The recent invitation by OPEC for US officials to join in production freeze talks is clearly a nod to the production powerhouse Americas has become as a result of the shale revolution.
But it wasn't always that way. Just ask former US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who, 16 years ago, was the point person in talks with Saudi Arabia to boost production, which would keep US gasoline prices stable.
Richardson's tenure from 1998 through 2000 came at a much different time for both the US' relations with OPEC and its role in the world oil market.
For one, the US was producing only about 5.9 million b/d and was in the midst of a historic supply decline that would crater at about 3.9 million b/d by October 2005.
In the spring of 2000, Richardson was urging Saudi Arabia through phone calls and what he called “quiet diplomacy” to orchestrate an OPEC production increase as the Clinton administration was worried about a crude oil price spike.
That price spike had brought prices to over $34/b, a level which roughly 15 years later would create a crisis for producers and a boon for consumers.
And OPEC has also changed significantly, Richardson said.
“It's a different OPEC,” Richardson said in an interview with S&P Global Platts. “Today, they're not unified, there are more players and while the Saudis are still the leaders, they're no longer as friendly to us as they used to be nor can they totally dictate [prices].”
For the full interview with Bill Richardson, listen to the Capitol Crude podcast here: ‘Quiet diplomacy': The US relationship with OPEC oil production
Earlier this month, the Obama administration turned down an invitation from OPEC to join in the production freeze talks in Vienna.
The US government's absence at the OPEC meeting will not be a surprise to anyone. Representatives of Texas and Alaska attended a meeting with non-OPEC producers nearly 30 years ago and US producers have attended OPEC seminars in the past.
But attendance by a US government official would be “unprecedented,” said Bob McNally, a longtime OPEC observer and president of The Rapidan Group.
The US government has never participated in an OPEC meeting aimed at managing the market, McNally said. And with no direct control over US crude oil output, US government officials would have little to contribute at such a meeting.
In addition, the growth of US shale oil production has changed the way the US government views OPEC.
Bill Richardson's oil diplomacy in 2000
When OPEC reached an agreement to boost production in March 2000, Richardson spent the days leading up to that agreement on the phone with Ali al-Naimi, who was Saudi Arabia's oil minister at the time. Richardson was tasked with getting the Saudis to broker an OPEC-wide production increase to help counter the increase in crude oil and gasoline prices in the US.
Richardson told S&P Global Platts that his diplomatic focus at the time was almost exclusively on Saudi Arabia and always focused at balancing the market.
“My diplomacy was always aimed at the Saudis who were the major player in OPEC and, at that time, they always helped us,” Richardson said. “I've got to say that they always would listen to my pleas to either cut production, increase production or leave production alone. Our objective was to stabilize prices.”
But despite his frequent phone calls and visits with Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers, Richardson said he would have also rejected an invitation to take part in an OPEC meeting at the time, as the Obama administration did.
“I would have rejected it also because our policy has always been to let the market dictate prices not OPEC and not production increases and production cuts,” Richardson said.
At the same time, the importance of OPEC decisions have seemingly less relevance to US policy, at least at the White House.
A day after the 2000 OPEC decision, President Clinton led off his news conference calling it “good news for our economy and for the American consumer.”
By comparison, during a September 29 press briefing, held a day after OPEC announced the possible agreement to cut production, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest did not mention OPEC nor oil prices and was not asked a single question about it.
The relationship has changed for the better, Richardson said.
“It's better for us,” he said. “We don't want to be subject to the volatility of the Middle East, but we still have to be conscious of our friends. We want our friends in the Middle East, like the Saudis, like the UAE, like Qatar, to have good relationships with us.”
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Petroleumworld News 10/31/2016
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