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COVID-19's oil price war

Published by , Editor
Hydrocarbon Engineering,

The year 2020 brought a tectonic shift in oil markets. By early September, COVID-19 had infected over 27.3 million people and caused over 893 000 deaths. There are approximately 1.6 million cases in the Middle East, with all countries in the region, including the major oil producers, being affected. In essence, COVID-19 launched an oil price war on the entire world, without any diplomatic considerations.

COVID-19 caused a sharp drop in oil demand. Travel was curtailed, and many countries around the world closed down the economic activities that were deemed most likely to spread the virus. In the absence of vaccines and treatments, the main tools available to prevent infection were (and remain) physical distancing, methodical sanitising, and testing. The drop in demand had an immediate impact on the oil industry. It was impossible to reduce production immediately, which caused major strains on infrastructure. Storage tanks and pipelines filled rapidly, and oil tankers were used increasingly as floating storage. Moreover, refinery optimisation became difficult, given that the structure of demand changed so quickly. Gasoline and diesel demand fell, but jet fuel demand dropped even more precipitously as travel bans were launched and airlines grounded their fleets.

With the world still mired in the COVID-19 pandemic, it is impossible to see the end, and impossible to say what the ‘new normal’ will look like. Even before the virus hit, the oil market was facing change. Oil demand growth was slowing in many countries, and demand was sliding downwards in many of the European countries that had been among the largest importers of Middle Eastern oil. Oil prices had been under steady pressure from oversupply. Light tight oil (LTO) production continued to grow in US shale plays, and the US surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the largest producer in the world. Middle Eastern producers grew increasingly concerned about lost market share.

OPEC and allied producer countries, working together in what is called the ‘OPEC+’ group, collaborated to support oil prices by cutting production. Saudi Arabia continues to lead this effort. Initially, the OPEC+ group worked to keep oil prices in the vicinity of US$50 – US$60/bbl. When prices sagged, it was often possible for the OPEC+ group to hold a meeting, stoke market interest, and watch prices strengthen again. The COVID-19 pandemic changed this; it seemed there was nothing left that OPEC+ could say that would prop up prices, and markets witnessed a new phenomenon: the futures price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude dropped into negative territory, closing on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) at -US$37.63/bbl on 20 April 2020. The situation remains in flux.

COVID-19 and the Middle East

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a massive shift in global oil markets, with major impacts on Middle Eastern countries. There are coronavirus cases in each and every country in the Middle East. Indeed, for a time, Iran was one of the critical focal points in global infections. Within the Middle East, Iran is the country with the highest number of cases (391 112) and deaths (22 542).

Written by Nancy Yamaguchi, Contributing Editor.

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue of Hydrocarbon Engineering. To read the full article, view the full issue here. The issue also includes articles on process safety management and implementation, water treatment, sulfur, LNG, gas sampling/analysis, simulation, emissions, and methods to optimise refinery hydrogen production on steam methane reformers.

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