Crude oil prices fell further on March 17. West Texas crude futures are on track to close down 6.6%, while the global benchmark Brent is down 4%. If current prices hold through close, this will mark the first time Brent futures finished trading below $30 per barrel in more than six years.
Today's sell-off, the next step down in a two-month period that's seen oil prices fall almost 60% since early January, was the result of word that Saudi Arabia is planning even more aggressive actions to reestablish itself as the 800 pound gorilla in global oil.
The country, which went from market-stabilizer to war-starter literally over one weekend, following Russia's refusal to participate in crude production cuts, announced plans to bring even more of the 13 million daily barrels it is aiming to produce next month to global markets.
Saudi Aramco to bring record crude levels to market
Saudi Arabia is a major consumer of its own oil, which is consumes to generate electricity. Going forward, the kingdom plans to utilize a higher proportion of natural gas for power production, helping free up even more crude oil it can export.
According to reports, the aim is for Saudi Aramco to have 10 million barrels per day available for export. That works out to more than 40% higher exports than in January and February, when Saudi Arabia's crude exports fell below 7 million barrels per day.
Taking back market share; U.S. producers set for severe pain
After several years of taking production cuts -- along with non-OPEC partner Russia, which has now become a major adversary in the battle for dominance -- Saudi Arabia is sharply reversing course:
While it's not completely clear how long Russia can continue to produce oil at these price levels, it's a certainty that few -- if any -- U.S. shale oil producers can survive in a protracted period of sub-$40 oil, so the current below-$30 trading prices would be devastating if they continue for any extended period.
Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) could be one of the first casualties. The company recently announced it had hired "restructuring advisors" to help it determine its options going forward. The company is weighted by significant debt and other obligations, and the severe decline in oil prices will make it much harder to sell assets to raise capital.