Japanese utility Kansai Electric lost all its nuclear output in March, following a court injunction challenging the recent restart of its Takahama 3 and 4 reactors. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, for the citizens of Brazil, rain proved a welcome distraction from the country’s political crisis, while in Syria an uneasy truce has broken out amongst the country’s warring factions.
In the ancient city of Rome, the executives of Italian oil and gas major Eni are pondering the wisdom of a multi-billion dollar investment decision in Mozambique, a decision they expect to take this year – but also one they had hoped to take last year. The thread that binds these seemingly disconnected events together, and which would change the regional East African economy forever, is LNG.
Japan is the world’s largest consumer of LNG and national demand for the commodity hit record highs in the aftermath of the devastating Fukushima nuclear disaster. That calamitous event saw all of the country’s substantial nuclear capacity come offline, raising oil, LNG and coal demand in a desperate attempt to generate enough electricity to keep the economy afloat.
Japan’s LNG imports jumped from 85.90 Bcm in 2009 to 120.6 Bcm in 2014, representing 36.2% of world LNG trade. The country’s coal demand rose from 108.8 million tons of oil equivalent to 128.6 mtoe in 2013, and the disaster briefly reversed a decade-long decline in Japanese oil demand.
However, Fukushima also sparked a boom in solar power, one of the few technologies that offers both a reduction in Japan’s dependency on imported energy commodities and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and, perhaps long-term, a deeper structural shift in the country’s primary energy supply. Japanese LNG demand is set to decline over the long-term, and, if the world’s largest LNG market is contracting, LNG suppliers need to look elsewhere for demand growth.
Rainfall in the Amazon
They could look to Latin America. Back across the Pacific, as the Takahama reactor turbines slowed, the residents of Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city, reached their arms into the air to welcome the rain. Brazil has been suffering a savage two-year drought, which has led to sometimes severe water rationing. Throughout 2015, Sao Paulo’s largest reservoir, Cantareira, was churning the muddy water below pump level.
Levels in Brazil’s vast hydroelectric reservoirs plummeted. Given the country’s dependence on hydropower, the only alternative was to ramp up LNG imports, a situation faced by all of the continent’s major economies. Between 2009 and 2014, South and Central America’s LNG imports leapt from 3.27 Bcm to 21.4 Bcm, an almost sevenfold increase, marking the emergence of a major new, but volatile, market for the commodity. However, how consistent this demand proves to be depends on the rain and Argentina’s ability to develop its own massive shale oil and gas reserves.
Sending coal to Newcastle
Perhaps more surprisingly, given its own natural gas endowment, the Middle East too has become a new market for LNG. Kuwait, Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates all now import LNG. Conflict and political division have long obstructed the development of regional gas pipelines that would have made these LNG import facilities unnecessary. Peace in Syria, if it holds long term, could ultimately see the resumption of plans to pipe gas between the states of the Middle East and perhaps even further afield to Europe. But then again, peace may prove a double-edged sword for LNG; many of today’s LNG importers are potentially tomorrow’s exporters.
Surplus to requirements
The LNG industry has already entered a period of surplus and has a long list of projects under construction on which it is too late to turn back. This will bring ever-rising supply out to 2020. Yet what were once flourishing markets now look less certain, a reminder that expectations can change radically in less than a decade. The spot price of LNG is now close to a fifth of post-Fukushima levels.
As the Argentinean government moves to protect the development of its shale oil and gas reserves from low prices, perhaps the most salutary reminder of all is the US shale revolution. Seen less than a decade ago as huge new market for LNG imports, the US is on the cusp of becoming a major exporter.
Decision time in Rome
What then for the executives in Rome? Do they commit billions of dollars to their giant gas finds offshore East Africa, gambling that Japanese public opinion will turn against its nuclear industry, that rainfall in the Amazon basin will be low, that Argentina will fail in its quest for energy independence, and that the Middle East will never achieve meaningful inter-regional energy cooperation?
And what of renewables, which in Europe and the United States now hold the largest share of newly- installed generating capacity? The renewables boom continues to spread and its technologies to develop, boosted by the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change agreed upon last December.
Yet coal use worldwide appears to be peaking and its fall may prove LNG’s opportunity. The short-term outlook appears fairly certain; LNG is in oversupply and will remain cheap for the next two to three years at least, but this itself may give it a more central role in countries’ energy plans. That is the gamble that companies hoping to develop new projects must consider. LNG is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but a
fossil fuel nonetheless and an imported one to boot.
Ross McCracken, Managing editor, Energy Economist
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 February 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
Midstream & Downstream
Global liquid fuels
Electricity, coal, renewables, and emissions
2018 was a year that started with crude prices at US$62/b and ended at US$46/b. In between those two points, prices had gently risen up to peak of US$80/b as the oil world worried about the impact of new American sanctions on Iran in September before crashing down in the last two months on a rising tide of American production. What did that mean for the financial health of the industry over the last quarter and last year?
Nothing negative, it appears. With the last of the financial results from supermajors released, the world’s largest oil firms reported strong profits for Q418 and blockbuster profits for the full year 2018. Despite the blip in prices, the efforts of the supermajors – along with the rest of the industry – to keep costs in check after being burnt by the 2015 crash has paid off.
ExxonMobil, for example, may have missed analyst expectations for 4Q18 revenue at US$71.9 billion, but reported a better-than-expected net profit of US$6 billion. The latter was down 28% y-o-y, but the Q417 figure included a one-off benefit related to then-implemented US tax reform. Full year net profit was even better – up 5.7% to US$20.8 billion as upstream production rose to 4.01 mmboe/d – allowing ExxonMobil to come close to reclaiming its title of the world’s most profitable oil company.
But for now, that title is still held by Shell, which managed to eclipse ExxonMobil with full year net profits of US$21.4 billion. That’s the best annual results for the Anglo-Dutch firm since 2014; product of the deep and painful cost-cutting measures implemented after. Shell’s gamble in purchasing the BG Group for US$53 billion – which sparked a spat of asset sales to pare down debt – has paid off, with contributions from LNG trading named as a strong contributor to financial performance. Shell’s upstream output for 2018 came in at 3.78 mmb/d and the company is also looking to follow in the footsteps of ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP in the Permian, where it admits its footprint is currently ‘a bit small’.
Shell’s fellow British firm BP also reported its highest profits since 2014, doubling its net profits for the full year 2018 on a 65% jump in 4Q18 profits. It completes a long recovery for the firm, which has struggled since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, allowing it to focus on the future – specifically US shale through the recent US$10.5 billion purchase of BHP’s Permian assets. Chevron, too, is focusing on onshore shale, as surging Permian output drove full year net profit up by 60.8% and 4Q18 net profit up by 19.9%. Chevron is also increasingly focusing on vertical integration again – to capture the full value of surging Texas crude by expanding its refining facilities in Texas, just as ExxonMobil is doing in Beaumont. French major Total’s figures may have been less impressive in percentage terms – but that it is coming from a higher 2017 base, when it outperformed its bigger supermajor cousins.
So, despite the year ending with crude prices in the doldrums, 2018 seems to be proof of Big Oil’s ability to better weather price downturns after years of discipline. Some of the control is loosening – major upstream investments have either been sanctioned or planned since 2018 – but there is still enough restraint left over to keep the oil industry in the black when trends turn sour.
Supermajor Net Profits for 4Q18 and 2018
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$6 billion (-28%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$20.8 (+5.7%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$5.69 billion (+32.3%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$21.4 billion (+36%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.73 billion (+19.9%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$14.8 billion (+60.8%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.48 billion (+65%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$12.7 billion (+105%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.88 billion (+16%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$13.6 billion (+28%)