London — OPEC's quest to balance oil markets is about to get murkier as Venezuela's economic crisis and Iran sanctions close in.
The crude oil producer group's strategy of cooperating with Russia and other allies to raise production by 1 million b/d has stalled, with plentiful supplies in key Asian markets even forcing OPEC lynch-pin Saudi Arabia to cut its crude exports in July and reassess its intentions.
But OPEC's options for the second half of the year are limited.
Pump too much too quickly and it could flood the market just as tepid economic growth in Asia and intensifying trade wars weigh on global consumption. Any misjudgment could widen cracks among its already politically fractured membership.
However, keep too firm a grip on the taps, and the market could over-tighten from the impact of US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela's worsening troubles. A spike in prices above $80/b could jeopardize Saudi Arabia's relationship with US President Donald Trump, who has pressured the kingdom for more barrels ahead of mid-term elections.
"Collective increases in OPEC crude production will need to carefully balance Iranian and Venezuelan sensitivities with promises pertaining to the group's official goals of seeking a balanced market and being reliable suppliers," said Harry Tchilinguirian, BNP Paribas' global head of commodity markets strategy.
Not including newest member Congo -- which joined the organization in June -- OPEC crude output in July was just 435,000 b/d above its May level, according to the latest S&P Global Platts OPEC production survey. Russia boosted its production by about 240,000 b/d over the same timeframe.
This leaves the OPEC/non-OPEC coalition around two-thirds of the way to the 1 million b/d increase above May levels agreed at its June 23 meeting in Vienna.
The coalition may have to go even further, with OPEC's analysis arm forecasting global demand for OPEC crude in the second half of this year will be more than 1 million b/d higher than the bloc's July production level of 32.32 million b/d.
From a technical standpoint, Saudi Arabia holds the vast majority of OPEC's remaining spare capacity and says it can easily pump as needed to meet expected demand in the months ahead. However, the kingdom may find it a tougher task politically if it wants to maintain calm in OPEC, with Iran and Venezuela opposed to any members producing above their individual quotas.
Iran, which has threatened to block regional exports if its market share is threatened, has accused Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies of violating OPEC statutes in pumping above their allocations.
The kingdom is already far above its quota of 10.06 million b/d, though it has said its interpretation of the deal is different. Riyadh argues individual OPEC caps are out, while a collective ceiling is in.
A six-country Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee, chaired by Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih, will hold a conference call Monday to assess market conditions and discuss the next steps.
The JMMC, which also includes ministers from Russia, Kuwait, Venezuela, Algeria and Oman, will gather in person on September 23 in Algiers. Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh, who does not sit on the committee, also plans to attend to press his case.
A collision over strategy between Saudi Arabia and Iran now seems inevitable.
Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil company Aramco recently cut its official selling prices for its flagship Arab Light crude loading in September to all markets, except the US. This could signal it is gearing up for a more competitive market, particularly in Asia.
Iran promptly followed suit, with National Iranian Oil Company aggressively slashing its September OSPs across all grades.
"The Saudis are positioning themselves to fill the void left by missing Iranian barrels," said Stephen Brennock, an analyst with brokerage PVM Associates.
Iranian oil exports fell 170,000 b/d month on month in July, according to data from S&P Global Platts trade flow software cFlow, as buyers began to shy away from trade with Tehran. The decline is likely to accelerate this month and next as traders look to complete their shipments ahead of the November 4 sanctions deadline.
Market watchers expect the US sanctions on Iran to eventually shut in 1 million b/d or more of exports. Analysts also anticipate Venezuelan production falling 300,000 b/d or more by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the US has announced plans to sell 11 million barrels from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve between October 1 and November 30, in part to cushion the market impact from sanctions.
Trade frictions between the US and China could dampen crude consumption. OPEC is forecasting a ratcheting up of tariffs on both sides could reduce 2019 oil demand by up to 350,000 b/d in a worst-case scenario.
Already, Chinese demand growth has slowed this year, with crude imports stagnating as independent refineries cut back on their purchases of foreign oil.
The supply challenges posed by Iran and Venezuela -- not to mention volatile Libya -- will put the focus on Saudi Arabia's willingness and ability to play swing producer. Preventing a price slump, maintaining OPEC harmony and keeping Trump onside simultaneously looks increasingly unattainable.
"It's a difficult balancing act for the Saudis," said Bill Farren-Price, CEO of Petroleum Policy Intelligence.
--Herman Wang, firstname.lastname@example.org
--Edited by Jonathan Loades-Carter, email@example.com