The International Energy Agency is again flogging the story about America's crude oil renaissance. So much more oil is being produced in North America that the agency predicts that the "call on OPEC crude" – the amount OPEC needs to produce to make up the balance between non-OPEC supply and global demand – will fall by 1 million barrels per day (bpd) next year. You might think that means cheaper gasoline for all, but don't be fooled. As long as America bars the export of U.S. crude, the price of road fuel will still be driven by the weak performance of dysfunctional petrostates in Africa and the Middle East.
Publishing its Monthly Report, the IEA predicts that U.S. crude output will surpass Russia in the second quarter of next year, reaching 11 million barrels per day, making America the largest non-OPEC producer and turning the tables on Saudi Arabia, the global swing producer. The rebalancing of global energy politics has been the subject of much comment, but even more striking are price developments since the beginning of the year: one global oil benchmark, North Sea Brent, has been persistently strong; the other benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, has been weak; and the U.S. wholesale gasoline price has remained high.
A steady drip-feed of news about the failure of some OPEC nations to keep oil flowing is boosting the price of Brent. On Friday, Shell declared force majeure on liftings of Bonny Light, the main Nigerian crude blend, closing the Trans-Nigeria pipeline after discovering damage caused by oil thieves. It's the fifth closure in three months of the pipeline, which carries 15 per cent of Nigeria's crude output. Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said in a recent report on Nigeria's troubled Delta oil-producing region that thieves are smuggling 100,000 barrels per day, siphoning oil from pipelines and loading it on to barges for trans-shipment on to offshore tankers. No one doubts that the highly sophisticated theft is done with the connivance of senior government officials, and the damage to infrastructure is having the twin effect of reducing Nigeria's oil output and encouraging disinvestment by the oil majors.
Nigeria's daily oil production fell below 2 million barrels in the summer, implying that the country was forgoing 400,000 barrels per day of its potential output, a loss of $2-billion (U.S.) in annual revenue for Nigeria. Fed up with the thieving and disruption, Shell and its joint venture partners, Total and Eni, are selling interests in four oil licences which produce 70,000 barrels per day. Chevron is also selling some of its Nigerian onshore assets while ConocoPhillips pulled out last year, selling its Nigerian interests for $1.8-billion. Meanwhile, Iranian oil output continues to be affected by politics, falling to 2.5 million bpd, a loss of 1 million bpd since the imposition of sanctions in 2011 and strikes and unrest in Libya have reduced by half the North African country's contribution.
America's oil bounty is merely filling the gap left by the chaos of OPEC. Without the contribution of American shale oil, it is not clear that Saudi Arabia would easily top up the global supply pot – but this is to miss the point. American crude oil is not being exported to European or Asian refineries; it is staying at home, providing feedstock for huge refinery runs by American oil companies and a surge in shipments of diesel and gasoline to foreign markets. In September, according to the IEA, America's refiners processed 1 million addition barrels per day of crude than in the same period last year.
Trade is being distorted and prices are staying high. American consumers are not getting bargain gas; despite the shale oil bonanza, gasoline hovers at a steady $3.50 to $4 per gallon, a direct consequence of America's refusal to export crude oil. The wholesale price of gasoline in New York Harbour is part of the North Atlantic oil market and tracks the price of North Sea Brent, not the domestic and cheaper WTI price. It is yet more proof that resource nationalism provides no solution to our energy problems, neither at home, nor overseas.