Thu June 9, 2011
Foreign Policy: OPEC Who?
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.
Members of OPEC will agree to increase their official production today, but that won't do much to lower prices — the plenitude of energy-related stress across the globe underscores more than ever how power has dispersed out of OPEC's hands. It's not only the civil war in Libya, and the loss of its 1.4 million barrels a day of oil exports, or the chaos in Yemen. From the South China Sea to Alberta, Canada, tempers are flared over the control and movement of oil.
The Vietnamese, the Filipinos and the Japanese are vexed over unneighborly behavior by China, which most recently severed the seismic cables of an oil exploration ship, and fired at fishing trawlers in the South China Sea. For their part, some Chinese call their neighbors plunderers and the U.S. a hegemonist. For now, southeast Asia is more worried about U.S.-Chinese friction over these confrontations than winning the debate of the moment with Beijing, and so the Obama administration has relaxed its posture of last year, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the dispute a U.S. strategic interest. I exchanged emails on this with Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think that if Chinese intimidation of oil exploration activities continues, the U.S. will have to take a stronger stand — especially if Exxon is involved. But the Obama administration hopes it doesn't come to that," Glaser said.
Fighting continues in Sudan, this time in a contest over the breakaway south's oil, writes Jeffrey Gettleman at the New York Times. Southern Sudan is set to become independent next month, and Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has taken a hostage — the entire town of Abyei — as leverage in order to obtain more oil in the split-up. The south produces about 500,000 barrels of oil a day, and though there appears to be little chance of renewed full-out war as long as the south slices off some of that for the north, there is plenty of violence for now.
In western Pakistan, the Taliban yesterday again blew up U.S. fuel supply tankers destined for Afghanistan (pictured above). Such acts do not change the global picture, but illustrate the Taliban's understanding of the centrality of oil in running the war.
A more peaceful but still hardball struggle has gone on a long time between independent-minded Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government over control of natural gas in Kurdistan. There could be a deal yet as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki relies on Kurdish political support, writes Tamsin Carlisle at the National, but not very soon. Meanwhile Canada is grappling with the U.S. over its desire to send the bitumen from its Alberta oil sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries.
And all this excludes the impact of natural disasters, such as we may see with the summer hurricane season. So what OPEC decides will help to bump prices one way or the other, but it may not be the main determinant even today.
Update: We are getting a jump in oil prices this morning after OPEC's announced decision to punt on Saudi's proposed increase in production, and keep output where it is. Traders are engaging in opportunistic buying. This should last for a day or two until the reality of an oil glut settles in again, along with the multitude of other factors influencing prices.