Monday, December 29, 2014

Iran and Petroleum Prices

One of the overlooked stories of 2014 was the causes of and the geopolitical implications from the dropping oil prices. Numerous articles were written covering aspects of it, yet so few actually tried to look at the situation from the most broad of perspectives.

As everyone knows, the price of oil per barrel and at the pump has dropped over the last few months, mostly as a result of the relationship between demand and supply changing. Supply has been ramped up, especially by US producers. The United States now produces the most oil it has since 1985, and more than all of the OPEC countries including Saudi ArabiaAt the same time, OPEC is also producing record amounts.

Many of the countries in OPEC have oil-dependent economies, and fluctuations in the price of oil affect the way their government operates. The budgets are set to expect a certain price of oil, and if the price drops below this, they will have budgetary problems. Iran in particular is facing difficulties, as the sanctions implemented against the Islamic Republic, combined with a lower price of their most important export has greatly reduced potential revenues.

Even though many of the OPEC countries are now facing possible budget deficits, the cartel agreed to not withhold supply and drive up the price of oil. It appears as though the Saudis and the Gulf Nations are willing to withstand lower prices in the short term, because it damages their bitter rival the Iranians, and OPEC's diminished global influence due to US shale oil producers.

Some have framed this as a purely anti-Iran move, but it is a bit more complex than this. If the OPEC members reduce supply, they are not only working with US oil companies, they are acting in a manner that is only beneficial in the short-term. By working together to keep oil prices low, they will soon drive many of the US shale oil companies out of business.

Fracking (shale oil extraction method) was adopted by American (and Canadian) companies because oil had previously been significantly more expensive, and the fracking process can require a higher break-even point to be profitable. If these companies are allowed to continue to operate (by keeping oil prices high), the damage to OPEC countries will continue. Conversely, if these companies are driven out of business, OPEC has a good chance to regain it's control over world petroleum markets.

The US has long had a policy of utilizing Middle Eastern oil over North American for geo-strategic reasons (see citation in my previous blog). Oil production's increase in North America is striking. Is this a last ditch effort to obtain as much shale oil as possible before the environmentally-damaging process is banned? Is there another "back-up" supply of extractable petroleum or is this the US's last 'trump card' in the oil market?

In some ways this looks like a plot between the Saudis and Americans to damage Iran, Russia and Venezuela financially, but there are quite a few other angles which complicate the situation greatly. Lastly, the insistence by Iran that OPEC cut production, shows Iran's financial woes are very real, and that economic mismanagement by the previous administration in conjunction with external pressures have seriously damaged the economy.

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