OPEC was organized in the early 1960s by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Venezuela with the primary goal of unifying the five countries' oil export policies — and hopefully dictating a high price for their oil. The five countries certainly possessed that power when the cartel was initially formed, and while the cartel still produces about 40 percent of the world's oil, OPEC's dominance has declined over the years. Today, only Saudi Arabia and to a certain extent the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait retain the ability to voluntarily adjust production levels. OPEC's other members — Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador and Angola — must maintain production to finance their national budgets. Effectively, this means that OPEC wields nowhere near the power it once did. Even a producer of Saudi Arabia's size is barely able to change the price of oil through boosting or cutting production.
A new wave of oil production outside the cartel has already hit. Production in the United States has increased to an estimated 8 million barrels per day — the highest level since the 1980s. Elsewhere, production is set to take off in Canada and potentially Brazil. At the same time, increased production outside OPEC is dwarfed by the ambitious expansion plans put forward by OPEC members Iraq and Iran. While production outside the cartel is manageable, together with Iraq and Iran's plans it could represent a significant threat to oil prices in the latter half of the decade.
Iraq and Iran's Ambitions
Iraq's energy sector has been revitalized after the past five years and is now producing nearly 3.5 million barrels per day. Its oil ministry has set several ambitious goals, including production hitting 9 million to 10 million barrels per day by 2020. Iran, too, sees prospects for boosted production on the horizon. Complementing the negotiations with the United States on a possible long-term rapprochement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has started a significant reform campaign hoping to bring oil production back to the pre-sanction level of 4.2 million barrels per day within six months and increase it to the pre-revolution level of 6 million barrels per day within 18 months. To be clear, both goals are not attainable within their respective time frames, but significant increases are possible.
The amount of production that comes online in Iraq will largely depend on two factors. First, the political system and violence will shape the pace of investment and regulatory procedures, such as issuing contracts and permits. Second and more important, there are logistical limitations to bringing online that level of production in such a short period of time. Some of these limitations can be overcome with proper coordination between international oil companies, oil services providers, the Shia surrounding the Basra region and the various political interest groups in Baghdad. Adroit cooperation between all of these parties is unlikely, meaning Iraq will fall short of Baghdad's lofty goals, but Iraq can reach about 5 million to 6 million barrels per day by 2020, and closer to 6 million to 6.5 million barrels per day within a decade.
For Iran, the challenge is somewhat simpler, since its limitations are largely caused by external sanctions. As seen in other countries, typically when oil production has been interrupted following regime change, sanctions and other causes, production levels rarely reach the level achieved prior to the disruption. However, should sanctions be removed, Iran could quickly revive about half of its offline production within 12 to 18 months — about 500,000 to 750,000 barrels per day. In the longer term, there are some reasons to believe that Iran could buck the trend and increase its production back to previously achieved levels, and perhaps even increase it, but the time frame would be measured in years, not months. All of this, of course, is subject to geopolitical events that could slow the process down or stop it entirely — such as internal backlash in Iran and a slow timetable for negotiating with Washington. After bringing shut-in production back online, Iran (like Iraq) is more likely to slowly increase its daily oil production by about 250,000 to 300,000 barrels per year, pushing Rouhani's goals to after 2020.
OPEC Going Forward
OPEC is facing short-term and long-term challenges. In the near term, rising production in the United States and Canada has been unexpectedly quick — increasing by 1 million barrels per day in each of the past two years. Although most of the U.S. increase has been offset by production taken offline due to instability in Libya, added U.S. exports have already forced Saudi Arabia to reduce production levels at times to maintain prices. U.S. production is set to grow by another 1 million barrels in 2014, potentially straining OPEC's preferential price points.
In the longer term, Iran and Iraq's production is the key issue. Should Iran and Iraq together boost production to a reasonably achievable level of 11 million barrels per day by 2020, that would represent an increase of 5 million to 6 million barrels per day above present levels. OPEC's production quotas have already been a source of tension among its members, but producers have always found ways to skirt around them. That may no longer be possible. While Iran's domestic consumption will increase significantly, the potential export increases are still too high for Saudi Arabia to offset. This will cause stress within the organization among regional rivals Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia may ask Iran and Iraq to voluntarily limit export growth, but without other incentives there is no reason to believe they would do so when it is in their short-term economic interest to boost exports as much as possible.
Increased exports by Iran and Iraq also play into the broader rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran over issues such as the Syrian civil war and Iranian influence in Saudi Arabia's border regions as well as its oil-producing Shiite-dominated Eastern Province. Historically, Saudi Arabia has argued for increased production from the cartel to preserve OPEC's market share, since high prices have helped encourage alternative energy development elsewhere, whereas Iran and Iraq have argued for moderate production levels and strong prices. Additionally, while Saudi Arabia can afford to sell oil at $85 per barrel, many of the governments surrounding it need prices at or above $100 per barrel, and Riyadh does not want to see its neighbors engulfed in even more turmoil than they already are due to lower oil revenue. Iran and Iraq are pursuing this boost for their long-term production and believe they can do so without reducing prices by relying on increased demand from developing Asian markets.
Asia is now the world's biggest net importing region — bigger than Europe and North America combined. Naturally, this has led to increased codependence between OPEC and developing Asian countries, principally India and China. Indeed, China has massive projects with Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. China's footprint has expanded dramatically in Venezuela and it imports about 15 percent of its oil from OPEC member Angola. India has also deepened its connections to OPEC countries and has emerged as Nigeria's biggest customer.
As OPEC's biggest customer, Asia will continue its strong demand in the near future, and so stress on OPEC will not necessarily mean lower oil prices. The impact on long-term prices is less certain, however; the price will be determined not only by the size of Asian growth in the future, but by global oil supplies in non-OPEC countries as well. While OPEC historically has been used as a political tool to increase oil prices or place an embargo on exports, as can be seen from the 2008 price spike, OPEC's modern challenge is more concerned with keeping oil prices reasonably low, not artificially raising them or embargoing oil. In order to preserve its long-term health, OPEC will need to preserve relatively low oil prices, both to ensure that developing markets in Asia can afford to keep buying the oil and to prevent alternatives such as shale oil, electric cars or natural gas-to-liquids technology from becoming more economically feasible. Furthermore, tempered oil prices for consumers in Asia will only reinforce the region's economic growth, contributing to increased demand for OPEC's oil.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated OPEC's member countries and mischaracterized production quotas.