Stanley Reed and Clifford Krauss
The deal shows that “the weight and resilience of OPEC is still there and will continue to be,” Qatar’s energy minister, Mohammed bin Saleh al-Sada, said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The market optimism, though, may soon be tempered.
The deal, which is to last six months starting in January, is contingent on the cooperation of non-OPEC countries, most notably Russia. While Russia agreed to participate, Moscow is notoriously difficult to predict. And its reported 300,000 barrels-per-day cut is only a trickle in its total output.
A recent production frenzy creates another wild card for the deal.
While Saudi Arabia and Iran have vocally supported higher prices, their national oil companies have been making deals in Asia and filling tankers as quickly as possible. Saudi production has increased to well over 10 million barrels a day, while reductions in domestic consumption have left more available for export. Iran, relieved of nuclear sanctions, has gone on its own selling spree in India and started production in new oil and gas fields.
Other OPEC countries have followed, increasing production in recent months. The race to pump more is taking several of the cartel’s largest members to the brink of their production capacity.
The intense competition makes OPEC’s new plan less meaningful — part of the piece of the industry dynamics that means the price increase could prove temporary.
The size of the cut is fairly trivial in a 96-million-barrel-a-day marketplace that remains oversupplied. Should prices rise in the next few weeks, American shale producers are very likely to drill and complete more wells, which would add supply to the global market. And if history is any guide, even a modest agreement can be breached by cheating.
“If higher prices bring higher output, prices will not remain up for long,” said Jim Krane, a Middle East energy analyst at Rice University. “It won’t be long before we’re back where we started.”
Two months ago, the cartel surprised world energy markets by agreeing in principle to trim production. The move by OPEC signaled a significant change of course for Saudi Arabia, which had allowed oil prices to collapse to try to undercut higher-cost Western players.
But the cartel’s words and actions did not initially dovetail. The production and export frenzy in Iran has been accompanied by increased activity across much of OPEC.
In the midst of a civil war, Libya has more than doubled oil production since August, to 600,000 barrels a day. It says it hopes to raise output an additional 300,000 barrels by early 2017. Iraq has expanded production by 300,000 barrels a day since the summer. Nigeria has pledged to increase oil production to 2.2 million barrels a day by the end of the year, from 1.9 million.
Iran is trying to reclaim the global market share, and the clout in OPEC, that it lost in recent years under nuclear sanctions.
Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern and African producers — particularly Angola, Iraq, Kuwait and Nigeria — took advantage of Iran’s troubles by raising production to serve its old customers. Iran once threatened a retaliatory naval blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, the critical Persian Gulf choke point, a move that could have paralyzed the economies of Saudi Arabia, its neighboring allies and much of Asia and inflamed geopolitical tensions.
Now Iran is coming back fast.
Since many sanctions were lifted in January, Iran’s crude oil production has risen nearly a third, to about 3.7 million barrels a day. Having achieved the goal of returning to pre-sanctions levels, Iranian officials want to take production capacity higher still, toward 4.8 million barrels a day by 2021.
“Iran’s influence in OPEC, and indeed in the region, has been growing since the lifting of nuclear-related international sanctions,” said Bhushan Bahree, an OPEC analyst at IHS Markit, a research company.
Iran is also beginning to negotiate deals with outside companies for the capital and technological expertise needed to reach its production goals.
Officials have already reached a preliminary agreement with Total to develop a giant gulf natural gas field that Iran shares with Qatar, and they are discussing energy deals with Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Dutch giant. Nearly 50 oil and gas projects may also be opened to international investors.
Iran’s ultimate success at recovering its old glory is uncertain.
During the presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump promised to rip up the nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration and other world powers. And even if other countries do not follow Mr. Trump’s lead, persistently low oil prices could deter foreign investment.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” said Homayoun Falakshahi, an Iran analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has complicated the negotiations.
Some energy analysts say the Saudis pushed the idea of a cut, in part thinking that Iran had reached its production limits and would not be able to fight for supremacy in the Asian markets for long. In the days before the OPEC meeting, Iran tried to negotiate an exemption from any cut.
The competition extends beyond markets. Saudi Arabia and Iran are also playing an increasingly deadly political game, battling for power in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The specifics of the ultimate OPEC deal give both Saudi Arabia and Iran reasonable room, adding to the doubt about whether the cuts will have much teeth.
Saudi Arabia is taking a considerable hit, agreeing to cut 486,000 barrels a day, the largest chunk of the total deal. But the Saudis would normally cut substantially in the winter, when they burn less oil to generate electric power for air-conditioning. Iran faces a ceiling about 100,000 barrels a day higher than what analysts estimate it is now producing.
Adherence to the deal is also not a given. Three big and reliable gulf producers — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — account for more than 60 percent of the cuts. But the rest come from other producers who may not adhere as closely to their limits.
“This is a great headline number,” said Jamie Webster, a fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, who was observing the meeting. But considering the “need to secure cuts from non-OPEC and that there need to occur big contributions from countries that don’t have a great history of compliance, it starts to look smaller,” he said.
Correction: November 30, 2016 An earlier version of a photo caption with this article misspelled the name of the oil minister of Saudi Arabia. He is Khalid al-Falih, not Khaled al-Falih.