Running on empty: what’s in store for energy markets in 2023

Energy prices have rocketed in 2022, mainly due to the war in Ukraine. But with the global economy slowing down, can we expect similar rises in the year ahead? 

Want to go deeper? Listen to Galvin Chia, Eimear Daly, and Brian Daingerfield discuss everything you need to know about global energy markets in 2023 in this special Year Ahead podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Energy demand slowdown will weigh on investment

NatWest economists expect major economies to enter recession next year, and the impact of softening growth expectations combined with rising interest rates is set to filter through into global energy demand. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA), for example, expects global oil markets to be roughly balanced through 2023, while OPEC recently revised its estimate for global oil demand downwards.

A slowdown in demand may reduce the likelihood of increased energy production to restock low global inventories, despite high prices. Investment and production in both OPEC and non-OPEC nations has lagged the recovery in demand, and they are unlikely to catch up in the current softer-demand environment. 

Global energy use by source (% by year)

Sources: British Petroleum, NatWest Markets

Opportunities to switch energy sources

One source of demand for oil, regardless of the macro environment, is the drive amongst consumers, manufacturers, and power producers to switch sources. We expect switching activity to remain generally supportive of oil prices as oil remains attractive relative to natural gas in terms of cost.

Another potential beneficiary of high natural gas prices are renewables. Recent price movements and climate-related investments, such as those set out in 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act in the US, look likely to result in increased use of renewables in electricity generation


OPEC+ will likely stay the course on production cuts

After months of steady increases in oil production quotas, in October OPEC+ announced that it would reduce oil production quotas by 2 million barrels per day (mb/d). This was much its largest production cut since the depths of the pandemic and represented a major shift in the group’s strategy. By slashing oil production quotas, OPEC+ was signalling its intention to prevent oil prices from falling much further. We think it is unlikely that demand expectations will recover to the point where OPEC+ will increase production quotas in 2023. 

Of course, the outlook for OPEC+ in 2023 is inexorably linked to its largest two members: Saudi Arabia and Russia. The OPEC+ partnership spearheaded by these two nations has survived several previous periods of significant market stress, and our base case is that their cooperation will continue through 2023. A breakdown in the partnership would be a bearish development for crude prices, should it occur, as it would imply an “every nation for itself” approach and further reduce OPEC+’s ability to influence market balances and prices. 

A persistent decline in Europe’s use of Russian energy

The Russia-Ukraine conflict will inevitably evolve in unpredictable ways, but one important question for 2023 and beyond will be the role of Russian oil and gas in the global economy. Can European energy markets ever return to the pre-war status quo, even in a very optimistic scenario? 

We doubt it. Europe has taken painful, and expensive, steps to secure alternative sources of energy. European natural gas storage capacity, for example, has been expanded and stores are fuller than is normal at this point in the year. Meanwhile, governments across Europe have announced strategies to reduce energy demand.

We think the Western transition away from dependency on Russian energy is likely to remain a theme throughout 2023, with a full EU embargo of Russian seaborne crude oil imports set to come into effect on 5 December and a further embargo of refined petroleum product imports due to come into force on 5 February. The IEA recently estimated that such bans could take another 1.4 mb/d of Russian crude oil and 1.0 mb/d of Russian refined product exports out of the European market.

Unlikely that Iranian oil will return to the market

We have long been pessimistic about a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, as many of the core issues hampering talks between Iran and the West are still very much unresolved. The timing of sanctions relief remains a particular sticking point between the two sides. Iran wants sanction relief secured immediately upon the US’s re-entry into the deal, or earlier, whereas the US is unwilling to grant sanctions relief until it sees evidence of Iran’s compliance with the deal. 

Our approach towards Iranian oil in 2023, as in 2022, is that we’ll only believe a deal will be struck when we see it. A completed deal could increase supply by as much as 2 mb/d. The risk of an Iranian deal adding fresh barrels to the global markets contributed to OPEC+’s conservative approach to reviving oil production throughout the recovery from the pandemic. With OPEC+’s strategy now focused on defending prices, the group may prove more willing to actively cut supplies should a revived Iranian deal bring oil back to the market faster than expected.

Energy demand slowdown will weigh on investment

In 2022, non-OPEC producers faced a trade-off between production and investment. The recovery in near-term demand and surge in prices created a strong incentive to produce and capitalise on stronger economic conditions. But long-term challenges for the fossil fuel industry remained a headwind for investment and production. ESG considerations and the global energy transition to cleaner alternatives also represent major question marks overhanging the long-term future of fossil fuel production. 

In 2023, these factors may no longer act strictly in conflict. Instead, they may increasingly work in concert as an expected slowdown in demand is likely to influence future investment decisions and production growth. 

This is not to say that we think US production is set to contract in 2023. There is still a clear incentive for US production in the form of both high prices and increased export capacity, particularly to Europe. But the headwinds facing the industry in the form of a slowdown in expected demand, increased regulatory scrutiny and more difficult access to capital may prevent production from reaching its pre-pandemic heights in 2023. 

The US remains a seller – for now

One source of commercial inventory “growth” in 2022 came from storage facilities rather than from the ground as authorities (particularly those in the US) released significant amounts of oil from emergency stockpiles. We expect the Biden administration to remain aggressive in terms of reducing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) in an effort to combat high energy prices. 

But that does not mean the US will only sell from its SPR in 2023. The Biden administration has already announced plans to begin buying oil again next year to restock the SPR at a price target of around $70 / barrel. Expectations of purchases to eventually refill the storage facilities of the US and those of its IEA allies that have also released emergency stockpiles may limit downward pressure for oil prices in 2023, as potentially large buyers are lurking should prices drop further. 

ESG and the global energy transition

From an oil and gas production perspective, we think it is too simplistic to suggest that the relatively slow investment in oil and gas extraction since the pandemic is purely a function of ESG-related issues. 

That said, private investor demand for investment in clean energy alternatives coupled with public sector pressure on energy production is likely, in our view, to be a theme that overhangs global energy markets over the next decade and beyond. For a deep dive on this, listen to our Year Ahead podcast on how energy market shocks could affect the transition to a green economy . 

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