US oil prices turned negative for the first time on record on Monday as North America’s oil producers run out of space to store an unprecedented oversupply of crude left by the coronavirus crisis.
The price of US crude oil collapsed from $18 a barrel to -$38 in a matter of hours, forcing oil producers to pay buyers to take the glut of crude which they cannot store, as rising stockpiles of crude threaten to overwhelm oil storage facilities.
“The problem of the global supply-demand imbalance has started to really manifest itself in prices,” said Bjornar Tonhaugen, head of oil at research firm Rystad Energy. “As production continues relatively unscathed, storages are filling up by the day. The world is using less and less oil and producers now feel how this translates.”
The last time floating storage reached levels close to this was in the depths of the financial crisis in 2009, when traders stored more than 100m barrels at sea before offloading stocks when the economy began to recover.
The price collapse in US oil market – known in the industry as the West Texas Intermediate price – accelerated because it is the last day oil producers can trade barrels that are scheduled for delivery next month, when oil storage is expected to reach capacity.
The US price for oil delivered in June, which will become the default oil price from tomorrow, is also falling due to the economic gloom caused by the coronavirus, but has managed to remain above $20 a barrel. On Monday the price for brent crude, the most widely used benchmark, fell 8% to $25.79.
Concerns over the economy, which directly affect oil demand, have been heightened by the growing standoff between the US president and state governors over whether the US can begin to lift restrictions on movement and businesses.
Global oil prices are expected to begin recovering over the second half of the year as tight restrictions on travel to help curb the spread of the virus are lifted, raising demand for fuels and oil.
The world’s largest oil-producing nations have agreed a deal to hold back between 10m to 20m barrels of oil a day from the global market from May, and many oil companies are likely to shut their wells as financial pressures mount.
Cailin Birch, global economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said: “US crude oil production has begun to fall in the last two weeks, and will continue to fall in the coming months as already heavily indebted shale firms scale back activity or are forced into bankruptcy or consolidation.”
Despite the historic production cuts, most analysts believe that oil prices will fail to reach the same price levels recorded at the beginning of the year before the outbreak. The global oil price, under the brent crude measure, reached highs of almost $69 a barrel in January before plummeting to less than $23 a barrel at the end of March.