Not anytime soon. Absent some huge weather or economic shock, forecasters see oil prices edging up to perhaps $80 a barrel by about 2020.

Regular unleaded gas should average $2.08 a gallon this year – a 16-year low, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Next year, prices could rise a bit to $2.24. If a new crisis crimps supplies, gasoline prices could go above $3 a gallon. But they should dip as soon as markets foresee an end to the crisis.

Is America’s fracking boom over?

Yes. US oil production has been falling since last fall. Some 130 North American oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt since the beginning of 2015, Bloomberg reports. Some experts predict 2016 will be worse. Even though oil prices are climbing again, many companies simply have too much debt. When their loans come due, lenders won’t refinance them because the future doesn’t look that bright.

Eventually, US production will pick up again and more fracking will take place. But future growth is expected to be much slower than at the height of the boom. One change: US laws now allow oil companies to export. So the nation’s prized light sweet crude, which sold at a discount domestically, will now reflect world prices. That’s good news for US oil companies; American motorists will take a hit.

Is the world really moving away from oil?

Yes, in fits and starts. Even if the nearly 200 nations that negotiated the United Nations climate change agreement last December don’t meet their emissions-reducing commitments, they’re still worried about global warming and pollution. Major oil-consuming nations have policies in place to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels. Other pressures are building.

In five years, a fossil fuel divestment movement on a few college campuses has spread worldwide, with 518 organizations worth $3.4 trillion agreeing to sell off their coal, oil, and natural gas investments. These groups include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, heirs to the Standard Oil fortune, and the sovereign wealth fund of Norway, a top 20 oil producer. Even Saudi Arabia is moving to sell a portion of its state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, and diversify its economy.

For the time being, oil remains vital to transportation. But some analysts expect that by 2030, perhaps even earlier, its dominance will wane. If gasoline prices get too high, consumers should be able to switch easily to electric cars or some other alternative.

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