Mar 31, 2020 - Energy & Environment

No easy fixes to a Texas-sized oil problem

Animated gif of an oil barrel disappearing under a cowboy hat

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump and two Texas oil producers are launching new efforts to temper the stunning supply-demand imbalance and price collapse that's inflicting deep financial wounds in the U.S. industry.

Driving the news: Shale producers Pioneer Natural Resources and Parsley Energy have formally asked Texas regulators to take the extraordinary step of imposing mandatory production curbs to help steady the ship.

  • A hearing is expected soon on their request, but the industry is divided over the concept.

Separately, Trump talked about oil markets yesterday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is battling Saudi Arabia for market share after their supply management pact collapsed weeks ago.

  • The White House said they "agreed on the importance of stability in global energy markets."
  • The latest moves come days after the White House and State Department signaled that they're trying to put more pressure on the Saudis too.

Yes, but: Prices regained some ground on word of the Trump-Putin talks, Reuters notes. But don't expect a magic fix.

  • It's hard to see changes that could substantially boost prices getting hammered by COVID-19, or quickly ease logistical problems as storage fills up.
  • Restrictions from the pandemic are causing an unprecedented demand decline that analysts see reaching 20 million barrels per day or more in the near term.

What they're saying: Despite the flurry of activity, the prospects for diplomatic or U.S. policy changes that significantly staunch the financial bleeding are quite limited, especially as the Saudis press ahead with supply increases.

Plus, even relatively modest policy options face hurdles. One example is the new U.S. stabilization package, which cut proposed funding to buy 77 million barrels of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

  • "It’s really just such a demand shock that very little that can be done on the supply side is going to be able to have an impact," Sarah Ladislaw of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said on a new episode of the Platts Capitol Crude podcast.
  • And when it comes to Russia, a note from ClearView Energy Partners says getting Russia to back off in its fight with the Saudis is no easy thing.
  • "This pro-stability, bilateral engagement may seem more auspicious than apparent silence from Saudi Arabia, but ministerial-level discussion and presidential-level decisions are very different things," they note.

The big picture: Via International Oil Daily, Chris Weafer, CEO of Moscow-based Macro-Advisory, said that Trump's call to Putin "shows how badly the price crash is hitting U.S. shale producers."

  • But Weafer added there are some prospects for cooperation.
  • "Whatever the public bravado, all three countries need a higher oil price. Now that the US has indicated it is willing to take part, there is at least a better chance for a solution to emerge, although not too quickly," he told IOD.

A member of the powerful Texas Railroad Commission, Ryan Sitton, and Pioneer CEO Scott Sheffield tell her that a (digital) hearing is likely next month on the renewed push for production limits.

Where it stands: Sheffield said his company and others received requests late last week from pipeline companies to shut in production, and more broadly says that "I’m worried about the industry being totally decimated."

  • Sheffield and Sitton have been floating the idea that Texas, by far the largest U.S. producing state, should consider production quotas as part of wider collaboration with Russia and Saudi Arabia.
  • "We absolutely need to do something to bring some stability to energy markets," Sitton said.

But, but, but: The odds of quotas happening appear long. Commission chairman Wayne Christian has expressed deep skepticism about the idea without rejecting it outright. And the powerful American Petroleum Institute is opposed too.

Of note: A note from IHS Markit estimates that 10 million barrels per day of global production "will be cut or shut-in from April to June 2020 as oil storage fills up and output from financially strapped companies begins to fall."

  • "If there is no international agreement to curtail oil production then brutal unadulterated market forces will bring the oil market into balance," IHS' Jim Burkhard said.
  • Their note also says the U.S. is squeezed, pointing out that "Saudi Arabia and Russia are better positioned in a low-price environment to maintain or even increase production over the next two years compared to the United States."

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