Oil prices running out of reasons to rally

Oil prices faltered at the start of the second week of the year, as fears set in about a rapid rebound in U.S. shale production. For the better part of two months, optimism surrounding the OPEC deal has buoyed oil prices, but bullish sentiment from speculators are showing early signs of abating, raising the possibility that the oil rally is running out of steam.

WTI and Brent sank more than 2.5 % in intraday trading on Monday, after a report at the end of last week showed another solid build in the U.S. rig count, the tenth consecutive week that the oil industry added rigs back into the field. Aside from a single week in October, the U.S. oil industry has deployed more rigs in every week dating back to June, a remarkable run that has resulted in more than 200 fresh rigs drilling for oil. The gains in the rig count come even as oil prices have held steady in the mid- to low-$50s per barrel.

At the start of 2017, there are two major dynamics at play occurring at the same time, each pushing in opposite directions on the market. The OPEC deal is slated to take oil off the market, while U.S. drilling is expected to add new supply. The pace and magnitude of each trend will ultimately drive oil prices one way or the other.

On the positive side of the ledger, there are early signs that OPEC members are meeting their commitments. Saudi Arabia said last week that it is lowering its production in January by 486,000 barrels per day, a volume that it promised to cut as part of the November deal. That will take output down to 10.058 million barrels per day, a level that Riyadh was only required to meet as an average over the January to June time period. Cutting to that level ahead of time is a sign of good faith from Saudi Arabia, and increases the chances that OPEC will stay true to its promises.

On top of that, Kuwait’s envoy to OPEC said that Qatar, Kuwait and Oman were also complying with the cuts. In an interview with Bloomberg, Kuwait’s Nawal Al-Fezaia said that those countries already told customers that cuts were imminent. "It’s a good time to do maintenance on oil fields during production cuts," Al-Fezaia said, noting that Kuwait will lower output from 2.89 mb/d in December to 2.7 mb/d by the end of January.

Market analysts paused a bit on news that Iraq’s oil exports from its southern ports on the Persian Gulf hit a record high in December, but the data has no bearing on whether or not Iraq will comply with the agreed upon cuts. "Achieving this record average will not affect Iraq’s decision to cut output from the beginning of 2017," Oil Minister Jabbar Al-Luaibi told Bloomberg in an emailed statement. "Iraq is committed to achieving producers’ joint goals to control the oil glut in world markets." 

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About the Author

James Stafford is the London-based editor of Oilprice.com.