Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al-Saud, Minister of Energy of Saudi Arabia arrives for the 178th meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, Austria, on March 6, 2020.
Alex Halad | AFP | Getty Images

Disagreement within OPEC could trigger a more a volatile period for oil, with prices jumping on lack of new supply or sinking suddenly if member countries decide to release crude independently.

Oil prices initially surged to a six-year high on news that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, known as OPEC+, ended their meeting Monday with no action and no new meeting date. A proposed plan by OPEC, Russia and other allies to bring 400,000 barrels a day back to the market was disrupted by the United Arab Emirates’ objection to other aspects of the deal.

West Texas Intermediate crude futures for August traded as high as $76.98 Tuesday before falling back to settle down 2.4% at $74.53 per barrel. Many analysts had expected oil to rise on the discord among members of OPEC, and say prices could still climb despite the sell-off.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I still think $85 to $90 per barrel should be the upper end,” said John Kilduff, partner with Again Capital. “You’ll see more oil produced. They’re not going to go crazy, but they’re not going to live within the current structures. Russia will lead the charge.”

“It could become a free for all,” he said.

Some analysts had already expected oil spikes into the $100 per barrel range over the course of the next year. The feuding between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates opens a new fissure in OPEC, which now means oil could also tank if members decide to open the spigots.

“Realistically, I don’t think anybody wants to go this way. I suspect cooler heads or rational thinking will prevail,” said Bart Melek, global head of commodity strategy at TD Securities. Melek said there are some wild cards for OPEC that could affect prices. A major one is whether the U.S. and Iran strike a deal on Iran’s nuclear programming, allowing it to return more than 1 million barrels a day back to the market.

Another risk is whether the variants of the Covid virus could affect the economy’s recovery and crimp demand for travel.

OPEC and its partners were able to agree to return 400,000 barrels a day to the market starting in August. But the UAE sought to also have its production baseline increased from 3.1 million barrels a day to 3.8 million barrels, and that was the sticking point with Saudi Arabia.

After three days of meetings, there was also a deadlock over whether the deal would include an extension of the the plan to the end of 2022, which was opposed by the UAE. Without an agreement, 5.8 million barrels a day, cut from production last year, will remain off the market even as demand rises.

“I think OPEC event risk is back. We had pretty smooth sailing this year, and now this was not priced at all,” said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets. “Once people start focusing on 5.8 million barrels off the market, I think they might get nervous. How they come back will be important.” The market will be affected much differently based on whether the oil trickles back or the producing countries flood the market with supply.

The friction between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, formerly strong OPEC allies, comes at a time when the market is increasingly in need of more supply. Analysts expect the world is short of upwards of 2 million barrels a day, based on current production levels and increasing demand. That means oil is being taken from storage, and there could be increasing pressure on prices as the economy rebounds and demand rises.

The U.S. is producing about 2 million barrels a day less than it did pre-Covid, and output has remained at a steady level even as prices rise. The U.S. industry has become more disciplined, due to demands from shareholders and lenders. Oil companies also face sustainability demands and pressure to reduce carbon.

But U.S. drillers do have capacity to increase drilling. “Certainly, $90 oil would encourage a lot of drilling in not only the Permian, but in the Bakken and Rockies,” Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates said. “I think as prices creep up, one of the things [OPEC+ members] are worried about is a spike higher that would encourage lots of drilling in other parts of the world.”

Lipow said OPEC will also be careful about falling prices and the potential for even lower levels. “If prices fall $5 a barrel, they’ll come to an agreement to signal the market they’re not going to flood it with supplies,” he added.

It also comes as gasoline prices continue to rise and are nearly $1 per gallon higher than this time last year. The national average for unleaded was $3.13 per unleaded gasoline Tuesday, following a weekend where prices at the pump were the highest in seven years for the Fourth of July holiday, according to AAA. If crude prices continue to rise, so will gasoline prices.

“I think gasoline prices could remain above $3 a gallon for the balance of the summer,” said Lipow.

The White House Tuesday said there have been a number of high-level conversations with officials in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other partners.

“If prices were rising, I think that would be more of a catalyst for the White House to get involved,” said Croft. “If you have a sell-off you may have people in the administration saying why do I need to be involved in this.”

Kilduff said he does not think the situation will last much longer. “I think we’re in the last innings of it right now. I’m targeting in mid-August, you’re going to start to see gasoline demand going down because kids are going back to school. Refiners will start to dial back,” he said.

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