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Saudi Arabia pumps oil flat out in Citi, Goldman's new oil order

[LONDON] Not content with the blow it's dealt to US oil drillers, Saudi Arabia is set to escalate the battle for market share by raising production to maximum levels.

The world's largest oil exporter has already increased output to a 30-year high of 10.3 million barrels a day in a bid to check growth from nations including the US, Canada and Brazil. It will add even more to the global glut, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Citigroup Inc predicts the kingdom will push toward its maximum daily capacity, which the bank estimates at about 11 million barrels, in the second half of 2015.

Saudi Arabia steered the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in November to protect its market share in the face of swelling US crude output, rather than cut supplies to shore up prices as it did in the past. Having abandoned the role of swing supplier - adjusting production in line with demand - the kingdom will maximise sales to increase pressure on producers outside the group, the banks said.

"If you are Saudi Arabia and you're looking at the new oil order we live in, you would go to full capacity," Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs in New York, said by e-mail on June 15. "The world has come around to the realisation that the US shale barrel is the swing barrel."

As a result of Saudi pressure, US drillers have reduced the number of operating oil rigs for a record 27 weeks to the lowest level in almost five years, according to Baker Hughes Inc, and oil stockpiles have shrunk as well.

Brent crude plunged to a six-year low of US$45.19 a barrel in January following Opec's refusal to cut production. The international benchmark has rebounded about 40 percent since then with the slowdown of hydraulic fracturing in US shale formations. The grade traded at US$64.32 at 12:07 pm Singapore time on Friday.

Opec agreed on June 5 to retain its collective output target of 30 million barrels a day, although it has surpassed that level for 12 months straight, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Global supply exceeded demand by 1.8 million barrels a day in the first quarter, according to the International Energy Agency.

While most of Opec's 12 nations are already producing at maximum levels, Saudi Arabia - the biggest member and leader of the group's market strategy - has for years kept fields in reserve capable of producing millions of barrels a day, to be deployed during times of supply disruption. The incentive to keep holding this spare capacity is waning, according to Citigroup.

Estimates vary on how high Saudi production might go. Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi reiterated in St Petersburg Thursday that his country has about 1.5 million to 2 million barrels of daily reserve capacity and is ready to increase output if demand rises.

The IEA, a Paris-based adviser to industrialized nations, assesses the full capacity at 12.3 million. Saudi Arabia's decision not to push beyond 10 million during the 2011 crisis in Libya suggests the maximum is closer to 11 million, said Seth Kleinman, head of energy strategy at Citigroup.

"The clear implication of Saudi Arabia's new oil policy of pressuring high-cost producers is for them to increase production and exports," Mr Kleinman wrote in an e-mail on June 15. "With an increasingly compelling picture of lower oil prices over the next 10 to 20 years, it makes sense for Saudi to use it all and use it now."

The kingdom has told Opec's Vienna-based secretariat that it increased output by 697,000 barrels a day between February and May. This isn't really a signal that Saudi Arabia intends to batter rival suppliers even harder, according to BNP Paribas SA. It has been providing oil two new refineries at Yanbu and Jubail, with combined capacity of 800,000 barrels a day, and needs to accumulate inventories before its summer demand peak, the bank said.

"Any ramp up in Saudi production is to service increased domestic demand, rather than increase exports," Harry Tchilinguirian, head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas in London, said by e-mail. Long-term prices are already low enough to deter investment in high-cost Canadian oil sands or the North Sea, he said.

Citigroup points to other signs that the Middle Eastern country is taking a more aggressive stance, bolstering output because of concerns that, even at lower prices, non-Opec supplies will still expand and global demand is peaking.

The number of rigs drilling for oil in Saudi Arabia rose to a record of 81 in April, an increase of more than a fifth since the start of the year, according to data gathered since 1995 by Baker Hughes.

The lower outlook for prices "turns oil in the ground in Saudi from an appreciating resource into a depreciating resource," said Citigroup's Mr Kleinman. "If it's depreciating, you produce it all as fast as you can."

BLOOMBERG