It’s not $147 (Dh540) a barrel during oil’s historic peak in July 2008; nor is it $26 a barrel where we found ourselves in January 2016, but finding clarity on the price of crude is proving more elusive than ever. I was on the ground for three days in Istanbul at the World Petroleum Congress. Six thousand delegates, including energy ministers and chief executives, in one cavernous convention center to measure the state of play.
The exhibition hall was filled with giant stands featuring 3D graphics and video presentations — BP, ExxonMobil, CNPC of China, NIOC of Iran, Royal Dutch Shell, Saudi Aramco and Total of France — the who’s who of energy were all present.
Despite the executive firepower in place, the crystal ball on pricing is looking cloudier than ever. “The fundamentals show something different from the day-to-day and week-to-week storage reports,” said Ben van Beurden of Royal Dutch Shell, after a panel which included his peers from ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco. “We will have a period of high volatility and uncertainty and companies like us have to see through that cycle.” Van Beurden told me there is a lot of information, lots of speculation and money, making it more necessary to recognise all the market forces at play. Since this supply crisis emanated in early 2016, Opec and non-Opec players have consistently underestimated the resilience of US production, especially shale oil, also known as tight crude because it is embedded in rock formations.
“I think shale in the US benefits from the location; it has infrastructure that’s readily accessible, manpower, roads and resources and it has the most vibrant capital markets on the planet, said Peter Gaw, Global Head of Energy, for Standard Chartered Bank after his presentation to the blue-chip audience.
The numbers back Gaw’s position. During the Istanbul meeting, the International Energy Agency released its annual report on energy investment. The global tally for 2016 was $1.7 trillion poured into all sources of energy. That’s a big number but it was down another 12 per cent last year.
The IEA sees the market stabilising, but the executive director of the Paris-based group said that trend is hiding a much bigger story in what he sees as a two-speed oil and gas market.
“When you look at the markets like Russia and the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, the investment in 2017 is either flat or there is a decline,” said Fatih Birol of the IEA. “But the other side of the coin, it is US shale. We see a 50 per cent increase in oil investments in the US.”
According to Daniel Yergin, the well-known author of ‘The Prize’ and vice-chairman of IHS Markit, the level of US shale investment is even more pronounced, driven by new actors in energy finance. “There is this new dynamic that exists between the shale producers and the financial players, not only the hedge funds but private equity funds,” said Yergin. “There is a kind of a cash machine supporting this investment.”
IHS Markit said $11 billion flowed into US shale projects last year and at the half way of 2017, they estimate that figure will soar to $27 billion. This translates into having more powerful players at the table. We can call it a new power sharing agreement amongst the different actors in the oil and gas sector, complicated in part by Opec members themselves who are not party to the historic deal to take 1.8 million barrels a day off the market.
Both Libya and Nigeria have rebounded faster than expected after entering a new phase of relative stability. Iran, which is operating under a gentlemen’s agreement to keep production below four million barrels a day in 2017, is signing contracts that will boost output in the years to come.
Total and CNPC signed the first international agreement a week before the WPC in a field that is valued at $54 billion at today’s low prices and that is just a start, according to Iranian officials.
“I can assure you that this is not the last one. We’ll see other contracts being made, within the next few weeks, one after the other,” Amir Hussain Zamaninia, Deputy Minister of Petroleum for International Affairs, said during our interview. He tallied 27 different energy companies in Asia, Russia and Europe currently in talks in the country. This may force the major actors in the market, like Saudi Arabia and Russia, to consider additional measures if the goal is to reach $55-$60 a barrel by the end of the year.
“The door is open. What we need to do is just to assess the situation, we need to understand whether any further actions are actually needed,” said Alexander Novak, Russia’s Energy Minister during our interview.
It is the multi-billion dollar assessment, which is proving more difficult to make in 2017.
The writer is Emerging Markets Editor at CNNMoney.