Opinion: OPEC Can't Defeat U.S. Big Oil by Flooding the Market

OPEC Secretary-General Abdullah al-Badri said on Thursday the organization has "no target price," when asked about previous aspirations of $100 per barrel. Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

At the end of November, amidst much speculation, OPEC kept its formal production level of 30 million barrels per day in what appears to be an oversupplied market. This controversial decision was taken because cutting production would cede market share to the growing production flooding out of the U.S. The immediate result was a significant fall in oil prices.

The "official" logic behind the decision was twofold. First, it was contended that weak demand was temporary because of slow economic growth and would recover next year. Second, the argument went, lower prices would close high-cost production from the shale technology revolution.

In other words, current prices were too low and the market, allowed to operate, would rectify this. Many (rightly) saw this decision as a significant landmark in global oil markets. In effect, OPEC had ceded any semblance of control over the market and prices, instead launching the oil price onto a sea governed by market forces.

Those with knowledge of oil market history will see this as a very dangerous gamble based on two serious misconceptions. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, the market was in a similar position as now. Demand was falling and non-OPEC supply was rising. In response, to defend prices, OPEC (but effectively Saudi Arabia) cut production because the fall in demand was seen as temporary as a result of global recession and would shortly recover. It did not.

Then when the oil price eventually collapsed in 1986, the OPEC view was that lower prices would quickly reverse as they would shut in high-cost production, specifically in the North Sea. These views in the 1980s were conceptual mistakes, still relevant today and likely to undermine OPEC's current strategy.

The mistakes are a failure to understand the difference between an income effect and a price effect on demand and the failure to understand the difference between a break-even price (what investors consider when deciding whether to invest in new producing capacity) and a shut-in price (what existing operators consider will cover variable costs and if not, will stop production from existing wells.).

While some of the fall in demand in the 1980s was because of the recession (an income effect), some was due to genuine demand destruction as the result of much higher prices (a price effect). Recession-induced lower demand reverses itself when the global economy recovers, but demand destruction is permanent.

Today, part of the fall in oil demand is because oil prices have inexorably risen (from $32.40 in 2002 to $108.66 in constant 2013 dollars). Furthermore, many sources of recent oil demand growth, notably China and India, have been moving from subsidized domestic oil prices to higher border-based prices. OPEC's expectations of quickly recovering demand may be optimistic as they were in the early 1980s.

OPEC is hoping lower break-even prices will reduce shale production. Various estimates for the U.S. shale break-even price have been bandied around (usually in the realm of $60 to $80 per barrel). Most are far too high, because they ignore the fact that the recent boom in shale operations has grossly inflated project costs. If investment in new capacity slows, then project costs—and hence the break-even price—will fall.

However, in terms of OPEC's current strategy, the break-even price is the wrong metric. What matters in the next few years is the shut-in price. After the 1986 price collapse, a number of stripper wells in the U.S. (with high variable costs) did close, but the loss of production was minimal. North Sea production, which had been OPEC's prime target, was hardly affected and actually increased in 1987. The current level of shut-in price for shale oil is again debatable, but almost certainly is well below $40 per barrel. Thus it will be some time before existing shale oil production falls, even if prices stay low.

Should the oil price fall towards variable costs, threatening shale supply, it will be the OPEC producers who must blink first. They will then try to take back control of the market, if they can.

Professor Paul Stevens is a distinguished fellow, energy, environment and resources at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London