Neither Trump nor Biden can save Big Oil from its biggest problem: Too much oil

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From Pennsylvania fracking country to the deserts of Saudi Arabia, 2020 has been a brutal year for the world’s oil and gas producers.

Next week’s presidential elections won’t change that fact.

At first glance, that doesn’t seem to make sense. After all, the two candidates represent starkly different visions of the future when it comes to oil and gas, and climate change. President Trump has put fracking at the centerpiece of his reelection campaign and wants to expand drilling on federal land. Joe Biden vows the U.S. will rejoin the Paris Agreement if he wins. He also says he’ll lift sanctions on Iran and invest heavily in renewables.

In the short term, none of that will save the oil majors. Oil on Thursday hit a four-month low with Brent at $37.55/barrel, and WTI at $35.93/barrel.

“The U.S. election is across the corner, but, even though the outcome will indeed affect markets, on the short term no significant changes are expected,” wrote Bjørnar Tonhaugen, head of oil markets at Rystad Energy, this morning from Oslo. The effect on prices is “muted,” he said. The market is focused on other factors: whether Europe, for example, is headed back into lockdown—France is the latest—while U.S. stockpiles, which are at their highest level since July, aren’t helping support the price, either. Other analysts have also flagged a cease-fire in Libya, a conflict-ridden producer, which has put its production back on track.

All of these global forces point to a big headache for Big Oil: There’s simply too much oil on the market. Whoever wins the election next week won’t change that.

A COVID-19 energy economy

Oil’s biggest nemesis right now isn’t the political winds. It’s the pandemic.

In April, spiking COVID-19 infections and lockdowns plunged the world’s economies into historic recessions, crushing oil demand. The International Energy Agency dubbed the month “black April.” Meanwhile, a shortage of storage space for oil that people no longer wanted produced a financial panic that resulted in oil briefly dropping to around negative $40/barrel—a bizarre event that upturned most of the orthodoxy about how oil markets work.

The price drop produced high-profile bankruptcies and consolidations, particularly in the highly indebted U.S. shale sector, which was pushing the U.S. to record production highs before the pandemic. Going into the winter, global oil demand for 2020 is still expected to be 8.4 million barrels per day lower than last year. The scale of the global pandemic, and how it has reshaped our relationship with energy use, is beyond the scope of even the U.S. election.

But it’s not as if U.S. politics is powerless to make things worse. Traders have been flagging the future of Iranian sanctions as one of those events that could turn the energy markets upside down. The imposition of those sanctions removed an estimated 2.7 million a day from global markets. Some expect that Biden would remove those sanctions—but that would only return more oil back to global markets.

Oil markets are, at the end of the day, an extremely inaccurate, even outright misleading, tool for looking at the future of the oil and gas sector, or our global use of fossil fuels as a whole. A Trump-style, full-throated backing of the U.S. oil sector, for example, if successful, would in theory push up production—pushing prices down. That’s cheaper for the American consumer, but not better for the oil and gas sector.

On the other hand, a Biden-style push for clean and renewable energy and limits on drilling on U.S. land (the presidential candidate has been mixed on his support or lack thereof for fracking) could in theory limit the amount of oil production while renewables are still struggling to make up the gap—pushing oil prices up.

Both are also false comparisons. Trump’s support for oil and gas has not bailed out a struggling sector, nor did it breathe new life into shale—a boom that began under the Bush administration and continued under Obama with production taking flight from 2010 onwards. Even under the most ambitious political pledges, oil and gas production will not cease under a Biden administration—America is simply still too dependent. Meanwhile, renewable companies, including homegrown ones like NextEra, have gained momentum under the Trump administration, as has the stateside expansion of European giants like Iberdrola, which is turning its vast utility networks across the country low-carbon, and phasing out coal.

That’s not to downplay the impact governments, and leaders, can have on our energy systems depending on their vision for the future. Even as renewables like solar and onshore wind have become more affordable compared with conventional fuels, other potential breakthrough energy sources—like green hydrogen—remain expensive and out of reach without active government support. Vast infrastructure projects, of the kind pledged by the European Union’s green recovery plan, are of a scale that require clear government backing. The Paris Agreement, for example, requires extensive coordination among governments, which are increasingly pledging to hit net zero by 2050 (Japan and South Korea are the latest).

For the future of U.S. energy—and for the entire world—it’s difficult to overstate how much could be at stake in next week’s election. Just don’t expect to see that reflected in the price of oil.

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