Last week in the world oil
It’s happier days for crude prices, as OPEC’s upcoming meeting in Algeria has triggered speculation that the organisation will finally agree to a production freeze not only within its members, but also with non-OPEC producers like Russia. Brent closed above US$50/barrel last week, and WTI just a shade below the mark, but analysts are warning that the rally is based on optimism and not fundamentals.
With Iran engaging in a mild price war with Saudi Arabia over crude market share in Asia, buyers are welcoming the challenge. Japan tripled its crude imports from Iran in July, while South Korea has quadrupled its Iranian crude liftings y-o-y. The lifting on sanctions on Iran has been a boon for Asian refiners, benefiting from lower prices as Iran and Saudi Arabia jostle for position to supply crude, scrambling with Russia as well. India’s July imports from Iran also leapt, even as total imports fell slightly.
A Malaysian oil tanker reported as missing and possibly hijacked early last week has instead been taken to Indonesia over an ‘internal dispute’ between the crew and the ship’s operator.
India’s growing appetite for natural gas is currently fed by imports, but BP India believes that the country has the potential to unlock gas reserves of at least 10-15 trillion cubic feet (tcf) by 2022, which would halve imports. The announcement came as part of a push to stimulate investment and simplify rules to revitalise the country’s existing and upcoming natural gas fields in line with increasing the gas share of energy mix from 8% to 15% by 2030.
With its once prodigious local fields faltering, Thailand is preparing to expand its LNG import capacity to feed its vast network of gas-fed infrastructure that came about from the discovery of domestic sources. State oil firm PTT announced plans to nearly double LNG imports to 5 million tons in 2017, aiming to source LNG from Shell, BP and Qatar.
Just next to Thailand, Australia’s Woodside is preparing to begin its drilling campaign in Myanmar next year, to commercialise its Shwe Yee Htun-1 and Thalin-1a discoveries with 2.4 tcf of gas reserves. Long isolated due to the ruling military junta, Myanmar has tremendous reserves of natural gas, traditionally exploited by Thailand’s PTT, but the thawing of international relations after political developments have now brought up plenty of foreign investors eager to capitalise on the country.
Two Australian upstream giants – Santos and Woodside – have reported disappointing results for the first half of 2016. Santos recovered a loss of US$1.1 billion, while Woodside’s profits halved to US$340, as weak oil and gas prices offset gains in production. Woodside is in a better position, given its low holdings of debt, but Santos is in a trickier position scrambling to slash costs and reduce debts.
The oil debt malaise hitting Singapore that claimed Swiber is spreading to Malaysia, with offshore rig contractor Perisai Petroleum Teknology likely to miss a US$125 million securities payout due in October, triggering a fall in its bonds to distressed levels. Expect the contagion to keep spreading, as offshore contractors in Singapore and Malaysia combat mounting debts amidst a stagnant market.
After a year of delay, Iran will begin exporting natural gas to Iraq via pipeline in September, beginning with a contract to supply 7 million cubic metres a day to a power plant in Baghdad. A second route to Basra will be added next year, with the long-term goal of reaching 70 million cubic metres per day. The move will help Iraq to free up crude supplies for export, with fields in Kurdistan resuming pumping last week after a dispute between the government and the Kurdish regional authorities was settled.
The number of oil and gas rigs operating in the US rose for an eighth-consecutive week, up by 10 to 491. Oil rigs were up by ten, as producers came in to capitalise on rising crude prices ahead of OPEC’s September meeting.
Saudi Arabia’s combined crude and product exports reached 8.83 million barrels in June 2015, 450,000 barrels higher y-o-y and 1.1 million barrels higher than June 2014. The uptick comes during a period when the Kingdom traditionally exports less to divert fuel to local power stations for cooling during its scorching summers, indicating the level of aggression Saudi Arabia is taking to maintain and combat Russia and Iran over oil market share, particularly in Asia.
Iraq has started up its Misan natural gas processing plant in its southeastern region to capture gas that was previously flared for power generation purposes. Iraq currently flares some 70% of its gas output, a tremendous waste that it is aiming to rectify, ordering that all fields coming onstream in Misan, including Fakka and Bazargan, be connected to the plant.
Russia’s Yamal LNG project led by Novatek has received some €780 million in funding from China to help move to project ahead. The Yamal project in Siberia is remote and costly, and with Western powers cutting off Russia’s access to funds over its role in the Ukrainian crisis, China through the China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China has stepped in filled the gap, and no doubt enable China to demand more offtake of Yamal LNG when it starts up in 2017.
If the oil industry has taken a battering from low prices, it is worst in shipping. Danish shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk has been badly hit by the slump in shipping, raising the option of the company being split into two: one focusing on shipping and transport, and one focusing on energy.
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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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