The geopolitics of bananas, China and over-heated rhetoric: Are oil rigs a strategic weapon? The answer is apparently yes if you are China, which has joined Russia in the league of large nations carrying big petro-spears. The South and East China seas have long been a source of friction between China and its neighbors for reasons of Beijing's naval aspirations, the promise of oil and gas riches underlying the waters, plus the occasional kerfuffle over fish. For a month, China and the Philippines have been in a standoff over a fishing ground called Scarborough Shoal. But now the gloves are off. China has begun to block imports of Philippine bananas, and to suspend tourism in the Philippines. On Monday, an anchor on China's state-run CCTV went so far as to say -- twice -- that the Philippines is in fact a Chinese territorial possession, reports Time's Hannah Beech. Two days later, we heard from Wang Yilin, chairman of the state-owned oil company Cnooc, speaking on the usually staid occasion of the launch of new oil drilling, in this case in the South China Sea off the coast of Hong Kong. "Large deep-water drilling rigs are our mobile national territory and strategic weapon for promoting the development of the country's offshore oil industry," Wang said, according to the state news agency Xinhua. Erica Downs, the China oil watcher at the Brookings Institution, told the Wall Street Journal's China Real Time blog that she suspects that Wang is addressing either domestic political or financial audiences -- seeking favor or more financial support. Look for more such tantrums given the numerous political flaps going on simultaneously in China, along with the scheduled turnover of national leaders.
Abundant oil, and the hope of serendipity: Is the problem with the oil abundance narrative -- the talk that the U.S. is on the cusp of energy independence -- that it relies too heavily on everything going right? Perhaps. Frank Verrastro -- who runs the energy program at the Center for Security and International Studies, and was formerly with Pennzoil, and before that in numerous federal government positions -- thinks that a multitude (and probably too many) stars need to line up for the abundance folks to have their way. There is much oil below ground to be sure, specifically in the shale oil of North Dakota and Texas. The hangups come in extracting it -- little matters such as the cost of production, the impact on water, and the price at which the oil can be sold. "If you are just doing energy resource development balls to the wall, then can you do this because the resource is there? Absolutely," says Verrastro -- as long as you ignore project economics, financing, government regulation, environmental concerns, required infrastructure and rates of return. John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell USA and author of Why We Hate the Oil Companies, also thinks the U.S. oil abundance narrative is optimistic. As field development proceeds, oil production will level off at some point, and not grow as far as the eye can see, Hofmeister told me. Shale oil and gas development will have to slow as it gets closer to population centers, he said. Says Verrastro: "[The forecasts are] way premature. We are in chapter 1, page 10, and some people have us at 18 million barrels by 2020."
For the Sudanese, first it was oil and now it is survival: Sudan broke into two nations last July, and since then has spent much time in virtual war with itself. Apart from the usual ethnic and religious rationale, there are economic reasons: Both states -- Sudan and South Sudan -- are in deep trouble. Before the breakup, Sudan got about 90 percent of its revenue from oil exports. In the first quarter of 2011, the country had a trade surplus of $1.7 billion, Reuters reports; but in the same quarter this year, it has a trade deficit of $540 million. Against these data, opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi is forecasting doom for the regime of his former protégé, Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. "The economic crisis has intensified and this is very dangerous. If the hungry go out in a revolution, they will break and destroy," Turabi said in the Reuters report. " ... I expect it won't take us long now." South Sudan, which received most of the oilfields in last year's national divorce, cut off oil production in January after accusing the north of stealing shipments. So, in order to stave off collapse, it has been borrowing abroad, reports Bloomberg. South Sudan secured a $100 million line of credit from Qatar National Bank, $500 million from an unidentified benefactor, and expects money from China as well. Will reason prevail? Last year, we thought it already had.
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Sudan has declared war on South Sudan, India has fired a long-range missile, yet oil and gasoline prices are down.What is going on?
Common sense has come over our much-scorned oil trader friends in New York and London.
For months, there has been a global surplus in oil and gasoline, which should mean lower prices than we have seen. Yet, because of geopolitical tension such as the trouble between Iran and the rest of the world, prices have not dropped -- until now.
Oil prices are down again today, a declining trend that seems genuine when you get no bump-up despite official war between two modest oil-producers, and a missile test by a nuclear power with menace toward China.
The turn began two weeks ago with a sharp withdrawal from the futures market by hedge fund and investment bank traders, writes the Wall Street Journal's Konstanin Rozhnov. Venezuela is unhappy about the supply bulge, which has been assisted by growing volumes from Libya and Saudi Arabia. But, short of outright war involving Iran, prices look like they will continue to moderate.
I exchanged emails with Nick Butler, a former top lieutenant to John Browne at BP and now chairman of King's Policy Institute at King's College London. In an op-ed at the Financial Times, Butler forecast a plunge in oil prices, and I asked whether he thinks U.K.-traded Brent crude -- currently trading at over $117 a barrel -- will fall as far as the $80s-per-barrel range. "Who knows?" he replied. "I think [prices] will overshoot going down, and then stabilize back at $95 to $100. But that is probably too rational." Butler does not think, like some of us, that pure good sense has conquered the market for now.
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A coming U.S. renaissance -- and an oil price crash: Citibank's Ed Morse unloads a monster, 92-page report forecasting no less than a new American Industrial Revolution. This economic resurgence is carried on the back of low natural gas prices as far as the eye can see (pictured above, hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania), in addition to a shale-oil, oil-sands, deepwater-oil boom that makes the U.S. "the new Middle East." In line with other top analysts, notably Deutsche Bank, Morse forecasts a tight global market in the next few years, notwithstanding the U.S. abundance, with the suggestion that prices will be high as well. But nirvana will arrive by the end of the decade with the convergence of U.S. oil abundance and a burst of production from west and east Africa, the Gulf of Mexico, India and the Caspian Sea. By the 2020s, we will see maximum oil prices of $85 a barrel, Morse writes in a teaser at the Wall Street Journal. There are of course potential geopolitical consequences, Morse writes:
It is unclear what the political consequences of this might be in terms of American attitudes to continuing to play the various roles adopted since World War II -- guarantor of supply lanes globally, protector of main producer countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. A U.S. economy that is less vulnerable to oil disruptions, less dependent on oil imports and supportive of a stronger currency will inevitably play a central role globally. But with such a turnaround in its energy dependence, it is questionable how arduously the U.S. government might want to play those traditional roles.
I have noted previously that some of us are suffering whiplash since just a few months ago the conventional wisdom was energy scarcity. One is inclined toward caution regarding the new narrative of abundance, such as we see in the lead story today in the New York Times, where Clifford Krauss and Eric Lipton depict a future of "independence from foreign energy sources." Morse, the dean of oil analysts, must be taken seriously. Yet the forecast oil bonanza is still largely on paper -- the crude is not pumping through the country's petro-arteries. What if oil prices drop? Will the economics still support the type of drilling described? I urge continued and watchful caution.
Go to the Jump for more on the energy boom and the rest of the Wrap.
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The news on the axis of oil -- Africa and South America: A key new travel route for oil executives is the south Atlantic shuttle between the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America. This is because, geologically speaking, they are "anologues" -- millions of years ago, the two continents were united, so that when oil is found on the coast of one, it can also be found on the coast of the other. Take this week for example. Houston-based EnerGulf Resources announced that it is drilling a supergiant 3.1 billion-barrel oilfield off the coast of Namibia, Bloomberg reports. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in northern Brazil, BP took a 40 percent stake in an offshore area held by Petrobras for an undisclosed sum of money; for BP, that is on top of a $3.2 billion investment in Brazil last year. On the South America side, this area is called the "equatorial margin," which includes northeastern Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname, write Bloomberg's Peter Millard and Rodrigo Orihuela. Companies working the equatorial margin have conviction that they can find oil straight across the sea in Africa as well. The Bloomberg writers quote Bob Fryklund of IHS CERA, a Massachusetts-based energy research firm: "It's one of the hottest trends in the business at the moment. People are marching up and down the coasts to figure out where those fan-shaped deposits are."
Yet the African continent can be perilous, as Chinese companies have discovered. South Sudan has expelled the head of the Chinese-Malaysian partnership conducting most of the country's oil production, reports the Associated Press. Liu Yingcai, chief of Petrodar (81 percent owned by the China National Petroleum Company and Malaysia's Petronas), was given 72 hours to leave after being accused of helping Sudan to steal South Sudan's oil. The alleged theft of more than 2 million of barrels underlies a ferocious row between the two neighbors. South Sudan asserts that Petrodar helped Sudan to build a dogleg pipeline that aided the alleged oil theft. It is the second recent drama involving the Chinese -- last month, 29 Chinese workers in South Sudan were abducted and held for 10 days by rebel forces. Yet, for the reasons stated above, the stakes are too high to leave. China relies on Africa as a whole for 24 percent of its oil imports, writes Reuters' David Stanway, and is not likely to pull back.
For Putin, the price of oil goes up: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is waging a furious contest for a third term as president. His opponent? Enemies abroad (mainly Americans) who, he suggests, covet Russia's oil, corrupt its citizens into traitorous behavior, and all in all wish harm to the country. To buttress his fiery defense of Russia against a potential new invasion such as Napoleon's of 1812 (yes Putin really cited the French dictator), Putin is promising to dispense billions of dollars -- for higher pay for police and doctors, for cheaper health care, and for a stronger military. The spending, and the sharp-edged confidence behind Putin's politics, both flow from the spigot of Russia's prodigious oil exports, writes the Financial Times' Charles Clover. Many of the world's petro-rulers have become bolder with the rise of oil prices, and more profligate with the revenue given the challenges of the Arab Spring. In Putin's case, it is less than two weeks before a March 4 election that has ignited unprecedented criticism of his rule. That he has resorted to populist spending places enormous demands on Russia's oil income. The state budget already required an estimated $90-a-barrel oil to break even. Now the break-even price could be $120 a barrel, Clover writes. He quotes former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov: "For Putin to have serious room for maneuver, he needs to have oil at $150 or $200 per barrel. What we have now is not enough." Finances are just one indication of a coming post-election Russian hangover. Putin's jingoism does not seem to be mere electoral politics -- with opponents now able to muster tens of thousands of supporters in the street, Putin will continue to need a bogeyman in order to rule effectively. Look for reset -- the thaw between the U.S. and Russia of the last three years -- to stay stubbornly on the back burner.
Go to the Jump for more of the Wrap.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.