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No Free Rides For U.S. Onshore Producers, Says Saudi Energy Minister

Following a two-year oil price war that sharply disrupted global output and bankrupted dozens of North American operators, Saudi Arabia's energy minister warned Tuesday that the decision by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to temporarily reduce output doesn't mean a free ride for anybody.

Khalid Al-Falih, minister for energy, industry and mineral resources, spoke in Houston on the second day of CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Saudi Arabia is the lead member of OPEC, whose cartel members last winter adopted a formal agreement to reduce production to under 1.8 million b/d.However, the agreement, set to be reviewed in May, is by no means a permanent pullback nor a signal that U.S. unconventional operators can turn up the dial, the energy minister said.

"We will not bear the burden of free riders," Falih said. "Saudi Arabia will not allow itself to be used by others. My colleagues have heard that privately, and now I'm saying it publicly."

The OPEC pact proved an impetus to prices and to the North American rig count. Whether the pact continues in some form beyond this spring depends on how far crude oil inventories decline -- and the level of cooperation by affiliated oil producing countries like Russia to reduce output.

"The imperative of adequate future supplies is...why we welcome the return of investors to U.S. shale -- regardless of what you may hear," Falih said. "Saudi government policy has always taken the long view of the petroleum sector, whether it's investing in the Kingdom's infrastructure, optimizing the productive life of our reservoirs, developing our industry professionals and new technologies, or strengthening the relationships we enjoy with our partners, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders."

Despite the downturn, the Saudis have continued capital spending in oil and gas projects, which has resulted in the drilling rig count remaining near an all-time record.

"The more of us who embrace this approach of continuing to prudently invest across the petroleum value chain regardless of short-term volatility, the better equipped we will be -- individually and collectively -- to survive the inevitable market cycles in the long run," Falih told the audience.

The global oil inventory did not decline as much as expected in January and February, Falih said. The Saudis also are disinclined to support long-term production cuts because "history has shown that market intervention and the response to structural shifts is largely ineffective..."

Intervening in OPEC policy is discouraged "to alleviate the impact of long-term structural imbalances, as opposed to addressing short-term aberrations" that include economic recessions, financial crises and political turmoil.

Regardless, worldwide oil demand is not going to peak anytime soon, said the energy minister. Climate change policies and fuel-efficient technologies have done little to quench an "insatiable thirst" for oil. Peak oil demand projections also are "misguided" and could discourage "trillions of dollars in investment needed to underpin essential oil and gas supplies."

Under-investing in new energy resources "amounts to nothing less than compromising the world's energy security by squandering staggering quantities of our planet's natural energy endowment, which in turn will create heightened market volatility, including damaging price spikes, and more acute energy poverty in the developing world."

There are "green shoots" of a recovery in investments, but the enormous potential of U.S. unconventionals may discourage large, long-term projects.

"I'm still not seeing the confidence...I would love to see some of that investing and funds going in short-cycle projects shifting to the long cycle because in the short term, we're well supplied and and we have a large inventory glut."

Although the Middle Eastern Kingdom has its critics, the Saudis have a "vested interest in the robust health of the U.S. petroleum sector and the broader American economy," Falih said.

"Saudi government and private sector investments in the U.S. are vast, and we will continue to strengthen our presence here, including multiple research centers, a number of petrochemical opportunities" for Saudi Basic Industries Corp., or Sabic, and Saudi Aramco's flagship investment in Motiva Enterprises.

On Tuesday Royal Dutch Shell plc and Aramco finalized an agreement to divide Motiva's assets, which include two refineries in Louisiana and the largest refinery east of Houston in Port Arthur. The combined refining capacity of the three sites is about 1.1 million b/d, and the Port Arthur refining complex also operates a 40,000 b/d base oil manufacturing plant, one of the largest in the world.

Dividing the assets should "provide a greater degree of autonomy for Aramco to expand the strong platform it has built over nearly three decades in the American downstream sector," Falih said. "Such an expansion is indicative of the alignment between the United States of America under the Trump administration and the Kingdom's energy strategies and policies."

The Saudis also welcome  the Trump administration's "attention to strategic energy issues, in particular its pragmatic and inclusive approach to developing all sources to build a diverse energy portfolio, and their pro-business and pro-petroleum sector policies." In addition, Falih said he looked forward to working with fellow Texas A&M University alum Rick Perry, who now leads the Department of Energy.

"Saudi Aramco was the original bridge between our two nations, playing a pivotal role in establishing deep energy, business and people-to-people relations," Falih said. "As we continue our national journey of wide-ranging transformation, next year's initial public offering of a portion of Saudi Aramco is the centerpiece of the broader Vision 2030 framework, and I believe that Aramco going public will create many additional opportunities for engagement and investment across the world -- but definitely here in the United States."

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