The world's largest exporter of crude oil, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, recently announced a plan for its post-oil future. If a country almost synonymous with the oil economy can see the need for such a plan, how can the rest of the world, particularly the United States, the world's largest consumer of petroleum, not see the necessity of such foresight?
The kingdom's plan includes sale of part of Saudi Aramco, the world largest oil company and currently wholly-owned by the Saudi government. The company controls all oil development in Saudi Arabia. That the Saudis want to sell part of the most valuable company in the world means they have a different view about the future of oil than those who will be buying. Commentators often report that markets rise because investors are optimistic or fall because they are pessimistic. But this is complete nonsense because for every buyer there is always a seller. Each side of a trade believes in a different future for the investment being traded.
Certainly, there are many reasons for selling a minority stake in Saudi Aramco. But one of them can't be that the rulers of the kingdom have an unalloyed bullishness about Saudi capabilities and oil resources.
As recently as 2007 the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) believed Saudi Arabia would be supplying the world with 16.4 million barrels per day (mbpd) of oil by 2030. (And, that was down from 23.8 mbpd projected for 2025 in a 2003 report.) In 2008 the Saudi king appeared to embrace a policy of 12.5 mbpd and no more.
Since then long-term projections for Saudi production have come down with a range of 10.2 mbpd to 15.5 mbpd for 2040 (in a 2013 EIA report) depending on which of three scenarios you choose. No explicit range has been included in subsequent EIA reports.
With the release of a new independent report on world oil reserves by a former BP insider, a report that suggests that conventional reserves are half what is being claimed, the issue of limits on oil production has resurfaced. (The report implies that Saudi reserves have been inflated as well.)
By including Canadian tar sands and Venezuelan heavy oil, world oil reserves increase back to about 75 percent of what is typically reported. But that number makes no adjustment for the much greater difficulty and expense of getting these unconventional resources out of the ground and then turning them into something we call oil. The financial debacle taking place in the tar sands under the current low-price regime is clear evidence that those resources cannot be sustained without high prices.
The temporary glut we are experiencing now, however, does not disprove limits. It only shows that we can still have market cycles in oil just as we did in 2008 when oil fell from $147 per barrel to around $35 in six months. By 2011 oil was back above $100, where it stayed with only brief forays under that price, until the end of 2014. This period has so far given us the highest inflated-adjusted average daily prices for oil ever.
For those who believe the United States does seem to have energy policies relevant to a post-oil world, I would answer that this is not the result of some grand design, but rather due to a hodge-podge of programs, many of which are conflicting. Even as the U.S. tax code continues to provide substantial subsidies for oil and natural gas production, it also provides substantial subsidies for renewable energy such as solar and wind. But these renewables subsidies are really about producing electricity.
Subsidies for liquid fuels, the kind that replace fuels from oil, have been reduced. The federal subsidy for ethanol ended in 2012. Subsidies for biodiesel and other biofuels continue.
While ethanol was always really an energy carrier and not an energy source - it takes about as much energy to produce corn ethanol as it yields--biodiesel is believed to have a positive energy balance. Even so, converting the U.S. vehicle fleet to biodiesel isn't in the cards, and doing so would require so much farmland to grow the necessary oil crops that we might be able to drive, but probably not eat--an absurdity of the first order.
Now granted, a post-oil society doesn't necessarily mean a no-oil society. Oil supplies may decline gradually after a future peak in production. We won't, as the critics say, "run out." That's just a canard meant to prevent people from understanding the serious implications, not of running out, but of having less each year.
There is the option of moving to electrified transportation which I support. But most people think of this as a move toward electric cars. The entire car fleet in the United States currently takes about 14 years to turn over. But, of course, we'd only get replacement of all vehicles with electrics over this period if we started selling 100 percent electric-only vehicles now. Moreover, certain types of transport--emergency services, farm equipment and rural transport--will likely require liquid fuels for a long time to come.
Because we are only very gradually increasing the number of electric-only cars available for purchase, it would likely take two to three decades for a complete transition away from oil-fueled vehicles. It would be much wiser to electrify and vastly expand public transportation, something that isn't on the policy radar in the United States.
There are certainly local efforts to expand bicycle lanes and pedestrian areas to reduce dependency on motorized transportation. But those efforts can hardly be called coordinated and rapid.
If we had absolute clarity on future oil supplies, we'd know how quickly we must make the transition away from oil. But we don't have anything approaching that. Instead, we have competing estimates and timelines, and--here's the important part--we Americans have chosen to embrace the optimistic forecasts without understanding the risks because doing so takes the pressure off of us to make the necessary changes. (And, we do this in spite of the fact that supposedly ample U.S. production is now once again in decline.)
The Saudi move toward a post-oil economy ought to be one of the strongest messages ever that the world is moving closer to a peak and decline in world oil production. The kingdom's actions are telling us that the world's largest crude oil exporter feels it must start today to plan and implement a post-oil economy.
Will we Americans (and others who haven't yet) take the hint seriously?
By KURT COBB (SUNDAY, MAY 22, 201)
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Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.
Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.
Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.
Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.
But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.
Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.
Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)
|Region||Consumption (mmb/d)*||Refining Capacity (mmb/d)|
*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.
The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.
Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.
Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.
Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.
Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.
Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett