Trump’s Disputed Claim of Saudi, Russia Oil Cuts Jolts Markets
Trump, who had been working the phones over the past two days after oil prices plunged to a near 20-year low, said on Twitter that he expected Saudi Arabia and Russia to cut output by as much as 15 million barrels. Trump didn’t say the cut would be per day, but markets interpreted the tweet as such.
Immediately following Trump’s tweet, Saudi Arabia said it had called an “urgent meeting” of the OPEC+ alliance that includes Russia, as well as other unnamed nations, to discuss a “fair agreement,” signaling it would only cut output if others do so.
One person familiar with the Trump administration’s discussions with the Saudis said there was widespread internal confusion about what the president meant by his tweet and that the figures he posted may not be reliable. Conflicting messages from the administration -- the president has said he likes low gas prices, while Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and others have urged the Saudis to cut production -- have undermined the U.S. government’s leverage, the person said, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
In his tweet Wednesday, Trump described a Saudi-Russia deal to cut crude output as “good (GREAT) news for everyone!”
Trump also said he had spoken to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had in turn spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the conversation hadn’t happened and that no production cut had been agreed with the Saudis.
The White House declined to comment on the tweets. Crude oil futures in New York surged as much as 35%. Prices have since retreated and were up about 21% at $24.58 a barrel at 1:39 p.m.
Ryan Sitton, one of three commissioners at the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil industry, said he had spoken with Russia Energy Minister Alexander Novak about a 10 million-barrel-a-day cut to global supplies. Sitton has been pitching a plan for days that would have the U.S. and OPEC working to cut production together.
Before Thursday, the U.S. president had signaled some ambivalence about the oil price war. He’s remarked that low prices at the pump for American consumers amounts to a tax cut, while also saying he didn’t want the U.S. shale drilling industry to collapse.
In a call with Putin earlier this week, the two leaders agreed that “stability” was important for energy markets, according to a White House statement.
Riyadh has until now made clear it’s ready to cut production provided that other big oil producers, including some that aren’t part of the OPEC+ group like the U.S., Canada and Brazil, also reduce their output. OPEC+ refers to a previous alliance between OPEC and Russia to set production levels.
Russia’s refusal in early March to cut production triggered the oil price war, with the kingdom responding by increasing its output to a record high, above 12 million barrels a day.
Mexico’s energy minister said in a tweet that the nation is in communication with oil-producing countries and that it was “good news” that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia appear to be on “the same track.”
Tariffs, U.S. Production Cut
The White House has considered tariffs on foreign oil imports to protect U.S. producers, though the idea is opposed by some top Trump advisers led by Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, according to people familiar with the matter.
The idea of a U.S. production cut, probably executed by capping exports, is also on the table at the White House, though many oil industry representatives have warned that the approach would cause the U.S. to cede the very “energy dominance” Trump has repeatedly celebrated.
A chief argument is that dialing down U.S. production is not aligned with the president’s “America First” agenda, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing lobbying strategy.
“It’s not clear what mechanism the White House could use, and I don’t think a lot of the tools that have been publicly reported would have the effect of cutting production,” said Katie Bays, co-founder of Washington-based Sandhill Strategy LLC.
Restricting exports would likely be the most effective method of scaling down U.S. production, she said. That, coupled with letting producers use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as storage, “would functionally seem to work for the next few months to take oil off the water,” Bays said.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department announced on Thursday that it will make 30 million barrels of storage capacity available to U.S. oil companies.
On the state level, Texas is weighing whether to limit the amount that its wells are able to produce. Sitton has said he supports coordinating a response with Saudi Arabia and Russia, though such a plan has garnered criticism from industry groups and some producers.
Before Saudi Arabia called for an emergency meeting with non-OPEC members in the G-20, Sitton had said he was invited to the next gathering of OPEC+.
Saudi Arabia and Russia have yet to agree to the size of any production cut, according to an OPEC+ delegate familiar with the conversations. Any curbs will be conditional on every major oil producer also agreeing to reduce production, the person said, asking not to be named discussing diplomatic conversations.
Saudi Arabia wants countries that aren’t part of the OPEC+ alliance to join in any future pro-rationing. Although Riyadh hasn’t drawn up a formal list, in the past OPEC+ had invited big American oil producers, Brazil and Canada to its meetings. Both Canada and Brazil have previously declined.
Trump is scheduled to speak with the leaders of U.S. oil producers and refiners on Friday. One industry leader said the president may have been motivated to remark on the surplus oil production because the U.S. is literally running out of physical space to store crude.
“I think something like this was inevitable because there is nowhere to put the oil,” said Dan Eberhart, a Trump donor and chief executive of drilling services company Canary Drilling Services. “I think this is out of necessity, not out of gamesmanship.”