Trump Effect on the African Oil

Article published in How We Made it in Africa on 9th January 2017

Also published in the Centre for African Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, on the 12th January 2017


After the shock post November 8th with the results of the American presidential election, the world started studying what a Trump presidency in the USA would mean to the international markets and geopolitical environment. Africa is one of the largest exporters of raw commodities to the USA and will certainly experience changes in the trading dynamics with the world power once Donald Trump assumes his place in the White House, on 20 January 2017.

Among the raw products Africa exports, crude oil has a prominent place. The continent’s oil exporters had the USA as its largest buyer of the product until quite recently. In 2005, the USA imported 1.8 million barrels per day of crude oil from Sub-Saharan African countries. This figure remained fairly constant until 2010 when the USA’s domestic production of the commodity reached historically high levels.

By 2015, the USA was importing only 274 thousand barrels per day from Sub-Saharan Africa. The high revenues countries such as Nigeria and Angola extracted from oil, started to dry up. Could a Trump administration possibly revert this trend and propel the USA to buy more of the African crude oil once again?

The African Share in USA Oil Imports

The oil price is regulated by a global balance between supply and demand. The drop in the price of oil from pre-2014 levels had oversupply as its main cause, fuelled by a large number of oil exploration projects undertaken on the idea that high oil prices would be sustainable indefinitely. New technologies allowed increasing rates of oil recovery, while fields that previously were deemed uneconomic, could finally become profitable.

The Shale Revolution in the USA occupied a centre role in this stage. A combination of horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and high oil prices created the right conditions for a boom in oil production one decade ago (see Figure 1). Since then, the market got swamped with new players. The oil industry became more attractive than ever and the USA experienced a steady growth in oil production and an increasing independence from oil imports. In 2014, the USA started producing more crude oil than it was importing, a scenario not seen since 1993.


Figure 1 – USA Crude Oil Production versus Imports [1]

Sub-Saharan Africa has typically contributed to a large share of the USA crude oil imports. Until 2010, the oil exporter countries in that region accounted for more than 16% of the USA total oil imports. However, the growing domestic oil production in the USA resulted in a continuous decline of the share of imports from Sub-Saharan Africa. By 2015, only 3.7% of the total crude oil imports to the USA were originated in that region (see Figure 2).


Figure 2 – Percentage of Crude Oil Imports from Sub-Saharan Africa to the USA [2]

Nigeria and Angola have always had the USA as a recurrent buyer of a large share of their oil production. In 2010, Nigeria exported over 950 thousand barrels per day of crude oil to the USA, accounting for over 10% of total USA crude oil imports. By 2012, Nigeria was the largest seller of crude oil to the USA. However, by 2015, Nigerian exports to the USA plummeted to an average of a mere 57 thousand barrels per day[3]; now the country accounts for less than 1% of total USA crude oil imports.

As USA imports of Nigerian oil decreased, the share of Nigerian oil exports to Europe and Asia got larger. European imports of Nigerian crude oil and condensate increased year-over-year by more than 40% in 2011 and by 30% in 2012, making Europe the largest regional importer of Nigerian oil.

Although Nigeria’s oil revenue contributes only 10% of its GDP[4], it counts for over 80% of exports[5], making it the most important source of foreign exchange. Nigeria’s revenue is at its lowest level in more than five years as taxes and oil earnings dropped, making it more difficult for the government of Africa’s largest economy to pay public workers[6]. Over the past decade, the large revenues originating from oil discouraged investments in other sectors. Agriculture is a key sector that got neglected. Currently, Nigeria spends over US$ 6.5 billion per year on food imports[7].

Angola was the second largest exporter of crude oil to the USA in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country accounted for 5% of the USA’s total crude oil imports between 2005 and 2009, supplying the United States with an annual average of 484 thousand barrels per day during that period. Similar to Nigeria, Angola saw its volume of oil exports to the USA steadily decrease. In 2015, the United States imported 124 thousand barrels per day of crude oil from Angola (see Figure 3), accounting for less than 2% of total American imports[8].

In Angola, crude oil alone accounted for around 95% of foreign exchange revenues in 2014[9], bringing US$ 60.2 billion in earnings to the country. In 2015, foreign currency inflow generated by oil exports was at US$ 33.4 billion, a 44.5% decline[10]. Angola also became a net importer of food as it chose to develop its oil and gas industry to the detriment of investing in agriculture. Now the country imports 90% of its food at a cost of US$ 5 billion a year[11].

Both Nigeria and Angola face a tipping point in their history. Without a broader reform of their economy and diversification of investments to sectors other than oil and gas, these major Sub-Saharan countries have already started to experience economic difficulties. While internal restructurings are under way, the change on who controls the most powerful country in the world is closely observed. Trading between the USA and African countries may be affected. For Nigeria and Angola, where crude oil exports are the main source of revenue, understanding the impact a Trump administration in the USA can have in the oil markets certainly becomes a question of great importance.


Figure 3 – USA Crude Oil Imports from Sub-Sahara African countries [12]

Understanding the Drop in Oil Prices

At the same time the Shale Revolution was unfolding in the USA, increasing the country’s domestic crude oil production, at the other side of the globe China was also experiencing a transformation. That nation, which for the past decades became the growth engine of the world, heavily importing raw materials to build major infrastructure projects, started shifting towards an economy more focused on services. Imports of iron ore, steel, crude oil and other basic materials stagnated as the building spree faded. For a world used to rely on an ever-growing Chinese demand for these raw materials, stagnation meant recession. The oil price started sinking.

The final hit came in January 2016: sanctions against Iran were lifted and the country could sell oil in the international market. The oil price reached its lowest level since 2003. By middle 2016, Iran flooded the markets with an additional half a million barrels per day and drowned any hope that the price of the dark gold would make a great recover any time soon.

Donald Trump Impact

During his campaign, Donald Trump had repeatedly criticized the Iranian Nuclear Deal. In simple terms, the agreement stipulates that Iran would stop pursuing a nuclear program with military objectives in exchange of having freed up tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue and frozen assets. The “disastrous deal”, in Trump’s words, “rewards the world’s leading state sponsor of terror with US$ 150 billion and we received absolutely nothing in return”[13]. Trump said that correcting it would be his “number one priority”. That said, he had put several matters as number one during his campaign and since then, he has changed his mind on subjects considered “core” to his voters: his immigration policy of deporting 11 million illegal immigrants, which has now been reduced to a maximum of 3 million and only the ones with criminal records; and his shutdown on any Muslim immigration, which later in the campaign was moderated to the vague strategy of “extreme vetting”, to name but two examples.

Donald Trump may or may not try to dismantle the Iran Nuclear Deal. He certainly will have strong support at home as most Republicans were against the accord and now they occupy not only the White House, but also have the majority in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. Furthermore, the deal was not a USA–Iran bilateral agreement. It involved the UK, Russia, France and China as well. Hence, an American withdrawal will not necessarily ruin the whole arrangement. However, the USA could make demands such as insisting on tougher inspections in Iran and making them more frequent, which could, eventually, force Iran to pull out of the deal.

In this scenario of a broken nuclear deal and the resurgence of international sanctions in Iran, the world could see a stop in investments in oil exploration in that country, curbing its oil output and drying the oil glut the world has been living in since 2014. With less oil on the market, the price of the barrel would climb up again, benefitting all other oil exporters.

Another path to a similar scenario was initiated end of November, when Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) finally reached a conjoint agreement on an oil production cut. After roughly 2 years of unsuccessful meetings, the cartel managed to reach a common ground as the oil prices did not show prospects of increasing anytime soon without intervention on the global oil supply. The group agreed on a cut of 1.2 million barrels per day, starting in January 2017 and with an initial time length of 6 months. This was a major compromise among oil producers as the last time OPEC implemented an oil production cut was 8 years ago. The market promptly reacted and the price of the oil barrel jumped by 9%. An additional 600 thousand barrels per day reduction, a result of natural production decline and direct production cuts implemented by non-OPEC oil exporter countries, will also weigh in during the same period.

However, countries are presently locked in a prisoners’ dilemma, each looking for their own best interest, which is to produce more oil while expecting that others will cut production. Hence, trusting that all parties will comply and cut their oil output is an ongoing discussion. In the 1980’s, Saudi Arabia fell in this trap and cut domestic production while expecting other members of OPEC to follow suite. This did not happen. The Arab country saw its global market share of oil exports drop sharply, which resulted in 16 years of budget deficit.

Another point that affects the long-term prospect of an OPEC oil cut is that once crude oil prices start rising, oil fields that have higher costs of production and had to be shut down, could come back online. This is what happened in the past year in the USA. The drop in oil prices made shale oil production unprofitable and many companies had to halt their oil pumping. Once oil prices rise to more than US$ 60/barrel, these wells become profitable again. A scenario where oil prices become fairly stable above this threshold, will likely create conditions for the USA shale producers to come back online, increasing global oil supply. OPEC, sensing an increase in USA production, can decide to cancel the production cut accord on fears of losing global market share. In this scenario, oil prices could see another sharp fall.



The most likely scenario: low oil prices in 2017

Now back to the USA, the nomination of Donald Trump to presidency was not the only important outcome of the recent elections. The Republicans also gained control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. For the first time since 2007, Republicans will control both the executive and legislative branches of government. This far reach of Republican power makes it very likely that Trump will be able to appoint a conservative Supreme Court Justice to occupy the vacant seat previously held by Antonin Scalia. This position of control will make it possible to have a majority ruling against the Clean Power Plan, which is being fought in federal courts and is expected to make its way to the Supreme Court in 2017[14].

A reversal of this plan means there are less incentives for clean energy and more relaxed regulations towards coal, oil and gas production in the USA. However, with the environmental protection regulations lifted, coal becomes cheaper to produce than its counterparts. What appears at first as a stimulus to the oil and gas industry, is likely to do the reverse.

Another view that can be taken on the pro-drilling and less environmentally-friendly policies a Trump administration might pursue, is that oil companies will soon be able to explore areas in the USA considered protected or off-limits during the Obama presidency. Some offshore fields, federal lands and possibly areas of the Arctic could be open season for oil hunting. Trump can also make it easier to obtain approval for pipeline construction. Any of these scenarios will make room for more oil supply, which is the key reason why oil prices are still low.

In the longer run, Trump’s plan to begin infrastructural projects in the USA, if materialized, will certainly increase demand for oil. Having pro-oil policies in the USA will open the door for a production increase. Nigeria, which once had the USA as main customer for oil exports, may find new opportunities to reignite its upstream sector as past oil selling agreements between the two countries become attractive once again. Angola, on the other hand, has built stronger ties with China and has had the Asian power as its main crude oil buyer in the recent years. Hence, Nigeria is more likely to benefit from a hypothetical unmet growing oil demand from the USA than Angola.

However, in the short-run the international oil markets are still regimented by the most basic of the rules: supply versus demand. As long as supply is plenty, oil prices will remain low. Even in a scenario of growing demand for oil in the USA, the past two years of low oil prices provided room for record levels of oil stocks in the main oil consumer countries. Exhausting these stocks will certainly come before the need of investing in new large oil production projects. Nigeria and Angola should focus on diversifying their economies and become less reliant on oil export revenues. That seems to be the most certain way to keep these countries from falling deeper into a serious economic recession.

[1] US Energy Information Administration (EIA)

[2] US Energy Information Administration (EIA)

[3] Country profile: Nigeria (US Energy Information Administration (EIA), May 2016)

[4] Press Release: IMF Executive Board Concludes 2016 Article IV Consultation with Nigeria (International Monetary Fund – IMF, Mar 2016)

[5] 2016 Article IV Consultation—Press Release; Staff Report; and Statement by the Executive Director for Nigeria (International Monetary Fund – IMF, Apr 2016)

[6] Nigeria Revenue Drops to 5-Year Low as Tax, Oil Income Fall (Bloomberg, Apr 2016)

[7] How big is Nigeria’s food import bill? (CNBC Africa, Jan 2016)

[8] Country profile: Angola (US Energy Information Administration (EIA), May 2016)

[9] Angola’s blooming banana plantations offer new hope for farming (Reuters, May 2015)

[10] Country Overview: Angola (World Bank, Oct 2016)

[11] Angola’s blooming banana plantations offer new hope for farming (Reuters, May 2015)

[12] US Energy Information Administration (EIA)

[13] ‘Dismantle the disastrous deal’: Trump tells AIPAC Iran deal is ‘number one priority’ (RT, Mar 2016)

[14] Oil And Gas Industry Buoyed By Trump Election (Forbes, Nov 2016)

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