Uncertainty dominates the world of oil. Behind the sector enterprises engaged in reorganisation looms a long-period ‘great game’ which will eventually see all the players involved in the major historical confrontation that marks this century – the transfer of economic hegemony from the United States to China or, more hopefully, from the United States to a multipolar world in which the EU will begin to have a role. And it revolves around oil. 

This uncertainty is reflected in the volatility of prices, which prompts speculation and hits industry. When the news that Trump tested positive to Covid 19 came out, oil immediately reacted, dropping below the $40 per barrel threshold newly regained but still below the sustainable value for many oil-producing countries and enterprises in the sector, including the most dynamic in US shale oil, the oil extracted from rocks. 


Uncertainty about the direction the pandemic is taking is again having new, violent repercussions on oil demand, while the market is still expecting increased supply. The end of the production cuts made by the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is near, and the reserves of the Gulf countries are now at the very limits of capacity. 

The sanctions brought against Iran have not had the desired effect. Behind the official figures just published by the IEA showing a considerable reduction in Iranian production (-1,3 million barrels per day in 2019), Iran has continued to produce and sell under the counter: to China, in the first place, and even to Europe – for example, to Italy. 

The production of both Iraq and Brazil is again increasing. The American enterprises lament prices falling to unsustainable levels, leaving many victims on the ground. Just to mention the major losses, after Whiting Petroleum Co. it was the turn of the giant Chesapeake, second only to Exxon Mobil, the enterprise emblematic of the success of US shale, which brought its books to court last June. 

At a less dramatic and unexpected level, we are seeing a rerun of the scenario of last April, when the collapse in demand for oil (-8 per cent) with business and transport coming to a halt was matched by a rise in the supply of US shale oil, which more than offset the OPEC reduction. 

The clash between powers and a crumbling oligopoly are also to be seen as the background to the “price war” between Russia and Saudi Arabia last April, which brought oil futures for May delivery tumbling down to $-37.3 per barrel – a negative price unprecedented in oil history. 

The surprise move made by the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who refused to cut national production to support the price level, relates to a new understanding between Russia and China; it had been brewing for some time to culminate in the 2020 anti-Trump version. 

Gas and oil are complementary for the finances of the producer countries. With the agreement on gas and construction of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, which came into operation in December 2019, Russia will be supplying China (1000 billion cubic metres) over the coming 30 years. The agreement was sealed on extremely advantageous economic terms for the Chinese purchaser, in turn helping Russia’s troubled finances, making the national budget less dependent on sales to the EU. 

The shattered dream of the United States

In political terms, however, the gas alliance turned out to be a masterly move by the Chinese president Xi Jinping. This came after the sanctions that gave Putin the possibility to deal a sharp and unexpected blow against America’s shale oil enterprises, already deep in debt, bringing the price plunging well below their production cost. It also amounted to a blow against American President Donald Trump, hitting the shale enterprises at the centre of his economic and electoral strategy. 

It had been the American dream described by Meghan O’Sullivan, a Harvard academic, oil expert, and director of the Belfer Centre Geopolitics of Energy Programme. Indeed, she defined regained US hegemony based on energy independence and built up on the new show techniques as the “American Renaissance”. 

Following the approach of most of the US experts, Meghan O’Sullivan’s thesis is summed up in the title of her book "Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens American Power”. 

But it will not work out like that. With an ironic twist of history, when the United States at last achieved the energy independence pursued throughout the 20th century a new model of energy production took shape that relegates oil to a marginal role.  

The democracy of the renewables

The oil turnabout took scholars and experts by surprise. Nevertheless, it is part of a transformation that could be foreseen by watchers observing the evidence of shifts in the geopolitical fault line that changed the energy picture at the beginning of the new millennium and are still in motion. 

The new power relations are forming within the environment of the energy revolution resulting from the production of renewable sources, opening up unprecedented prospects. This new trend, let us not forget, had come underway before the Covid 19 crisis. By 2019 the share of renewables was accounting for 40 percent of the growth of energy sources (IEA and BP estimates). 

The uncertainty now is about the phasing of the transition. The enterprises are reorganising, endeavouring to follow a line of low-carbon production, making their way to the downstream of the value chain, to refining, hydrogen and chemical production with carbon capture. Such lines have for some time been followed by the Arab countries of the Gulf, the richest and most dependent on oil revenues.   

Saudi Arabia also offers some evidence of this. The refineries of Jubail, Yanbu and Jizan are being built on local territory, while Saudi Aramco has sealed agreements with refining enterprises in China, India, Indonesia and the United States. 

The joint venture between the Saudi Arabian Oil Company and Dow Chemical formed in 2011  (analysed by Bassam Fattouk and Anupama Sen) is an example of an industrial alliance to ensure some sort of survival for oil in less polluting products, aiming to reverse the fall in oil revenue and promote local manufacturing spin-off. However, the aims of Vision 2030 seem decidedly overambitious. 

The financial markets show doubts about the effectiveness, at least over the short term, of the reorganisation of enterprises facing such liabilities as to jeopardise the chances of large-scale investments in diversified activities. Distrust has hit the entire value chain, from the upstream branch of extraction and research to the downstream, without even sparing refining this time. It has led to a 3 percent loss of weight for a sector traditionally dominant in the Standard & Poor 500 index.  

The difficulties faced by global enterprises like Chevron, Exxon, Eni, Bp, Shell and even Saudi Aramco are certainly no secret. They have long been awaiting a less unfavourable the moment to offer shares on the global market, but the market muscle of the oil oligopoly has declined. 

According to Irena (2019) estimates, the cost of solar energy has dropped by 3 US cents per kilowatt hour in the Gulf countries, lower than all the other sources, fossil and nuclear included. And in Saudi Arabia and Oman the recent auctions for wind energy production in the plants of  Dumat Al Jandal  (400 megawatt) saw the price knocked down to about 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour – a truly competitive price, even for countries where appreciable subsidies are still in place for the use of fossil fuels. 

In this shifting picture the world of renewable sources opens new prospects of potential democracy, where Africa and vast areas of the planet will be able to find autonomous energy sources, essential for independent development, and where the citizens of the most industrialised countries will bear individual responsibility for environmental choices regarding transport and energy. 

The oil-producing countries have to reckon with no few criticalities. This applies in particular to the Gulf countries, where the populations could finally free themselves from the appalling abuses they have borne for the control of their natural resources. Indeed, after the inevitable internal strife these states could move towards reciprocal recognition in conditions comparable to the Peace of Westphalia.

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