The global natural gas glut could get much worse if China has its way.
The spot prices for liquefied natural gas (LNG) have plunged in recent years, falling by more than 75 percent from the 2014 highs. Too much supply has run headlong into a market that has seen demand slow significantly.
But China could make things much worse. In an effort to find a domestic source of energy, and clean up its horrific air pollution problems by shutting down coal plants, the top state-owned energy companies are scrambling to develop shale gas.
China has been trying to develop shale gas for several years, but has struggled because the geology is complex, there is a dearth of infrastructure in places where the gas is located, and water availability issues have also made development difficult. China is persevering, however – Sinopec has announced a goal of doubling production within five years, The Wall Street Journal reports. That would take production from roughly 2 to 4 billion cubic feet per day by 2020.
The logic for state-owned companies like Sinopec is obvious. Oil production from its aging fields is falling, so they are venturing into new markets. “By growing gas production they are effectively trying to mitigate what’s happening on the oil side of the business,” Neil Beveridge, an analyst at Bernstein Research, told the WSJ. Ramping up shale gas “looks like more of a volume strategy than a value strategy,” he added.
In Sinopec is successful, the implications would reverberate beyond China’s boarders. If China ramps up shale gas production, it might not need nearly as much imported LNG as everyone expected. That would put billion-dollar investments at risk, such as ExxonMobil’s recent $2.5 billion offering for InterOil, a company that has gas assets in Papua New Guinea and will allow the oil major to expand LNG exports from that country. Or, Royal Dutch Shell’s $54 billion purchase of BG Group could turn out to be a major loser if LNG markets remain depressed for years to come, something that would be more likely if China succeeds in developing a successful shale gas industry.
For now, substantial hurdles remain. Sinopec is still learning shale drilling techniques and infrastructure needs improvement. Sinopec boosted output by 10 percent in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period a year earlier, but it is not on track to hit its 18 percent growth target for the year, according to the WSJ.
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The Permian is in desperate need of pipelines. That much is true. There is so much shale liquids sloshing underneath the Permian formation in Texas and New Mexico, that even though it has already upended global crude market and turned the USA into the world’s largest crude producer, there is still so much of it trapped inland, unable to make the 800km journey to the Gulf Coast that would take them to the big wider world.
The stakes are high. Even though the US is poised to reach some 12 mmb/d of crude oil production next year – more than half of that coming from shale oil formations – it could be producing a lot more. This has already caused the Brent-WTI spread to widen to a constant US$10/b since mid-2018 – when the Permian’s pipeline bottlenecks first became critical – from an average of US$4/b prior to that. It is even more dramatic in the Permian itself, where crude is selling at a US$10-16/b discount to Houston WTI, with trends pointing to the spread going as wide as US$20/b soon. Estimates suggest that a record 3,722 wells were drilled in the Permian this year but never opened because the oil could not be brought to market. This is part of the reason why the US active rig count hasn’t increased as much as would have been expected when crude prices were trending towards US$80/b – there’s no point in drilling if you can’t sell.
Assistance is on the way. Between now and 2020, estimates suggest that some 2.6 mmb/d of pipeline capacity across several projects will come onstream, with an additional 1 mmb/d in the planning stages. Add this to the existing 3.1 mmb/d of takeaway capacity (and 300,000 b/d of local refining) and Permian shale oil output currently dammed away by a wall of fixed capacity could double in size when freed to make it to market.
And more pipelines keep getting announced. In the last two weeks, Jupiter Energy Group announced a 90-day open season seeking binding commitments for a planned 1 mmb/d, 1050km long Jupiter Pipeline – which could connect the Permian to all three of Texas’ deepwater ports, Houston, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Plains All American is launching its 500,000 b/d Sunrise Pipeline, connecting the Permian to Cushing, Oklahoma. Wolf Midstream has also launched an open season, seeking interest for its 120,000 b/d Red Wolf Crude Connector branch, connecting to its existing terminal and infrastructure in Colorado City.
Current estimates suggest that Permian output numbered around 3.5 mmb/d in October. At maximum capacity, that’s still about 100,000 b/d of shale oil trapped inland. As planned pipelines come online over the next two years, that trickle could turn into a flood. Consider this. Even at the current maxing out of Permian infrastructure, the US is already on the cusp on 12 mmb/d crude production. By 2021, it could go as high as 15 mmb/d – crude prices, permitting, of course.
As recently reported in the WSJ; “For years, the companies behind the U.S. oil-and-gas boom, including Noble Energy Inc. and Whiting Petroleum Corp. have promised shareholders they have thousands of prospective wells they can drill profitably even at $40 a barrel. Some have even said they can generate returns on investment of 30%. But most shale drillers haven’t made much, if any, money at those prices. From 2012 to 2017, the 30 biggest shale producers lost more than $50 billion. Last year, when oil prices averaged about $50 a barrel, the group as a whole was barely in the black, with profits of about $1.7 billion, or roughly 1.3% of revenue, according to FactSet.”
The immense growth experienced in the Permian has consequences for the entire oil supply chain, from refining balances – shale oil is more suitable for lighter ends like gasoline, but the world is heading for a gasoline glut and is more interested in cracking gasoil for the IMO’s strict marine fuels sulphur levels coming up in 2020 – to geopolitics, by diminishing OPEC’s power and particularly Saudi Arabia’s role as a swing producer. For now, the walls keeping a Permian flood in are still standing. In two years, they won’t, with new pipeline infrastructure in place. And so the oil world has two years to prepare for the coming tsunami, but only if crude prices stay on course.
Recent Announced Permian Pipeline Projects
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 3 December 2018 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
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