U.S. market is so oversupplied with oil that traders are experimenting with a new place for storing excess crude
By NICOLE FRIEDMAN and BOB TITA WSJ
Updated Feb. 28, 2016 9:09 p.m. ET
The U.S. is so awash in crude oil that traders are experimenting with new places to store it: empty railcars.
Thousands of railcars ordered up to transport oil are now sitting idle because current ultralow crude prices have made shipping by train unprofitable. Meanwhile, traditional storage tanks are running out of room as U.S. oil inventories swell to their highest level since the 1930s.
Some industry participants are calling the new practice “rolling storage”—a landlocked spin on the “floating storage” producers use to hold crude on giant oil tankers when inventories run high.
The combination of cheap oil and surplus railcars has created a budding new side business for traders. J.P. Fjeld-Hansen, a managing director for trading company Musket Corp., tested using railcars for storage last year and found he could profit by putting the oil aside while locking in a higher price to deliver it in a later month.
The company built a rail terminal in Windsor, Colo., in 2012 to load oil shipments during a boom in U.S. oil production. Now, Mr. Fjeld-Hansen says, “The focus has shifted from a loading terminal to an oil-storage and railcar-storage business.”
Energy Midstream, a trading company based in The Woodlands, Texas, stored an ultralight oil known as condensate on Ohio railcars last month for about 15 days before shipping it to a buyer in Canada.
Dennis Hoskins, a managing partner at Energy Midstream, says there are so many unused tank cars that he is constantly hearing from railcar owners hoping to put them to use. “We get offers everyday for railcars,” he said.
The use of railcars for storage could be limited by the cost of track space and safety and liability concerns that have followed a string of high-profile transport accidents. Issues range from leaky cars to the risk of collisions and fires.
Federal regulations require railroads that store cars loaded with hazardous materials like oil to comply with strict storage and security measures to keep the cars away from daily rail traffic. Railroads and users face responsibility for leaks, collisions or other mishaps.
“I don’t want the liability,” said Judy Petry, president of Oklahoma rail operator Farmrail System Inc. “We prefer not to hold a loaded car.”
Still, the oil has to go somewhere. The surge in shale-oil production has created a massive glut that the industry is struggling to absorb.BP PLC Chief Executive Bob Dudley joked in a speech this month that by midyear, “every storage tank and swimming pool in the world will be filled with oil.”
Khory Ramage, president of Ironhorse Permian Basin LLC, which operates a rail terminal in Artesia, N.M., said he hears regularly from traders looking to store crude in his railcars.
Crude-storage costs “have been accelerating, just due to the demand for it and less room,” he said. “You’ll probably start seeing this kick up more and more.”
U.S. crude inventories rose above 500 million barrels in late January for the first time since 1930, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The cheapest form of storage—underground salt caverns—can cost 25 cents a barrel each month, while storing crude on railcars costs about 50 cents a barrel and floating storage can cost 75 cents or more. The cost estimates don’t include loading and transportation.
Railcars hold between 500 and 700 barrels of oil, less than a cavern, tank or ship can store.
The use of U.S. railcars to transport large volumes of oil picked up steam a few years ago as a byproduct of the fracking boom. Fields sprung up faster than pipelines could be laid, so producers improvised and shipped their output to market by rail. Companies soon realized railroads offered greater flexibility to transfer oil to whomever offered the best price. Some pipeline companies even joined the rail business, building terminals to load and unload oil. U.S. oil settled Friday at $32.78 a barrel, down nearly 70% from mid-2014.
The plunge in oil prices brought that activity to a halt. Analysts estimate there are now as many as 20,000 tank cars—about one-third of the North American fleet for hauling oil—parked out of the way in storage yards or along unused stretches of tracks in rural areas.
Producers and shippers who signed long-term leases for the cars during the boom are stuck paying monthly rates that typically run $1,500 to $1,700 per car. Traders can pay those prices and still profit. Oil bought at the April price and sold through the futures market for delivery a year later could net a trader $8.07 a barrel, not including storage or transportation costs.
As central storage hubs fill up, oil companies are more willing to pay for expensive and remote types of storage, said Ernie Barsamian,principal of the Tank Tiger, which keeps a database of companies looking to buy and sell oil storage space.
The Tank Tiger posted an inquiry Wednesday on behalf of a client seeking 75,000 barrels of crude-oil storage or space to park 100 to 120 railcars loaded with crude.
Mr. Barsamian likened the disappearance of available storage to a coloring book where nearly all the white space has been filled in.
“You’re getting closer to the edges,” he said.
Congressional Leaders Agree to Lift 40-Year Ban on Oil Exports
Dec 16, 2015 By Amy Harder And Lynn Cook
Accord is a key component to deal on tax, spending legislation
WASHINGTON—In a move considered unthinkable even a few months ago, congressional leaders have agreed to lift the nation’s 40-year-old ban on oil exports, a historic action that reflects political and economic shifts driven by a boom in U.S. oil drilling.
The measure allowing oil exports is at the center of a deal that Republican leaders announced late Tuesday on spending and tax legislation. However, Democrats haven’t confirmed the agreement. Both the House and Senate still must pass it and President Barack Obama must sign it into law.
The deal would lift the ban, a priority for Republicans and the oil industry, and at the same time adopt environmental and renewable measures that Democrats sought. These include extending wind and solar tax credits; reauthorizing for three years a conservation fund; and excluding any measures that block major Obama administration environmental regulations, according to a GOP aide.
By design or not, the agreement hands the oil industry a long-sought victory within days of a major international climate deal that is aimed at sharply reducing emissions from oil and other fuels, a deal opposed by the industry and one that will arguably require its cooperation.
More than a dozen independent oil companies, including Continental Resources CLR 2.29 % and ConocoPhillips , COP 2.08 % have been lobbying Congress to lift the ban on oil exports for nearly two years, arguing that unfettered oil exports would eliminate market distortions, stimulate the U.S. economy and boost national security.
A handful of Washington lawmakers representing oil-producing states, including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) and Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), have been working to convince once-wary politicians to back oil exports and allay worries that they will be blamed if gasoline prices were to rise.
Some U.S. refineries oppose oil exports, saying their business would be hit if crude oil is shipped overseas to be refined and warning that higher costs might be passed along to consumers. The U.S. government doesn’t limit exports of refined petroleum products, and those exports have more than doubled since 2007.
To address the refiners’ concerns, expressed most vocally by Democrats from the Northeast where several refineries are located, the spending bill changes an existing tax deduction for domestic manufacturing to benefit independent refineries in particular.
President Barack Obama had threatened to veto separate legislation lifting the export ban, but the White House isn’t expected to oppose the overall spending bill simply because it includes the measure, according to congressional aides.
Congress moved to ban oil exports under most circumstances following a 1973 Arab oil embargo that sent domestic gasoline prices skyrocketing.
With the increased use of fracking and other drilling technologies in recent years, U.S. oil production has shot up nearly 90% since August 2008, helping lower gasoline prices to levels not seen since 2009. Gas prices are less than $2 a gallon in many regions of the country, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts the price will average $2.04 this month and $2.36 next year.
It took this dramatic drop in oil prices, hovering below $40 a barrel, to catapult the policy change to the top of the Republican agenda. It helped prompt lawmakers of both parties to consider pairing renewable energy support with oil exports, a type of grand Washington deal-making that hasn’t been seen for years on the highly divisive issues of energy and environment.
The same low prices that generated momentum for lifting the ban could reduce its short-term economic impact, however, because the global market is saturated and U.S. oil companies have already slowed drilling in response.
John Hess, chief executive of Hess Corp., said low oil prices have increased the urgency for Congress to lift the ban, but he declined to say whether his company would immediately begin exporting oil if given the opportunity.
“It would be a function of market conditions,” Mr. Hess said in a recent interview. “But I think over time, definitely; If the market signals were there, we would have that option.”
The U.S. is already exporting nearly 400,000 barrels of crude a day to Canada, the biggest exemption under the ban. That is more than nine times as much as in 2008 but still just 3.8% of the U.S. oil produced every day.
A certain type of light oil is also already starting to flow overseas thanks to permission granted in 2014 by the Commerce Department, which allows producers to reclassify a certain type of oil as a refined fuel, similar to gasoline, which is legal to ship abroad.
The logistics of a new surge of oil exports would be relatively manageable, especially compared to exporting natural gas, which takes years of federal permitting and billions of dollars in technology to liquefy the gas.
Extensive networks of oil pipelines and storage tanks already stretch along the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi, Texas, to St. James Parish, La. Those oil ports, where nearly a third of U.S. refineries are located, are for now geared toward unloading crude from tankers, not loading them. So initially there would be some constrained capacity that caps energy companies’ ability to ship crude out to foreign buyers.
But retrofitting those facilities—adding more deep-water dock space and equipment to load oil tankers—could happen quickly in a place like Texas, where permitting is easy and such projects face little community opposition. The ports of Corpus Christi and Houston are already undergoing dramatic expansions.
Several companies, including Enterprise Products Partners EPD 1.17 % LP, have already been ramping up their ability to export oil from Texas, and Enbridge Energy Partners EEP -0.55 % LP, based in Canada, plans to spend $5 billion to construct three new oil terminals between Houston and New Orleans.
—Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.
Shale Output Is Falling Faster Than Expected
Shale drillers will see production drop sooner than expected under a U.S. government forecast, a momentum change that hints at an eventual price rally.
Just five months after Saudi Arabia put the market into a tailspin by refusing to cut supply despite a global glut, the shale oil industry will record its first monthly dip since U.S. officials began weighing output in 2013.
The projected production drop is small, just 1 percent. Yet investors took note, pushing oilfield stocks to the top five spots in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index on Tuesday, led by rig operators Ensco Plc and Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc. The decline lags the idling of rigs because of a backlog of already-drilled wells that have gradually been coming online.
“OPEC’s plan is playing out and price is correcting the oversupply,” said Michael Scialla, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Denver, in a telephone interview.
West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, climbed 3 percent to $53.47 a barrel at 2:03 p.m. in New York, extending the rising streak to a fourth trading session.
Shale fields make up about half of total U.S. production, which will continue growing this year and next, rising to 10.3 million barrels a day in 2025, according to a new longterm forecast by the Energy Department Tuesday.
Crude lost almost 60 percent of its value since late June, making some shale fields unprofitable to develop and forcing companies to cut back exploration prospects. Oil explorers were forced to shut down more than half the rigs drilling for crude in the U.S. since the Saudi statement in November, and canceled expansion plans to conserve cash.
“The question on everyone’s mind was would we see it in the second or third quarter, and I’m not surprised it’s happening in the earlier part of that range,” said David Pitts, chief financial officer at Houston-based producer Carrizo Oil & Gas Inc.
Wells extracting oil from dense shale rock experience “hyperbolic decline rates,” Pitts said by telephone.
Comstock Resources Inc. halted all crude drilling at the start of the year and expects the oil production decline to begin in its third-and fourth-quarter results, said Gary Guyton, the Frisco, Texas-based company’s director of planning.
“Shale is a treadmill, so if you’re not drilling, you’re not producing,” Guyton said in a telephone interview. Overall, the production decline “might not be hugely significant but at least it won’t be growing.”
The flexibility to ramp operations up and down quickly makes shale fields especially attractive to oil companies coping with volatile fluctuations in world oil markets, said ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance last week in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York.
“We think we’re going into a world that’s going to be characterized by lower, gradually rising prices, but a lot of volatility,” Lance said. “When you have that volatility, what you want is the ability to be flexible and resilient and be able to flex your programs up and down.”
Shale producers such as EOG Resources Inc. have been predicting U.S. output would decline by the end of the year. In February, the Houston-based company said its own production would reach a nadir during the second and third quarters.
Lance said he expected U.S. output to fall in the second half of the year, helping prices to recover to as high as $80 a barrel in the next three years.
“There is a supply response happening. You don’t see it in the first half of the year because of the investments that we made over the last two years,” he said. “The reductions in capital that the industry has made are substantial. That’s going to start to materialize in the back half of this year.”
Saudi Arabia, the dominant member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, squelched efforts by some in the cartel to curb output in November, accelerating a fall in oil prices prompted by oversupplies. Saudi crude has been displaced from some U.S. markets as the flood of domestic shale oil offered refiners a cheaper alternative.
The five major U.S. shale oil regions will pump an average of 5.561 million barrels a day in May, down from this month’s estimated 5.618 million, the Energy Department said in a report released Monday.
The Niobrara formation northeast of Denver will lead the decline with a 3.3 percent drop, according to the Energy Department in Washington.
In the Niobrara formation, which lies beneath northeast Colorado and the edges of Kansas and Wyoming, the production fall-off will be sharper than in other regions because explorers were quicker to idle rigs, said Andrew Cosgrove, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. Compared to other shale-oil areas, individual wells in the Niobrara don’t produce as much crude, reducing profitability, he said.
The two biggest operators in the Niobrara — Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Noble Energy Inc. — have been slowing activity and deferring work, according to Scialla, the Stifel Nicolaus analyst.
Only one of the primary producers in the formation — Denver-based PDC Energy Inc. — hasn’t slowed down, and that’s because they locked in cash flow prior to the oil market’s crash with financial instruments called hedges, Scialla said in a telephone interview.
“The Niobrara wells are cheaper and shallower than in the other shale plays but they’re not as prolific either,” he said. “They cost about half as much as a typical well in the Eagle Ford or the Bakken but they also only produce about half as much.”
After the Niobrara, the Eagle Ford shale in Texas and the Bakken formation in North Dakota will register the next biggest month-over-month production declines in May, with 1.9 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively.
In the other two major U.S. shale oil regions — the Permian in Texas and the Utica in Ohio — output is expected to rise in May, the Energy Department said.
Explorers will be cautious about resuming their old pace of drilling out of fear that rising production would deflate prices again, Carrizo’s Pitts said.
“There would have to be a pretty significant bump up in prices for people to start picking up rigs again,” Pitts said.
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Get Ready for $10 Oil
Rising oil production and falling demand will combine to drive oil prices lower.
By A. Gary Shilling – Feb 16, 2015, 6:00:02 PM
Black, yes. Gold, not so much.
At about $50 a barrel, crude oil prices are down by more than half from their June 2014 peak of $107. They may fall more, perhaps even as low as $10 to $20. Here’s why.
U.S. economic growth has averaged 2.3 percent a year since the recovery started in mid-2009. That’s about half the rate you might expect in a rebound from the deepest recession since the 1930s. Meanwhile, growth in China is slowing, is minimal in the euro zone and is negative in Japan. Throw in the large increase in U.S. vehicle gas mileage and other conservation measures and it’s clear why global oil demand is weak and might even decline.
At the same time, output is climbing, thanks in large part to increased U.S. production from hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling. U.S. output rose by 15 percent in the 12 months through November from a year earlier, based on the latest data, while imports declined 4 percent.
Something else figures in the mix: The eroding power of the OPEC cartel. Like all cartels, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is designed to ensure stable and above-market crude prices. But those high prices encourage cheating, as cartel members exceed their quotas. For the cartel to function, its leader — in this case, Saudi Arabia — must accommodate the cheaters by cutting its own output to keep prices from falling. But the Saudis have seen their past cutbacks result in market-share losses.
So the Saudis, backed by other Persian Gulf oil producers with sizable financial resources — Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — embarked on a game of chicken with the cheaters. On Nov. 27, OPEC said that it wouldn’t cut output, sending oil prices off a cliff. The Saudis figure they can withstand low prices for longer than their financially weaker competitors, who will have to cut production first as pumping becomes uneconomical.
What is the price at which major producers chicken out and slash output? Whatever that price is, it is much lower than the $125 a barrel Venezuela needs to support its mismanaged economy. The same goes for Ecuador, Algeria, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran and Angola.
Saudi Arabia requires a price of more than $90 to fund its budget. But it has $726 billion in foreign currency reserves and is betting it can survive for two years with prices of less than $40 a barrel.
Furthermore, the price when producers chicken out isn’t necessarily the average cost of production, which for 80 percent of new U.S. shale oil production this year will be $50 to $69 a barrel, according to Daniel Yergin of energy consultant IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Instead, the chicken-out point is the marginal cost of production, or the additional costs after the wells are drilled and the pipes are laid. Another way to think of it: It’s the price at which cash flow for an additional barrel falls to zero.
Last month, Wood Mackenzie, an energy research organization, found that of 2,222 oil fields surveyed worldwide, only 1.6 percent would have negative cash flow at $40 a barrel. That suggests there won’t be a lot of chickening out at $40. Keep in mind that the marginal cost for efficient U.S. shale-oil producers is about $10 to $20 a barrel in the Permian Basin in Texas and about the same for oil produced in the Persian Gulf.
Also consider the conundrum financially troubled countries such as Russia and Venezuela find themselves in: They desperately need the revenue from oil exports to service foreign debts and fund imports. Yet, the lower the price, the more oil they need to produce and export to earn the same number of dollars, the currency used to price and trade oil.
With new discoveries, stability in parts of the Middle East and increasing drilling efficiency, global oil output will no doubt rise in the next several years, adding to pressure on prices. U.S. crude oil production is forecast to rise by 300,000 barrels a day during the next year from 9.1 million now. Sure, the drilling rig count is falling, but it’s the inefficient rigs that are being idled, not the horizontal rigs that are the backbone of the fracking industry. Consider also Iraq’s recent deal with the Kurds, meaning that another 550,000 barrels a day will enter the market.
While supply climbs, demand is weakening. OPEC forecasts demand for its oil at a 14-year low of 28.2 million barrels a day in 2017, 600,000 less than its forecast a year ago and down from current output of 30.7 million. It also cut its 2015 demand forecast to a 12-year low of 29.12 million barrels.
Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency reduced its 2015 global demand forecast for the fourth time in 12 months by 230,000 barrels a day to 93.3 million and sees supply exceeding demand this year by 400,000 barrels a day.
Although the 40 percent decline in U.S. gasoline prices since April 2014 has led consumers to buy more gas-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks, consumers during the past few years have bought the most efficient blend of cars and trucks ever. At the same time, slowing growth in China and the shift away from energy-intensive manufactured exports and infrastructure to consumer services is depressing oil demand. China accounted for two-thirds of the growth in demand for oil in the past decade.
So look for more big declines in crude oil and related energy prices. My next column will cover the winners and losers from low oil prices.
To contact the author on this story:
A Gary Shilling at email@example.com
To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at firstname.lastname@example.org
THE pens were on the table in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, for the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to sign a deal to end a year-long war fuelled by Russia and fought by its proxies.
But on February 12th, after all-night talks, they were put away. “No good news,” said Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president. Instead there will be a ceasefire from February 15th. A tentative agreement has been reached to withdraw heavy weaponry.
But Russia looks sure to be able to keep open its border with Ukraine and sustain the flow of arms and people. The siege of Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub held by Ukrainian forces, continues. Russia is holding military exercises on its side of the border. Crimea was not even mentioned.
Meanwhile the IMF has said it will lend Ukraine $17.5 billion to prop up its economy. But Mr Putin seems to be relying on a familiar Russian tactic of exhausting his negotiating counterparts and taking two steps forward, one step back. He is counting on time and endurance to bring the collapse and division of Ukraine and a revision of the post-cold war world order.
Nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West faces a greater threat from the East than at any point during the cold war. Even during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Soviet leaders were constrained by the Politburo and memories of the second world war.
Now, according to Russia’s chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, even a decision about the use of nuclear arms “will be taken personally by Mr Putin, who has the undoubted support of the Russian people”. Bluff or not, this reflects the Russian elite’s perception of the West as a threat to the very existence of the Russian state.
In this view Russia did not start the war in Ukraine, but responded to Western aggression. The Maidan uprising and ousting of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president were engineered by American special services to move NATO closer to Russia’s borders.
Once Mr Yanukovych had gone, American envoys offered Ukraine’s interim government $25 billion to place missile defences on the Russian border, in order to shift the balance of nuclear power towards America. Russia had no choice but to act.
Even without Ukraine, Mr Putin has said, America would have found some other excuse to contain Russia.
Ukraine, therefore, was not the cause of Russia’s conflict with the West, but its consequence. Mr Putin’s purpose is not to rebuild the Soviet empire–he knows this is impossible–but to protect Russia’s sovereignty.
By this he means its values, the most important of which is a monopoly on state power.
Behind Russia’s confrontation with the West lies a clash of ideas. On one side are human rights, an accountable bureaucracy and democratic elections; on the other an unconstrained state that can sacrifice its citizens’ interests to further its destiny or satisfy its rulers’ greed. Both under communism and before it, the Russian state acquired religious attributes. It is this sacred state which is under threat.
Mr Putin sits at its apex. “No Putin–no Russia,” a deputy chief of staff said recently. His former KGB colleagues–the Committee of State Security–are its guardians, servants and priests, and entitled to its riches. Theirs is not a job, but an elite and hereditary calling. Expropriating a private firm’s assets to benefit a state firm is therefore not an act of corruption.
When thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets demanding a Western-European way of life, the Kremlin saw this as a threat to its model of governance. Alexander Prokhanov, a nationalist writer who backs Russia’s war in Ukraine, compares European civilisation to a magnet attracting Ukraine and Russia. Destabilising Ukraine is not enough to counter that force: the magnet itself must be neutralised.
Russia feels threatened not by any individual European state, but by the European Union and NATO, which it regards as expansionist. It sees them as “occupied” by America, which seeks to exploit Western values to gain influence over the rest of the world.
America “wants to freeze the order established after the Soviet collapse and remain an absolute leader, thinking it can do whatever it likes, while others can do only what is in that leader’s interests,” Mr Putin said recently. “Maybe some want to live in a semi-occupied state, but we do not.”
Russia has taken to arguing that it is not fighting Ukraine, but America in Ukraine. The Ukrainian army is just a foreign legion of NATO, and American soldiers are killing Russian proxies in the Donbas. Anti-Americanism is not only the reason for war and the main pillar of state power, but also an ideology that Russia is trying to export to Europe, as it once exported communism.
Anti-Westernism has been dressed not in communist clothes, but in imperial and even clerical ones (see page 77). “We see how many Euro-Atlantic countries are in effect turning away from their roots, including their Christian values,” said Mr Putin in 2013.
Russia, by contrast, “has always been a state civilisation held together by the Russian people, the Russian language, Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox church.” The Donbas rebels are fighting not only the Ukrainian army, but against a corrupt Western way of life in order to defend Russia’s distinct world.
Many in the West equate the end of communism with the end of the cold war. In fact, by the time the Soviet Union fell apart, Marxism-Leninism was long dead. Stalin replaced the ideals of internationalism, equality and social justice that the Bolsheviks had proclaimed in 1917 with imperialism and state dominance over all spheres of life. Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolution consisted not in damping down Marxism but in proclaiming the supremacy of universal human values over the state, opening up Russia to the West.
Nationalists, Stalinists, communists and monarchists united against Mr Gorbachev. Anti-Americanism had brought Stalinists and nationalists within the Communist Party closer together. When communism collapsed they united against Boris Yeltsin and his attempts to make Russia “normal”, by which he meant a Western-style free-market democracy.
By 1993, when members of this coalition were ejected by pro-Yeltsin forces from the parliament building they had occupied in Moscow, they seemed defeated. Yet nationalism has resurfaced. Those who fought Yeltsin and his ideas were active in the annexation of Crimea and are involved in the war in south-east Ukraine.
Alexander Borodai, the first “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, who fought with anti-Yeltsin forces, hails Mr Putin as the leader of the nationalist movement in Russia today.
Yet for a few years after Mr Putin came to power he built close relations with NATO. In his first two presidential terms, rising living standards helped buy acceptance of his monopoly on state power and reliance on ex-KGB men; now that the economy is shrinking, the threat of war is needed to legitimise his rule.
He forged his alliance with Orthodox nationalists only during mass street protests by Westernised liberals in 2012, when he returned to the Kremlin. Instead of tear gas, he has used nationalist, imperialist ideas, culminating in the annexation of Crimea and the slow subjugation of south-east Ukraine.
Hard power and soft
Mr Putin’s preferred method is “hybrid warfare”: a blend of hard and soft power. A combination of instruments, some military and some non-military, choreographed to surprise, confuse and wear down an opponent, hybrid warfare is ambiguous in both source and intent, making it hard for multinational bodies such as NATO and the EU to craft a response.
But without the ability to apply hard power, Russia’s version of soft power would achieve little. Russia “has invested heavily in defence,” says NATO’s new secretary-general, a former Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg. “It has shown it can deploy forces at very short notice…above all, it has shown a willingness to use force.”
Putin drew two lessons from his brief war in Georgia in 2008. The first was that Russia could deploy hard power in countries that had been in the Soviet Union and were outside NATO with little risk of the West responding with force.
The second, after a slapdash campaign, was that Russia’s armed forces needed to be reformed. Military modernisation became a personal mission to redress “humiliations” visited by an “overweening” West on Russia since the cold war ended.
According to IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy, by next year Russia’s defence spending will have tripled in nominal terms since 2007, and it will be halfway through a ten-year, 20 trillion rouble ($300 billion) programme to modernise its weapons.
New types of missiles, bombers and submarines are being readied for deployment over the next few years. Spending on defence and security is expected to climb by 30% this year and swallow a more than a third of the federal budget.
As well as money for combat aircraft, helicopters, armoured vehicles and air-defence systems, about a third of the budget has been earmarked to overhaul Russia’s nuclear forces. A revised military doctrine signed by Mr Putin in December identified “reinforcement of NATO’s offensive capacities directly on Russia’s borders, and measures taken to deploy a global anti-missile defence system” in central Europe as the greatest threats Russia faces.
In itself, that may not be cause for alarm in the West. Russian nuclear doctrine has changed little since 2010, when the bar for first use was slightly raised to situations in which “the very existence of the state is under threat”. That may reflect growing confidence in Russia’s conventional forces.
But Mr Putin is fond of saying that nobody should try to shove Russia around when it has one of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals. Mr Kiselev puts it even more bluntly: “During the years of romanticism [ie, detente], the Soviet Union undertook not to use nuclear weapons first. Modern Russian doctrine does not. The illusions are gone.”
Mr Putin still appears wedded to a strategy he conceived in 2000: threatening a limited nuclear strike to force an opponent (ie, America and its NATO allies) to withdraw from a conflict in which Russia has an important stake, such as in Georgia or Ukraine. Nearly all its large-scale military exercises in the past decade have featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes, including one on Warsaw.
Mr Putin has also been streamlining his armed forces, with the army recruiting 60,000 contract soldiers each year. Professionals now make up 30% of the force. Conscripts may bulk up the numbers, but for the kind of complex, limited wars Mr Putin wants to be able to win, they are pretty useless.
Ordinary contract soldiers are also still a long way behind special forces such as the GRU Spetsnaz (the “little green men” who went into Crimea without military insignia) and the elite airborne VDV troops, but they are catching up.
Boots on the ground
South-east Ukraine shows the new model army at work. Spetsnaz units first trained the Kremlin-backed separatist rebels in tactics and the handling of sophisticated Russian weapons. But when the Ukrainian government began to make headway in early summer, Russia had regular forces near the border to provide a calibrated (and still relatively covert) response.
It is hard to tell how many Russian troops have seen action in Ukraine, as their vehicles and uniforms carry no identifiers. But around 4,000 were sent to relieve Luhansk and Donetsk while threatening the coastal city of Mariupol–enough to convince Mr Poroshenko to draw his troops back.
Since November a new build-up of Russian forces has been under way. Ukrainian military intelligence reckons there may be 9,000 in their country (NATO has given no estimate). Another 50,000 are on the Russian side of the border.
Despite Mr Putin’s claim last year that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he wanted, a full-scale invasion and subsequent occupation is beyond Russia. But a Russian-controlled mini-state, Novorossiya, similar to Abkhazia and Transdniestria, could be more or less economically sustainable.
And it would end Ukraine’s hopes of ever regaining sovereignty over its territory other than on Russian terms, which would undoubtedly include staying out of the EU and NATO. Not a bad outcome for Mr Putin, and within reach with the hard power he controls.
The big fear for NATO is that Mr Putin turns his hybrid warfare against a member country. Particularly at risk are the Baltic states–Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania–two of which have large Russian-speaking minorities.
In January Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s previous secretary-general, said there was a “high probability” that Mr Putin would test NATO’s Article 5, which regards an attack on any member as an attack on all–though “he will be defeated” if he does so.
A pattern of provocation has been established that includes a big increase in the number of close encounters involving Russian aircraft and naval vessels, and snap exercises by Russian forces close to NATO’s northern and eastern borders. Last year NATO planes carried out more than 400 intercepts of Russian aircraft.
More than 150 were by the alliance’s beefed-up Baltic air-policing mission–four times as many as in 2013. In the first nine months of the year, 68 “hot” identifications and interdictions occurred along the Lithuanian border alone. Latvia recorded more than 150 incidents of Russian planes entering its airspace.
There have also been at least two near-misses between Russian military aircraft and Swedish airliners. This is dangerous stuff: Russian pilots do not file flight plans. They fly with transponders switched off, which makes them invisible to civil radar. On January 28th two Russian, possibly nuclear-armed, strategic bombers flew down the English Channel, causing havoc to commercial aviation. Such behaviour is intended to test Western air defences, and was last seen in the cold war. Mr Stoltenberg calls it “risky and unjustified”.
Since 2013, when Russia restarted large-scale snap military exercises, at least eight have been held. In December the Kremlin ordered one in Kaliningrad, an exclave that borders Lithuania and Poland, both NATO members. It mobilised 9,000 soldiers, more than 55 navy ships and every type of military aircraft. “This pattern of behaviour can be used to hide intent,” says General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s most senior commander. “What is it masking? What is it conditioning us for?”
A huge problem for NATO is that most of what Russia might attempt will be below the radar of traditional collective defence. According to Mr Stoltenberg, deciding whether an Article 5 attack has taken place means both recognising what is going on and knowing who is behind it.
“We need more intelligence and better situational awareness,” he says; but adds that NATO allies accept that if the arrival of little green men can be attributed “to an aggressor nation, it is an Article 5 action and then all the assets of NATO come to bear.”
For all the rhetoric of the cold war, the Soviet Union and America had been allies and winners in the second world war and felt a certain respect for each other. The Politburo suffered from no feelings of inferiority. In contrast, Mr Putin and his KGB men came out of the cold war as losers.
What troubles Mr Stoltenberg greatly about Mr Putin’s new, angry Russia is that it is harder to deal with than the old Soviet Union. As a Norwegian, used to sharing an Arctic border with Russia, he says that “even during the coldest period of the cold war we were able to have a pragmatic conversation with them on many security issues”. Russia had “an interest in stability” then, “but not now”.
Meddling and perverting
Destabilisation is also being achieved in less military ways. Wielding power or gaining influence abroad–through antiestablishment political parties, disgruntled minority groups, media outlets, environmental activists, supporters in business, propagandist “think-tanks”, and others–has become part of the Kremlin’s hybrid-war strategy. This perversion of “soft power” is seen by Moscow as a vital complement to military engagement.
Certainly Russia is not alone in abusing soft power. The American government’s aid agency, USAID, has planted tweets in Cuba and the Middle East to foster dissent. And Mr Putin has hinted that Russia needs to fight this way because America and others are already doing so, through “pseudo-NGOs”, CNN and human-rights groups.
At home Russian media, which are mostly state-controlled, churn out lies and conspiracy theories. Abroad, the main conduit for the Kremlin’s world view is RT, a TV channel set up in 2005 to promote a positive view of Russia that now focuses on making the West look bad.
It uses Western voices: far-left anti-globalists, far-right nationalists and disillusioned individuals. It broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish and is planning German- and French-language channels.
It claims to reach 700m people worldwide and 2.7m hotel rooms. Though it is not a complete farce, it has broadcast a string of false stories, such as one speculating that America was behind the Ebola epidemic in west Africa.
The Kremlin is also a sophisticated user of the internet and social media. It employs hundreds of “trolls” to garrison the comment sections and Twitter feeds of the West. The point is not so much to promote the Kremlin’s views, but to denigrate opposition figures, and foreign governments and institutions, and to sow fear and confusion.
Vast sums have been thrown at public-relations and lobbying firms to improve Russia’s image abroad–among them Ketchum, based in New York, which helped place an op-ed by Mr Putin in the New York Times. And it can rely on some of its corporate partners to lobby against policies that would hurt Russian business.
The West’s willingness to shelter Russian money, some of it gained corruptly, demoralises the Russian opposition while making the West more dependent on the Kremlin. Russian money has had a poisonous effect closer to home, too. Russia wields soft power in the Baltics partly through its “compatriots policy”, which entails financial support for Russian-speaking minorities abroad.
econ 2The Economist
Mr Putin’s most devious strategy, however, is to destabilise the EU through fringe political parties (see box).
Russia’s approach to ideology is fluid: it supports both far-left and far-right groups. As Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss put it in “The menace of unreality”, a paper on Russian soft power: “The aim is to exacerbate divides [in the West] and create an echo-chamber of Kremlin support.”
Far-right groups are seduced by the idea of Moscow as a counterweight to the EU, and by its law-and-order policies. Its stance on homosexuality and promotion of “traditional” moral values appeal to religious conservatives. The far left likes the talk of fighting American hegemony.
Russia’s most surprising allies, however, are probably Europe’s Greens. They are opposed to shale-gas fracking and nuclear power–as is Moscow, because both promise to lessen Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Mr Rasmussen has accused Russia of “sophisticated” manipulation of information to hobble fracking in Europe, though without producing concrete evidence.
There is circumstantial evidence in Bulgaria, which in 2012 cancelled a permit for Chevron to explore for shale gas after anti-fracking protests. Some saw Russia’s hand in these, possibly to punish the pro-European government of the time, which sought to reduce its reliance on Russian energy (Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas giant, supplies 90% of Bulgaria’s gas).
Previously, Bulgaria had been expected to transport Russian oil through its planned South Stream pipeline, and its parliament had approved a bill that would have exempted the project from awkward EU rules. Much of it had been written by Gazprom, and the construction contract was to go to a firm owned by Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch now under Western sanctions.
Gazprom offered to finance the pipeline and to sponsor a Bulgarian football team. The energy minister at the time later claimed he had been offered bribes by a Russian envoy to smooth the project’s passage. Though European opposition means it has now been scrapped, the episode shows the methods Moscow uses to protect its economic interests.
In all this Mr Putin is evidently acting not only for Russia’s sake, but for his own. Mr Borodai, the rebel ideologue in Donetsk, says that if necessary the Russian volunteers who are fighting today in Donbas will tomorrow defend their president on the streets of Moscow.
Yet, although Mr Putin may believe he is using nationalists, the nationalists believe they are using him to consolidate their power. What they aspire to, with or without Mr Putin, is that Russians rally behind the nationalist state and their leader to take on Western liberalism. This is not a conflict that could have been resolved in Minsk.
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Natural Gas Drops Below $3 for First Time Since 2012
By Naureen S. Malik – Dec 26, 2014, 2:56:43 PM Bloomberg
Natural gas slumped below $3 per million British thermal units in New York for the first time since 2012 on speculation that record production will overwhelm demand for the heating fuel.
Futures settled at the lowest in 27 months and have plunged 26 percent in December, heading for the biggest one-month drop since July 2008, as mild weather and record production erased a surplus to year-ago levels for the first time in two years. Temperatures will be mostly above average in the eastern half of the U.S. through Dec. 30, according to Commodity Weather Group LLC.
“We don’t see anything scary in the forecast,” said Stephen Schork, president of Schork Group Inc., a consulting group in Villanova, Pennsylvania. “You had this psyche where people were worried about a polar vortex; we had a cold October and a cold early November, and boom, if you were long you are wrong.”
Natural gas for January delivery fell 2.3 cents, or 0.8 percent, to settle at $3.007 per million Btu on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Futures touched $2.973, the lowest intraday price since Sept. 26, 2012. Volume was 54 percent below the 100-day average for the time of day at 2:32 p.m. Gas dropped 13 percent this week.
Prices broke below several technical support levels, including $3.046 and then $3, and may be headed toward $2.80 or lower, said Schork.
“I am playing this market short,” he said. “Anyone who is selling now is trying to trigger a panic selloff.”
February $2.50 puts were the most active options in electronic trading. The price slipped 0.1 cent to 2.6 cents on volume of 557 as of 2:36 p.m.
Above-normal temperatures in the East this week will give way to mostly seasonal readings from Maine to Florida through Jan. 9, according to Commodity Weather in Bethesda, Maryland. The central states will see below-normal readings on Dec. 31 through the first week of January.
The high in New York tomorrow may be 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius), 10 more than usual, data from AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania, show. Chicago temperatures may reach 46 degrees, 13 above normal.
An estimated 49 percent of U.S. households use gas for heating, led by the Midwest and Northeast, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“We haven’t seen a lot of cold weather this winter,” said Carl Larry, a Houston-based director of oil and gas at Frost & Sullivan. “The warmer it stays, the more pressure on natural gas. Gas production is not dropping and demand is not that high.”
In the absence of extreme weather, rising production will leave inventories at an all-time high above 4 trillion cubic feet by the end of October 2015, BNP Paribas SA said in a report Dec. 23.
BNP Paribas lowered its estimate for average 2015 gas prices to $3.60 per million Btu from $3.75.
“Unseasonably warm weather this month now necessitates extreme conditions ahead in order to avert a surplus,” Teri Viswanath, director of commodities strategy for the bank in New York, said in the report.
Gas stockpiles fell by 49 billion cubic feet to 3.246 trillion cubic feet in the seven days ended Dec. 19, below the five-year average withdrawal for the fourth straight week, EIA data show.
Supplies were 150 billion, or 4.9 percent, higher than year-earlier levels. The surplus will “balloon to just shy of 200 billion cubic feet” by the start of next year, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Production of the heating and power plant fuel expanded in 2014 to an all-time high for the fourth consecutive year, rising 5.5 percent to 74.26 billion cubic feet a day, EIA data show. Daily output will rise another 3.1 percent next year to 76.58 billion, marking a decade of gains as technologies such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, made it more economic to extract fuel from shale rock.
The Marcellus formation in the East has emerged as the biggest driver of gas production growth in the U.S. Production from the shale formation may average 16.3 billion cubic feet a day in January, up 19 percent from a year earlier, the EIA said in its monthly Drilling Productivity Report on Dec. 8.
“This market continues to look oversupplied,” Aaron Calder, senior market analyst at Gelber & Associates in Houston, said by phone on Dec. 24.
Low gas prices are “eventually going to provide some sort of floor” by prompting power generators to switch from burning coal, said Calder. “This withdrawal shows that it’s going to be a while coming. In the meantime, we are going to see bears take over this market.”
The relative strength index, a technical momentum indicator, declined to 28.8 at 2:36 p.m., falling below 30, a reading considered by some traders to be a buy signal, for the first time since July. The RSI had risen to more than 74 in October before the recent selloff.
“A lot of people came in trading natural gas not really understanding what a powder keg it is in the energy sector,” Schork said. “This is the most volatile market but had been lying dormant for four or five years. The fact that its breaking the $3 barrier, at this point buy at your own risk.”
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By TIMOTHY PUKO WSJ
Updated Dec. 22, 2014 7:48 p.m. ET
Mild temperatures across the U.S. have sent natural-gas futures tumbling to their lowest level in nearly two years, more good news for consumers already reaping the benefits of a 30% decline in gasoline prices.
Natural-gas prices dropped 9% Monday, their largest decline since February. It extended a losing streak to three sessions since the government said gas stockpiles rose above year-ago levels for the first time in 2014.
Record U.S. oil-and-gas production, which has played a major role in driving the 48% decline in crude prices since June, is overwhelming tepid demand for home-heating fuels amid an unseasonably warm December.
Many investors who earlier this year placed bets on rising gas prices have had to reverse course and cover those bets, as strong production has now closed a stockpile shortage that had lingered for nearly a year.
As recently as November, colder-than-normal weather had traders expecting high demand and higher prices. But the warm spell has led to an about-face as investors recognize that there isn’t enough demand to absorb the record supply.
“The market was pricing in the chance for a cold winter,” said Greg Sharenow, a portfolio manager at Pacific Investment Management Co. But with warmer temperatures recently, “that price was unsustainable.”
Why Saudis Decided Not to Prop Up Oil
In American Shale Oil, A Perceived Threat to OPEC Market Share
By JAY SOLOMON in Washington and SUMMER SAID in Dubai
Dec. 21, 2014 10:33 p.m. ET
In early October, Saudi Arabia’s representative to OPEC surprised attendees at a New York seminar by revealing his government was content to let global energy prices slide.
Nasser al-Dossary ’s message broke from decades of Saudi orthodoxy that sought to keep prices high by limiting global oil production, said people familiar with the session. That set the stage for Saudi Arabia’s oil mandarins to send crude prices tumbling late last month after persuading other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to keep production steady.
Hard-hit countries like Iran, Russia and Venezuela suspected the move was a coordinated effort between the oil kingdom and its longtime ally, the U.S., to weaken their foes’ economies and geopolitical standing.
But the story of Saudi Arabia’s new oil strategy, pieced together through interviews with senior Middle Eastern, American and European officials, isn’t one of an old alliance. It is a story of a budding rivalry, driven by what Saudi Arabia views as a threat posed by American energy firms, these officials said.
Shale-oil production in places like Texas and North Dakota has boosted U.S. output, displacing exports to the U.S. from OPEC members and adding to global oversupply.
Mr. Dossary’s October message signaled a direct challenge to North American energy firms that the Arab monarchy believes have fueled a supply glut by using new shale-oil technologies, said the people familiar with the session.
Saudi officials became convinced they couldn’t bolster prices alone amid the new-crude flood. They also concluded many other OPEC members would balk at meaningful cuts, as would big non-OPEC producers like Russia and Mexico. If Riyadh cut production alone, Saudi officials feared, other producers would swoop in and steal market share.
Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi tested that conclusion just 48 hours before the Nov. 27 OPEC decision, meeting in Vienna with oil heads of several big producer nations to suggest a coordinated output cut. As he suspected going in, he couldn’t get an agreement, said people familiar with the meeting.
The option left: Let prices slide to test how long, and at what levels, American shale producers can keep pumping.
OPEC’s Nov. 27 move helped drive crude prices to below $60 a barrel from over $100 this summer. It fueled discord among OPEC’s members—and among other energy powers—who have grown accustomed to triple-digit oil prices padding their governments’ balance sheets.
Mr. Naimi on Thursday said Saudi Arabia and OPEC had no choice but to keep production at current levels amid the price weakness.
“In a situation like this, it is difficult, if not impossible for the kingdom or OPEC, to take any action that may result in lower market share and higher quotas from others, at a time when it is difficult to control prices,” the official Saudi press agency quoted him as saying. Mr. Naimi didn’t respond to inquiries. Saudi oil-ministry representatives wouldn’t comment for this article.
The Saudi approach is part of a significant evolution in Riyadh’s relationship with Washington over the past decade. Close allies since World War II, the countries prospered on the kingdom’s providing a steady oil flow in exchange for America’s securing its borders.
But the U.S.’s emergence as an energy rival is testing this foundation in ways not yet widely appreciated, said U.S. and Saudi officials, as have major differences over American Middle East policies.
Saudi Arabia is taking a risk by letting oil prices plunge, said Arab, American and European officials. Saudi officials have said their economy can survive at least two years with low prices, thanks partly to the kingdom’s $750 billion foreign-exchange reserves. Arab officials believe many less-efficient producers will be driven out of the market.
Still, some oil-industry executives said, Riyadh and Mr. Naimi may underestimate how technology and the shale-oil boom have fundamentally altered energy markets. Many U.S. companies, they said, can make money or break even with oil below $40.
The move has also exposed cracks inside the Saudi ruling circle. In October, as the oil-price slide accelerated, billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a nephew to King Abdullah, castigated Mr. Naimi in an open letter for appearing to shrug off price declines. Belittling the impact, he wrote, “is a catastrophe that cannot go unmentioned.”
At about that time, Mr. Naimi’s deputy, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, another nephew of the king, worried to colleagues that the kingdom’s budget couldn’t bear lower prices long, said people familiar with the matter. The offices of Prince Abdulaziz and Prince al-Waleed didn’t respond to inquiries.
Saudi Arabia and its massive energy reserves have played a major role in shaping world affairs for 50 years. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration credited the Saudis with maintaining high oil production to drive down prices and weaken the Soviet Union’s finances. The price drop also fueled an economic recovery in the U.S.
A spokesman for the National Security Council on Sunday said Washington’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains strong and focused on cooperation on numerous economic and security issues. “Our bilateral relationship is built on over 70 years of close cooperation whether it is counterterrorism, military to military training, educational exchanges, energy security, or bolstering trade and investment,” said NSC spokesman Alistair Baskey.
President Barack Obama ’s administration has worked closely with Saudi Arabia to try using energy markets to pressure Iran into constraining its nuclear program, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.
Beginning in 2009, U.S. officials coordinated with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to assure major buyers of Iranian oil would have alternatives if they weaned themselves off Tehran.
The strategy helped the West cut by half Iran’s energy exports over the past three years, said Robert Einhorn, who coordinated U.S. sanctions on Iran in the Obama administration. “What made this possible was that the Saudis and others were able to produce more.”
But Washington’s relations with Riyadh have soured in recent years due to differences over the Obama administration’s handling of Middle East political instability. King Abdullah was incensed last year when Mr. Obama reneged on his pledge to launch military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ’s regime following its alleged poison-gas use against civilians. Saudi officials also felt deceived after the Obama administration launched secret nuclear negotiations in 2012 with Iran, Riyadh’s regional rival.
OPEC: The Cartel is Standing Pat on Production, for Now
“Saudi Arabia’s reliance on U.S. protection is a thing of the past,” said Nawaf Obaid, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Belfer Center who has advised the Saudi government on foreign policy. “The Saudis will remain America’s most important strategic partner in the Middle East, but not its closest.”
Washington is entering a new era in its Saudi Arabia relationship, although the alliance remains crucial to the global economy, said Amos Hochstein, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia was never dependent on energy. Our relationship is evolving,” he said. “We will never be energy independent because it’s a global commodity. But we can be more efficient and self-sufficient.”
The American energy boom has further complicated relations, said U.S. and Saudi officials. Senior Saudi officials have appeared perplexed in recent months in gauging the impact of the American boom.
In late September, Ibrahim al-Muhanna, a top adviser to Mr. Naimi, said publicly in Bahrain he didn’t foresee oil prices falling much below $90 a barrel due to what he said was the high cost of extracting North American shale oil. He didn’t respond to inquiries.
The Saudis largely kept silent as prices kept falling. Then Mr. Naimi went on vacation in late September, removing himself from a public debate over whether OPEC should rein in production at its November meeting.
Mr. Naimi tended sheep before starting as an errand boy at Saudi Aramco, the national oil company. He worked his way to chief executive before becoming minister in 1995. He won a reputation for data-driven decision making. In the late 1990s, he focused on U.S. Midwest commercial crude-oil inventories—if levels got too high, OPEC needed to cut.
Which Oil Producers Are Breaking Even?
Mr. Naimi’s comments can rattle or soothe oil markets. So his vacation’s timing puzzled many of his colleagues, said people familiar with the matter, and during his absence there was bickering inside the government about how to arrest the price decline. The question: whether to focus on stopping the short-term revenue impact of the price decline or to exploit the medium-term potential of its reducing competition from North American shale producers.
Meanwhile, OPEC members were slashing prices, often undercutting one another. In early November, Saudi Aramco cut prices to U.S. customers, a move aimed at locking in customers as shale output swelled, industry officials said.
Returning from his holiday, Mr. Naimi met with Venezuela’s foreign minister and its chief OPEC representative, Rafael Ramirez, on a Venezuelan resort island. Privately, the Saudi told his hosts he would support a production cut only if the Venezuelans could persuade producers inside and outside OPEC to participate, people briefed on the meeting said. A Venezuelan foreign ministry spokeswoman declined to comment.
Mr. Ramirez traveled to Russia, Algeria, Iran and Qatar to woo production-cut support. Two days before OPEC’s Nov. 27 meeting, he gathered senior energy officials from Russia, Mexico and Saudi Arabia—including Mr. Naimi—at Vienna’s Hyatt Hotel.
On the table was a proposal to take two million barrels a day off the market, officials familiar with the talks said. OPEC would shoulder the bulk of the cut, but Russia and Mexico were expected to trim a combined 500,000 daily barrels.
Mr. Naimi had expected Russia to balk, these people said. Indeed, the Russian delegates said they couldn’t cut production for technical reasons and because they might lose pumping capacity by shutting wells. An official at OAO Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, confirmed the meeting took place but denied there were discussions about an output cut.
The discussions never made it as far as what Mexico might be willing to do. “From the start, Russia made it clear that it wasn’t going to cut production, and the meeting ended there,” said a person familiar with the discussion. A Mexican energy-ministry spokesman didn’t respond to inquiries.
Mr. Naimi argued it was in everyone’s interest to take collective action and that the market would eventually force the Russians to cut. Russia, he said, couldn’t keep producing roughly 10 million barrels a day unless oil prices were over at least $100.
Mr. Naimi headed to the Nov. 27 OPEC meeting with King Abdullah’s support to align OPEC’s Arab states behind a policy of no production cuts and of defending market share, said people familiar with his mandate. The U.A.E., Kuwait and Qatar gave their support ahead of the meeting.
At the meeting, Mr. Naimi addressed other OPEC ministers, who were asked to leave aides outside the room. He conceded falling prices would be painful but said losing customers to U.S. shale would be worse, people briefed on his comments said.
Mr. Naimi wasn’t advocating forcing down prices to hurt U.S. shale producers, these people said, but was warning that if OPEC cut output, non-cartel crude would likely replace it. OPEC ministers agreed to keep their production ceiling unchanged.
Sell orders flooded oil markets. Shares in big producers tumbled, along with currencies of petro-states like Russia and Nigeria.
U.S. and Arab officials have privately gushed that the decline could undercut the ability of Tehran, Moscow and Caracas to play destabilizing roles globally, and have voiced optimism that Iran’s financial woes could force it into more nuclear concessions.
“If in the process, you have 30% off Iran’s income, fine,” said a senior Arab official involved in the oil deliberations. “If in the process, you shave 30% off Russia’s income, fine.”
There remains a risk prices don’t quickly recover. Some in the Saudi media have criticized Mr. Naimi for a policy they say could be disastrous for the kingdom’s economy. Riyadh depends on oil for 90% of its budget.
“All OPEC and non-OPEC officials are in a state of shock,” said Muhammad al-Sabban, a former adviser to Mr. Naimi, adding that a “ ‘wait and see’ is their only option.”
—Benoît Faucon, Sarah Kent and Kejal Vyas contributed to this article.
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Tumbling oil prices have exposed a weakness in the insurance that some U.S. shale drillers bought to protect themselves against a crash.
At least six companies, including Pioneer Natural Resources Co. (PXD) and Noble Energy Inc. (NBL), used a strategy known as a three-way collar that doesn’t guarantee a minimum price if crude falls below a certain level, according to company filings. While three-ways can be cheaper than other hedges, they can leave drillers exposed to steep declines.
“Producers are inherently bullish,” said Mike Corley, the founder of Mercatus Energy Advisors, a Houston-based firm that advises companies on hedging strategies. “It’s just the nature of the business. You’re not going to go drill holes in the ground if you think prices are going down.”
The three-way hedges risk exacerbating a cash squeeze for companies trying to cope with the biggest plunge in oil prices this decade. West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, dropped about 50 percent since June amid a worldwide glut. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided Nov. 27 to hold production steady as the 12-member group competes for market share against U.S. shale drillers that have pushed domestic output to the highest since at least 1983.
WTI for January delivery rose $2.41, or 4.5 percent, to settle at $56.52 a barrel today on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Shares of oil companies are also dropping, with a 49 percent decline in the 76-member Bloomberg Intelligence North America E&P Valuation Peers index from this year’s peak in June. The drilling had been driven by high oil prices and low-cost financing. Companies spent $1.30 for every dollar earned selling oil and gas in the third quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on 56 of the U.S.-listed companies in the E&P index.
Financing costs are now rising as prices sink. The average borrowing cost for energy companies in the U.S. high-yield debt market has almost doubled to 10.43 percent from an all-time low of 5.68 percent in June, Bank of America Merrill Lynch data show.
Locking in a minimum price for crude reassures investors that companies will have the cash to keep expanding and lenders that debt can be repaid. While several companies such as Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (APC), Bonanza Creek (BCEI) Energy Inc., Callon Petroleum Co., Carrizo Oil & Gas Inc. and Parsley Energy Inc., use three-way collars, Pioneer uses more than its competitors, company records show.
Scott Sheffield, Pioneer’s chairman and chief executive officer, said during a Nov. 5 earnings call that his company has “probably the best hedges in place among the industry.” Having pumped 89,000 barrels a day in the third quarter, Pioneer is one of the biggest oil producers in U.S. shale.
Pioneer used three-ways to cover 85 percent of its projected 2015 output, the company’sDecember investor presentation shows. The strategy capped the upside price at $99.36 a barrel and guaranteed a minimum, or floor, of $87.98. By themselves, those positions would ensure almost $34 a barrel more than yesterday’s price.
However, Pioneer added a third element by selling a put option, sometimes called a subfloor, at $73.54. That gives the buyer the right to sell oil at that price by a specific date.
Below that threshold, Pioneer is no longer entitled to the floor of $87.98, only the difference between the floor and the subfloor, or $14.44 on top of the market price. So at yesterday’s price of $54.11, Pioneer would realize $68.55 a barrel.
David Leaverton, a spokesman for Irving, Texas-based Pioneer, declined to comment on the company’s hedging strategy. The company said in its December investor presentation that “three-way collars protect downside while providing better upside exposure than traditional collars or swaps.”
The company hedged 95,767 barrels a day next year using the three-ways. If yesterday’s prices persist through the first quarter, Pioneer would realize $1.86 million less every day than it would have using the collar with the floor of $87.98. That would add up to more than $167 million in the first quarter, equal to about 14 percent of Pioneer’s third-quarter revenue.
The strategy ensures that the bulk of Pioneer’s production will earn more than yesterday’s market price. The three-ways will also prove valuable if oil rises above the subfloor.
“What they have is much better than nothing,” said Tim Revzan, an analyst with Sterne Agee Group Inc. in New York. “But they left some money on the table that they could have locked in at a better price.”
Noble Energy used three-ways to hedge 33,000 barrels a day, according to third-quarter SEC filings. Assuming yesterday’s prices persist, Houston-based Noble will bring in $50 million less in the first quarter than it would have by locking in the floor prices.
Bonanza Creek, based in Denver, Colorado, set up three-ways with a floor of $84.32 and a subfloor of $68.08, SEC records show. If prices stay where they are, the company will realize $8.1 million less in the first quarter than it would have by just using the floor.
Ryan Zorn, Bonanza Creek’s senior vice president of finance, said that the comparison doesn’t take into account the advantages of the strategy. The proceeds from selling the $68.08 puts helped pay for the protection at $84.32, without which Bonanza Creek would likely have purchased cheaper options with a lower floor.
“The other comparison is if we’d done nothing,” Zorn said. “I view it as being much better than being unhedged.”
Representatives for Anadarko, Noble, Carrizo and Parsley didn’t return e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
“Because we’ve had high energy prices for so long, it could have given them a false sense of confidence,” said Ray Carbone, president of Paramount Options Inc. in New York. “They picked a price they thought it wouldn’t go below. It has turned out to be very expensive.”
Callon (CPE)’s first-quarter three-ways cover 158,000 barrels with a floor of $90 and a subfloor of $75, company filings show. Callon, based in Natchez, Mississippi, will get $3.3 million less that it would have realized by using the $90 floor, assuming prices stay where they are.
“Certainly, if we’d had the foresight to know prices were going to crater, you’d want to be in the swap instead of the three-way,” said Eric Williams, a spokesman for Callon. “Swaps make more sense if you knew prices were going to go down the way they did, but a few months ago everyone was bullish.”
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