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Who controls oil prices? Before 2015, the answer to this question would definitely have been OPEC. No one can deny the fact that OPEC had the upper hand on oil prices up until 2015. However, from 2015 to today (and into the unforeseeable future), OPEC has not been able to control oil prices as it has done in the past.

 

While this might be surprising, it is the new normal. This is a trend that even OPEC didn't expect a few years back. What might even be more surprising is that OPEC itself is the reason for its own partial loss of control over oil prices.

 

Over the past few years, Saudi-led OPEC was able to maintain oil prices at high levels. During that period, OPEC's members were cashing in a lot of money derived from their oil revenue. But they were not the only ones benefiting from high oil prices- shale oil producers were at advantage too.

 

High and sustained oil prices provided a suitable environment for shale oil production to grow. Investors felt confident about the oil market and investment started flowing in. The needed technology was developed and utilized and shale oil production started to increase.

 

Over the past 5 years, U.S. oil production grew from 5,476,000 barrel a day in 2010 to its peak of 9,598,000 in July 2015. This huge addition to U.S. oil production made OPEC realize its mistake and it was forced to reduce oil prices by maintaining its oil output in order to put an end to shale oil boom aimed protecting its market-share, but unfortunately it was too late.

 The technology and innovations that helped develop shale oil production is here and it is not going to disappear just because oil prices are low. In fact, low oil prices will drive it to become even cheaper and more efficient. The money is already invested in many shale plays and obviously there is no going back.

 

OPEC's desire for high oil prices created competitors seemingly out of nowhere. And now, instead of focusing on how to maintain oil prices at high levels as it did in the past, OPEC is fighting for market-share. This a huge shift in the cartel's strategy.

 

Prior to 2015, OPEC had an unmatched control over oil prices; they were able to decrease or increase the prices as they wished. How about now? Is OPEC still able to do the same? The answer is a big "NO" and here is why.

 

On the one hand, one of the important things to know about shale oil is that it is an unconventional resource that is uneconomical at low oil prices (mainly below $50 a barrel). It requires a high cost of production unlike conventional oil produced by OPEC. According to the International Energy Agency, the break-even price of unconventional resources ranges between approximately $40 to $110 a barrel.


Although OPEC's members want to keep oil prices high in order to generate higher revenue, they will not be able to do so any longer, as maintaining oil prices at high levels means making their rivals -shale oil producers- stronger. And the stronger their rivals become, the more market-share OPEC loses.

 

It is clear now that, regardless of OPEC's desire for high oil prices, shale oil has forced OPEC to keep the oil prices below certain levels that are below shale oil's break-even price. This tells us that how high oil prices can go in the future is now dependent on shale oil producers' next move more than OPEC's next move.

 

If shale oil producers were able to survive by driving their cost of production down, oil prices may experience new lows for the short-term, but eventually OPEC will have to accept the reality and a new equilibrium should be established. We should not forget that OPEC's members want to make a profit after all.

 

But shale producers didn't survive and their production started to fall sharply. In this case, OPEC will only win the market-share war, but high prices will not return. Many would say that less supply -that could be a result of the current downturn- will drive prices up. This is true, but OPEC will not let that happen, it will pump more. This is because the return of high oil prices means the return of its rivals.

 

On the other hand, if you look at how OPEC's members are flooding the market with oil to drive prices down, you will realize that they are not doing it because they want to, rather because they are forced to do it. And being forced to do something means having no control. They are keeping oil prices low because shale oil forced them to do so.

 

OPEC is losing full control over oil prices due to its inability to foresee changes in oil industry dynamics and how oil is changing forms — geographically, geologically, chemically, and economically. The ongoing market-share cold war is not just about OPEC and shale oil, it is about conventional and unconventional oils. No matter what OPEC does now to stop it from happening, unconventional oil is coming and it will be the future source of energy.

 

Investors Takeaway

 

Shale oil resilience is changing the fundamentals of the oil industry. Parameters that historically used to indicate the health of the oil industry and oil production, such as rig count, are no longer doing so at least to a certain extent. Its role has been offset by technological advancement. A careful evaluation of the impact of new technology and innovation on the oil industry is very important now more than ever for investors' next steps.

 

High oil prices are the main reason for the current downturn, and therefore expecting them to return soon is not an option. The current downturn may result in a shortage of supply that many industry players including OPEC believe will cause oil prices to drastically rise to $200 a barrel. But that is unlikely to happen. OPEC knows very well that high oil prices will bring its rivals back, and therefore it will do its best to stop that from happening. Pumping more oil will be the way to do so, and that will not be difficult giving the reentry of Iran to the international oil market, and the fact that many OPEC members are still able to pump more.

 

A better way of knowing where oil prices will be in the future is considering the break-even prices of U.S. shale oil producers, because that is OPEC's main focus right now. It is trying hard to ensure prices does not go beyond those levels in order to make sure its rivals lose.

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Your Weekly Update: 13 - 17 May 2019

Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 13 May 2019 – Brent: US$70/b; WTI: US$61/b

  • Crude oil prices are holding their ground, despite the markets showing nervousness over the escalating trade dispute between the USA and China, as well as brewing tensions in the Middle East over the Iranian situation
  • China retaliated against President Trump’s decision to raise tariffs from 10% to 25% on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports by raising its own tariffs; crucially, China has also slapped taxes on US LNG imports at a time when American export LNG projects banking on Chinese demand are coming online
  • In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia reported that two of its oil tankers were attacked in the Persian Gulf, with the ‘sabotage attack’ near the UAE speculated to be related to Iran; with the US increasing its military presence in the area, the risk of military action has escalated
  • The non-extension of US waiver on Iranian crude is biting hard on Iran, with its leaders calling it ‘unprecedented pressure’, setting the stage for a contentious OPEC meeting in Vienna
  • In a move that is sure to be opposed by Iran, Saudi Arabia has said it is willing to meet ‘all orders’ from former Iranian buyers through June at least; Saudi Aramco is also responding to requests by Asian buyers to provide extra oil
  • The see-saw trend in US drilling activity continues; after a huge gain two weeks ago, the active US rig count declined for a second consecutive rig, with the loss of two oil rigs bringing the total site count to 988, below the equivalent number of 1,045 last year
  • There is considerably more upside to crude prices at the moment, with jitters over the health of the global economy and a delicate situation in the Middle East likely to keep Brent higher at US$71-73/b and WTI at US$62-64/b


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Occidental Petroleum and Warren Buffet have triumphed, as Chevron bowed out of a bidding war for Anadarko Petroleum; Occidental will now acquire Anadarko for US$57 billion, up significantly from Chevron’s US$33 billion bid
  • The deal means that Occidental’s agreement to sell Anadarko’s African assets to Total for US$8.8 billion will also go through, covering the Hassi Berkine, Ourhoud and El Merk fields in Algeria, the Jubilee and TEN fields in Ghana, the Area 1 LNG project in Mozambiuqe and E&P licences in South Africa
  • BP has sanctioned the Thunder Horse South Expansion Phase 2 deepwater project in the US Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to add 50,000 boe/d of production at the Thunder Horse platform beginning 2021
  • Africa is proving to be very fruitful for Eni, as it announced a new gas and condensate discovery offshore Ghana; the CTP-Block 4 in the Akoma prospect is estimated to hold some 550-650 bcf of gas and 18-20 mmbl of condensate
  • In an atypical development, South Africa has signed a deal for the B2 oil block in South Sudan, as part of efforts to boost output there to 350,000 b/d
  • Shell expects to drill its first deepwater well in Mexico by December 2019 after walking away with nine Mexican deepwater blocks last year

Midstream & Downstream

  • China’s domestic crude imports surged to a record 10.64 mmb/d in April, as refiners stocked up on an Iranian crude bonanza due to uncertainty over US policy, which has been confirmed as crude waivers were not renewed
  • Having had to close the Druzhba pipeline and Ust-Luga port for contaminated crude, Russia says it will fully restore compliant crude by end May shipments, including cargoes to Poland and the Czech Republic
  • Mexico’s attempt to open up its refining sector has seemingly failed, with Pemex taking over the new 340 kb/d refinery as private players balked at the US$8 billion price tag and 3-year construction deadline
  • Ahead of India’s move to Euro VI fuels in April 2020, CPCL is partially shutting down its 210 kb/d Manali refinery for a desulfurisation revamp
  • China’s Hengli Petrochemical is reportedly now stocking up on Saudi Arabian crude imports as it prepares to ramp up production at its new 400 kb/d Dalian refinery alongside its 175 kb/d site in Brunei
  • South Korea’s Lotte Chemical Corp expects its ethane cracker in Louisiana to start up by end May, adding 1 mtpa of ethylene capacity to its portfolio
  • Due to water shortage, India’s MRPL will be operating its 300 kb/d refinery in Katipalla at 50% as drought causes a severe water shortage in the area

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Partners in the US$30 billion Rovuma LNG project in Mozambique now expect to sanction FID by July, even after a recent devastating cyclone
  • Also in Mozambioque, Anadarko is set to announce FID on its Mozambique LNG project on June 18, calling it a ‘historic day’
  • After talks of a joint LNG export complex to develop gas resources in Tanzania, Shell and Equinor now appear to be planning separate projects
  • Gazprom has abandoned plans to build an LNG plant in West Siberia to compete with Novatek, focusing instead on an LNG complex is Ust-Luga
  • First LNG has begun to flow at Sempra Energy’s 13.5 mtpa Cameron LNG project in Louisiana, with exports expected to begin by Q319
May, 17 2019
Shell Eclipses ExxonMobil Once Again

The world’s largest oil & gas companies have generally reported a mixed set of results in Q1 2019. Industry turmoil over new US sanctions on Venezuela, production woes in Canada and the ebb-and-flow between OPEC+’s supply deal and rising American production have created a shaky environment at the start of the year, with more ongoing as the oil world grapples with the removal of waivers on Iranian crude and Iran’s retaliation.

The results were particularly disappointing for ExxonMobil and Chevron, the two US supermajors. Both firms cited weak downstream performance as a drag on their financial performance, with ExxonMobil posting its first loss in its refining business since 2009. Chevron, too, reported a 65% drop in the refining and chemicals profit. Weak refining margins, particularly on gasoline, were blamed for the underperformance, exacerbating a set of weaker upstream numbers impaired by lower crude pricing even though production climbed. ExxonMobil was hit particularly hard, as its net profit fell below Chevron’s for the first time in nine years. Both supermajors did highlight growing output in the American Permian Basin as a future highlight, with ExxonMobil saying it was on track to produce 1 million barrels per day in the Permian by 2024. The Permian is also the focus of Chevron, which agreed to a US$33 billion takeover of Anadarko Petroleum (and its Permian Basin assets), only for the deal to be derailed by a rival bid from Occidental Petroleum with the backing of billionaire investor guru Warren Buffet. Chevron has now decided to opt out of the deal – a development that would put paid to Chevron’s ambitions to match or exceed ExxonMobil in shale.

Performance was better across the pond. Much better, in fact, for Royal Dutch Shell, which provided a positive end to a variable earnings season. Net profit for the Anglo-Dutch firm may have been down 2% y-o-y to US$5.3 billion, but that was still well ahead of even the highest analyst estimates of US$4.52 billion. Weaker refining margins and lower crude prices were cited as a slight drag on performance, but Shell’s acquisition of BG Group is paying dividends as strong natural gas performance contributed to the strong profits. Unlike ExxonMobil and Chevron, Shell has only dipped its toes in the Permian, preferring to maintain a strong global portfolio mixed between oil, gas and shale assets.

For the other European supermajors, BP and Total largely matched earning estimates. BP’s net profits of US$2.36 billion hit the target of analyst estimates. The addition of BHP Group’s US shale oil assets contributed to increased performance, while BP’s downstream performance was surprisingly resilient as its in-house supply and trading arm showed a strong performance – a business division that ExxonMobil lacks. France’s Total also hit the mark of expectations, with US$2.8 billion in net profit as lower crude prices offset the group’s record oil and gas output. Total’s upstream performance has been particularly notable – with start-ups in Angola, Brazil, the UK and Norway – with growth expected at 9% for the year.

All in all, the volatile environment over the first quarter of 2019 has seen some shift among the supermajors. Shell has eclipsed ExxonMobil once again – in both revenue and earnings – while Chevron’s failed bid for Anadarko won’t vault it up the rankings. Almost ten years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP is now reclaiming its place after being overtaken by Total over the past few years. With Q219 looking to be quite volatile as well, brace yourselves for an interesting earnings season.

Supermajor Financials: Q1 2019

  • ExxonMobil – Revenue (US$63.6 million, down 6.7% y-o-y), Net profit (US$2.35 billion, down 49.5% y-o-y)
  • Shell - Revenue (US$85.66 billion, down 5.9% y-o-y), Net profit (US$5.3 billion, down 2% y-o-y)
  • Chevron – Revenue (US$35.19 billion, down 5% y-o-y), Net profit (US$2.65 billion, down 27.2% y-o-y)
  • BP - Revenue (US$67.4 billion, down 2.51% y-o-y), Net profit (US$2.36 billion, down 9.2% y-o-y)
  • Total - Revenue (US$51.2billion, up 3.2% y-o-y), Net profit (US$2.8 billion, down 4.0% y-o-y)
May, 15 2019
EIA revises its crude oil price forecast upward as supply expectations change

monthly average Brent crude spot price

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, January, April, and May 2019 editions

In its May 2019 edition of the Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA revised its price forecast for Brent crude oil upward, reflecting price increases in recent months, more recent data, and changing expectations of global oil markets. Several supply constraints have caused oil markets to be generally tighter and oil prices to be higher so far in 2019 than previous STEOs expected.

Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had agreed at a December 2018 meeting to cut crude oil production in the first six months of 2019; compliance with these cuts has been more effective than EIA initially expected. In the January STEO, OPEC’s crude oil and petroleum liquids production was expected to decline by 1.0 million b/d in 2019 compared with the 2018 level, but EIA now forecasts OPEC production to decline by 1.9 million b/d in the May STEO.

Within OPEC, EIA expects Iran’s liquid fuels production and exports to also decline. On April 22, 2019, the United States issued a statement indicating that it would not reissue waivers, which previously allowed eight countries to continue importing crude oil and condensate from Iran after their waivers expired on May 2. Although EIA’s previous forecasts had assumed that the United States would not reissue waivers, the increased certainty regarding waiver policy and enforcement led to lower forecasts of Iran’s crude oil production.

Venezuela—another OPEC member—has experienced declines in production and exports as a result of recurring power outages, political instability, and U.S. sanctions. In addition to supply constraints that have already materialized in 2019, political instability in Libya may further affect global supply. Any further escalation in conflict may damage crude oil infrastructure or result in a security environment where oil fields are shut in. Either situation could reduce global supply by more than EIA currently forecasts.

In the May STEO, total OPEC crude oil and other liquids supply was estimated at 37.3 million b/d in 2018, and EIA forecasts that it will average 35.4 million b/d in 2019. EIA assumes that the December 2018 agreement among OPEC members to limit production will expire following the June 2019 OPEC meeting.

annual changes in global liquids production

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, January, April, and May 2019 editions

U.S. crude oil and other liquids production is sensitive to changes in crude oil prices, taking into account a lag of several months for drilling operations to adjust. As crude oil prices have increased in recent months, so too have EIA’s domestic liquid fuels production forecasts for the remaining months of 2019.

U.S. crude oil and other liquids production, which grew by 2.2 million b/d in 2018, is forecast in EIA’s May STEO to grow by 2.0 million b/d in 2019, an increase of 310,000 b/d more than anticipated in the January STEO. In 2019, EIA expects overall U.S. crude oil and liquids production to average 19.9 million b/d, with crude oil production alone forecast to average 12.4 million b/d.

Relative to these changes in forecasted supply, EIA’s changes in forecasted demand were relatively minor. EIA expects that global oil markets will be tightest in the second and third quarters of 2019, resulting in draws in global inventories. By the fourth quarter of 2019, EIA expects that inventories will build again, and Brent crude oil prices will fall slightly.

More information about changes in STEO expectations for crude oil prices, supply, demand, and inventories is available in This Week in Petroleum.

May, 15 2019