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US-Iran conflict jolts oil market risk premium, but analysts question duration

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Washington — The latest escalation of US-Iran tensions boosted the geopolitical risk premium on oil prices in the short term, but analysts dispute how long the market can hold onto that premium, given ample global supplies and the lack of a sustained price spike after the Abqaiq attack in September.

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Crude futures surged nearly 5% overnight Friday after the US confirmed it had killed Iran's top military commander, General Qassim Soleimani, in air strikes in Baghdad. The threat of retaliation by Iran has severely raised the risks to Middle Eastern and US interests in the region, which could affect oil production and supplies.

S&P Global Platts Analytics sees Brent prices being capped at $70/b without another major incident, but a "disruption is possible in the days and weeks ahead," said Paul Sheldon, chief geopolitical adviser.

Even US shale pioneer Harold Hamm doubted Friday whether the incident would boost prices in the long term.

"Due to the Middle Eastern region's volume of oil production and its significance to world markets, there should be a sizeable risk premium built into the price of a barrel of oil. At this time there just isn't," he told S&P Global Platts.

Hamm, executive chairman of Continental Resources and an adviser to US President Donald Trump, said prices would have to surge more than $10/b to reverse current US producer sentiment and return drilling rigs to the field.

"A stable price structure of $75 per barrel can easily be sustained in the current US and world economy," he said.

The September 14 attack on Saudi Arabia's key Abqaiq processing plant revealed that the oil market will accommodate a "very near-term geopolitical risk premium," but will not continue to do so for months, said Katie Bays, co-founder of Washington-based Sandhill Strategy.

"As long as the next barrel of crude oil, or the marginal barrel, is coming from West Texas, where geopolitics are a non-factor, the market does not need to price in a geopolitical risk premium to remain adequately supplied," Bays said Friday.

Bays said a true supply disruption, however, "could be more meaningful, yet keep in mind that OPEC+ cuts remain in place and thus the disruption would have to be very large to overwhelm the ability of OPEC members to sustain supply."


Sarah Emerson, president of Energy Security Analysis Inc., said the risk premium may have been $5-$7/b before Thursday's US strike in Iraq. She said it has probably doubled since then and, depending on Iran's retaliation, could triple.

Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, expects the premium to stay $5-$10/b higher "for a week or so, at least until Iran responds."

"If they don't attack US military, but oil installations somewhere, I think the premium drops sharply," he added. "If it looks like a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks between US and Iran, then the premium will probably tend to grow.

Lynch said this escalation is different from the Abqaiq attack because Iran is now more motivated to "take some more violent, dramatic action, such as a speedboat attack on a US navy vessel."

Greg Priddy, Stratfor's director of global energy and Middle East, said the price response has so far been more muted than the post-Abqaiq spike, when 5.7 million b/d of oil production was taken offline.

"I think it will be difficult to get much more upside without a clear move by Iran to target oil infrastructure again, or shipping," Priddy said. "Part of that is again due to producer hedging."


ESAI's Emerson was surprised by the diametrically opposite views about the oil market impacts in the hours since the strike -- either that it would spark a regional war or that it would cause no problems because of plentiful spare capacity.

"It's really been amazing to see the two different groups out there thinking this through," she said. "I tend to fall a in the middle, but I lean closer to this [being] a bigger problem."

Emerson said that it is true the oil market has "a lot of spare capacity" because of OPEC production restraint and a US shale slowdown as producers strive for capital discipline. "But I think that's the wrong way to think about the risk premium," she said.

"A retaliation by the Iranians for something as big as this could be fairly devastating and we won't know right away how bad it is," she said. "You could have an attack on Iraq, you could have an attack on an oil facility, you could have attacks on tankers. You could see attacks on our allied countries. You could see airplanes taken down, who knows.

"The thing that strikes me is that there's just a lot of uncertainty -- and that to me is what causes a risk premium."

-- Meghan Gordon,

-- Edited by Jeff Mower,