(The Economist) Oil traders are paying unusual attention to Kharg, a small island 25km (16 miles) off the coast of Iran. On its lee side, identifiable to orbiting satellites by the transponders on their decks, are half a dozen or so huge oil tankers that have been anchored there for months. Farther down Iran’s Persian Gulf coast is another flotilla of similarly vast vessels. They contain up to 50m barrels of Iranian crude—just what a world awash with oil could do without. The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran on January 16th puts those barrels at the forefront of the country’s quest to recapture a share of international oil markets that it has been shut out of for much of the past decade. The prospect of Iran swiftly dispatching its supertankers to European and Asian refineries to undercut supplies from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Russia helped push the world’s main benchmarks, Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI), to their lowest levels since 2003 on January 20th; WTI tumbled by 6.7% to under $27 a barrel, its biggest one-day fall since September (see chart 1).
The slide marks the latest act in a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the oil industry that is, in turn, roiling the global economy. Less than a decade ago the world scrambled for oil, largely to fuel China’s commodity-hungry growth spurt, pushing prices to over $140 a barrel in 2008. State-owned oil giants such as Saudi Aramco had access to the cheapest reserves, forcing private oil firms to search farther afield—in the Arctic, Brazil’s pre-salt fields and deep waters off Angola—for resources deemed ever scarcer. Investors, concerned that the oil majors could run out of growth opportunities, encouraged the search for pricey oil, rewarding potential future growth in production as much as profitability.
Now the fear for producers is of an excess of oil, rather than a shortage. The addition to global supply over the past five years of 4.2m barrels a day (b/d) from America’s shale producers, although only 5% of global production, has had an outsized impact on the market by raising the prospects of recovering vast amounts of resources formerly considered too hard to extract. On January 19th the International Energy Agency (IEA), a prominent energy forecaster, issued a stark warning: “The oil market could drown in oversupply.”
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