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Tankers on fire may not lead to lower gas prices — but a continued trade war will

Drivers in some parts of the country could see gas prices drop below $2 a gallon by July 4th.
Image: Gas Prices Expected To Dip This Summer To Below $2 For Parts Of The Nation
A sign indicates that the price per gallon of regular gas is $2.47 at a gas station on June 13, 2019 in Miami.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Oil industry analysts say motorists need not worry about sticker shock at the pump this summer — but that’s actually bad news.

Even the image of an oil tanker in flames wasn’t enough to shake negative market sentiment about the prospect of a U.S.-China trade war deflating demand by hobbling global growth. Although oil prices on Thursday briefly rose as high as 4 percent on the news that two vessels had been sabotaged in a critical Middle East shipping channel, it retreated from those highs by the end of the trading day.

Oil prices have been on a downward trajectory for the past several weeks on projections of lower demand, a strong U.S. dollar, rising inventories and a surge in American petroleum production.

“The bulk of the drop in the price of oil and wholesale gasoline hasn’t fully been passed along to motorists,” said GasBuddy head of petroleum analysis Patrick DeHaan.

“It is normal that we see a slight decline this time of year, but the magnitude of the decline is unusual,” DeHaan said. “U.S.-China trade tensions are what’s enhancing the downturn,” he said, predicting that drivers in some parts of the country could see gas prices drop below $2 a gallon by the 4th of July. Throughout most of the Southeastern quarter of the country, average gas prices are already below $2.50, according to AAA data.

“It’s good news for consumers despite what happened today,” Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service, said on Thursday. “Right now everything points to a cheaper summer than 2018.”

But this silver lining comes on a growing cloud of pessimism that the world’s two largest economies will be able to come to an accord on trade. 
“I think the next pivot point would be the G-20,” Kloza said. “Are we going to come out of that summit with more rancor, or are we going to come out with something more reasonable?”

“Markets were quite taken aback at the escalation in tensions between the U.S. and China on trade. I think they probably factored in a trade deal sooner rather than later,” said Caroline Bain, chief commodities economist at Capital Economics in London.

“Rising protectionism is usually a negative for economic growth,” she said. “That has added to concerns about global growth, which most economic indicators have started to turn down anyways.”

Data released Friday revealed that industrial production in China fell to a 17-year low in May. “The Chinese economy is massive,” said John Hall, chairman of Alfa Energy Group, a consulting company in London and Chicago. “Under pressure now from President Donald Trump, it has impact across the oil market.”

With China buying less oil, one of Iran’s last pipelines for international commerce and revenue generation narrows. Iran has accused the U.S. of trying to cause a destabilizing economic crash with its sanctions. Waivers permitting a handful of countries to continue importing Iranian oil expired May 2, depriving Iran of a key commercial outlet under U.S. sanctions.

“I think it adds a lot of fuel to the fire because China is, I think, probably the single biggest buyer of Iranian oil,” said Gary Hufbauer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“The sanctions are the essential background here,” said F. Gregory Gause III, professor and head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University. “They have put serious economic pressure on Iran.”

Analysts speculated that it was plausible Iranian actors, although not necessarily the Iranian government itself, who were behind the recent tanker attacks — including one yesterday on a Japanese vessel — near the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly one-fifth of oil passes. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran on Thursday of orchestrating the attacks, which Iranian officials have denied.

Some experts suggest the Japanese tanker sabotage might be more significant than it at first appeared. Japan had been a significant importer of Iranian oil but, unlike China, which some suggest might actually buy more Iranian oil in order to turn sanction compliance into a bargaining chip in the upcoming tariff battle, it would be highly unlikely to flout U.S. sanctions. But making up that shortfall is challenging and costly, and the country still gets most of its petroleum via the Strait of Hormuz — giving it a vested interest in Middle Eastern stability.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Iran’s leader this week in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to broker a resolution to the growing tension. “A Japanese ship is attacked on the day the Prime Minister of Japan is meeting with the Iranian leader… If you’re a party in Iran who doesn’t want to see negotiations with the United States, perhaps you think hitting a Japanese ship is a way to subvert that,” Gause said.

“It’s always possible there’s a faction in Iran that did not want an easing of tensions to be successful,” said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates.

Still, experts in global oil markets and Middle Eastern geopolitics say this standoff won’t necessarily lead to an escalation of tensions that could impact oil prices. But in the Middle East, they add, you never know for sure.

“Iran has said for decades if they can’t export oil, nobody can export oil from the Gulf,” Gause said.

“It’s not too much of a surprise that we would see such words being exchanged,” DeHaan said. “The way things are in the Middle East, there’s a lot of rhetoric like that.”

Iran isn’t believed to have the capability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz altogether, nor the military muscle to get involved in an open conflict with the U.S. In an interview with “Fox and Friends” on Friday, Trump said even if Iran tried to shut down access through the Strait, “It’s not going to be closed for long.”

“It’s one thing to threaten mischief in the Strait of Hormuz,” Kloza said. “You can create mischief, but I’m not so sure you could create mayhem.”

Over time, even smaller skirmishes or sabotage attempts could be destabilizing, Gause said. “It’s still the place that produces the largest amount of oil for export in the world. And if you are really thinking about major disruption in oil production and oil shipping, you will see a major price spike.”

“The picture of a burning tanker in this part of the world is a very scary thought for vessel owners,” Lipow said.

There are already indications that the shipping industry has grown nervous, he added. “What is of great concern is that a number of tanker companies have suspended their future voyages out of this region and we could see tanker insurance carriers refuse to provide coverage, and that does result in supply disruption if you have fewer tankers to move the oil.”

Without a resolution, even slower economic growth might not be enough to hold oil prices down. “I think this continued, low-level attacks on selected targets could ultimately result in a major supply disruption, especially if you were to see U.S. forces get involved in attacking facilities in Iran proper,” Lipow said. “If it did come to that, things could spiral out of control.”