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Last Updated: May 11, 2016
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During the first three months of 2016, crude oil prices were relatively more volatile than in recent history. This elevated volatility occurred when overall oil prices were low, and volatility was driven by high uncertainty related to supply, demand, and inventories. Crude oil price volatility has declined since its peak in March. Prices have risen as concerns about future economic growth have abated and as inventory growth has slowed since the start of the year.

The 30-day measure of oil price volatility (calculated as the standard deviation of daily percent changes in crude oil prices over the previous 30 trading days) reached a high of 45% on March 4 before falling to 33% on April 18. Volatility levels in March were the highest since early 2009, when crude oil prices were falling in response to the financial crisis and to a drop in demand for petroleum products. The recent decline in oil prices resulted in volatility levels closer to the 2015 average of 27%.

Volatility often reflects market uncertainty about both the current and future value of a commodity. Daily volatility is often driven by the release of new economic or supply information, changes in market expectations, or unanticipated events that can cause large price adjustments.

Some reasons for volatility in crude oil prices include uncertainty about:

  • Future production levels in key oil-producing nations
  • Global economic growth, particularly in China and other emerging market economies
  • Growth in U.S. gasoline demand following higher consumption levels in 2015
  • Crude oil inventories and storage capacity constraints

Volatility also increased during unexpected interruptions in oil supply, such as the disruptions that occurred during the first Gulf War in 1990, in the aftermath of hurricanes in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, and in Libya in the first half of 2011.

Monthly trading ranges, or the difference between the high and low closing oil prices in a given month, are another way of measuring volatility. In January 2016, Brent crude oil spot prices closed at a low of $26 per barrel (b) and a high of $36/b, and this $10/b trading range was higher than the range of any month in 2015. The magnitude of the trading range compared with the average monthly price was 33% in January, the highest since 2008.

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In 2018, the United States consumed more energy than ever before

U.S. total energy consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Primary energy consumption in the United States reached a record high of 101.3 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2018, up 4% from 2017 and 0.3% above the previous record set in 2007. The increase in 2018 was the largest increase in energy consumption, in both absolute and percentage terms, since 2010.

Consumption of fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and coal—grew by 4% in 2018 and accounted for 80% of U.S. total energy consumption. Natural gas consumption reached a record high, rising by 10% from 2017. This increase in natural gas, along with relatively smaller increases in the consumption of petroleum fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear electric power, more than offset a 4% decline in coal consumption.

U.S. total energy consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Petroleum consumption in the United States increased to 20.5 million barrels per day (b/d), or 37 quadrillion Btu in 2018, up nearly 500,000 b/d from 2017 and the highest level since 2007. Growth was driven primarily by increased use in the industrial sector, which grew by about 200,000 b/d in 2018. The transportation sector grew by about 140,000 b/d in 2018 as a result of increased demand for fuels such as petroleum diesel and jet fuel.

Natural gas consumption in the United States reached a record high 83.1 billion cubic feet/day (Bcf/d), the equivalent of 31 quadrillion Btu, in 2018. Natural gas use rose across all sectors in 2018, primarily driven by weather-related factors that increased demand for space heating during the winter and for air conditioning during the summer. As more natural gas-fired power plants came online and existing natural gas-fired power plants were used more often, natural gas consumption in the electric power sector increased 15% from 2017 levels to 29.1 Bcf/d. Natural gas consumption also grew in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors in 2018, increasing 13%, 10%, and 4% compared with 2017 levels, respectively.

Coal consumption in the United States fell to 688 million short tons (13 quadrillion Btu) in 2018, the fifth consecutive year of decline. Almost all of the reduction came from the electric power sector, which fell 4% from 2017 levels. Coal-fired power plants continued to be displaced by newer, more efficient natural gas and renewable power generation sources. In 2018, 12.9 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity were retired, while 14.6 GW of net natural gas-fired capacity were added.

U.S. fossil fuel energy consumption by sector

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Renewable energy consumption in the United States reached a record high 11.5 quadrillion Btu in 2018, rising 3% from 2017, largely driven by the addition of new wind and solar power plants. Wind electricity consumption increased by 8% while solar consumption rose 22%. Biomass consumption, primarily in the form of transportation fuels such as fuel ethanol and biodiesel, accounted for 45% of all renewable consumption in 2018, up 1% from 2017 levels. Increases in wind, solar, and biomass consumption were partially offset by a 3% decrease in hydroelectricity consumption.

U.S. energy consumption of selected fuels

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Nuclear consumption in the United States increased less than 1% compared with 2017 levels but still set a record for electricity generation in 2018. The number of total operable nuclear generating units decreased to 98 in September 2018 when the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey was retired. Annual average nuclear capacity factors, which reflect the use of power plants, were slightly higher at 92.6% in 2018 compared with 92.2% in 2017.

More information about total energy consumption, production, trade, and emissions is available in EIA’s Monthly Energy Review.

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April, 17 2019
A New Frontier for LNG Pricing and Contracts

How’s this for a first? As the world’s demand for LNG continues to grow, the world’s largest LNG supplier (Shell) has inked an innovative new deal with one of the world’s largest LNG buyers (Tokyo Gas), including a coal pricing formula link for the first time in a large-scale LNG contract. It’s a notable change in an industry that has long depended on pricing gas off crude, but could this be a sign of new things to come?

Both parties have named the deal an ‘innovative solution’, with Tokyo Gas hailing it as a ‘further diversification of price indexation’ and Shell calling it a ‘tailored solutions including flexible contract terms under a variety of pricing indices.’ Beneath the rhetoric, the actual nuts and bolts is slightly more mundane. The pricing formula link to coal indexation will only be used for part of the supply, with the remainder priced off the conventional oil & gas-linked indexation ie. Brent and Henry Hub pricing. This makes sense, since Tokyo Gas will be sourcing LNG from Shell’s global portfolio – which includes upcoming projects in Canada and the US Gulf Coast. Neither party provided the split of volumes under each pricing method, meaning that the coal-linked portion could be small, acting as a hedge.

However, it is likely that the push for this came from Tokyo Gas. As one of the world’s largest LNG buyers, Tokyo Gas has been at the forefront of redefining the strict traditions of LNG contracts. Reading between the lines, this deal most likely does not include any destination restriction clauses, a change that Tokyo Gas has been particularly pushing for. With the trajectory for Brent crude prices uncertain – owing to a difficult-to-predict balance between OPEC+ and US shale – creating a third link in the pricing formula might be a good move. Particularly since in Japan, LNG faces off directly with coal in power generation. With the general retreat from nuclear power in the country, the coal-LNG battle will intensify.

What does this mean for the rest of the industry? Could coal-linked contracts become the norm? The industry has been discussing new innovations in LNG contracts at the recent LNG2019 conference in Shanghai, while the influx of new American LNG players hungry to seal deals has unleashed a new sense of flexibility. But will there be takers?

I am not a pricing expert but the answer is maybe. While Tokyo Gas predominantly uses natural gas as its power generation fuel (hence the name), it is competing with other players using cheaper coal-based generation. So in Japan, LNG and coal are direct competitors. This is also true in South Korea and much of Southeast Asia. In the two rising Asian LNG powerhouses, however, the situation is different. In China – on track to become the world’s largest LNG buyer in the next two decades – LNG is rarely used in power generation, consumed instead by residential heating. In India – where LNG imports are also rising sharply – LNG is primarily aimed at petrochemicals and fertiliser. LNG based power generation in China and India could see a surge, of course, but that will take plenty of infrastructure, and time, to build. It is far more likely that their contracts will be based off existing LNG or natural gas benchmarks, several of which are being developed in Asia alone.

If it takes off  the coal-link LNG formula is likely to remain a Asian-based development. But with the huge volumes demanded by countries in this region, that’s still a very big niche. Enough perhaps for the innovation to slowly gain traction elsewhere, next stop -  Europe?

The Shell-Tokyo Gas Deal:

Contract – April 2020-March 2030 (10 Years)

Volume – 500,000 metric tons per year

Source – Shell global portfolio

Pricing – Formula based on coal and oil & gas-linked indexes

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April, 15 2019