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Last Updated: March 15, 2012
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Who are the major players supplying the world oil market?

The world oil market is complicated. Companies are often thought of as the primary actors in this market, but governments play a large role as well. To answer this question, we'll explore the role oil companies and governments play in the world oil market and their interactions.
Did You Know?

The United States has no national oil company. The largest three U.S.-based international oil companies (ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips) are accountable to their shareholders, not the United States government.

In 2010, the world's top three national oil companies (NOCs) by share of world production were: Saudi Aramco (12%), National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) (5%), and PdVSA (Venezuela) (4%).

The top three international oil companies (IOCs) by share of world production were: Exxon Mobil (3%), BP (3%), and Royal Dutch Shell (2%).

OPEC members held over 70% of proven world oil reserves as of 2010.
Pie chart showing:

Did You Know?

Each OPEC country has a national oil company (NOC).

Ecuador and Venezuela are the two members of OPEC in the Western Hemisphere.

OPEC members produced 41% of the world's total oil supply in 2010.
Pie chart showing:
Did You Know?

"OPEC" and "Persian Gulf" countries are not the same.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, was organized in 1960 for the purpose of negotiating with oil companies on matters of oil production, prices, and future concession rights. Of the 12 countries currently in OPEC, only 6 of them are in the Persian Gulf.
OPEC Persian Gulf

Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

Outside oil companies have limited or no access to most of the world's proven oil reserves.
Pie chart showing:

Although international oil companies (IOCs) are often thought of as those most responsible for world oil production, it is national oil companies (NOCs) that actually control the majority of proven oil reserves (85% in 2010) and current production (at least 55% in 2010).
In 2010, 100 companies produced 87% of the world's oil. Of the total volume of oil produced by these 100 companies , national oil companies accounted for 55% of production.
Pie chart showing: World Oil Production by type of company, 2010
Different types of oil companies operate differently

There are three different types of companies that currently supply crude oil to the world market. The distinctions among these three types of companies are important because each has different general operational strategies and production-related goals.

International oil companies (IOCs), including ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell are entirely investor-owned and primarily seek to increase shareholder value and make investment decisions based on economic factors. These companies typically move quickly to develop and produce the oil resources available to them and sell their output in the global market. Although these producers are affected by the laws of the countries in which they produce oil, all decisions are ultimately made in the interest of the company, not a government.
National oil companies (NOCs) that operate as an extension of the government or a government agency, include Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia), Pemex (Mexico), and PdVSA (Venezuela). These companies support their governments' programs financially and/or strategically. They often provide fuels to domestic consumers at prices lower than those in the international markets. These companies do not always have the incentive, means, or intention to develop their reserves at the same pace as the commercial companies. Due to the diverse situations and objectives of the governments of their countries, these NOCs pursue a wide variety of objectives that are not necessarily market-oriented. The objectives NOCs pursue, however, include employing citizens, furthering a government's domestic or foreign policy objectives, generating long-term revenue, and supplying inexpensive domestic energy. All NOCs of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members fall into this category.
NOCs with strategic and operational autonomy that function as corporate entities and do not operate as an extension of the government of their country, including Petrobas (Brazil) and Statoil (Norway). These companies often balance profit-oriented concerns and the objectives of their country with the development of their corporate strategy. While these companies may support their country's goals, they are primarily commercially driven.

OPEC countries work together to influence world oil supplies

OPEC is a group of some of the world's most oil-rich countries (see OPEC member countries in the Did You Know box.) Together, they control approximately 70% of the world's total proven oil reserves (shaded green in Figure 2), and they produce 41% of the world's total oil supply (Figure 3). OPEC's oil exports represent about 60% of the total petroleum traded internationally. Because of this market share, actions by OPEC member countries can influence world oil markets.

OPEC seeks to actively manage oil production of its member countries by setting production targets for each member except Iraq, for which no target is presently set. The track record of compliance with OPEC quotas is mixed, as production decisions are ultimately in the hands of the individual member countries. Each OPEC country has a NOC, but most also allow international oil companies to operate within their borders.

The difference between market demand and oil supplied by non-OPEC sources is often referred to as the "call on OPEC." Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer within OPEC and the world's largest oil exporter, historically has had the largest share of the world's spare production capacity. In fact, the world's spare capacity for oil production is maintained entirely by OPEC. The cost of developing and maintaining idle spare production capacity is inconsistent with the IOC's business model, which includes earning a return on capital invested.

EIA defines spare capacity as the volume of oil production that can be brought on within 30 days and sustained for at least 90 days. Spare capacity can also be thought of as the difference between a country's current production capacity and maximum production capacity. Should a disruption occur, oil producers can use spare capacity to mitigate increases in world oil prices by boosting production to offset lost volumes.
Countries are also major players in the world oil market

In addition to influencing the operation of NOCs, governments can also dictate the terms by which other oil companies must abide in their country. Access to a country's reserves may fall into four categories (shown in Figure 4):

Full access (15% of world reserves) — All companies must abide by the laws of the government, but no domestic company is given preferential treatment. Examples include the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
Equity access (1% of world reserves) — A NOC exists, but does not get preferential treatment over outside oil companies. Examples include Colombia, Indonesia, and Denmark.
Limited equity access (37% of world reserves) — The NOC is given priority access to reserves while outside oil companies' access may be limited through minimum domestic ownership requirements, shared production with the NOC, or other methods. Examples include China, Angola, and Russia.
No equity access (47% of world reserves) — The NOC has sole access to reserves. No foreign ownership of oil fields is permitted in these countries, and any outside participation is limited to operation through a domestic affiliate. Examples include Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

By limiting outside access and imposing targets, governments of oil-rich countries can directly affect world oil supplies. Limited access to oil can force commercially-oriented companies to change production plans or form strategic alliances with NOCs, further establishing the importance of these oil-rich countries as major players in the world oil market.