OPEC, for some time, was struggling to control oil prices. Faced with competition from the fracking of shale oil in the USA, from oil sands in Canada and from deep water and conventional production by non-OPEC producers, its market power had diminished. OPEC now accounts for only around 40% of world oil production. How could a ‘cartel’ operate under such conditions?

One solution was attempted in 2014 and 2015. Faced with plunging oil prices which resulted largely from the huge increase in the supply of shale oil, OPEC refused to cut its output and even increased it slightly. The aim was to keep prices low and to drive down investment in alternative sources, especially in shale oil wells, many of which would not be profitable in the long term at such prices.

In late 2016, OPEC changed tack. It introduced its first cut in production since 2008. In September it introduced a new quota for its members that would cut OPEC production by 1.2 million barrels per day. At the time, Brent crude oil price was around $46 per barrel.

In December 2016, it also negotiated an agreement with non-OPEC producers, and most significantly Russia, that they would also cut production, giving a total cut of 1.8 million barrels per day. This amounted to around 2% of global production. In March 2017, it was agreed to extend the cuts for the rest of the year and in November 2017 it was agreed to extend them until the end of 2018.

With stronger global economic growth in 2017 and into 2018 resulting in a growth in demand for oil, and with OPEC and Russia cutting back production, oil prices rose rapidly again (see chart: click here for a PowerPoint). By January 2018, the Brent crude price had risen to around $70 per barrel.

Low oil prices had had the effect of cutting investment in shale oil wells and other sources and reducing production from those existing ones which were now unprofitable. The question being asked today is to what extent oil production from the USA, Canada, the North Sea, etc. will increase now that oil is trading at around $70 per barrel – a price, if sustained, that would make investment in many shale and other sources profitable again, especially as costs of extracting shale oil is falling as fracking technology improves. US production since mid-2016 has already risen by 16% to nearly 10 million barrels per day. Costs are also falling for oil sand and deep water extraction.

In late January 2018, Saudi Arabia claimed that co-operation between oil producers to limit production would continue beyond 2018. Shale oil producers in the USA are likely to be cheered by this news – unless, that is, Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC and non-OPEC countries party to the agreement change their minds.


OPEC’s Control of the Oil Market Is Running on Fumes Bloomberg (21/12/17)
Oil Reaches $70 a Barrel for First Time in Three Years Bloomberg, Stuart Wallace (11/1/18)
Banks Increasingly Think OPEC Will End Supply Cuts as Oil Hits $70 Bloomberg, Grant Smith (15/1/18)


Oil prices rise to hit four-year high of $70 a barrel BBC News (11/1/18)
Overshooting? Oil hits highest level in almost three years, with Brent nearing $70 Financial Times, Anjli Raval (10/1/18)
Can The Oil Price Rally Continue? OilPrice, Nick Cunningham (14/1/18)
Will This Cause An Oil Price Reversal? OilPrice, Olgu Okumus (22/1/18)
The world is not awash in oil yet
 Arab News, Wael Mahdi (14/1/15)
‘Explosive’ U.S. oil output growth seen outpacing Saudis, Russia CBC News (19/1/18)
Oil’s Big Two seeking smooth exit from cuts The Business Times (23/1/18)
Saudi comments push oil prices higher BusinessDay, Henning Gloystein (22/1/18)


Short-term Energy Outlook U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (9/1/18)


  1. Using supply and demand diagrams, illustrate what has happened to oil prices and production over the past five years. What assumptions have you made about the price elasticity of supply and demand in your analysis?
  2. If the oil price is above the level at which it is profitable to invest in new shale oil wells, would it be in the long-term interests of shale oil companies to make such investments?
  3. Is the structure of the oil industry likely to result in long-term cycles in oil prices? Explain why or why not.
  4. Investigate the level of output from, and investment in, shale oil wells over the past three years. Explain what has happened.
  5. Would it be in the interests of US producers to make an agreement with OPEC on production quotas? What would prevent them from doing so?
  6. What is likely to happen to oil prices over the coming 12 months? What assumptions have you made and how have they affected your answer?
  7. If the short-term marginal costs of operating shale oil wells is relatively low (say, below $35 per barrel) but the long-term marginal cost (taking into account the costs of investing in new wells) is relatively high (say, over $65 per barrel) and if the life of a well is, say, 5 years, how is this likely to affect the pattern of prices and output over a ten-year period? What assumptions have you made and how do they affect your answer?
  8. If oil production from countries not party to the agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC members increases rapidly and if, as a result, oil prices start to fall again, what would it be in OPEC’s best interests to do?

In the blog OPEC deal pushes up oil prices John discussed the agreement made by OPEC members to reduce total oil output from the start of 2017, with Saudi Arabia making the biggest cut in output. The amount of oil being provided is a key determinant of the oil price and this agreement to reduce oil output contributed to rising prices. However, now oil prices have begun to fall (see chart below) with Saudi Arabia in particular recording an increase in output but all OPEC nations noting that global crude stocks had risen.

Supply and demand are key here and over the past few years, it has been a problem of excess supply that has led to low prices. OPEC nations have been aiming to achieve greater stability in global oil markets. Given the excess supply, it has been output of oil that the cartel member have been trying to cut. That was the point of the agreement that came into effect from the start of 2017. However, even with the recent increase in production Saudi Arabia notes that its output is still in line with its output target. The 10 percent fall in crude prices over such a short period of time has led to renewed concerns that pledges to reduce production will not be met. However Saudi Arabia’s energy ministry stated:

“Saudi Arabia assures the market that it is committed and determined to stabilising the global oil market by working closely with all other participating Opec and non-Opec producers.”

There were already concerns about the oil market relating to a potential increase in US shale oil output. Oil producers include OPEC and non-OPEC members and so while the cartel has agreed to cut production, it has little control over production from non-cartel members. This was one of the main factors that contributed to the oil price lows that we previously saw. OPEC’s forecast for oil production from non-OPEC member has been raised for 2017 and overall production from all oil producing nations looks set to increase for the year, despite OPEC curbing output by 1.2 million barrels per day. However, despite the 10% drop, the price of crude oil ($50) still remains well above its low of $28 in January 2016.

Oil prices are one of the key factors that affect inflation and with UK inflation expected to rise, this fall in oil prices may provide a small and temporary pause in the rise in the rate of inflation. There are many inter-related factors that affect oil prices and it really is a supply and demand market. If US shale oil production continues to rise, then total oil output will rise too and this will push down prices. If OPEC members undertake further production curbs, then this will push supply back down. Then we have demand to consider! Watch this space.

OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report OPEC (14/3/17)


Saudis stand by commitment to oil production cuts Financial Times, Anjli Raval and David Sheppard (15/3/17)
Oil prices fall after Opec stocks rise BBC News (14/3/17)
Crude oil price slumps to new three-month low after OPEC supply warning Independent, Alex Lawler (14/3/17)
Opinion: Saudi Arabis has a big motivating interest in keeping oil prices high MarketWatch, Thomas H Kee Jr. (14/3/17)
Why oil prices may come under even more pressure next month Investor’s Business Daily, Gillian Rich (13/3/17)
Oil price crashes back towards $50 as Opec raises US oil forecasts The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (14/3/17)

Data and Information
Brent Crude Prices Daily US Energy Information Administration
OPEC Homepage Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries


  1. What are the demand and supply-side factors that affect oil prices? Do you think demand and supply are relatively elastic or inelastic? Explain your answer.
  2. Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate how OPEC production curbs will affect oil prices.
  3. If we now take into account US shale production rising, how will this affect oil prices?
  4. Why have OPEC members agreed to curb oil production? Is it a rational decision?
  5. What are the key points from the oil market report?
  6. How do oil prices affect a country’s rate of inflation?
  7. What, do you think, are oil prices likely to be at the end of the year? What about in ten years? Explain your answer.
  8. Should the USA continue to invest in new shale oil production?

OPEC members agreed on 30 November 2016 to reduce their total oil output by 1.2m barrels per day (b/d) from January 2017 – the first OPEC cut since 2008. The biggest cut (0.49m b/d) is to be made by Saudi Arabia.

Russia has indicated that it too might cut output – by 0.3m b/d. If it carries through with this, it will be the first deal for 15 years to include Russia. OPEC members hope that non-OPEC countries will also cut output by 0.3m b/d. There will be a meeting between OPEC and non-OPEC members on 9 December in Doha to hammer out a deal. If all this goes ahead, the total cut would represent nearly 2% of world output.

The OPEC agreement took many commentators by surprise, who had expected that Iran’s unwillingness to cut its output would prevent any deal being reached. As it turned out, Iran agreed to freeze its output at current levels.

Although some doubted that the overall deal would stick, there was general confidence that it would do so. Markets responded with a huge surge in oil prices. The price of Brent crude rose from $46.48 per barrel on 29 November to $54.25 on 2 December, a rise of nearly 17% (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart)..

The deal represented a U-turn by Saudi Arabia, which had previously pursued the policy of not cutting output, so as to keep oil prices down and drive many shale oil producers out of business (see the blog, Will there be an oil price rebound?)

But if oil prices persist above $54 for some time, many shale oil fields in the USA will become profitable again and some offshore oil fields too. At prices above $50, the supply of oil becomes relatively elastic, preventing prices from rising significantly. As The Observer article states:

It is more likely that a $60 cap will emerge as the Americans, who stand outside the 13-member OPEC grouping, unplug the spigots that have kept their shale oil fields from producing in the last year or two.

… The return to action of once-idle derricks on the Texas and Dakota plains is the result of efficiency savings that have seen large jobs losses and a more streamlined approach to drilling from the US industry, after the post-2014 price tumble rendered many operators unprofitable. Only a few years ago, many firms struggled to make a profit at $70 a barrel. Now they can be competitive at much lower prices, with many expecting $50 for West Texas Intermediate – a lighter crude that typically earns $5 a barrel less than Brent.

OPEC as a cartel is much weaker than it used to be. It produces only around 40% of global oil output. Cheating from its members and increased production from non-OPEC countries, let alone huge oil stocks after two years when production has massively exceeded consumption, are likely to combine to keep prices below $60 for the foreseeable future.


OPEC Cuts Daily Production by 1.2 Million Barrels MarketWatch, Sarah Kent (30/11/16)
How Putin, Khamenei and Saudi prince got OPEC deal done Reuters, Rania El Gamal, Parisa Hafezi and Dmitry Zhdannikov (2/12/16)
Fuel price fears as OPEC agrees to cut supply Sky News, Colin Smith (30/11/16)
OPEC Confounds Skeptics, Agrees to First Oil Cuts in 8 Years Bloomberg, Jamie Webster (30/11/16)
Game of oil: Behind the OPEC deal Aljazeera, Giacomo Luciani (3/12/16) (first 10½ minutes)
Russia won’t stick with its side of the OPEC cut bargain CNBC, Silvia Amaro (1/12/16)


Oil soars, Brent hits 16-month high after OPEC output deal Reuters, Devika Krishna Kumar (1/12/16)
OPEC reaches a deal to cut production The Economist (3/12/16)
Opec doesn’t hold all the cards, even after its oil price agreement The Observer, Phillip Inman (4/12/16)
Saudi Arabia discussed oil output cut with traders ahead of Opec Financial Times, David Sheppard and Anjli Raval (4/12/16)
The return of OPEC Reuters, Jason Bordoff (2/12/16)
‘Unfortunately, We Tend To Cheat,’ Ex-Saudi Oil Chief Says Of OPEC Forbes, Tim Daiss (4/12/16)
After OPEC – What’s Next For Oil Prices? OilPrice.com (2/12/16)
The OPEC Oil Deal Sells Fake News for Real Money Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (1/12/16)

Data and information
Brent crude prices, daily US Energy Information Administration
OPEC home page Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
OPEC 171st Meeting concludes OPEC Press Release (30/11/16)


  1. What determines the price elasticity of supply of oil at different prices?
  2. Why is the long-term demand for oil more elastic than the short-term demand?
  3. What determines the likelihood that the OPEC agreement will be honoured by its members?
  4. Is it in Russia’s interests to cut its production as part of the agreement?
  5. Are higher oil prices ‘good news’ for the global economy and a boost to economic growth – a claim made by Saudi Arabia?
  6. What role does oil storage play in determining the effect on the oil price of a cut in output?
  7. What are oil prices likely to be in five years’ time? Explain your reasoning.
  8. Is it in US producers’ interests to invest in new shale oil production? Explain.

The demand for oil is growing and yet the price of oil, at around $46 per barrel over the past few weeks, remains at less than half that of the period from 2011 to mid 2014. The reason is that supply has been much larger than demand. The result has been a large production surplus and a growth in oil stocks. Supply did fall somewhat in October, which reduced the surplus in 2015 Q3 below than of the record level in Q2 – but the surplus was still the second highest on record.

What is more, the modest growth in demand is forecast to slow in 2016. Supply, however, is expected to decrease through the first three quarters of 2016, before rising again at the end of 2016. The result will be a modest rise in price into 2016, to around $56 per barrel, compared with an average of just over $54 per barrel so far for 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below).

But why does supply remain so high, given such low prices? As we saw in the post The oil industry and low oil prices, it is partly the result of increases in supply from large-scale investment in new sources of oil over the past few years, such as the fracking of shale deposits, and partly the increased output by OPEC designed to keep prices low and make new investment in shale oil unprofitable.

So why then doesn’t supply drop off rapidly? As we saw in the post, A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2), even though shale oil producers in the USA need a price of around $70 or more to make investment in new sources profitable, the marginal cost of extracting oil from existing sources is only around $10 to £20 per barrel. This means that shale oil production will continue until the end of the life of the wells. Given that wells typically have a life of at least three years, it could take some time for the low prices to have a significant effect on supply. According to the US Energy Information Administration’s forecasts, US crude oil production will drop next year by only just over 5%, from an average of 9.3 million barrels per day in 2015 to 8.8 million barrels per day in 2016.

In the meantime, we can expect low oil prices to continue for some time. Whilst this is bad news for oil exporters, it is good news for oil importing countries, as the lower costs will help aid recovery.


IEA says oil glut could worsen through 2016 Euronews (13/11/15)
IEA Says Record 3 Billion-Barrel Oil Stocks May Deepen Rout BloombergBusiness, Grant Smith (13/11/15)


IEA Offers No Hope For An Oil-Price Recovery Forbes, Art Berman (13/11/15)
Oil glut to swamp demand until 2020 Financial Times, Anjli Raval (10/11/15)
Record oil glut stands at 3bn barrels BBC News (13/11/15)
Global oil glut highest in a decade as inventories soar The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (12/11/15)
The Oil Glut Was Created In Q1 2015; Q3 OECD Inventory Movements Are Actually Quite Normal Seeking Alpha (13/11/15)
Record oil glut stands at 3 billion barrels Arab News (14/11/15)
OPEC Update 2015: No End To Oil Glut, Low Prices, As Members Prepare For Tense Meeting International Business Times, Jess McHugh (12/11/15)
Surviving The Oil Glut Investing.com, Phil Flynn (11/11/15)

Reports and data

Oil Market Report International Energy Agency (IEA) (13/11/15)
Short-term Energy Outlook US Energy Information Administration (EIA) (10/11/15)
Brent Crude Prices US Energy Information Administration (EIA)


  1. Using demand and supply diagrams, demonstrate (a) what has been happening to oil prices in 2015 and (b) what is likely to happen to them in 2016.
  2. How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant in explaining the magnitude of oil price movements?
  3. What are oil prices likely to be in five years’ time?
  4. Using aggregate demand and supply analysis, demonstrate the effect of lower oil prices on a national economy.
  5. Why might the downward effect on inflation from lower oil prices act as a stimulus to the economy? Is this consistent with deflation being seen as requiring a stimulus from central banks, such as lower interest rates or quantitative easing?
  6. Do you agree with the statement that “Saudi Arabia is acting directly against the interests of half the cartel and is running OPEC over a cliff”?
  7. If the oil price is around $70 per barrel in a couple of years’ time, would it be worth oil companies investing in shale oil wells at that point? Explain why or why not.
  8. Distinguish between short-run and long-run shut down points. Why is the short-run shut down price likely to be lower than the long-run one?

The recent low price of oil has been partly the result of faltering global demand but mainly the result of increased supply from shale oil deposits. The increased supply of shale oil has not been offset by a reduction in OPEC production. Quite the opposite: OPEC has declared that it will not cut back production even if the price of oil were to fall to $30 per barrel.

We looked at the implications for the global economy in the post, A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2). We also looked at the likely effect on oil prices over the longer term and considered what the long-run supply curve might look like. Here we examine the long-run effect on prices in more detail. In particular, we look at the arguments of two well-known commentators, Jim O’Neill and Anatole Kaletsky, both of whom have articles on the Project Syndicate site. They disagree about what will happen to oil prices and to energy markets more generally in 2015 and beyond.

Jim O’Neill argues that with shale oil production becoming unprofitable at the low prices of late 2014/early 2015, the oil price will rise. He argues that a good indicator of the long-term equilibrium price of oil is the five-year forward price, which is much less subject to speculation and is more reflective of the fundamentals of demand and supply. The five-year forward price is around $80 per barrel – a level to which O’Neill thinks oil prices are heading.

Anatole Kaletsky disagrees. He sees $50 per barrel as a more likely long-term equilibrium price. He argues that new sources of oil have made the oil market much more competitive. The OPEC cartel no longer has the market power it had from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s and from the mid 2000s, when surging Chinese demand temporarily created a global oil shortage and strengthened OPEC’s control of prices. Instead, the current situation is more like the period from 1986 to 2004 when North Sea and Alaskan oil development undermined OPEC’s power and made the oil market much more competitive.

Kaletsky argues that in a competitive market, price will equal the marginal cost of the highest cost producer necessary to balance demand and supply. The highest cost producers in this case are the shale oil producers in the USA. As he says:

Under this competitive logic, the marginal cost of US shale oil would become a ceiling for global oil prices, whereas the costs of relatively remote and marginal conventional oilfields in OPEC and Russia would set a floor. As it happens, estimates of shale-oil production costs are mostly around $50, while marginal conventional oilfields generally break even at around $20. Thus, the trading range in the brave new world of competitive oil should be roughly $20 to $50.

So who is right? Well, we will know in twelve months or more! But, in the meantime, try to use economic analysis to judge the arguments by answering the questions below.

The Price of Oil in 2015 Project Syndicate, Jim O’Neill (7/1/15)
A New Ceiling for Oil Prices Project Syndicate, Anatole Kaletsky (14/1/15)


  1. For what reasons might the five-year forward price of oil be (a) a good indicator and (b) a poor indicator of the long-term price of oil?
  2. Under O’Neill’s analysis, what would the long-term supply curve of oil look like?
  3. Are shale oil producers price takers? Explain.
  4. Draw a diagram showing the marginal and average cost curves of a swing shale oil producer. Put values on the vertical axis to demonstrate Kaletsky’s arguments. Also put average and marginal revenue on the diagram and show the amount of profit at the maximum-profit point.
  5. Why are shale oil producers likely to have much higher long-run average costs than short-run variable costs? How does this affect Kaletsky’s arguments?
  6. Under Kaletsky’s analysis, what would the long-term supply curve of oil look like?
  7. Criticise Kaletsky’s arguments from O’Neill’s point of view.
  8. Criticise O’Neill’s arguments from Kaletsky’s point of view.
  9. Will OPEC’s policy of not cutting back production help to restore its position of market power?
  10. Why might the fall in the oil price below $50 in early 2015 represent ‘overshooting’? Why does overshooting often occur in volatile markets?