The crude oil recovery has hit its first big speed bump.

The surge in COVID-19 cases in many parts of the world, the end of a weak peak-summer demand season in the Northern Hemisphere, and the cessation of record crude purchases by Chinese refiners in the second quarter have created a chain of events that has crude oil futures cratering on Sept. 8. At this writing, Brent crude is down 4.5% to $40.13 per barrel, while West Texas Intermediate futures are down a brutal 7% to $37.02 per barrel. 

Today's massive sell-off comes after news over the weekend that Saudi Arabia was cutting crude prices for October shipments to both Asian and U.S. refining customers. This marks the first time since early in 2020 that the petro state has lowered prices for crude shipments to the U.S., putting its selling price to Asia back below the country's target benchmark as Chinese shipments weaken after months of stockpiling.

Stacks of oil barrels

Image source: Getty Images.

Demand recovery stalled

Today's drop in oil prices continues a week of selling by oil traders, following a near-daily string of concerning news. Last week's U.S. Energy Information Administration weekly petroleum report kicked off the bad news, with a hint at optimism on 9.4 million barrels in inventory drawdowns. But the reality of continued weakness in consumption that was still double-digits below prior-year levels started crude prices tumbling lower.

The news got progressively less positive as the holiday weekend approached. Friday's big crude sell-off (which looks pretty minor compared with today's brutal crash) came on word that Chinese refiners, which soaked up massive amounts of crude during the second quarter's collapse, were buying much smaller amounts of crude and that tankers in Chinese ports were being forced to wait for weeks to off-load. 

Top U.S. independent oil producers are seeing their stocks take a pummeling, with shares of Apache Corp (APA 2.08%)Murphy Oil (MUR 1.97%), Diamondback Energy (FANG 1.45%), and Continental Resources (CLR) all down by double digits over the past week. 

APA Chart

APA data by YCharts

Saudi Arabia fighting for every barrel of market share

In Asia, the clear driver is China's pivot away from massive stockpiling to working through that excess inventory. Saudi Arabia is taking steps to command as much market share in the region as it can, discounting its crude. 

In the U.S. the biggest driver is the end of the peak summer-driving season, which fell well short of expectations. Gasoline consumption has risen modestly from month to month since June but remained well below prior-year levels. Historical refiner data shows both the seasonality of demand and how far below typical levels the demand remains: 

US Petroleum Refinery and Blender Net Production Chart

US Petroleum Refinery and Blender Net Production data by YCharts

Saudi Arabia's U.S. strategy seems to be changing as well. Earlier this year, the country flooded global markets with oil when it and Russia engaged in a battle for global oil dominance. In April, Saudi Arabia shipped the most oil to the U.S. it has sent in a single month since early 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic crushed global demand and forced the two adversaries to partner on record production cuts. 

Those cuts saw the country send some of the lowest amounts of crude it has shipped in years in the second quarter. But with the seasonal drop in American oil consumption kicking in with the end of summer, it appears Saudi Arabia is using its massive pricing power to take back share.

The biggest losers in the next phase of the crude oil battle

The U.S. oil industry has already gone through a brutal year, and the pain was set to continue for producers and the companies producers hire to do the work in the oil fields. Even prior to the past week's 14% decline in crude prices, many independent oil producers were dealing with prices that didn't cover their operating expenses. As a result, we have already seen dozens of private and public oil companies go bankrupt. 

Saudi Arabia's move to get aggressive in the U.S. could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the next round of on-the-edge U.S. oil stocks. Companies like Occidental Petroleum (OXY 1.24%), for instance, had been making progress on mountains of debt with oil in the $40s. But with Saudi Arabia making a move to take back share, getting a balance sheet in order without having to go through bankruptcy just got much, much more difficult. 

Oxy and many of its peers could still come through the 2020 downturn without going through bankruptcy. But so long as global oil demand remains weak, Saudi Arabia will remain a massive threat to oil prices. The country, which controls the world's biggest, cheapest reserves, will use this advantage as a weapon to fight for market share. There's not an oil producer in the world that can beat Saudi Arabia on prices.