The brave new world of ample oil

In the oil universe, the September 14 attack on Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities is comparable to the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in New York City. Yet, the taking out of half of the Kingdom’s oil output led not to an oil shock but a whimper. Barely two weeks after the brazen attack, oil headlines were once again dominated by fears of over-supply and falling prices amid a slowing global economy. Following an initial 20 per cent intra-day price surge after the attack, the benchmark Brent Crude oil price quickly retraced its steps back down to pre-attack levels.

US output surge benefits Asia

The shift from a perceived world of oil scarcity to abundance has been brought about in an astonishingly short period of time by the advent of the “fracking” revolution in the US. This combines horizontal drilling and hydraulically-fracturing shale rock with high-pressure liquids to extract “unconventional” oil and gas. In the past decade, US crude oil production more than doubled. By mid-2019, US production was rated at over 12 million barrels per day (b/d), surpassing Russian and Saudi Arabian output as the world’s largest. 

Academic studies suggest that global oil prices would have been higher by $10-50 per barrel if there had not been a fracking boom in the US. Given the scale involved, even with conservative estimates on the price impact, the US upsurge in unconventional oil production has probably led to the biggest transfer of wealth in history. Largely at the cost of reduced oil revenues to OPEC and Russia, benefits have primarily flowed to the world’s largest oil markets in the US, China, India, Japan and South Korea, as well as America’s unconventional oil producers. 

From what was previously expected to be an inevitable growing dependence on West Asian supplies, Asian oil refiners are now spoilt for choice. With Europe’s long-declining oil demand trends, crude oil exports from the Russian Far East, West Africa and Latin America to Asian markets compete with the traditional large exporters of West Asia. While the majority of Asian crude imports are still sourced in West Asia, prices are set at the margin by competing crudes from other regions including the US.  

West Asia’s reform imperatives 

While the US fracking revolution has benefited Asia’s crude oil importers, it has burdened West Asian oil producers. The Gulf countries had built up extensive welfare states utilising massive oil revenues to support social security, health, education and government employment programmes. The social upheavals since the Arab Spring in 2010 led the Gulf states to further expand social support programmes to maintain their implicit social contracts with their citizens.

In 2015, the fiscal break-even oil price for Saudi Arabia — that is, the oil price at which the government budget is balanced — was estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be $94.25/barrel while the reference “OPEC basket price” had plummeted to $49.50/barrel. The situation since has generally been one of increased government spending, low economic growth and recurring budget deficits.  

The Gulf Arab states are reaching the limits of their tolerance to declining oil export revenues. Low oil prices make the imperative of economic reforms and industrial diversification a central concern for the Gulf “rentier” oil states. The risks of a collapse in the social contract between the ruling regimes and their peoples in the Gulf region may be remote for now. The spectre of growing populations, unemployed youth and persistent budget deficits, however, will increasingly concentrate the minds of its planners and palace advisors.

Oil geopolitics upended

Ever since the historic meeting of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud with US President Franklin D Roosevelt on a warship cruiser in the Suez Canal in 1945, the quid pro quo of the strategic relations between the two nations has been clear: While the Saudis assured the Western world access to its oil exports, the US served as the security umbrella for the Kingdom. With its new-found unconventional oil and gas resources, the US is no more the energy supplicant in this relationship. Saudi Arabia and other West Asian oil producers still constitute the world’s major source of low-cost conventional oil reserves. However, their overwhelming dominance is no longer a defining feature of global oil markets. 

In the age of US-led oil abundance, conventional notions of geopolitical risk and perceptions of energy security have been upended. By effectively making the US the “swing” producer in global oil markets, the fracking revolution has weakened the ability of OPEC and Russia to support crude oil prices by restraining output. It may be argued that US strategic interests in West Asia might wane along with the decline in its energy imports from that region. But it would be a mistake to make too much of America’s reduced dependence on West Asian oil. Containing Islamic terrorism, mitigating the threat of nuclear proliferation and supporting Israel’s defence needs in a volatile region remain strategic foreign policy imperatives.

It is also important to avoid a superficial understanding of “dependence” on oil imports from West Asia. Oil is sold in fungible global markets, and its price for the large oil importers in Asia is linked to its price everywhere else. Ultimately, it does not matter how much of the oil consumed in Asia comes from West Asia. The price of oil depends on global demand and supply, and the disruption of oil trade flows anywhere affects consumers everywhere. The precepts of “energy security”, founded on defunct Malthusian notions of scarcity, have been debunked. Asia’s oil importers and West Asia’s oil producers now face the brave new world of ample competing oil supplies, shifting geopolitics and an American energy renaissance.    
/> The writer is visiting senior research fellow, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore 

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