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U.S. oil production reaches 27-year high, keeping prices low

Fighting across Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and Gaza, and an accelerating economy, should mean higher oil prices. Yet crude is falling.

Six years ago, oil soared to a record $147 a barrel as tension mounted over Iran’s nuclear program, and the world economy had just seen the strongest period of sustained growth since the 1970s. Now, West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark price, has traded below $100 for 10 days, and Brent, the European equivalent, tumbled to a 13-month low.

What’s changed is the shale fracking boom. The U.S. is pumping the most oil in 27 years, adding more than 3 million barrels of daily supply since 2008. The International Energy Agency said Tuesday that a supply glut is shielding the market from disruptions. Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and BNP Paribas SA concur.

“North America has pushed out an incredible amount of crude oil that it used to import,” said Ed Morse, the head of commodities research at Citigroup. “The world doesn’t need that much.”

The U.S. imported 7.17 million barrels a day of crude in May, a 26 percent drop from the same month in 2008, according to data compiled by the Energy Information Administration, the Energy Department’s statistical arm. Foreign deliveries will meet 22 percent of U.S. demand next year, the lowest level since 1970, the agency said.

The nation’s output is forecast to climb to 9.28 million barrels a day next year, the highest level since 1972, the EIA said. The agency cut its 2014 price forecast for WTI to $100.45 a barrel Tuesday from a July projection of $100.98.

Oil markets became more resilient to the threat of global supply disruptions because of “spare capacity” and softer global demand, said Francisco Blanch, the head of commodities research at Bank of America in New York. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude exporter, has been very reactive to oil price moves resulting in markets that are the most stable since the early 1970s, the bank said in a report.

“Growth in oil demand was far outpacing our ability to physically supply oil” in the first half of 2008, said Harry Tchilinguirian, the head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas in London. “The price of oil needed to rise promptly to ration demand.”

The 2008 price rally was supported by investors pouring money into oil futures as they sought alternatives to stocks. Today, speculative interest in crude is shrinking, Tchilinguirian said.

“There was a bubble in the market in 2008,” with the view that the world was running out of oil and other commodities, Morse said. “Everything changed soon after 2009.”

Violence flared in Iraq, the second-largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, in early June as Sunni Islamist militants captured towns in the northwest and then pushed toward Baghdad. Clashes between political factions intensified last month in Libya, where oil exports have been choked by political protests.

Israel deployed forces in Gaza last month with the stated aims of quashing rocket fire and destroying dozens of infiltration tunnels. Tension between Russia and western governments has escalated over President Vladimir Putin’s backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Retail gasoline in the U.S. has dropped 22.3 cents a gallon since peaking in April at $3.696, data compiled by AAA shows. Prices are at a four-year seasonal low and capped the biggest July drop in six years as the nation’s refiners ran the most oil on record to take advantage of cheap domestic supplies.

U.S. oil production is outpacing unplanned outages that cut into global supply, said Adam Sieminski, the EIA’s administrator. Global outages affected about 3.2 million barrels a day in July, up from 1.5 million at the end of 2011, he said. U.S. output has meanwhile risen 2.61 million barrels a day since the end of 2011.

“Production is continuing to grow, and in the meantime, global demand is slowing down a little bit and efficiency gains are beginning to have an impact,” Sieminski said. “It’s a very positive story for consumers.”