The Oil and the Glory

The Weekly Wrap: Feb. 25, 2011

The Saudis’ power to calm: We all know by now that oil prices have soared not specifically because of Libya, but because traders are worried about what happens next. In particular, they are worried about Saudi Arabia — whether it can truly step up to the plate with big volumes of oil to compensate for ...

Patrick Baz AFP/Getty Images
Patrick Baz AFP/Getty Images

The Saudis’ power to calm: We all know by now that oil prices have soared not specifically because of Libya, but because traders are worried about what happens next. In particular, they are worried about Saudi Arabia — whether it can truly step up to the plate with big volumes of oil to compensate for a shortfall elsewhere, even if it itself falls victim to the unrest roiling the Middle East. To be more precise, the question on many lips is: Will or will not the Saudis announce an increase in oil production in order to calm roiling global markets? I discuss this topic today on the Brian Lehrer Show at WNYC.

The answer is that they may already have quietly done so.The Oil Daily is reporting today that Saudi Arabia has lifted production to 9 million barrels a day, which if accurate would be about 4 percent, or 400,000 barrels a day, higher than its most recent reported volume. That’s a serious uptick in production — sufficient, one would think, to persuade traders that the kingdom in fact possesses the capacity and will to tamp down market volatility when it’s called for. It should be sufficient to lower prices well into the low $90-a-barrel range. It should be, that is, if the Saudis actually tell the market that it has done so. Instead, the Saudis are going around simply asserting that they will step in as soon as they are truly needed.

Is this just the Saudis playing coy? No, writes the Oil Daily: “Saudi Arabia has been quiet about its output hike, most likely because of the political sensitivities in the region and the internal dynamics of OPEC, where members are expected to produce at target levels.” In other words, if Saudi Arabia wishes to remain the uber-alpha male in OPEC, it must not be unilateral or bumptious, but navigate the shoals of the cartel with diplomacy.

Okay, I get that. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose? If the market doesn’t know that you’ve added the volumes — which otherwise would be like apologizing to your wife for an egregious mistake by writing it on a piece of paper and putting it in your pocket — why bother? I suppose there are just things about the Saudis that we are doomed never to grasp.

Speaking of Libya’s impact, readers emailed me the nifty charts below. In the first chart, produced by the International Energy Agency, you can see that Ireland is the most exposed country in the world to Libya, which supplies almost a whopping quarter of its oil. Italy is next with about 22 percent reliance on Libya. Indeed, Europe in general is on the hook. As for the United States, it’s relatively inoculated — Libya satisfies just 2-3 percent of its demand.

In this chart, produced by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, you can see Libya’s export reliance. It by far sells the most of its oil to Italy — almost a third of its export total. Ten percent of its oil goes to China, and 6 percent to the United States.

The fallacy about China’s oil companies: One prevailing wisdom about China’s global resource grab is that it’s all a centrally devised plan. So that when China’s oil companies hand out big loans to Brazil, Russia and Kazakhstan in exchange for oil supply and access to fields, they are effectively following Communist Party orders. Not so, says the Paris-based International Energy Agency.  In a new report, the IEA says that not only do the China National Petroleum Co., Sinopec and the rest operate autonomously and commercially, but they also have added volume to the world supply of oil and gas. Julie Jiang, who co-wrote the IEA report with Jonathan Sinton, said, “These are far from puppet companies operating under control of the Chinese government, as many have assumed. Their investments in recent years have been driven by a strong commercial interest, not the whim of the state.” At the Wall Street Journal, James Areddy called the report “eye-catching.”

Out one door, through two more: World power is shifting from west to east, and so is BP’s portfolio of assets. Over the last month or so, the British company has announced $15 billion in operational tie-ups and share swaps with Russian and Indian oil companies, including a $7.2 billion deal this week with India’s Reliance Industries, headed by Mukesh Ambani, one of the richest men in the world. At the same time, BP is reducing its foothold both in the United States and at home in the United Kingdom. All of this has followed BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. For BP, the strategy is a bet that, by gambling in Russia and India, it can increase its reserve base by about a third, to some 80 billion barrels of oil and natural gas, according to a Citibank estimate cited by the Financial Times.

Let’s look at the bigger picture: Will Wall Street eversee BP the same again after the Gulf of Mexico, and bid up its share price astraders did for almost all the other major oil companies this week? Probably. Butit could be a long time. Production in Russia’s Arctic region is a long way off — perhaps a decade. So for now the value of these deals is largely notional.

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