The industry is still reeling from the impact of the latest downturn. The current oil glut started late 2014, and the end is still nowhere in sight.
So why ask the question and the suggestion of another crash ahead? Well, our industry has not had the best track record of keeping up with the times, and those sure are changing.
Ten years ago, proponents of electric plug-in cars were laughing stock and their creators considered out of touch loonies who were day-dreaming. Today, electric cars are being mass produced by Tesla in the USA (albeit not yet profitably) and most carmakers are making progress in leaps and strides towards bringing their own models to the market.
In addition, dozens of other giant corporations are investing billions to produce electric vehicles with a range between 200 and 300 miles between recharges that will cost around $30,000 in today's money and they plan to be ready by 2020. Battery technology is evolving at breakneck speed producing lighter and higher capacity units to improve autonomy and reduce overall weight of the vehicles while getting cheaper all the time. Tesla is expanding their factory capacity from 50,000 cars to 500,000 cars a year and sales are still good. In fact 2015 was a record year for them, one year into cheap gas.
So what is the fuss about electric cars you might ask? Well, every electric car will not use about 50 Bbl of oil a year and instead use electricity generated from a variety of sources that are not all hydrocarbon dependent. Right now the reduction in gas consumption is still negligible, but as the momentum of the adoption of electric cars as an alternative to traditional combustion engine cars increases, so will be the amount of gas and thus oil not used to fuel vehicles. This is taken from a study conducted by Bloomberg New Energy Finance group and the article was penned by Tom Randall: "BNEF The Next Oil Crash".
What is worrying is the fact that the oil and gas industry is dismissing the threat posed by electric vehicle adoption in an almost unanimous way. One can see it in their comments about this topic:
This is sounding the same way as the almost militant rejection of the oil and gas industry of the effects of climate change on the energy markets, dismissing the concept due to “flawed science”. The point is not so much if the science is flawed or not, it is the public’s perception of climate change as a serious issue, and this has become an undisputed fact with the signature of the Paris Accord last year on CO2 emissions reduction efforts. We all tend to forget that Perception = Reality, regardless of the fact that perceptions can be false or un-founded.
Then there is the argument of where those 1,900 Tera-Watts/hour of extra electricity needed to power all those electric vehicles is going to come from. It is hard to tell what the proportion of fossil fueled electricity to nuclear to clean power ratios will be, but for sure, it won’t be all from oil and gas. So the impact on oil and gas consumption will inevitably be one of overall reduction of hydrocarbon consumption, but more importantly, a fall in gasoline consumption that will affect refineries and gas station businesses in a permanent manner.
The authors of the Bloomberg study predict a time window somewhere in the middle to the end of the next decade (the earliest by 2023, realistically somewhere between 2027 and 2030). This is just around the corner in oilfield time scales.
There are plenty of examples of entire industries that have disappeared over the last couple of decades because of a dismissal of the effects new technologies would have on them. Kodak is now just a distant memory in older people’s minds because it did not believe that digital photography would make the old film and print obsolete and was just “a passing fad”.
There are others that understood the existential threat to their businesses and reinvented themselves, such as Xerox recognizing that the photocopier was dead the minute the modern scanner appeared.
So what is the message that we all need to read, understand and then act upon?
There are tremendous changes going on in the 21st Century. Technology is advancing ever more rapidly and the oil and gas industry better embrace those changes and adapt with them, lest it becomes the next Kodak of the world because it is so much easier to be in denial than to face facts. Electric cars are just one of those changes, the other one is the rapid development of green energy, mostly wind, solar and geothermal.
There is another example of how technology overtook our industry by complete surprise: the economical exploitation of shale oil and gas.
The oil and gas industry has known for generations the existence of these vast shale deposits saturated with oil and gas, but since the time we first encountered them, we deemed them uneconomical to produce. But then there came the time when the biggest oil consumer in the world (USA) ran out of conventional hydrocarbon reservoirs, all had been drilled. Well, some non-conformists and very dogged entrepreneurs started to experiment with shale to make it yield its riches in commercial quantities.
At the beginning it was almost a quimera, as it was too costly and the ideas to squeeze the oil or gas from shale rock had not matured. Then came the decade of 100$ oil and suddenly shale started to make economic sense, so much so, that it achieved two unintended consequences:
Shale became the victim of its own success by oversupplying the world crude market, not with shale oil exports, but with crude that the USA did no longer need to buy. The established IOCs and NOCs dismissed shale in the beginning and only at the very end, just a couple of years before the glut arrived did the majors start to take shale seriously, once it was a proven concept.
But there is more. At the mid-30$ range, some shale oil seems to be still commercially viable, and all shale producers have not stopped to drill and much less have they stopped to flow their wells, so here is the second blow: new Deep Water projects are now hopelessly uneconomical, and unless they find a way to drastically reduce the cost of production, it will accompany Kodak and all those that could not adapt to change in the dust of the history books.
Hundreds of billions of dollars invested in all these complex and immensely expensive offshore developments are doomed if we as an industry can’t find the answer to significantly lower its costs.
All we have to do is look at the shale accumulation map of the world to see that we have the potential of producing oil onshore from shale for a very long time. Even if many countries ban hydraulic fracturing, there are still huge quantities of relatively easy and simple ways to produce shale oil and gas that will keep the price of oil low for a long time. Argentina and the UK are working hard towards exploiting their shale potential even in this depressed market scenario.
There may be a few geopolitical blips affecting the crude market, but it won’t be for decades. Even something as unthinkable that for example Saudi Arabia or Russia become failed states like Libya or Yemen and we lose 10 million barrels of oil production, the effect will not last for long. There are too many “pinch hitters” that will come and save the day, shale being one of them.
Let’s not forget there are millions of barrels of production currently not on the market due to conflict (Libya, Yemen, Iraq), sanctions and incompetence (Iran, Venezuela) to name just a few.
So what should the industry do about all of this?
We should all be focusing on the impact all these changes are bringing to our industry and look for ways to change so that we can benefit instead of being run over by change.
The oil and gas industry should collectively be researching effective carbon capture and sequestration technologies to reduce significantly the impact of CO and CO2 coming from hydrocarbon combustion.
Another idea would be to partner with leading combustion engine manufacturers to develop cleaner combustion engines, again to reduce or eliminate the pollution effects of hydrocarbon fuel combustion.
Last but not least, the oil and gas industry should be leading the charge into developing green energy, to eliminate fossil fuel combustion and save hydrocarbons for generations to come to produce all the other goods we take for granted in our lives that are all manufactured from oil and gas: fertilizers, synthetic fibers, resins, composite materials, lubricants, polymers, and the list goes on and on. There will be billions more humans on the planet, all wanting to benefit from these products and others not even invented yet.
I for one will keep trying to delay the time when I will become part of the dust of history. I will do this by keeping an open mind and embracing change instead of rejecting it.
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The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.
But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.
Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.
Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes.
Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.
So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.
There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.
But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊
Throughout much of its history, the United States has imported more petroleum (which includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other liquids) than it has exported. That status changed in 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) estimates that 2020 marked the first year that the United States exported more petroleum than it imported on an annual basis. However, largely because of declines in domestic crude oil production and corresponding increases in crude oil imports, EIA expects the United States to return to being a net petroleum importer on an annual basis in both 2021 and 2022.
EIA expects that increasing crude oil imports will drive the growth in net petroleum imports in 2021 and 2022 and more than offset changes in refined product net trade. EIA forecasts that net imports of crude oil will increase from its 2020 average of 2.7 million barrels per day (b/d) to 3.7 million b/d in 2021 and 4.4 million b/d in 2022.
Compared with crude oil trade, net exports of refined petroleum products did not change as much during 2020. On an annual average basis, U.S. net petroleum product exports—distillate fuel oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and motor gasoline, among others—averaged 3.2 million b/d in 2019 and 3.4 million b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that net petroleum product exports will average 3.5 million b/d in 2021 and 3.9 million b/d in 2022 as global demand for petroleum products continues to increase from its recent low point in the first half of 2020.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), February 2021
EIA expects that the United States will import more crude oil to fill the widening gap between refinery inputs of crude oil and domestic crude oil production in 2021 and 2022. U.S. crude oil production declined by an estimated 0.9 million b/d (8%) to 11.3 million b/d in 2020 because of well curtailment and a drop in drilling activity related to low crude oil prices.
EIA expects the rising price of crude oil, which started in the fourth quarter of 2020, will contribute to more U.S. crude oil production later this year. EIA forecasts monthly domestic crude oil production will reach 11.3 million b/d by the end of 2021 and 11.9 million b/d by the end of 2022. These values are increases from the most recent monthly average of 11.1 million b/d in November 2020 (based on data in EIA’s Petroleum Supply Monthly) but still lower than the previous peak of 12.9 million b/d in November 2019.
In the past week, crude oil prices have surged to levels last seen over a year ago. The global Brent benchmark hit US$63/b, while its American counterpart WTI crested over the US$60/b mark. The more optimistic in the market see these gains as a start of a commodity supercycle stemming from market forces pent-up over the long Covid-19 pandemic. The more cynical see it as a short-term spike from a perfect winter storm and constrained supply. So, which is it?
To get to that point, let’s examine how crude oil prices have evolved since the start of the year. On the consumption side, the market is vacillating between hopeful recovery and jittery reactions as Covid-19 outbreaks and vaccinations lent a start-stop rhythm to consumption trends. Yes, vaccination programmes were developed at lightning speed; and even plenty of bureaucratic hiccoughs have not hampered a steady rollout across the globe. In the UK, more than 20% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccines, with the USA not too far behind. Israel has vaccinated more than 75% of its population, and most countries should be well into their own programmes by the end of March. That acceleration of vaccinations has underpinned expectations of higher oil demand, with hopes that people will begin to drive again, fly again and buy again. But those hopes have been occasionally interrupted by new Covid-19 clusters detected and, more worryingly, new mutations of the virus.
Against this hopeful demand picture, supply has been managed. Squabbling among the OPEC+ club has prevented a more aggressive approach to managing supply than kingpin Saudi Arabia would like, but OPEC+ has still managed to hold itself together to placate the market that crude spigots will remain restrained. And while the UAE has successfully shifted OPEC+ quota plan for 2021 from quarterly adjustments to monthly, Saudi Arabia stepped into the vacuum to stamp its authority with a voluntary 1 million barrels per day cut. The market was impressed.
That combination of events over January was enough to move Brent prices from the low US$50/b level to the upper US$50/b range. However, US$60/b remained seemingly out of reach. It took a heavy dusting of snow across Texas to achieve that.
Winter weather across the northern hemisphere seemed harsher than usual this year. Europe was hit by two large continent-wide storms, while the American Northeast and Pacific Northwest were buffeted with quite a few snowstorms. Temperatures in East Asia were fairly cold too, which led to strong prices for natural gas and LNG to keep the population warm. But it was a major snowstorm that swept through the southern United States – including Texas – that had the largest effect on prices. Some areas of Texas saw temperatures as low as -18 degrees Celsius, while electricity demand surged to the point where grids failed, leaving 4.3 million people without power. A national emergency was declared, with over 150 million Americans under winter storm warning conditions.
For the global oil complex, the effects of the storm were also direct. Some of the largest oil refineries in the world were forced to shut down due to the Arctic conditions, further disrupting power and fuel supplies. All in all, over 3 mmb/d of oil processing capacity had to be idled in the wake of the storm, including Motiva’s Port Arthur, ExxonMobil’s Baytown and Marathon’s Galveston Bay refineries. And even if the sites were still running, they would have to contend to upstream disruptions: estimates suggest that crude oil production in the prolific Permian Basin dropped by over a million barrels per day due to power outages, while several key pipelines connecting Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast were also forced to shutter.
That perfect storm was enough to send crude prices above the US$60/b level. But will it last? The damage from the Texan snowstorm has already begun to abate, and even then crude prices did not seem to have the appetite to push higher than US$63/b for Brent and US$60/b for WTI.
Instead, the key development that should determine the future range for crude prices going into the second quarter of 2021 will be in early March, when the OPEC+ club meets once again to decide the level of its supply quotas for April and perhaps beyond. The conundrum facing the various factions within the club is this: at US$60/b, crude oil prices are not low enough to scare all members in voting for unanimous stricter quotas and also not high enough to rescind controlled supply. Instead, prices are at a fragile level where arguments can be made both ways. Russia is already claiming that global oil markets are ‘balanced’, while Saudi Arabia is emphasising the need for caution in public messaging ahead of the meeting. Saudi Arabia’s voluntary supply cut will also expire in March, setting up the stage for yet another fractious meeting. If a snow overrun Texans was a perfect storm to push crude prices to a 13-month high, then the upcoming OPEC+ meeting faces another perfect storm that could negate confidence. Which will it be? The answer lies on the other side of the storm.