ST. PETERSBURG: The message that came across loud and clear from the energy sector gathered in St. Petersburg on Friday was that the entente between Saudi Arabia and Russia on oil supply limits is here to stay, but that all parties to the deal will need to show finesse and flexibility in how it is operated.
There had been melodramatic suggestions that the panel on global energy markets at Russia’s premier economic gathering would be some kind of “high noon” stand-off over production limits, but no such outcome was likely or forthcoming.
The two main architects of the alliance — Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih and his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak — have too much respect for each other, as was made clear at Friday’s meeting, for such an outcome.
More importantly, there is consensus between them that the arrangement has served both the global oil industry, and the economies of their two countries, well. Novak said the objectives of the agreement are being met. The alternative of letting the market go the way it did in 2015 is “unacceptable,” said Al-Falih.
In fact, the cuts regime may be more needed now than ever, both men agreed. “Fundamentals are no longer the biggest driver of oil prices,” the Russian said, while Al-Falih pointed out that Saudi Arabia and OPEC+ could only affect the supply side of the equation. “Demand is influenced by macro factors,” like connected worries about economic growth and global trade tensions, while “sentiment and expectation are also outside our control,” he said.
So in an uncertain world, the stability of an OPEC+ deal is essential. But the devil is in the detail, and this has to be pinned down at the coming full meeting of OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers, which both men were adamant would take place soon.
This is where the flexibility will come in. There is a consensus that the supply deal will continue — “rolled over” in the industry parlance — but both men agreed there was still work to be done to get to a definitive arrangement. “We will come to a decision, but it will not be cast in concrete. We can always adjust up or down as the need may be,” said Al-Falih, recognizing that the volatile global economic and geopolitical outlook might affect their calculations in the future.
One of the themes of the conference has been the growing closeness of the Saudi-Russia relationship, not just in oil but extending across industrial and financial sectors, right through to cultural ties. Neither side wants to risk that relationship for the sake of a few dollars a barrel.
The imminent rollover may also be prompted by a recognition that even tougher economic times might be ahead. Daniel Yergin, the oil expert who was also on the panel, was asked what would be needed to resolve China-US trade tensions at the upcoming G20 summit in Japan.
“A miracle,” he replied.