Five myths about Saudi Aramco

27 May 2015

Debunking some of the recent rumours and claims about the world’s largest oil company

Over the past 12 months the volatile oil price has led to literally thousands of media articles about Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company.

Being in the spotlight is not something Aramco does that well, preferring to keep its media profile very much under the radar.

However, since oil prices started to tumble in June 2014, various narratives have started to emerge that have either painted Aramco as the oil producer’s enemy or as a bumbling behemoth lurching from one crisis to another by making rash business decisions.

Neither of these is true, but, then again, neither was some of the recent crowing from Saudi Arabian officials regarding the US shale oil sector.

To give a better interpretation of the events that are unfolding, here are five of the most popular myths doing the rounds on Aramco.

1. Aramco’s recent split from the oil ministry has left it in “disarray”

Despite some media observers expressing an opinion to the contrary, the decision to split Aramco from the Petroleum & Mineral Resources Ministry is a sound idea that will allow the company to thrive.

The only reason this has not been done sooner is down to the power and influence of Petroleum & Mineral Resources Minister Ali al-Naimi. The ageing official has been a force of nature in the kingdom’s hydrocarbons sector for many decades and, as such, was the trusted lieutenant in charge of the sector.     

However, the Oil Ministry should not be allowed anywhere near the operational running of a national oil company the size of Aramco. An oil minister’s role should be to formulate long-term strategy and acting as a buffer between Aramco’s day-to-day activities of producing, processing, transporting and selling hydrocarbons, and the government. The new structure allows for this.

The recent reorganisation may well have been a political power play by the ambitious Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman al Saud, sanctioned by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, but the logic behind it is still sound. The separation makes perfect sense.

The idea of Aramco as a de facto operational arm of the Al-Saud family has always been a worrying concept. Aramco should be left alone to make operational decisions based on sound business principals. The firm has enough to worry about already without being used as a general contractor for various vanity projects.

2. Aramco maintained high production to “punish” Iran

When the oil price started to fall last June, Aramco made a counter-intuitive move by maintaining its high production levels to keep its market share.

The conspiracy theorists immediately went into overdrive, accusing Aramco and Riyadh of purposefully keeping production high to use its huge output as a weapon with which to punish Iran and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

The reality has more to do with historical precedents and the rise of the US’ unconventional oil sector than with a covert oil war between Riyadh and Tehran, although “punishing” Iran has undoubtedly come as a pleasant byproduct.

In the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia, along with its Opec allies, decided to drop production by up to 75 per cent to arrest an alarming drop in oil prices. The result was an unmitigated disaster. The resultant gap in the market allowed the UK, Norway and Mexico to plug the hole left by Aramco and meant they became established players in the global oil market. Opec went from 48 per cent global market share to around the 30 per cent mark and has not moved from that level since.  

It was a fear of history repeating itself, coupled with a desire to make a dent in the North American shale oil industry, that has pushed Aramco into this position.   

The company has also been forecasting falling oil prices for several years, admittedly not to the level we have seen, and they have been preparing for sub-$100 oil for some time.

3. Saudi Aramco has recently “rewritten” its business plan to cope with lower price oil

Of all the recent things written about Aramco, the articles accusing the company of “rewriting” its business plan to become a more diverse company that embraces downstream and petrochemicals is the one that is likely to be causing the most mirth in Dhahran.

It has been clear since the mid-2000s that Aramco has been building the foundations that will result in the company becoming the world’s largest fully integrated energy superpower. They have been telling anyone who will listen that this has been the plan for years. Nothing has been rewritten and nothing about what they are doing now is new.  

The first incarnation of what is now the $20bn Sadara Chemical Company in Jubail was conceived more than 10 years ago, as was the 400,000 barrel-a-day (b/d)PetroRabigh refinery and integrated petrochemicals plant. The construction contracts for the recent 800,000 b/d of domestic refining capacity that has come onstream were awarded in 2009/2010 and the 400,000 Jizan refinery, which is under construction, was first conceived around 2007.

All of Aramco’s recent plans, including huge investment in its gas resources, have been aimed at vastly increasing the kingdom’s heavy industrial sectors. The cornerstone of all of these investments has been a desire to utilise the kingdom’s already sizeable refinery resources.

Job creation for Saudis has been a main driver of this strategy, but there has long been a desire to diversify revenues by Aramco and in Riyadh.

Aramco has also been ramping up its foreign investments over the last several years in key markets such as Japan, the US, China and South Korea. To state that this is in any way a new strategy is completely wrong.

4. Aramco’s plan to bury shale oil is working

Not only is it not working, but it is probably having the opposite effect, if viewed from a long-term perspective.

Aramco executives will probably look at the macro data and think that keeping prices low has had a devastating result on the US shale oil industry. Rig count is down from about 1,950 rigs in early 2014 to 957 today, according to the US oilfield services company Baker Hughes.

US shale oil production is also reported to have “topped out” and decreases at most shale oil formations are expected to start in June.

This suggests shale oil has been routed by low oil prices, but the reality is quite different. Any unconventional oil producer can make money when oil is $100 a barrel and when prices are that high efficiency goes out of the window.

Lower oil prices meant that inefficient US shale producers have been weeded out while the others have cut their cloth according to the prevalent market conditions.

Fracking is not cheap and break-even prices for most shale oil wells are about $55 a barrel. This means that any shale oil producer has had to take drastic steps to rein in their costs and has led to several recent innovations. These include ‘pad drilling’, which allows several wells to be drilled from one location, recycling water, drastically reducing drilling times, as well as introducing more structured and efficient fracking practices.

So while the short-term prospects for many shale producers are dire, the long-term prospects for the industry as a whole are certainly not. Do not be surprised if the US soon starts to export both oil and gas, and becomes a serious rival to Saudi Arabia over the next decade. It is inevitable.  

5. Saudi Aramco is on the cusp of its own shale revolution  

The Aramco hierarchy has been keen to fanfare its own plans to revolutionise its domestic energy sector by increasing its unconventional gas production, but no one working in the kingdom’s oil and gas sector seriously believes this will happen. In fact, since the drop in oil prices, any sizeable shale production is looking even more fanciful.  

It will be nearly impossible to replicate the success of the US shale revolution anywhere else, not least in the Middle East. There were so many variables that led to the US shale boom, variables that are almost entirely absent from Saudi Arabia.

The first and foremost reason is that Saudi Aramco has such abundant conventional hydrocarbon resources. It is inconceivable that they would initiate huge spending plans to produce expensive shale gas and shale oil when vast resources are already being produced at a fraction of the cost.

Much of the shale resources are also located in remote areas requiring enormous investment in infrastructure, which is not likely in more austere times. Furthermore, fracking requires large volumes of fresh water, salt water clogs up the wells, making it even more unworkable in a country that is almost completely covered in desert.

There may be one of two smaller schemes, such as the gas project planned for the north of the kingdom that will eventually produce 250 million cubic feet a day (cf/d), but even that scheme is moving slowly. There are currently no other active shale oil or gas schemes in Saudi Arabia.

Aramco is also used to drilling wells that produce vast volumes of oil for decades. How is it going to adapt to producing wells that lose 75 per cent production after 12 months? How is it going to cope with drilling 6,000 new wells every single year, which is what the US has to do at the moment just to maintain production?

The simple answer is that unconventional oil and gas probably will not get that far until the technology is at such a level where many of the current obstacles are rendered obsolete. In other words, a Saudi Aramco shale revolution will not happen for a very long time.

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