This year has been a crazy ride for the oil industry, which saw the price of Brent crude seesaw from $66.87 on the first day of the year, to a high of $86.29 in early October, back to $66.28 in mid-November - almost precisely back to where we started - and then closing out the year right before Christmas at a disappointing $54.10.
Yes, typical catalysts such as inventory and capacity affect oil prices; they always have. But there were other forces at play in 2018 that significantly influenced the price of oil in 2018, and here is our list of those important individuals in 2018, and those to watch for 2019.
Fatih Birol – As head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol has made several lists in years past of influential oil figures. While he doesn’t directly control production, inventory, prices, or policy, his words - usually regarding oil demand or production forecasts.
In late 2018, the head of the IEA went further than offering gloomy oil demand figures for the coming year, issuing warnings to the world’s largest oil producers, urging them not to cut oil output, and warning the market that the higher oil prices heading into November were such that it was already high enough to dent demand.
«Currently markets are very well supplied but we should not forget that spare capacity in Saudi Arabia is very thin, therefore cutting the production significantly today by key oil producers may have some negative implications for the markets and further tightening the markets…My appeal to all producers and consumers across the world is to have common sense in these difficult days, »Fatih Birol, November 2018
Oil prices had already started to slide leading up to Birol’s plea but had rallied somewhat the four days prior. Brent stood at $66.79 on November 19 but fell sharply to $62.53 by the next day as speculators latched onto fear that oil demand might falter.
Mohammed bin Salman – Essentially the ruler of the heavyweight oil producer Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman has exerted unofficial - but significant - influence over the oil markets. His pursuit of the war in Yemen, his push for a blockade of neighboring Qatar, his attempt to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil (Vision 2030), his massive «corruption» crackdown that helped to solidify his power, and implementing a trade row with Canada.
His single biggest influence in 2018 was likely his push to extend OPEC’s production cuts - achieved largely through his deepening relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin - as higher prices are the only way MbS can reap higher oil prices, which is the only path toward continuing his costly modernization plans for The Kingdom.
«We are working to shift from a year-to-year agreement to a 10 to 20-year agreement.» – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, March 2018
Khalid A. Al-Falih – If MbS is the string-puller of the Saudi oil world, Al-Falih is the implementer—and often a more visible one at that. It is precisely that visibility which gives Al-Falih the power to sway oil prices. As Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Al-Falih has often been touted as the world’s largest influencer in the oil markets today. While we are not committed to giving him that crown this year, Al-Falih is certainly in the top 5 influencers.
His mere words to the press are quoted, tweeted, cited, and hung on by every single oil trader in the world. And like MbS, his ties to Russia, which went a long way towards rallying Russia to join in the OPEC cut extension in June, and OPEC cuts 2.0 in November, which will start in 2019.
Further, Saudi Arabia, under Al-Falih’s guidance, curtailed oil exports to the United States in an effort to manipulate oil inventories in the US - and thus influence the price of oil indirectly by changing the most watched and most transparent oil metric in the world - US inventories as reported by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the American Petroleum Institute (API).
Like others on this list, such as A. Novak and Donald Trump, Al-Falih’s power comes mostly from his reputation - and his words have sway absent even of any real policy change or action. His power also comes largely from Aramco’s professed ability to turn on and off its taps to manipulate oil’s fundamentals on a large scale. «We will meet any demand that materializes.» Al-Falih October 2018
Donald Trump – Here is the newest player on the world’s most prominent catalyst for oil price swings. For better or for worse, love him or hate him, President Donald Trump has undeniably changed the course of the oil industry in 2018, and not just in the United States. His late-night Tweets has sent oil prices falling, has sent OPEC scrambling, and has sent Saudi Arabia a different tune to sing.
Some may staunchly deny that President Trump has any real power to change oil prices, but his policy changes - from the biofuel mandate, opening up offshore drilling, his sanctions on Iran that went into effect in November, and the waivers he allowed to some of the world’s thirstiest oil consumers - have had a profound effect not just on market sentiment, but on oil’s fundamentals as well.
But perhaps his single largest influence on the oil market as his oil-related tweets, which have in 2018 caught the eye of every speculator. His tweets, particularly those that chastised OPEC for restricting output and thus manipulating oil prices, have had a significant and even immediate effect on prices.
«Hopefully OPEC will be keeping oil flows as is, not restricted. The World does not want to see, or need, higher oil prices!» – Donald Trump, Twitter, December 2018 on eve of OPEC meeting.
Nicolas Maduro – With Venezuela now definitively in shambles, Nicolas Maduro still seems bent on steering his shipwreck of a country right off a colossal waterfall, and its entire oil industry along with it. Because the country is home to the largest oil reserves in the world, the fate of its oil industry impacts in a profound way, the entire oil industry.
Maduro’s clanging cymbal of promised change has done little to allay fears that its lost production will translate into a shortage of oil elsewhere, but Venezuela’s rapidly declining production, thanks in large part to Maduro’s mismanagement and plundering of PDVSA, has bolstered oil prices by tightening supply, and has provided some relief to OPEC as they struggled throughout 2018 to meet stringent production cut quotas. Despite Maduro’s insistence that it will start to trade oil its new currency, El Petro, little has come of his grand scheme.
General Khalifa Haftar (aka Gaddafi 2.0) – 2018 has been a year of fear that major oil producers such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States would not be able to compensate for production losses elsewhere, such as Iran, Venezuela, and Libya. Granted a waiver from the original production cut agreement that OPEC hashed in late 2017, Libya was watched for much of early 2018 as the troubled country’s oil production ebbed and flowed thanks to infighting that was kept in check, for the most part, singlehandedly by General Khalifa Haftar.
Vladimir Putin – While Igor Sechin may be head of Russian oil giant Rosneft, Putin is unquestionably in control of the country’s oil policies and production. Sechin is no puppet, for sure, but is still dwarfed by Putin’s larger-than-life persona. From deals with Saudi Arabia and OPEC to curb production—the single most meaningful metric that moved markets this year—to Turkish Stream and anti-Trump quotes, Putin is decidedly affecting oil prices.
Along with Al-Khalid and President Donald Trump, Putin’s quotes in the media have sway. «President Trump has said he thinks the oil price is too high. Well, probably to some extent he’s right ... But let’s be frank, such oil prices are to some extent the result of the U.S. administration,» Vladimir Putin, October 2018.
Igor Sechin – Known to some as the Darth Vader of Russia, and arguably the second most influential man in Russia after Putin, Sechin has dispensed with his competition when it suited him to do so (Bashneft, Yukos). With this history in mind, Sechin leads and others follow. Some in Russia might consider Sechin a more powerful figure than Putin and claim that Rosneft’s rise is attributed to Sechin’s ruthless actions.
Elon Musk – Musk perhaps would shudder to find himself on a list of prominent oilmen, but this year’s list of powerful oilmen would not be complete without at least mentioning Musk’s significant impact on the oil industry. His quest to put EVs in the forefront of the world’s mind has without question pushed other auto manufacturers to develop EVs of their own, and at a quickened pace than what would otherwise have been.
This push to get more EVs on the road, and the desire of other manufacturers to not be left behind, has sparked concern in the oil industry that its days are numbered.
The last 3 on our list are honorable mentions, but their influence should not be downplayed. Their policies have undoubtedly affected the markets, but perhaps with not as much fanfare as those in our list above.
Xi Jinping – China is at the heart of the world’s oil demand, and Xi Jinping’s decision mid-June to not issue any more solar power installations tariffs, and to cut the feed-in tariff subsidy has affected oil demand in the country, by shifting its energy demand away from solar and towards oil and natural gas.
Trudeau – Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created nearly single-handedly a disaster of monumental proportions in Canada’s oil industry, by not backing pipeline expansion with enough force. This lack of support indirectly created the largest discount ever in Western Canadian Select to West Texas Intermediate, as pipeline constraints restricted the flow of WCS to US refiners as anti-oil British Columbia and oil powerhouse Alberta duked it out with trade wars of their own.
Alexander Novak – This is our third Russian on the list, and his power as Russia’s Energy Minister mostly consists of words spoken to the press. His alleged bromance with Saudi counterpart Khalid Al-Falih that helped to solidify cooperation between 2 of the 3 largest oil producers in the world has led to an alliance that is one for the history books.
As Russia allied with OPEC in the production cuts, Novak helped to create an entity that could swing prices by manipulating the world’s oil supply. Without Russia, OPEC’s power to manipulate would be severely diminished, and some would argue ineffective.