The signing of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany represents more than a geopolitical milestone. In the context of today's lower oil prices it puts additional pressure on near-term prices, but perhaps more importantly creates the potential for significant shifts within the oil industry. Iran's expanded exports--once the conditions of the deal are met--will arrive in a market quite different from the one that prevailed when they were restricted in early 2012.
These differences include an OPEC that is now engaged in a contest for global market share, rather than one focused on maintaining oil prices at around $100 per barrel. This is the cartel's response to the rapid growth of non-OPEC production, mainly from US shale, or "tight oil" formations. Based on data from the International Energy Agency, non-OPEC production has increased by 5 million barrels per day (bpd) since 2012, while global demand has grown by just 3 million bpd. The return of anywhere from 600,000 to 1 million bpd of Iranian exports would expand a global oil surplus and intensify competition.
Iran's oil traders may find that placing additional volumes with refiners will not be as easy as it would have been just a few years ago. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the likeliest home for most of this incremental supply is in Asia, where competition between Saudi, Iraqi and Russian barrels is already keen. China and India have been the largest purchasers of Iranian oil during the sanctions (see chart below) but Iran is not the only producer seeking to expand its output of similar crude oil.
Oil prices have two main dimensions, only one of which is widely understood outside the industry. Media reports focus on the absolute price level, particularly for benchmark grades such as Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI). However, differentials--the gaps in price for oils of different quality, or of similar quality in different regions--are nearly as important for producers and often more so for refiners.
Iranian oil is mainly sour (high in sulfur) and so competes principally with other sour grades, including those from Saudi Arabia, which is already at record output, and Iraq, where production is approaching 4 million bpd, compared with just under 3 million in 2012. OPEC's other big producers seem no more inclined to cut output to make room for extra Iranian oil than they were to accommodate surging US tight oil. Meanwhile, refineries in Europe, where sanctions on Iranian oil had the largest impact, are also "spoiled for choice" with various crude streams displaced from US refineries by the shale revolution.
If Iran's restored exports keep oil prices lower for longer, they are also likely to widen the "sweet/sour spread", or premium for light sweet crudes like those produced in the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, over sour crudes like Saudi medium or Iranian heavy. That would lend greater urgency to calls for an end to 1970s-vintage restrictions on exporting US crude oil, because it would expand the potential economic opportunity for US exports.
As a result of opening the taps in Iran, we could also see deeper shifts in the structure of the global oil industry. OPEC's current production policy may be targeted at US shale, but shale producers have proven themselves much more adaptable than expected to prices in the $50-60 range. The same cannot necessarily be said for new conventional oil projects with price tags in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars.
Barring another shift as dramatic as the one that rippled through oil markets last fall, we may have witnessed the end of an era in which low-cost producers in OPEC held back production to drive up prices and, in the process, made room for much higher-cost production elsewhere. Iran appears poised to go beyond its pre-sanctions exports by inviting international investment in new developments that would be profitable at current prices. If Iran's terms are attractive, the losers won't be shale producers that operate at dramatically lower scales of investment and risk per well, but big projects in places like the North Sea, which has already seen a wave of project cancellations. The recent lackluster Mexican bid round might be another signpost.
Could we end up in a few years with a global oil industry in which prices would be determined mainly by a new balance between a resurgent OPEC and US shale producers? That would be a very different world than we have experience recently, and probably one with more price volatility.
Of course before any of this could happen, the nuclear agreement with Iran would have to go into effect and be widely seen to be holding. For anyone who recalls the periodic inspection crises with Iraq in the late 1990s, that can't be a foregone conclusion, even if the agreement survives review by a US Congress that asserted its right to scrutinize the deal's provisions.