by Philip Pilkington
Wednesday, 1
June 2022
Analysis
11:05

The real threat to Russia is OPEC — not the EU

If the bloc agrees to pump more oil, it could hurt Putin's regime
by Philip Pilkington
Who holds all the cards? Credit: Getty

The past two weeks have been a wild ride in the energy markets. Policymakers appear to have started to contemplate the fact that their sanctions on Russia are poorly designed and potentially self-destructive. This has led them to consider alternatives.

It all started with an interview given by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to MSNBC last week. In the interview, von der Leyen laid out in impressive detail why energy sanctions against Russia were self-defeating. She explained that if the EU cut off their oil imports from Russia, then the prices of oil might rise, and Russia could sell the oil for more money in other markets.

At this point, it seemed that the European Commission economists caught on to the fact that both the quantity of goods sold and their price matter in energy markets. But earlier this week, the EU — and with them von der Leyen — appear to have reversed their stance once again. The EU announced that it would be undertaking a ‘partial embargo’ of Russian oil imports, and von der Leyen was soon tweeting her support.

It remains to be seen if this embargo is serious. If it is not, the EU has figured out a way to run the Russian oil via alternative channels — probably via Hungary, who has been given a carve-out. But if the Europeans cut off Russian oil supplies, the continent will face further inflation and a deepening cost-of-living crisis that no politician will be able to control.

The real threat to Russia comes not from the EU, but OPEC. OPEC came out this week and announced that they would consider pumping more oil into the markets. The nature of the announcement makes it look like a negotiated agreement between OPEC and NATO. OPEC argues that since Russia is not able to supply energy markets due to the embargoes, OPEC will have to step up to the plate.

This leaves open the possibility that OPEC could use the opportunity to flood the oil market and drive the price down. This would genuinely hurt the Russians economically, but it is not clear that OPEC have either the will or the means to crash the oil price.

First, OPEC has not made any explicit commitment in public — it could simply be a PR move to make Western counterparts happy. Second, while the world economy is running hot with high inflation, it is not clear that the cartel could bring the price down even with an extensive increase in their oil output. Third, Russia is not as reliant on high oil prices in the same way it was the last time the price collapsed in 2015.

At this late stage in the game — with inflation clocking in at over 8% in Europe — it is difficult taking any of these politicians seriously. They have made a mess of their ‘economic war’. Meanwhile, their ‘infowar’ is pushing them toward ever more self-destructive acts. It is not clear who this theatre is targeted at, because voters suffering from the inflation will punish them at the ballot box.

Perhaps the politicians have calculated the probabilities of an oil dump by OPEC better than I can; perhaps they have pulled off a master feat in diplomacy behind the scenes; and perhaps we will watch the Russian economy collapse under oil prices crashed by the cartel. But I wouldn’t put my money on it. More likely is that oil prices remain high due to misguided interventions by Western leaders, inflation continues to ruin our finances, and politicians continue playing the dice with our livelihoods. It is a bleak forecast, but a realistic one.

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Warren Trees
Warren Trees
2 months ago

One overlooked reason for this madness is the push to make fossil fuel prices sky high in order to make alternative energy sources more competitive, which supposedly will stave off the myth of the impending climate catastrophe.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 months ago

I remember around the time all this started, an unnamed Obama-era official was quoted as saying “Russia is incredibly unimportant in the world economy apart from oil and gas,” which even then seemed to me like the sort of thing only a person in love with his own intelligence would be foolish enough to think.

I suppose in a few months we’ll be treated to the revelation that Germany’s inevitable claims of having weaned itself off Russian oil will were based on importing ‘Hungarian’ oil instead.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 months ago

We’ve been telling OPEC that we’re going to put them out of business as soon as we can. I don’t think we should expect any favours from them.

Henry Cunha
Henry Cunha
2 months ago

Predicting future oil prices is a mug’s game. There are too many imponderables. But some trends and facts stick out:

  1. The growth in consumption 1980-2016 was from 23 billion barrels/yr to 35 bb/y. That’s 52% over 36 years, or 1.44% per year. That’s almost exactly the same as growth in world population. But oil has declined as a source of energy per capita from some 40% to 30%. In other words, other sources of energy (natural gas, renewables) have been replacing oil.
  2. There are too many oil producers for anyone — even OPEC — to corner the market over more than 2-3 years. The average price of oil since 2000, through all the ups and downs, was around $65 per barrel. $100 in 2011 down to $40 in 2016, for example.
  3. Russian situation has its peculiarities. Alternative export outlets (China, India) have serious limits (pipeline or water-borne capacity) for a while. This raises prices immediately, but forces Russia to discount. OPEC will react to market loss by either cutting prices or increasing sales to Europe. Russia can’t really shut down wells, which won’t come back, and has little spare stock capacity, so it has to keep producing and selling.

I wouldn’t worry about oil prices. All disruptions are temporary. Eventually, we’ll be back to the average.

Jacques Rossat
Jacques Rossat
2 months ago

Brilliant but irrealistic : OPEC loves high prices as much as Russia does. Their ambiguous courting of both Russia and the US, coupled with the fear of the latter to alienate the cheiks will lead again and again to wishy-washy half and useless measures.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 months ago

There’s also the issue of refining capacity. I’ve read that there simply isn’t enough refining capacity in the US (I don’t know about elsewhere) to produce a lot of gasoline etc rapidly even if crude oil output increases substantially.
Politicians have a few more months to grandstand but then autumn, and soon winter, will arrive and energy demands will spike. Then Europeans’ willingness to sacrifice for Ukraine (or maintain a proxy war against Russia) will be tested.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
2 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Absolutely the case, as is with electricity. We simply don’t have the capacity to produce what is needed at the moment. That’s why suddenly injecting $5 trillion into any economy causes inflation.