Oil analysts predict that the price could fall below $40 before beginning to rebound. But even optimists say $70 a barrel by the end of the year is highly doubtful.
Why is the price of oil dropping so fast? Why now?
This a complicated question, but it boils down to the simple economics of supply and demand.
United States domestic production has nearly doubled over the last six years, pushing out oil imports that need to find another home. Saudi, Nigerian and Algerian oil that once found a home in the United States is suddenly competing for Asian markets, and the producers are forced to drop prices.
On the demand side, the economies of Europe and developing countries are weakening and vehicles are becoming more energy-efficient. So demand for fuel is lagging a bit.
For starters, oil-producing countries and states. Venezuela, Iran, Nigeria, Ecuador, Brazil and Russia are just a few petrostates that will suffer economic and perhaps even political turbulence. Persian Gulf states are likely to invest less money around the world, and may cut aid to countries like Egypt.
In the United States, Alaska, North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana will face economic challenges. Some smaller oil companies that are heavily in debt may go out of business, pressuring some banks that lend to them.
A central factor in the sharp price drops, analysts say, is the continuing unwillingness of OPEC, a cartel of oil producers, to intervene to stabilize markets that are widely viewed as oversupplied. Prices of OPEC’s crude benchmark have fallen about 40 percent since the organization declined to cut production at a late November meeting in Vienna.
Iran, Venezuela and Algeria have been pressing the cartel to cut production to firm up prices, but Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other gulf allies are refusing to do so. At the same time, Iraq is actually pumping more.
Saudi officials have said that if they cut production and prices go up, they will lose market share and merely benefit their competitors. They say they are willing to see oil prices go much lower, but some oil analysts think they are merely bluffing.
The oil minister of the United Arab Emirates added to the downward pressure on prices on Tuesday when he suggested at a conference in Abu Dhabi that it was up to shale oil companies in the United States and other high-cost producers to cut their output.
Is there a conspiracy to bring the price of oil down?
There are a number of conspiracy theories floating around. Even some oil executives are quietly noting that the Saudis want to hurt Russia and Iran, and so does the United States — motivation enough for the two oil-producing nations to force down prices. Dropping oil prices in the 1980s did help bring down the Soviet Union, after all.
But there is no evidence to support the conspiracy theories, and Saudi Arabia and the United States rarely coordinate smoothly. And the Obama administration is hardly in a position to coordinate the drilling of hundreds of oil companies seeking profits and answering to their shareholders.
When are oil prices likely to recover?
Not anytime soon. Oil production is still increasing in the United States and some other countries. Many Wall Street banks are predicting that the oil price could fall as low as $40 a barrel in the coming months.
But production is likely to begin declining in the second half of the year, and then crude prices will also begin to recover. The history of oil is a history of booms and busts followed by more of the same.
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