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OPEC counts 13 countries among its membership, but one of them has long reigned as a first among equals.

 

Saudi Arabia, with its production of around 10.2 million b/d representing about a third of the group’s output — and about 11% of world supply — has served as OPEC’s de facto leader, its swing capacity traditionally leading the organization’s efforts to manage the market.

 

But last week’s failed talks in Doha to enact a production freeze saw a potential new oil producer group emerge with another player in the room that could have changed the dynamics of the market and challenged Saudi political eminence in world oil affairs.

 

The Doha summit of 18 nations included 11 OPEC members and several major non-OPEC producers, most notably Russia, whose output surpasses Saudi Arabia’s at close to 11 million b/d, according to its energy ministry.

 

Russia has geopolitical ambitions of its own that in many cases do not align with Saudi Arabia’s, particularly in the Middle East, where the two have clashed over the civil wars in Yemen and Syria.

But Russia and Saudi Arabia were among the leading architects of the freeze proposal, before Saudi Arabia reversed course as the Doha talks took place.

 

Had the talks been successful and a production freeze implemented, would Russia have found itself with an influential international perch in a new oil producer group that supplants OPEC’s role in overseeing the market?

 

The question is moot for now, as it was Saudi Arabia flexing its political muscle at the meeting, scuttling negotiations over its insistence that Iran be a party to any production freeze agreement and demonstrating that the market still is beholden to Saudi wishes.

 

But the failure of the talks, coming on the back of a fractious OPEC meeting in December, when the group scrapped its production ceiling altogether in a disagreement over output policy, has brought into sharp question the future of OPEC, which holds its next regular meeting June 2 in Vienna.

 

OPEC is dead, many commentators have written, as divergent interests have cracked the group and made any consensus on how to manage the market as unlikely as a blizzard in Doha.

 

“We’ve killed OPEC,” Texas Congressman Joe Barton said in a February interview with CNN, saying the December lifting of the US’ decades-old restrictions on crude exports will put a further squeeze on the producer group.

 

The Republican is not entirely wrong on premise, though his OPEC death declaration is a bit overwrought. After all, OPEC has ridden through price crashes and fractious relationships before.

 

OPEC still attracting new members

 

“OPEC is a bureaucratic organization; it is unlikely to go away anytime soon even if it never made another production decision,” said Jamie Webster, a Washington-based independent analyst. “It may be ineffective on the big decisions, but it is arguably still relevant in some form.”

Dysfunction and recent Doha embarrassment aside, OPEC membership still maintains sufficient cachet that Indonesia reactivated its suspended membership last year, while Gabon is also seeking to rejoin the group, he noted.

 

Even Washington-based consultant Bob McNally, who characterizes the current market as having entered a “post-OPEC” era, due to OPEC’s unwillingness to serve as swing producer, said the organization will remain as a conduit for its members to discuss market strategy.

 

“OPEC members are used to operating amidst high tensions among members,” said Bob McNally, a former energy adviser to US President George W. Bush. “They will exchange competing views in the meeting and to the press afterward, but this is par for the course.”

 

Beyond hosting the twice-annual meetings of its member oil ministers in Vienna, where it declares its output policies, OPEC also provides research on the market and issues regular reports to the public, and its secretary general, Abdalla el-Badri, speaks frequently at forums to represent producer views.

OPEC’s Vienna secretariat hosts a workforce of about 150, including researchers, statisticians, administrative staff and public relations personnel.

 

Amrita Sen, the London-based chief oil analyst with Energy Aspects, said to look for signs of obvious discord when judging OPEC’s ability to implement policy.

 

Russia may still have a role to play, as it appears it could be invited to consultations surrounding the June 2 meeting, though the impetus for now is on OPEC to find a détente among its own sparring factions.

 

“Historically, the most successful deals, particularly when OPEC is concerned, have worked best when agreed behind closed doors and official meetings have only been used to communicate the pre-agreed message,” Sen said. “That still remains the case.” — Herman Wang in Washington

Crude Oil Imports/Exports Iran Iraq OPEC Production Russia Saudi Arabia Supply/Demand Trading
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September, 21 2019
Your Weekly Update: 16 - 20 September 2019

Market Watch  

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 16 September 2019 – Brent: US$69/b; WTI: US$63/b

  • Global crude oil prices surged at the start of the week as news that a successful drone strike on the Abqaiq processing plant and the Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia took out over half of the Kingdom’s crude production capacity
  • Brent prices jumped above US$70/b at one point on fears on global supply disruption, but abated as President Donald Trump authorises the release of US strategic petroleum reserves to cover the market
  • Initial fears that the Saudi Arabian crude output would be crippled for months proved to be extreme, with Saudi Aramco announcing that some 70% of capacity at Abqaiq had been restored within days
  • But more worryingly is that this incident escalates the risk of a full-blown military confrontation with Iran; the US was quick to accuse Iran of the attack, citing data on the attack, which was denied by Iran
  • Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, although initial results of a Saudi investigation pointed to the weapons originating from Iran
  • For now, crude oil prices have retreated as the risk of widespread supply disruption abated, but tensions are still high in the region
  • This comes after President Trump signals that he was considering easing sanctions in an apparent thaw in the US-Iran relationship; this opportunity now appears to have evaporated
  • Saudi Arabia’s new oil energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, made a positive impression at the recent OPEC+ meeting, with errant members of the group signalling that they were now ready to adhere to the supply deal
  • In Venezuela, the oil crisis continues as ongoing US sanctions now mean that the country cannot find enough vessels to transport its crude, as shippers fear losing insurance coverage if they transport Venezuelan oil
  • Iran has released the UK-flagged Stena Impero vessel that it had impounded, a lone bright spot in a region now clouded by geopolitical tensions
  • Against this backdrop, the US active rig count recorded yet another fall, losing five oil and seven gas rigs for a net drop of 12 to a new total of 886 rigs
  • With the shock of the Saudi drone attacks abating, crude oil prices are retreating back to their previous range – US$60-63 for Brent and US$56-59/b for WTI – as the impact of global supply was minimised; another attack, however, might cause a more permanent shift in prices


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Equinor has received consent from the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate to continue operations at the Tordis and Vigdis fields through 2036 and 2040, respectively, extending the life of the North Sea fields by 34 years
  • BP has announced that it will deploy continuous measurement of methane emissions for all future oil and gas projects in a bid to reduce emissions
  • CNOPC and Niger have agreed to collaborate on a 1,892km pipeline to carry oil from Niger’s Agadem rift basin to port facilities in Benin
  • The South African government is tabling a new law that will allow the state to take a free stake of up to 10% in all new oil and gas ventures, hoping to capitalise on a surge in upstream interest after Total’s Brulpadda discovery

Midstream/Downstream

  • As the IMO deadline for low-sulfur marine fuels approaches, refiners have begun stockpiling supplies of very low-sulfur fuel oil to ensure adequate supply; this includes Japan’s Cosmo Oil that aims to begin supplying VLSFO to the domestic marine market by October 2019
  • IndianOil’s Gujarat refinery stated it ready to produce 12,900 b/d of VLSFO by October while its Haldia refinery will start producing 5,500 b/d of VLSFO by December; this should be adequate to cover the India’s marine fuel demand
  • India is considering selling a stake in BPCL, the country’s second largest refiner, to an international firm to boost competition in downstream fuel retailing that has historically been dominated by state firms
  • Valero Energy and Darling Ingredients are launching the first renewable gasoil plant in Texas, focusing on producing renewable diesel and naphtha
  • In the UK, Essar Oil’s Stanlow refinery aims to increase its diet of US crude from a current 35% to 40%, leveraging on cheaper American oil
  • The after-effects of Russia’s contaminated crude through the Druzhba pipeline continues as Total issues a tender to sell 1.3 million barrels of tainted Ural crude through Rotterdam after failing to process it

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Poland has won a ruling from the EU courts to reduce Russian control over the key EU Opal pipeline that carries Russian gas from the Nord Stream link to Germany, preventing Gazprom from using most of Opal capacity in a bit to increase energy security for Eastern European countries
  • Vitol and Mozambique’s state player ENH have set up a new joint venture in Singapore to capitalise on trading opportunities for LNG, LPG, and condensate
  • Australia’s Liquefied Natural Gas Ltd and Delta Offshore Energy will supply gas from the Magnolia fields to an LNG-to-power project in Bac Lieu, Vietnam
  • Eni’s Baltim South West gas field offshore Egypt has started up production, only 3 years after discovery, producing an initial 100 mscf/d of gas
  • US gas player Sempra is looking to take FID on its Energia Costa Azul LNG project in Mexico’s Baja California region by the end of 2019
  • Egypt has announced that it expects to receive first natural gas from Israel by end-2019 through the East Mediterranean Gas pipeline, with initial supplies of 200 mscf/d that will rise to 500 mscf/d by 2020
  • The Independence floating LNG terminal in Lithuania – built to reduce the Baltic region’s dependence on Russian gas – is set to receive its first-ever cargo from Siberia, likely from Novatek’s LNG projects in Yamal
September, 20 2019
Financial Review: Second-Quarter 2019
Key findings
  • Brent crude oil daily average prices were 9% lower in second-quarter 2019 than in second-quarter 2018 and averaged $68 per barrel
  • The 117 companies in this study increased their combined liquids production 4.6% in second-quarter 2019 from second-quarter 2018, and their natural gas production increased 5.0% during the same period
  • Nearly half of the companies were free cash flow positive—that is, they generated more cash from operations than their capital expenditures
  • Dividends plus share repurchases were nearly one-third of cash from operations, slightly lower than the six-year high set in first-quarter 2019

Distributions to shareholders via dividends and share repurchases amounted to nearly 33% of cash from operations


See entire second-quarter review

September, 20 2019