Oil industry plays OPEC guessing game, tries to divine motivations for possible action

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Does Saudi Arabia have it out for frackers in the U.S.? Or Iran? Or Russia? Will low oil prices make it easier to fight the Islamic State? Or harder?

Trying to guess what OPEC members are thinking in the run-up to Thursday’s meeting in Vienna is a high stakes parlour game for energy analysts, political scientists and armchair geo-politicians.

This year the game is more complex than it has been in years. There is political upheaval across the Middle East, Iran is suffering under Western sanctions, and surprising growth in oil production outside of OPEC is sapping OPEC nations of badly-needed revenue. After four years of high and steady global oil prices, crude has fallen 32 per cent in 5 months, reducing OPEC revenues by nearly $1 billion a day.

Saudi Arabia is adding to the intrigue. OPEC’s biggest and most important member has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent weeks about its intentions.

In theory, OPEC can push prices back up by cutting the amount of oil it sells. In reality, OPEC member countries have different, often conflicting priorities and don’t adhere to the cartel’s official sales targets.

Here are some theories experts are raising about what OPEC members want to happen, and why:

— Saudi Arabia and other relatively well-off OPEC countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, want to let prices fall to slow or stop production growth in the U.S. and Canada, where drillers require higher prices to make money. That way, OPEC can increase its market share.

— Saudi Arabia and its allies want to force prices lower to increase pressure on fellow OPEC member Iran during international negotiations over its nuclear program. Saudi Arabia does not want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Iran’s economy suffers if prices stay low, and its leaders could be more willing to limit nuclear development in exchange for a relaxation of sanctions.

— Saudi Arabia wants to punish Russia for its support of Iran’s nuclear program. Russia is not an OPEC member but is among the world’s top three producers. It needs high oil prices to fund its government.

— Venezuela, Iran and Iraq — countries in difficult financial shape — want OPEC to cut production quickly and sharply to force prices higher. They are unlikely, however, to offer to cut their own production. Saudi Arabia increased its production in recent years to help replace supplies lost out of Iran, Syria and elsewhere. Many OPEC members feel Saudi Arabia should therefore be the country to cut now.

— Saudi Arabia fears that the battle to defeat the Islamic State group will at some point disrupt oil supplies or infrastructure in Syria and possibly Iraq. If oil prices are low when the disruption occurs, the global economy would be better able to absorb a price spike.

— Saudi Arabia sees no need to tamper with what it says is the normal oil cycle. A period of high prices inspired drillers to develop new oil projects around the world. They were successful, so supplies rose and prices fell. Investment will now slow, supply will tail off, and prices will naturally rise again in the coming years.

Jonathan Fahey can be reached at .