An oil supply deficit may be hard to fathom given two years of surplus and rock bottom prices, but with the financials of so many oil companies badly damaged, upstream investment could come up short in the not-too-distant future, even if prices continue to rise this year.
Globally, the oil industry is set to cut investment by US$1 trillion between 2015 and 2020 due to the collapse in oil prices, according to a new estimate from Wood Mackenzie. Spending on development will be US$740 billion lower than the pre-crash estimate for that five-year period, and exploration spending is also expected be down by another US$300 billion.
Dickson says that although “virtually every oil-producing country has seen some form of capex cuts” over the past two years, the United States has been hit especially hard. Spending will fall by half in 2016, dropping by US$125 billion. The Middle East, on the other hand, has seen much smaller effects on spending. In a separate report, IHS projects US oil and gas investment to decline by 35% this year, and while spending in 2017 should bounce off of 2016 lows, the recovery will be “long and drawn out.” Notably, IHS says spending in the oil industry in 2020 will still be 28% below the high watermark set in 2014.
Obviously, spending cuts will have very serious effects on production. Wood Mackenzie says that global oil production is already down 3% this year compared to 2014 expectations, back when high oil prices were assumed to remain high. Output is down 5 MM boe/d this year compared to expected levels, and 2017 should see output down 6 MM boe/d from prior estimates, or 4% lower.
“The impact of falling oil prices on global upstream development spend has been enormous,” Malcolm Dickson, principal analyst at Wood Mackenzie, said in a statement. “Companies have responded to the fall by deferring or cancelling projects.”
But most oil companies do not have the ability to do anything other than slash spending and dial down their ambitions. BP’s CEO Bob Dudley recently stated that his company could continue to spend at their current reduced levels for three more years before production starts to fall. Now is not the time to spend aggressively to grow production, he argues. “Being a low-cost producer is the name of the game,” Dudley said on Bloomberg TV. “We’re getting very disciplined about capital.” BP plans to spend US$17 billion in 2016, a nearly 40% cut from the US$27 billion it spent just a few years ago, and more cuts are possible.
Most of the oil majors have prioritised the stability of their dividend payments above all. But that strategy has its downsides. Production will not increase and could even begin to fall. The reserve-replacement ratio at the oil majors has faltered, although part of that has to do with write-downs connected to low oil prices. ExxonMobil even lost its AAA credit rating when it prioritised growing its dividend ahead of halting its rising debt levels.
As companies retrench, global oil production could fall short of demand in the years ahead. After all, US shale drillers have been hit hard by falling oil prices, but so have producers from around the world. A March 2016 report from Piper Jaffray & Co. warned about the supply crunch that is already starting to brew because of spending cuts, citing the falling rig count around the world, not just in the United States. The report concluded that there could be “grievous consequences” on the future oil supply from today’s cuts. “The fact of the matter is there’s a world of carnage unfolding and it’s increasingly widespread,” Bill Herbert, a senior Piper Jaffray researcher, said in March. “We’re digging ourselves a very deep hole.”
The very small increase in the oil rig count in the US over the past few weeks is not nearly enough to reverse the decline, especially since the oil price rally may have stalled for now. Goldman Sachs predicts that oil prices will remain below US$50 per barrel through the Northern Hemisphere summer, barring another major supply disruption. “We view the price recovery as fragile,” Goldman wrote in a recent research note. “Absent further sharp rises in disruptions, the market is likely to remain close to balance in June as Canadian production restarts and production elsewhere remains resilient. As a result, we continue to expect that prices between US$45 a barrel and US$50 a barrel in coming months are still required to bring the market into a deficit in the second half,” the investment bank added.
By Nick Cunningham, Oilprice.com, 22 Jun 2016
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Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.
A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.
Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.
Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.
And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.
That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.
Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.
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