Daniel Fine: When it comes to oil price, Iran is not alone

Daniel Fine
The Daily Times

San Juan and Delaware basin oil producers have sharply reduced costs through efficiencies. American higher-cost production shows no sign of a decline while OPEC lower-cost production increases in spite of lower prices. Saudi Arabia has decided to fight the Americans for market share.

American oil refineries are operating flat out as the summer driving season demand remains high. But at the end of next month this changes and the refiners will buy less crude to process into gasoline and diesel. Crude oil stocks, or inventory, are beginning to show this change.

Yet, the outlook for Iraq places still more production in the global market. Iraq production now at 4 million barrels per day and rising could reach 6 million in two years. The Iranian Oil Company could attract BP and Total to invest capital and technology if sanctions permit. This would drive Iranian production to equal Iraq . In the short-term Iran has the capability of expanding exports by 1.2 million barrels.

Should the "deal" fail or be changed by Congress to a phase-in of Iranian oil exports over a longer period of time and the White House goes along, the price of oil should recover to $60 per barrel. This is a long-shot scenario, however, as President Obama has threatened a veto and the Iranians could insist on an oil sanction termination without conditions.

There will be more Middle East production for export than anticipated and its impact on American shale oil production is a three-year, low-price oil regime. On the other hand, the current price war is moving quietly to an old variable. From 2009 to early last year, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States assumed that American shale technology (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing) was unsustainable. They changed course last year and resorted to the price war for market share.

The reason for this change in strategy was first, the decline ratio of shale horizontal wells; and second, the regulatory obstacles. Simply put, OPEC perceived the environmental/global warming/climate change political group mobilization as capable of tightening federal regulations (Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency) that would cause higher costs to the oil industry or stop the "technology play."

OPEC now regards the appearance of new methane rules as a revival of its earlier "unsustainable" scenario. Methane mitigation regulations can setback natural gas production from natural gas wells but also the associated gas from oil production. San Juan Basin oil producing formations are heavy in associated gas. If methane emissions, leaks or flaring persist, OPEC calculates, it will cause regulatory intervention as part of the new International Treaty on Global Warming (pending the Paris meeting next month).

The methane threat to some extent has replaced hydraulic fracturing as the organizing framework to discontinue fossil fuel sources of energy in the United States. Coupled with methane in the San Juan Basin is the Chaco Canyon issue now in Federal Court. If applications for petroleum drilling can be stopped until the impact of horizontal drilling is known within a tribal-religious-archaeological area, OPEC might believe that the 3.5 percent of U.S oil production located on federal-Indian lands would be at risk. The conflict over OPEC and non-OPEC oil production and price is deepened over the entry of proposed methane rules and tribal "sacred places" that create off-limits areas for oil and gas drilling. The Middle East producers can re-examine their early approach to shale oil sources as "unsustainable."

All possible constraints against American oil producers become expectations for the OPEC producers that determine spot prices of West Texas Crude tomorrow.

Daniel Fine is the associate director of the New Mexico Tech Center for Energy Policy and project leader of a New Energy Policy for the state of New Mexico.