The China factor card has been playing heavily in the markets these couple of months. Is China growing or stagnating, seems to be the million dollar question. Will the world’s second biggest economy continue to be a factor in the market?
The remarkable growth of oil demand, and indeed the world economy, since year 2000 can be summed up in a single word: China. A country of nearly 1.4 billion people, the rapid development of China in manufacturing and industry has made it the factory to the world and the fastest growing middle class as well. Flushed with wealth, the Chinese have bought cars and houses, travelled far and wide, underpinning an amazing boom in oil demand that jumped from just over 4 million b/d in 2000, to some 11 million b/d in 2015.
Where do we go from here? Chinese oil demand growth has been attributed as the reason for many things – US$100/b oil, regular smog in Beijing – but to expect it to continue at 10% growth rates indefinitely was always a fallacy. A slowdown was always coming, and has already happened. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t growth anymore, it just means the percentage gains aren’t as impressive numerically anymore, even though the absolute growth in numbers might be large.
China has a habit of wanting to do things itself. Chinese pride means the country will eventually want to be energy self-sufficient. It does not produce enough crude oil to feed its ravenous industrial belly, but instead of relying on imports, it is buying into foreign upstream assets strategically in hostile environments in African and the Middle East. Instead of importing refined oil products, it built its own massive refineries, including private teapot refineries that were allowed to import crude individually last year, becoming a net exporter in the process. It does not want to face crude shortage shocks, so it is filing up its massive strategic petroleum reserves. On this same vein, China is also looking to be a less hydrocarbon intensive in its future energy growth. High pollution problems in major cities have consistently been a political thorn and embarrassment to China’s shinning economic success. It has since embarked on a massive renewable energy initiative like no other country, optimising on its cheap manufacturing capability of solar panels and wind turbines.
So with a maturing, but still growing economy, and a massive build-up of domestic energy infrastructure, China now exerts influence in world oil markets in a different way now. Instead of being an ambitious upstart, it is now a calculating doyenne. The answer to China’s growth is no longer a simple equation of feeding booming demand, it is now a complex solution of strategic policies, acquiring assets and tactical partnerships. All this will need to be baked into the price curves for crude oil and upstream production; Chinese influence isn’t waning, it still carries a very large chunk of world demand. In 2030, Chinese oil demand will have probably risen only to 15-16 million b/d, hardly the tripling of the past 15 years, but within that gain is a huge array of development in quality, efficiency and utility.
Is there any country that can take China’s place, to replace it as a driver of demand? The immediate short answer is No.
However India is an obvious choice. India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Dharmendra Pradhan spoke to a group of investors this July 2016 proclaiming that “If you invest in India’s oil and gas sector, you will find that you have a market right here, and you don’t have to invest in export infrastructure”. Reflecting India’s has a vast domestic appetite for more hydrocarbon growth potential in the coming years. But despite its potential size, the very nature of its politics, government and private enterprise means it still lacks the top-down savvy of China to really drive growth in a sustained and controlled manner. Brazil is floundering in every way possible, and Russia is getting more isolated. None of the so-called ‘Next 11’ countries are big enough to ‘do a China’.
The Chinese oil miracle is a once in a generation event – much like post-WWII Europe and Japan in the 70s – and we are now in the flatter part of the future curve of oil demand. We may not yet have hit peak oil, but the Chinese boom is certainly one of the final basecamps before the summit. We need to accept this new reality.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 18 March 2019 – Brent: US$67/b; WTI: US$58/b
Headlines of the week
Midstream & Downstream
Risk and reward – improving recovery rates versus exploration
A giant oil supply gap looms. If, as we expect, oil demand peaks at 110 million b/d in 2036, the inexorable decline of fields in production or under development today creates a yawning gap of 50 million b/d by the end of that decade.
How to fill it? It’s the preoccupation of the E&P sector. Harry Paton, Senior Analyst, Global Oil Supply, identifies the contribution from each of the traditional four sources.
1. Reserve growth
An additional 12 million b/d, or 24%, will come from fields already in production or under development. These additional reserves are typically the lowest risk and among the lowest cost, readily tied-in to export infrastructure already in place. Around 90% of these future volumes break even below US$60 per barrel.
2. pre-drill tight oil inventory and conventional pre-FID projects
They will bring another 12 million b/d to the party. That’s up on last year by 1.5 million b/d, reflecting the industry’s success in beefing up the hopper. Nearly all the increase is from the Permian Basin. Tight oil plays in North America now account for over two-thirds of the pre-FID cost curve, though extraction costs increase over time. Conventional oil plays are a smaller part of the pre-FID wedge at 4 million b/d. Brazil deep water is amongst the lowest cost resource anywhere, with breakevens eclipsing the best tight oil plays. Certain mature areas like the North Sea have succeeded in getting lower down the cost curve although volumes are small. Guyana, an emerging low-cost producer, shows how new conventional basins can change the curve.
3. Contingent resource
These existing discoveries could deliver 11 million b/d, or 22%, of future supply. This cohort forms the next generation of pre-FID developments, but each must overcome challenges to achieve commerciality.
Last, but not least, yet-to-find. We calculate new discoveries bring in 16 million b/d, the biggest share and almost one-third of future supply. The number is based on empirical analysis of past discovery rates, future assumptions for exploration spend and prospectivity.
Can yet-to-find deliver this much oil at reasonable cost? It looks more realistic today than in the recent past. Liquids reserves discovered that are potentially commercial was around 5 billion barrels in 2017 and again in 2018, close to the late 2030s ‘ask’. Moreover, exploration is creating value again, and we have argued consistently that more companies should be doing it.
But at the same time, it’s the high-risk option, and usually last in the merit order – exploration is the final top-up to meet demand. There’s a danger that new discoveries – higher cost ones at least – are squeezed out if demand’s not there or new, lower-cost supplies emerge. Tight oil’s rapid growth has disrupted the commercialisation of conventional discoveries this decade and is re-shaping future resource capture strategies.
To sustain portfolios, many companies have shifted away from exclusively relying on exploration to emphasising lower risk opportunities. These mostly revolve around commercialising existing reserves on the books, whether improving recovery rates from fields currently in production (reserves growth) or undeveloped discoveries (contingent resource).
Emerging technology may pose a greater threat to exploration in the future. Evolving technology has always played a central role in boosting expected reserves from known fields. What’s different in 2019 is that the industry is on the cusp of what might be a technological revolution. Advanced seismic imaging, data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, the cloud and supercomputing will shine a light into sub-surface’s dark corners.
Combining these and other new applications to enhance recovery beyond tried-and-tested means could unlock more reserves from existing discoveries – and more quickly than we assume. Equinor is now aspiring to 60% from its operated fields in Norway. Volume-wise, most upside may be in the giant, older, onshore accumulations with low recovery factors (think ExxonMobil and Chevron’s latest Permian upgrades). In contrast, 21st century deepwater projects tend to start with high recovery factors.
If global recovery rates could be increased by a percentage or two from the average of around 30%, reserves growth might contribute another 5 to 6 million b/d in the 2030s. It’s just a scenario, and perhaps makes sweeping assumptions. But it’s one that should keep conventional explorers disciplined and focused only on the best new prospects.
Global oil supply through 2040
Things just keep getting more dire for Venezuela’s PDVSA – once a crown jewel among state energy firms, and now buried under debt and a government in crisis. With new American sanctions weighing down on its operations, PDVSA is buckling. For now, with the support of Russia, China and India, Venezuelan crude keeps flowing. But a ghost from the past has now come back to haunt it.
In 2007, Venezuela embarked on a resource nationalisation programme under then-President Hugo Chavez. It was the largest example of an oil nationalisation drive since Iraq in 1972 or when the government of Saudi Arabia bought out its American partners in ARAMCO back in 1980. The edict then was to have all foreign firms restructure their holdings in Venezuela to favour PDVSA with a majority. Total, Chevron, Statoil (now Equinor) and BP agreed; ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips refused. Compensation was paid to ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, which was considered paltry. So the two American firms took PDVSA to international arbitration, seeking what they considered ‘just value’ for their erstwhile assets. In 2012, ExxonMobil was awarded some US$260 million in two arbitration awards. The dispute with ConocoPhillips took far longer.
In April 2018, the International Chamber of Commerce ruled in favour of ConocoPhillips, granting US$2.1 billion in recovery payments. Hemming and hawing on PDVSA’s part forced ConocoPhillips’ hand, and it began to seize control of terminals and cargo ships in the Caribbean operated by PDVSA or its American subsidiary Citgo. A tense standoff – where PDVSA’s carriers were ordered to return to national waters immediately – was resolved when PDVSA reached a payment agreement in August. As part of the deal, ConocoPhillips agreed to suspend any future disputes over the matter with PDVSA.
The key word being ‘future’. ConocoPhillips has an existing contractual arbitration – also at the ICC – relating to the separate Corocoro project. That decision is also expected to go towards the American firm. But more troubling is that a third dispute has just been settled by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes tribunal in favour of ConocoPhillips. This action was brought against the government of Venezuela for initiating the nationalisation process, and the ‘unlawful expropriation’ would require a US$8.7 billion payment. Though the action was brought against the government, its coffers are almost entirely stocked by sales of PDVSA crude, essentially placing further burden on an already beleaguered company. A similar action brought about by ExxonMobil resulted in a US$1.4 billion payout; however, that was overturned at the World Bank in 2017.
But it might not end there. The danger (at least on PDVSA’s part) is that these decisions will open up floodgates for any creditors seeking damages against Venezuela. And there are quite a few, including several smaller oil firms and players such as gold miner Crystallex, who is owed US$1.2 billion after the gold industry was nationalised in 2011. If the situation snowballs, there is a very tempting target for creditors to seize – Citgo, PDVSA’s crown jewel that operates downstream in the USA, which remains profitable. And that would be an even bigger disaster for PDVSA, even by current standards.
Infographic: Venezuela oil nationalisation dispute timeline