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Is This the Biggest Threat to OPEC?

By Arjun Sreekumar - Apr 14, 2013 at 12:00PM

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Why the U.S. shale oil boom and growth in unconventional oil production pose a threat to OPEC’s influence over the global oil market.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, describes itself as "a permanent intergovernmental organization of 12 oil-exporting developing nations that coordinates and unifies the petroleum policies of its Member Countries."

Historically, the organization has exerted considerable influence on the world oil market, with many even characterizing it as a cartel. Over the past three decades or so, it has produced a little less than half of the world's oil, with its Gulf State members still controlling most of the world's crude oil spare capacity. By lowering their collective output, OPEC members can push global oil prices higher, or so the logic goes.

But now, there is convincing evidence that OPEC's sway in the oil market is waning. Let's take a closer look at some of the major recent developments that may be keeping OPEC members up at night.

OPEC's glory days
In previous decades, OPEC's influence on the global oil market was almost undeniable. The surge in oil prices during 1973, for instance, can be attributed largely to OPEC actions, which included a dramatic increase in "posted prices" for their oil, as well as a wave of nationalizations among OPEC member nations and the organization's temporary embargo against the U.S. and others.

But a lot has changed since those days. Since 2008, non-OPEC oil supplies have increased dramatically, fueled by growing production from U.S. shale, Canada's oil sands, and deepwater discoveries off the coasts of Brazil, Africa and other parts of the globe.

This year, non-OPEC supplies are projected to grow by almost 1 million barrels a day, largely because of advances in drilling technologies that have allowed energy companies to extract massive quantities of oil from leading U.S. shale plays such as North Dakota's Bakken and Texas' Eagle Ford.

In the Bakken, for instance, Kodiak Oil & Gas (NYSE: KOG) roughly tripled its average production between 2011 and 2012 and is projecting to double this year's production from last year's levels. And in the Eagle Ford, Chesapeake Energy (CHKA.Q) reported fourth-quarter daily net production of 62,500 barrels per day, representing a whopping 266% year-over-year increase.

Not surprisingly, North Dakota's field production of crude oil has increased more than fivefold over the past five years, going from 45.1 million in 2007 to 242.5 million barrels last year, while Texas' crude oil production has almost doubled over the same period, from 391.1 million barrels to 721.4 million.

OPEC lowers its forecast
Though senior OPEC officials initially downplayed the threat of rising North American oil supplies, it looks as though the organization has now started to seriously consider the shale boom as a major threat.

Last month, it reduced its forecast of demand for its crude oil this year by 100,000 barrels per day to 29.7 million barrels a day, citing growth in U.S. shale production as a major factor underlying the downward revision. If the new forecast turns out to be accurate, demand for OPEC crude would be 350,000 barrels a day below the 30.1 million barrel-a-day level that it was last year.

According to estimates by The Wall Street Journal based on historical data and OPEC's forecasts, the organization would supply 33.1% of expected global oil demand this year, down from 35% last year. That would represent OPEC's lowest share of the global oil market in more than a decade.

Less reliance on OPEC supplies
Already, the shale oil boom has dramatically reduced U.S. oil refiners' demand for OPEC oil, as infrastructure improvements have allowed access to growing quantities of oil produced in major domestic oil plays.

For instance, Nigeria -- OPEC's most important African member -- has seen its exports to the U.S. fall by almost half between 2011 and 2012, as refiners have substituted Nigerian light sweet crude oil with domestic supplies.

Valero (VLO -0.34%) recently announced that it replaced all imports of foreign light, sweet crude with domestic crude at its Gulf Coast and Memphis refineries. Similarly, Phillips 66 (PSX -1.21%) said its refineries expect to process 80% more domestic crude this year than it did last year.

Final thoughts
Though OPEC's influence on the world oil market certainly appears to be diminishing, there are some important caveats to consider.

For instance, though shale wells have produced copious quantities of oil and gas in their first few years, some experts argue that production from these wells will decline much faster than production from conventional wells.

According to a report by J. David Hughes of the Post Carbon Institute, shale oil wells decline so quickly, in fact, that more than 6,000 wells are required to be brought online each year just to maintain a flat level of production.  

Moreover, shale production is plagued by exorbitantly high production costs and requires sustained high oil prices to remain profitable. Hence, a combination of falling global oil demand and sharp decline rates could lead up to a sharp reduction in shale oil drilling, thereby lowering non-OPEC supply growth and allowing OPEC to reaffirm its dominance in the global oil market.

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