Who is Really Responsible For Low Oil Prices? The Answer May Surprise You

OPEC has a hand in oil prices, but the reason oil is at $44 per barrel is far closer to home.

Travis Hoium
Travis Hoium
Oct 3, 2015 at 10:22AM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

Image: LINN Energy.

If you're an investor in energy stocks, you no doubt know that low oil prices have wreaked havoc on the market over the past year. Most people have pointed to OPEC as the reason prices have plunged and thousands of U.S. oil workers are out of work. But is OPEC really to blame for the drop in oil prices? A look at the data shows a very different story.

OPEC drives oil prices... until it doesn't
One problem OPEC has is a perceptual one. Since it's a cartel with nearly 30% of the world's oil production, it has a huge influence on prices, which makes some people think it controls all oil prices.  

For decades, OPEC's role has been more of a stabilizer in oil markets. If prices went up too much OPEC would produce more oil to lower prices, and if prices got too low it would cut production to push prices higher. That formula led to fairly stable prices from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s. But that's when everything changed.

In the mid-2000s, U.S. oil companies started to use fracking to unlock millions of barrels of oil locked miles under the earth's surface. This oil has always been there, and it's been known about for decades, but it wasn't until oil prices shot up to near $100 per barrel that it became economical to obtain.

U.S. oil production exploded just as oil seemed to stabilize near $100 per barrel. The country added 2.478 million barrels per day to global supply in 2013 and 2014 alone. Canada added another 0.662 million barrels per day.

Image: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But while U.S. supply exploded, global demand only grew by 2.119 million barrels per day between 2012 and 2014. The U.S. and Canada alone essentially created the oversupplied oil market we see today, not OPEC.

Image: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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OPEC's perceptual problem really stems from the fact that it let prices stay as high as they did for so long. That brought new competition to the market from outside the cartel. That's one reason it didn't step in to save oil prices last summer. 

OPEC isn't the problem
Remember that the reason oil prices dropped last summer wasn't that OPEC started to flood the market with oil, it was that OPEC didn't cut production to offset rising U.S. production, as it might have done in the past. OPEC actually kept oil production flat in 2014 at 30.1 million barrels per day.

Even in 2015 as Saudi Arabia has increased production slightly to keep pressure on shale producers, OPEC is only expected to increase production by 0.8 million barrels per day. That's even less than the expected 1.17 million barrel per day increase in global demand. 

Things aren't always what they appear
OPEC gets a lot of blame for falling oil prices, and it certainly plays a role. But if your energy stocks have been dropping like a rock and you're looking for someone to blame, the real villain might be right here at home. Without exploding shale production, the oil markets wouldn't be oversupplied right now -- and that's the U.S.'s fault, not OPEC's.