Beginning from this year, the next 10 years could be more volatile for the world’s most important fossil fuel. Despite the dramas of the last decade, prices in the last days of December were set to close out 2019 well below the 10-year average.
Platts Dated Brent averaged $79/b over the last decade. The financial crisis, an unforeseen surge in US shale production and the combustible Middle East defined the period for oil markets.
In 2010, the outlook for demand looked just as uncertain as it does today in the wake of what became known as the Great Recession when global GDP fell by 5.1% and oil consumption dropped by 1.6% in 2009. Low oil prices helped trigger the Arab Spring uprisings, which started as bread riots in Tunisia before China’s economic stimulus helped catapult the value above $120/b.
Then as now, the oil industry was criticized for its environmental impact following BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout, which resulted in almost 5 million barrels of crude spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.
At the dawn of a new decade, many of the challenges facing the oil market look very similar to those in the last. Global warming could force producers to keep oil in the ground unless new carbon-capture technologies can be developed to remove emissions from the atmosphere, or draconian measures are taken to sharply cut consumption.
“As we enter a new decade, the energy complex feels like it is all cascading towards a race to the bottom”, wrote S&P Global Platts Analytics in a research note. “All energy commodities are competing for a share of finite downstream demand, whether it be in the industry, refining, power generation, or petrochemicals. At the same time, continued growth in renewables, efficiency gains, and increased penetration of EVs (Electric Vehicles) and hydrogen will limit the overall call on fossil fuels.”
The growth of EVs could start to eat into demand for fossil fuels in passenger transport by 2030, according to some forecasts. Meanwhile, changes to reduce the levels of sulfur in marine fuels coming into force in 2020 will help to clean up the world’s shipping lanes and transform a sector, which accounts for about a 5.5 million b/d of oil demand, according to Platts Analytics.
In the Middle East — where about a fifth of the world’s oil originates — the political environment looks evermore unstable heading into the new decade. Attacks on critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and tankers anchored near the Strait of Hormuz throughout 2019 have highlighted the ongoing risks to the world’s most important supply basin.
In the meantime, Iran’s crude remains frozen out of the world markets by US sanctions.
OPEC’s alliance with Russia will be tested over the next decade. With Moscow’s help, the group has disguised its chronic decline in market share and influence. Coordinated action orchestrated between Riyadh and the Kremlin increased cuts to 1.7 million b/d until the end of March. Holding together its OPEC+ pact beyond 2020 will be vital for the cartel’s future throughout the decade.
US oil production is likely to continue to shape world markets. America is now producing more crude than Saudi Arabia but its success could ultimately be its undoing. Lower oil prices caused partly by the shale revolution have started to hit the prolific Permian Basin, where rig counts have fallen and operators have cut spending. But Platts Analytics still expects the US to record the biggest gains next year, with supply expected to grow by 1.3 million b/d.
“This will place domestic production above domestic consumption for the first time in decades, but the US will still be an importer of crude oil in 2020 with exports of shale jumping 1.5 million b/d. Sanctions on Iran and Venezuela will hold throughout the year, while Saudi Arabia will lead the rest of OPEC+ to greater supply restraint (and the fourth year in a row of OPEC declines) in its last great opportunity to support prices,” said Platts Analytics.
Avoiding a repeat of the worst economic recession since the 1930s will also be vital for oil demand over the next 10 years. China’s trade dispute with the US — the world’s top consumers of crude — has dragged on oil prices throughout 2019. US President Donald Trump’s hints of a resolution have supported crude prices, but keeping gasoline prices pegged around $2/gallon will be important as the presidential campaign gathers steam next year.
It is almost impossible to predict where oil prices will be trading in 2030, but crude will certainly continue to be the lifeblood of the global economy in 2020 and throughout the rest of the next decade.