Dhe announcement by OPEC that, in coordination with Russia, it would reduce the quota for daily crude oil production by 2 million barrels (159 liters each) put American President Joe Biden in political and economic trouble. High oil prices are jeopardizing the Democrats’ electoral success in the upcoming American midterm elections. They also testify that the United States has lost influence over its key ally, Saudi Arabia, and it is the country that sets the tone in OPEC. Biden’s trip there in the summer did not bring the desired success.
Frustration runs high in the White House, as evidenced by the joint statement by Chief National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Economic Adviser Brian Deese. Biden’s top advisors not only fear that gasoline prices in America could rise again, but also that emerging and developing countries in particular will find it difficult to shoulder the burden of the price increase OPEC is aiming for.
The American government’s options for action are limited. She announced that she would release another 10 million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve next month and release more amounts if necessary. The 10 million barrels are part of the release program of 180 million barrels that Biden announced in March, not without success: Since early summer, gasoline prices have fallen from $5 to $3.30 a gallon (3.785 liters).
Bush blocked an Opec law
The US Treasury Department estimates that around 40 cents of the price cut per gallon can be attributed to Biden’s release, only: The Strategic Petroleum Reserve has limited capacity. If the caverns and deposits are completely filled, the stock is 713 million barrels. The stock has currently shrunk to 416 million barrels. This shows that the liberalization policy cannot be sustained to curtail OPEC’s pricing power.
Biden’s top advisors are therefore also threatening OPEC with Congress. For almost two decades, politicians from both parties have been working on a law with the catchy acronym NOPEC that would subject OPEC states to American antitrust law. The US Attorney General could then sue OPEC, individual countries or state-owned oil companies in a US federal court.
An earlier attempt to pass such a law was vetoed by former President George W. Bush. A vote in a Senate committee in May resulted in a whopping majority for NOPEC. However, such a law would involve incalculable risks – Saudi Arabia could hit back and reduce American imports and military contracts. In addition, the release from the strategic oil reserve could also be interpreted as market manipulation and thus become the subject of a lawsuit.
Anger at oil companies
According to media reports, the White House is now considering easing sanctions against Venezuela to allow the American oil company Chevron to expand production there. But the White House has since made it clear that nothing will change in the sanctions regime as long as the government there does not promise free elections.
Biden’s focus is therefore more on the domestic oil industry. He instructed the US Department of Energy to explore ways to boost domestic production. In addition to the anger at Saudi Arabia, the White House has long been resentful of listed oil companies: They apparently produce less than they could.
An analysis by the EIA (Energy Information Administration) shows that publicly traded oil companies generated more cash in the second quarter than they have in five years. But instead of investing in exploration and production, they used the money to pay down debt, buy back stock, or increase dividends. The EIA warned that crude oil production is lagging as a result. In the second quarter, public companies’ crude oil production was 9 percent, or nearly 400,000 barrels per day, lower than the last quarter before the pandemic.
The EIA estimates that private, non-listed oil companies have returned to their pre-crisis production levels. Biden has bluntly threatened US companies several times. You should finally reduce the gas prices at the gas stations. The government is apparently also considering revoking unused production licenses if they are not used within a specified period.
Meanwhile, individual politicians are calling for restrictions on oil exports in order to shield the domestic market. It was not until the end of 2015 that the United States lifted its export ban on domestic crude oil. Democratic politicians in particular are now campaigning for the ban to be reintroduced at least partially.
The export ban was a consequence of the oil crisis in the 1970s and an attempt to reduce dependence on OPEC supplies. A revival of the ban does not only meet with the resistance of the domestic industry. It would also weigh on allies dependent on the supply of energy commodities and seeking unity with the US in an attempt to scale back purchases from Russia. Experts expect that such a move would be met with Biden’s veto.
The American government is not entirely without hope. After all, there is still a chance that the announced production cutbacks will only have a limited impact. Up until now, OPEC had not met the quota it had imposed itself, because Nigeria in particular did not exhaust its supply quota due to political unrest. The tapering follows concerns that a global recession could dampen demand for crude oil and send prices sliding. After peaking at $120 (WTI Crude) in February and March, the price of a barrel of crude oil fell below $80 at times.
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