Crude oil continues to trade in the US$45/b range, as a strong dollar and high stockpiles weighed on the market, while there was a sense of pessimism permeating out of the G20 meeting in Chengdu on Sunday over the health of the global economy.
Last week in Asian oil:
Upstream & Midstream
- Saudi Arabian exports to China are on the increase, out-supplying Russia in June. Since 2008, Russia has been the main supplier of crude to China, but Saudi Arabia has closed the gap significantly this year. Iran, too, is aiming to increase its crude shipments to the Middle Kingdom, focusing on supplying independent teapot refineries together with trader Trafigura.
- Iran continues to come out of the cold, now re-forging ties with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka, which traditionally depended entirely on Iranian crude for its sole refinery, had stopped ties due to the US-led sanctions, but has now reached out to Iran to sign its first oil sale contract since 2011.
- Singapore’s Keppel Corp sees little improvement in global oil demand as the worldwide glut continues to weigh on the market. Keppel is the world’s largest builder of oil rigs, and is mulling significant further cuts in its workforce as fewer newer contracts for rigs come in, if at all. Keppel has already shrunk its workforce by some 11,000 since 2015.
- Emerging from its civil war, Libya’s hopes to normalise its crude export volumes took another blow last week as the Libya National Oil Corporation objected to a government deal with the Petroleum Facilities Guard to re-open key ports for exports after the latter blockaded facilities at Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and Zueitina. NOC had originally declared force majeure due to the blockade, but is dissatisfied with the terms given to the Guard and vows to continue the force majeure.
- Indonesia has (suddenly) switched to Platts Dated Brent as the basis for its Indonesian Crude Price (IPC) calculation effective July. Previously calculated as 50% Platts and 50% spot assessment of various Indonesian crudes, the switch to 100% Dated Brent echoes Petronas’ similar decision in 2011, but the swift switchover has ruffled feathers in the trading community, left exposed by the sudden change.
- Saudi Arabia reports that its planned 400 kb/d Jizan refinery is expected to come online 2018, while ironing out kinks on its clean fuels project at Ras Tanura, which will increase the amount of oil products coming out of the Kingdom, destined for Asia and Europe.
- Chevron has signed an agreement with China’s JOVO Group through its Singapore subsidiary Carbon Hydrogen Energy Pte Ltd to supply LNG from its global portfolio. The deal involves 500,000 metric tons of LNG per year over five years, with the first cargo scheduled for 2018.
- India is reviving a plan to merge most, or all of the country’s state oil companies, to create a giant integrated corporation in hopes of generating efficiency through consolidated operations and distributions. The plan was first mooted in 2005, but rejected as ‘unworkable; the new plan would bring together entities like ONGC, IndianOil, HPCL and BPCL together with federal bodies like the Oil Industry Development Board.
- ExxonMobil has won the bidding war for InterOil after Oil Search pulled out of the competition last week. The US giant will now pay US$2.5 billion for InterOil and its vast gas reserves in Papua New Guinea, with the long-term ambition of turning PNG into a vast LNG exporter. The deal is expected to be finalised in September, pending regulatory review.
Other International Updates
Upstream & Midstream
- The US rig count has risen for the fourth consecutive week, adding 15 rigs to a total of 462. Fourteen oil rigs were added to the total – all onshore – placing downward pressure on prices as the development means US output will stem its decline, and possibly begin to rise again.
- A pipeline spill on Husky Energy’s Saskatchewan Gathering System in western Canada has spilled some 1,500 barrels of heavy oil, with Husky rushing to contain and clean the spill before it moves further down the North Saskatchewan River.
- BP is continuing its retreat from downstream operations, planning to sell off much of its UK fuel terminal assets, as well as its stake in the onshore United Kingdom Oil Pipeline. The shake-up in the British entity’s UK operations leaves its portfolio further skewed towards upstream, which it views as more profitable and strategic.
- The first US LNG cargo crosses through the Panama Canal this week, slashing the journey time from the US Gulf of Mexico to the LNG-hungry demand centres of Asia. Expect more cargos to follow suit, as US Gulf producers join Canada’s LNG exporters in BC and Australia is competing for Asian contracts.
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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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