Oil prices: Hike alarms even OPEC

Reasons for high oil prices are so numerous that levels above $60 per barrel seem inevitable: from rising global demand and new nationalism in Latin America to a tense standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme. Those issues are real enough. But behind is a bigger factor: the OPEC cartel. Without the supply constraints imposed over many years by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the price of oil today would be far lower, analysts say.

“We live in a world where there’s a functioning cartel in the oil market,” says Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston. “If we had a functioning open market the price of oil would be $15 a barrel.” That’s a rough estimate, based on current production costs in the Middle East and the price levels of not so long ago. Other experts might pick a higher figure. Still, the prevailing view among oil analysts is that prices have risen so much that oil-importers face an unusual level of uncertainty as they chart energy policies for the years ahead. Even OPEC is worried. A too-high price poses two threats: It could tip a now-strong world economy toward slowdown or recession, and it could fuel a push by consuming nations to reduce their reliance on oil.

OPEC hardly has a perfect track record of imposing its will on the world market for oil. The members, including major players such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, and Venezuela, agree on quotas for production, not publicly announced price targets.

Analysts believe that OPEC has sought to keep oil prices within a range of $22 to $28 per barrel, although that number may have ratcheted upward as members reap easy profits without pushing the world economy into recession. Like all cartels, OPEC is a force as much for what it doesn’t do as what it does. Even as demand has risen, the 11 cartel members produce barely the amount of oil now that they did in 1977, according to a congressional report prepared last year by economist Theodore Boll of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee. OPEC’s long-standing policies, by constraining production capacity, have both raised the price and increased the volatility of prices. Today for instance, in the tight world market engineered largely by OPEC, neither cartel members nor other nations can quickly bring much new oil to the market. That has pushed prices up.

Given the tight market, with demand growing everywhere, some analysts say $60 per barrel is a logical price. But with little spare capacity, a tight market also means one with little margin for error.

Thus, buyers of oil have priced in a “risk premium,” bas-ed on the fear of possible supply disruptions related to weather, politics, or terrorism.

In a congressional hearing on oil prices last week, industry analyst Daniel Yergin, of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, put that risk premium at “somewhere between $10 and $15 a barrel.” That would account for prices surging above $70 recently, as global tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme heightened, and why the price fell early this week on news of a diplomatic overture by Iran to the US. The risk premium comes on top of what might be called the “OPEC premium,” the impact of cartel-managed output. In addition to the production quotas set periodically at OPEC meetings, another competition-dampening force has risen along with oil prices: nationalism. In Venezuela, oil prices have given leftist leader Hugo Chávez a vehicle for new assertiveness against the US and for populist policies. He is using the “oil weapon” not as a stick but as a carrot, bestowing favourable prices on countries or groups to bring them into his ideological fold. To garner a greater share of oil revenues, Venezuela last weekend announced a new tax on foreign oil companies.

If oil is destined to remain a political football, what could help the oil market function better? Jaffe urges a kind of container-ship diplomacy. Oil-consuming nations could impose trade penalties against nations that don’t allow a free flow of investment in their oil industries. Other analysts say that if oil-consuming nations increase their public and private stockpiles of oil, it would create more of a cushion in the market and perhaps reduce the risk premium built into oil prices.

Some environmental, consumer and national-security advocates say the answer may be to wean America and the world increasingly off reliance on oil as the fuel for transportation. Tyson Slocum, an energy expert, says that just one new policy — hiking the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks to 40 miles per gallon — could cut US oil demand by 20 per cent. Since the US accounts for 25 per cent of world oil consumption, that shift could have a powerful impact on oil prices. There’s no certainty that the oil prices will stick. But if they do, the price hike alone will spur new supplies of energy — alternative fuels or hard-to-reach oil that in the past have been too expensive to develop. — The Christian Science Monitor