Why the US age of applying pressure on Opec is outdated

Oil is not the only commodity that has gained since 2019 when Brent finished the year at $68.17 compared with $70.59 last Friday, other commodities have increased as well

President-elect Joe Biden's national security adviser nominee Jake Sullivan speaks at The Queen theater, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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US presidents “jawboning” Opec to raise oil production and lower prices is nothing new. The Bushes, father and son, were prominent practitioners. Now the Joe Biden administration has joined in, a message jarringly at odds with its pro-environmental stance.

The idea has traditionally been that by exhortation, American leaders can persuade Opec states to act against their view of the market and, presumably, their interests. This has traditionally gone in favour of reducing oil prices, but on a couple of occasions, the US has argued the other way.

In the 1980s, George HW Bush, as vice-president, visited Saudi Arabia, concerned that the oil price crash was damaging the economy in his home state of Texas. More recently, in April 2020, Donald Trump encouraged Opec+ states to institute deep cuts to tackle the demand collapse caused by the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement saying that higher gasoline (petrol) prices threatened the global economic recovery, and that the administration was engaging with Opec+ members.

The political realities are clear. Despite much talk of “energy independence”, “energy dominance” and self-sufficiency, the US remains tied into the world oil market. Petrol costs and inflation have worried every president from Richard Nixon onwards.

The reopening of America, combined with fiscal stimulus, “green” infrastructure plans and booming goods consumption, has collided with cramped supply chains to drive up the prices of raw materials.

That said, Mr Sullivan’s statement comes at an odd time. The Opec+ group has agreed a phased increase in production up to the end of next year, the Delta viral variant is threatening Chinese demand, and prices have fallen sharply, from over $76 per barrel at the end of last month to barely above $70 on Friday.

Mr Sullivan’s statement mentions that prices are higher than at the end of 2019, before the pandemic, but this is only barely true: Brent crude closed that year at $68.17.

Oil is not even the most affected commodity. Others, despite not having a body like Opec+ coordinating supply, are up more: wheat has gained 39 per cent since the end of 2019, copper 55 per cent. US natural gas has risen a remarkable 79 per cent, despite comparing winter 2019 when consumption is high to the usually lower-demand summer period.

We can dispose of the idea that President Biden’s oil policies are responsible for any shortage. His administration has not been friendly to the petroleum industry. On its first day, it ended years of torture for the protracted Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, denying it construction permits. It also issued a pause on new petroleum leasing of federal lands, an important part of available drilling acreage in states such as New Mexico.

But despite initially limiting drilling permits, approvals have since risen to rates unseen since the second Bush presidency. The halt to leasing has been overruled by a judge. And the federal authorities cannot directly stop development of private and state lands, where the bulk of activity is concentrated. Mr Biden’s policies may well have a major impact on reducing US oil production in the longer term, particularly if the Democrats win a second term. But for now, the practical impact has been negligible.

Instead, the reason why US oil production has responded only weakly to higher prices is that after years of poor profitability, shareholders of shale oil companies and the industry in general are demanding consolidation, strict controls on spending, and the return of capital via dividends and stock buy-backs, not growth.

Republicans have criticised Mr Biden over rising pump prices, but should recall that it was a president from their party who advocated the Opec+ deal, which remains in force in modified form.

What would the best policy be, from an American viewpoint?

On the supply side, the US should not subsidise oil and gas production. Instead, it should encourage commercially viable output that moves as quickly as possible towards net-zero operational emissions.

Shale’s high output decline rates mean that investment today does not lock in high production for decades.

On the demand side, there should be a substantial price on carbon dioxide emissions, partly through much stiffer tax on road fuel, combined with incentives for low-carbon transport such as battery cars and public transport. But despite droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and ever more strident warnings, the politics of carbon taxes look as difficult as ever.

This highlights the contradiction at the heart of the Democratic climate approach, along with many environmental groups and European Green parties. They have been much more effective at opposing fossil fuel projects than advancing non-oil alternatives.

Blocking big oil companies is politically popular; asking people to pay more for fuel or vehicles or change their lifestyles is not.

The rising tide of electric vehicles may change that calculus later this decade, particularly in Europe. But for the next few years at least, the two blades of the decarbonisation scissors are out of synch. This risks an energy price spike that would derail the climate agenda for years.

Some observers have, rather cynically, suggested that Mr Biden is trying to foist the burden of over-investment in obsolescing technologies and “stranded assets” on to Opec+ states. But the more far-sighted Opec countries already have their plans for the energy transition.

In April, the US established a net-zero producers’ forum with Saudi Arabia and some other oil- and gas-exporting states. Opec+ should not pay any attention to exhortations to produce more, but they should talk seriously with Mr Biden’s government about their role on the feasible road to net-zero carbon. Hopefully, the age of jawboning is giving way to the age of dialogue.

Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Updated: August 16, 2021, 3:30 AM