OPEC+ Seeks to Defend Oil-Market Gains as Demand Outlook Darkens

(Bloomberg) —

OPEC and its allies have achieved the oil-market equivalent of a high-wire act: increasing supply even as demand remains depleted, without crashing prices.

Whether they can successfully continue the balancing act is unclear.

The coalition of producers led by Saudi Arabia and Russia is restoring some of the vast quantities of crude halted during the depths of the coronavirus crisis. So far the supply boost hasn’t derailed oil’s fragile recovery, which has seen prices climb to a five-month high.

But the outlook for fuel demand has deteriorated as the pandemic crushes international travel, and new outbreaks of the disease are weighing on the economic recovery. On Wednesday, key OPEC+ members will meet to consider how to safe-guard their recent success.

“They need to be very vigilant,” said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at consultant Energy Aspects Ltd. “Because you can get a demand pullback, and they just need to be very quick in responding.”

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its partners slashed 9.7 million barrels of daily output earlier this year — about 10% of global supply — when global lockdowns inflicted the biggest oil-demand collapse in history.

Their sacrifices paid off, turning around a market that at its trough saw prices in New York crash below zero. Brent crude futures are trading near $45 a barrel, triple the levels of late April. The effort has thrown a lifeline not only to the economies of OPEC+ members, but international companies like BP Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp.

With global consumption creeping back up toward normal levels, OPEC+ has this month started to carefully open the taps.

Cautious Steps

The market remains too fragile to risk anything more. The 23-nation alliance plans to keep the bulk of its halted output — about 7.7 million barrels a day, and possibly more — off-line for the rest of the year.

Saudi Arabia even said that most of the supply returned in August will be consumed domestically, used to satisfy the kingdom’s summer electricity needs rather than shipped to overseas customers.

The producers can ill-afford a relapse. Despite the rebound, oil prices are still barely half the level many OPEC nations need to cover government spending. The financial squeeze has left several contending with massive deficits, popular unrest and currency devaluations.

Recent days have provided an ominous reminder of the need for caution. The International Energy Agency, one of the world’s leading forecasters, downgraded its second-half demand outlook last week by 500,000 barrels a day as air travel languishes. The summer power-demand spike within Saudi Arabia, which helped absorb extra barrels, will also fade.

“We still are in a very uncertain world,” said Mohammad Darwazah, an analyst at Medley Global Advisors. “And I think there’s recognition of that within the group even if they’re quite sanguine on demand publicly.”

Focus on Compliance

Given the market’s vulnerability, the Saudis are exerting maximum pressure on other OPEC+ members to fulfill their commitments. When the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee meets on Wednesday this will be at the top of the agenda, delegates say. The Joint Technical Committee, a panel of technical experts that assesses implementation of the cuts on behalf of ministers, meets on Monday.

Quota-cheats such as Iraq and Nigeria have promised to make additional compensation cuts in atonement for earlier laxity. Baghdad and Riyadh issued a joint statement on Aug. 7 in which Iraq pledged 400,000 barrels a day of reduction in August and September, on top of the 850,000-barrel cutback it’s already supposed to make.

Yet neither of the laggards have yet delivered the mandated cuts, let alone any extra reductions.

Nigeria is lobbying for one of its oil grades, Agbami, to be considered as condensate rather than crude, a light oil that would be exempt from their production quota, according to delegates who asked not to be identified.

While Iraq has got closer to its target than almost ever before, implementing about 80% of the stipulated cuts, the immense economic pressures on a country still emerging from war and sanctions make any further cooperation problematic.

Fatal protests broke out in Baghdad earlier this month as the country’s electricity grid buckled amid searing temperatures.

“The Iraqis were trending in the right direction,” said Helima Croft, head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets LLC. “But compensation? Given the dire economic circumstances, that just might be a bridge too far.”

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