It's possible that OPEC is crying wolf with hints of an output freeze next month in Algiers; but it's also possible that they are ramping up production to take the sting out of a freeze. This is a delicate balancing act that the Saudis need to play very carefully.
The official chatter is that the OPEC meeting in Algeria from September 26 to 28 could conclude with an agreement to freeze production by the member nations, with even Russia joining forces in a freeze that may prevent further oil price erosion. But everyone's a bit gun-shy after the false hopes of the last round in Doha—even if a freeze at levels that existed then wouldn't have meant much either—and it's hard to blame them. The question is, how many times can the Saudis cry wolf without forever losing the ability to leverage this chatter to affect a rise in oil prices?
But lets rewind a bit to the nature of the recent chatter. The Saudi Energy Minister has indicated that Saudi Arabia, OPEC's largest producer, is willing to proceed with a production freeze.
"We are, in Saudi Arabia, watching the market closely, and if there is a need to take any action to help the market rebalance, then we would, of course in cooperation with OPEC and major non-OPEC exporters," said Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih, reports Reuters.
"We are going to have a ministerial meeting of the International Energy Forum in Algeria next month, and there is an opportunity for OPEC and major exporting non-OPEC ministers to meet and discuss the market situation, including any possible action that may be required to stabilize the market."
The hopes of reaching an agreement in Doha were scuttled by Saudi Arabia, because it wanted its arch rival, Iran, to participate in the freeze. Unfortunately for oil prices, Iran had made it clear that it would not join any such discussion until they reached pre-sanction levels of oil production.
What has changed from Doha to Algeria?
Iran's oil production is close to its pre-sanction levels, meaning that its first cited prerequisite for any discussion has now been met—a criteria that was not met at the time of the Doha meeting. In addition, increasing oil production further by Iran is a big ask—it would need billions of dollars worth of investments in both upstream and downstream facilities to make this happen. With oil prices languishing below $50 a barrel, major oil companies are reluctant to commit huge sums of money for new oil projects.
Iran's oilfields are mature, and more than half of its wells have an annual decline rate of 9 percent to 11 percent, according to Michael Cohen, an analyst at Barclays in New York. Therefore, at their existing production levels, they need an additional 200,000 to 300,000 barrels a day annually to replace the shortfall from their aging wells.
Iran needs more money and investment to continue pumping at the current rate, making it more likely for Iran to agree to some kind of an arrangement where they continue to pump oil at a rate close to their target of 4 million barrels a day.
That said, the last thing that Iran wants is to be sidelined, so Tehran is bound to make its presence felt at the meeting with strong statements. But at the end of the day, it is unlikely that Iran will scuttle an agreement where it has everything to gain and nothing to lose.
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