The OPEC Free Fall
There is a popular narrative going around that I want to address in today’s article. Last November, after several months of plummeting crude oil prices, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met to discuss the oil production quotas for each country in the months ahead. Many expected OPEC to cut production in order to shore up crude prices that had been falling since summer. This was the strategy favored by OPEC’s poorer members, as many require oil prices at $100/barrel (bbl) in order to balance government budgets.
Instead, OPEC announced that they would continue pumping at the same rate. They chose to defend market share against the surge of supply from U.S. shale producers, and in doing so the fall in the price of crude oil accelerated. A look at the U.S. rig count shows the swift impact to U.S. shale drillers in the aftermath of that meeting:
Rig counts went into free-fall after it became clear that OPEC was not interested in propping up the price of oil for the benefit of rapidly expanding shale oil producers. While that approach hurt OPEC’s income in the short term, it also immediately impacted rig counts in the shale oil fields. But — and here is the narrative — shale oil producers continue to make gains in production even as rig counts have been slashed because they are becoming more and more efficient
Dissecting the Narrative
There is some truth to the narrative. Yes, oil production has continued to grow even though rig counts have plummeted. The week before OPEC’s meeting last November, the number of rigs drilling for oil stood at 1,574. Oil production that week was 9.1 million bpd. Today, with the rig count at 642, production is 9.6 million bpd — a gain of just over half a million bpd.
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