What T.Boone Pickens Gets Right and Wrong About OPEC

What T. Boone Pickens gets right and wrong about the future of oil markets.

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Pipefitters work on a section of the Keystone XL Pipeline's southern portion outside Tulsa, Okla., in January 2013.
Pipefitters work on a section of the Keystone XL Pipeline's southern portion outside Tulsa, Okla., in January 2013.

In a recent CNBC "Squawk Box" interview, T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil man turned natural gas investor and advocate, said approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would make OPEC obsolete. A compelling statement, for sure.

And he tells a plausible tale. He noted that the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet safely shepherds OPEC oil through the Strait of Hormuz from where it moves on to Europe and China. The U.S. incurs the full cost of that military protection, but we receive only 10 percent of the 17 million barrels per day being shipped through that channel.

So, yes, it makes sense for the U.S. to seek greater access to Canadian oil, and, conversely, reduced reliance on OPEC. Pickens said the Canadians have reserves of 250 billion barrels and "that's exactly what the Saudis claim they have." But this is where the facts can get in the way of a good story. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on gas prices.]

Current data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, OPEC and oil industry sources place the Saudi Arabia oil reserves at 267 billion barrels. EIA and Canadian sources, including Oil & Gas Journal, place Canada's oil reserves at 173.6 billion barrels. So there's a difference of 93.4 billion barrels, but maybe Pickens would consider that of little consequence.   

Of course, when credibility matters, it's important for people speaking to news organizations to get the numbers right. And it's equally important for reporters to check everything, and not accept numbers or other data at face value.   

A little hype here and there has never hurt Pickens and it doesn't invalidate his broader point. Like many others, Pickens advocates greater ties with N. American suppliers – Canada and Mexico – because collectively, increased production and supply surely has the potential to supplant the 1.7 million barrels per day (or thereabouts) from the Middle East. And that's something we should see, hopefully, in less than a decade.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Nonetheless, forecasts of OPEC's obsolescence may be premature, even though WTI crude traded below $100 per barrel this week for the first time since July 2nd and global prices have eased because of slow growth from emerging markets and decreased tensions over Syria and Iran,

China is fast becoming OPEC's single largest customer, as its oil imports (6.3 mbd) already exceed U.S. imports (6.1 mbd). And even slight economic growth in China translates into greater Middle Eastern ties where China has aggressively invested in further oil exploration and refining. What do you suppose their quid pro quo might be?  

For OPEC, global demand and markets may shift but only a fool would bet against the house. 

 Gregg Laskoski is a senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com. 

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