Why oil decline could get ugly again


By Patti Domm

Still drilling at four-decade highs, the U.S. oil industry could help drive another price collapse in crude this spring.

OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem el-Badri told a conference this past weekend that the cartel’s policy has hurt the U.S. shale oil industry and triggered a global reduction in capital spending that could ultimately lead to a shortage—and higher prices.

The U.S. industry, however, has not slowed its high levels of oil production, despite OPEC’s best efforts to curb drilling with lower prices. The U.S. has pumped more than 9 million barrels a day since early November, and last week it produced a multidecade high of 9.32 million barrels. Industry output has not been at such a level on a sustained basis since the 1970s.

Oil analysts say the strong production in the U.S. should ultimately wind down, as the output of some wells in operation declines and more wells are shut in. But for now, as seasonal factors like refinery maintenance affect demand, U.S. production could be a catalyst for even lower prices and a new bottom for crude.

“You could touch a surprisingly low price sometime in the next month or two,” said Citigroup energy analyst Eric Lee. “As we get into summer, refineries come back from maintenance. Demand could pickup stronger than it was before the rig cuts and capex cuts, and globally there will be capex cuts starting to have an effect.”

Lee and other analysts said West Texas Intermediate crude, at $50 per barrel Monday, could easily head toward $40 a barrel. The strong dollar is also a factor in oil’s weakness.

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