Why the Rapid Decline in Saudi Oil Production is Involuntary

Includes: USO, XLE
by: Stuart Staniford

In this post, I extend my analysis of Saudi Arabian production backwards four years earlier than my post of last week. I explain in detail how the evidence strongly suggests that since late 2004, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [KSA] has entered rapid decline of their oil production, at least for the time being.


Saudi Arabian oil production, Jan 2002-Jan 2007, average of four different sources. Annotations show important events causally influencing production, including all documented megaprojects for new supply in the the time period. Graph is not zero-scaled to better show changes.

The above graph summarizes my conclusions, which are as follows.

  • Saudi production can be divided into two eras. In the first, prior to the third quarter of 2004, KSA had spare capacity and acted as the swing producer, making large voluntary changes in their production to stabilize the market. During this era, all major features of the production graph can be well understood based on demand side needs.
  • Since late 2004, KSA have entered a new era where they cannot raise production in response to demand side needs, and instead the major features of the production curve correspond to supply side events.
  • During 2002, KSA was increasing production to accomodate increasing demand as the world recovered from the recession of 2001.
  • In 2003, there was a major spike in oil production immediately preceding and during the US invasion of Iraq: this was a voluntary action to stabilize oil prices in the face of the loss of Iraqi production. As combat wound down, and Iraqi oil production resumed, Saudi production declined back to levels slightly higher than before the war.
  • Oil prices increased due to increasing US, Chinese, etc demand in the strong economy of 2003 and early 2004. Once it became clear that oil prices had risen pronouncedly above OPECs desired $22-$28 price band, KSA initiated a large voluntary increase in production in the spring of 2004 in an attempt to bring prices back into the band. They were not able to raise production by more than 1 million barrels per day (mbpd), however, and this was not sufficient to stabilize prices, which have never returned to the price band. The band was abandoned a year later.
  • After continuing to increase production very slightly for several more months, Saudi production began to decline in late 2004. This was only arrested by the arrival of the first KSA oil "megaproject", the 800 thousand barrel/day (kbpd) output from the combined Qatif/Abu Sa'fah fields (690kbpd of new crude and condensate production). This 690kbpd arrested declines during early 2005, but never sufficed to raise production above the peak achieved in 2004. There was no sign of Saudi increases in production in response to the high prices of 2005 and since, nor to the loss of production from the Gulf of Mexico hurricanes in 2005.
  • Production began to decline again in 2005, and at greater rates through 2006. This was only arrested briefly by the arrival of oil from the 300kbpd Haradh III development in late spring of 2006.
  • If these trends were to continue, Saudi oil production would halve over the next five years. However, it seems more likely that KSA will find ways to bring smaller fields on line and start to mitigate the decline within this time period.