Remember the shale gale and Saudi America? The scale of those outlandish delusions has now dwindled to plays in a few counties in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Saudi Permian.
It’s a race to the bottom as investors double down on the tight oil companies that can still tell a growth story. Permian-weighted E&P companies are the temporary darlings of Wall Street as other tight oil plays have lost their luster.
A Silly Price Rally: Catch-22
We are in the middle of a truly silly price rally. Other rallies of 2015 and 2016 took place despite substantial production surpluses and too much inventory. Then, there was some hope that higher prices might result if over-production could be brought under control. Now, the world’s production and consumption are near balance but oil prices remain mired in the $40 to $50 per barrel range.
This current rally will end badly because there is something more fundamental keeping prices low. Despite repeated assurances from IEA and EIA that demand growth is strong, it is not strong enough to draw down outsized global inventories.
Hope for an OPEC production freeze at next month’s meeting in Algiers is the main factor driving this rally. The problem is that the world liquids market is as close to balance as it ever gets—over-supply has been less than 0.5 million barrels per day for the last two months. Oil prices were more than $100 per barrel at similar or greater production surpluses in 2013 and 2014.
In 2015, when the average production surplus was 2 million barrels per day, it was a different story. Over-production is not the problem now as it was then. If OPEC freezes production, it won’t make any difference.
Inventories exceed all historical levels. The world remains over-supplied because there is too much oil in inventory.
As long as oil prices are are range-bound between about $40 and $50 per barrel, it makes more sense to store oil than to sell it. The carrying cost of storage is less than what can be made by rolling futures contracts over each month. Inventories will stay high until prices break out of their current range but outsized inventories make that impossible. Catch-22.
Four Oil-Price Cycles in 2015 and 2016
There have been four oil-price cycles in 2015 and 2016–the first three each lasted approximately 6 months. Each new cycle began with high price volatility that fell as price peaked. We are currently in the upward arc of Cycle 4.
The oil-price volatility index has fallen to levels similar to when prices peaked during the last cycle suggesting that current WTI futures prices just above $48 per barrel may already be near the peak for this cycle. Prices may increase into the low-$50 per barrel range as they did in June before falling again.
The latest cycle began when NYMEX futures prices fell below $40 per barrel in early August. In the succeeding two weeks, they have climbed to more than $48. A factor beyond a possible OPEC freeze is the weakened U.S. dollar because of expectations that the Federal Reserve Bank will not raise interest rates at least until December. The value of the dollar against other major currencies has fallen 3% over the last month (36% annualized). WTI futures prices have increased 22% since August 1.
A third factor driving the current price rally is long-term concern about supply because of under-investment in oil development projects and exploration since the oil-price collapse. Recentstatements by the International Energy Agency that demand may outpace supply in the next few years underscored that anxiety.
Figure 3 shows that oil prices appear to be range-bound between about $40 support and $51 per barrel resistance levels. The upper boundary is largely controlled by record-breaking volumes of U.S. and world crude oil inventories and the fact that producers add rigs and production with each upward swing in oil prices.
The 200-day moving average of NYMEX futures prices suggests similar range boundaries of about $38 and $52 per barrel.
This market looks for any excuse to raise prices. Every price upswing is seen by some as the beginning of a return to oil prices above $70 per barrel. We seem to selectively forget that the staggering inventory levels of crude oil make this impossible until those volumes are drawn down substantially. Oops.
U.S. crude oil inventories fell 2.5 million barrels this week but have increased a net 1.6 million barrels over the last month during what is supposed to be de-stocking season.
Storage volumes are 57 million barrels more than at this time in 2015 and are 143 million barrels higher than the 5-year average. This is definitely not a basis for a sustainable oil-price rally. Until inventories are drawn down by at least another 125 million barrels, a recovery to somewhere approaching mid-cycle 2014 levels of about $80 per barrel is technically impossible.
The Permian Basin Dominates Rig Count Increases
Five new horizontal rigs were added last week to drill tight oil objectives in the Permian basin and 12 rigs were added the previous week. Only 1 rig was added in the Bakken play after losing 2 rigs a week ago. No rigs were added in the Eagle Ford after losing 1 rig the previous week. More capital is being spent in the Permian basin than in all the other plays put together.
Overall, 67 tight oil rigs have been added since early June. Forty eight of those are in the Permian basin, 5 in the Bakken and 6 in the Eagle Ford play. Four rigs were added in the Niobrara, 3 in the Granite Wash and 1 in Other. Rig count increases began as oil prices peaked above $50 per barrel in early June and continued through the slump toward $40 prices before the latest upward swing to $48 per barrel.
Weekly changes in the Permian basin rig count are the leading indicator of capital flows and expenditures. Permian rig count is more responsive to capital flows than the other tight oil plays because there is more money available for Permian-weighted companies.
In late July, I wrote, “When prices fall and oil-price volatility increases, the floodgates of capital open. Every genius-investor wants to buy low and sell high. Rig count rises with fresh capital, production increases and oil prices fall.”
In fact, the Permian basin accounts for 64% of the total U.S. horizontal tight oil rig count.
This is curious because Permian production from the Bone Spring, Wolfcamp and Trend-Spraberry horizontal plays represents only 21% of total tight oil production.
It is even more curious because Permian basin tight oil proven reserves rank 42nd in the world just behind Denmark and Trinidad and Tobago based on the latest EIA data.
Some will argue about potential and possible Permian resources and reserves preferring Pioneer CEO Scott Sheffield’s view of things to reality. I won’t debate them but the point is that Saudi Permian is a stretch based on any reality-based interpretation of existing data.
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It has been 21 years since Japanese upstream firm Inpex signed on to explore the Masela block in Indonesia in 1998 and 19 years since the discovery of the giant Abadi natural gas field in 2000. In that time, Inpex’s Ichthys field in Australia was discovered, exploited and started LNG production last year, delivering its first commercial cargo just a few months ago. Meanwhile, the abundant gas in the Abadi field close to the Australia-Indonesia border has remained under the waves. Until recently, that is, when Inpex had finally reached a new deal with the Indonesian government to revive the stalled project and move ahead with a development plan.
This could have come much earlier. Much, much earlier. Inpex had submitted its first development plan for Abadi in 2010, encompassing a Floating LNG project with an initial capacity of 2.5 million tons per annum. As the size of recoverable reserves at Abadi increased, the development plan was revised upwards – tripling the planned capacity of the FLNG project to be located in the Arafura Sea to 7.5 million tons per annum. But at that point, Indonesia had just undergone a crucial election and moods had changed. In April 2016, the Indonesian government essentially told Inpex to go back to the drawing board to develop Abadi, directing them to shift from a floating processing solution to an onshore one, which would provide more employment opportunities. The onshore option had been rejected initially by Inpex in 2010, given that the nearest Indonesian land is almost 100km north of the field. But with Indonesia keen to boost activity in its upstream sector, the onshore mandate arrived firmly. And now, after 3 years of extended evaluation, Inpex has delivered its new development plan.
The new plan encompasses an onshore LNG plant with a total production capacity of 9.5 million tons per annum. With an estimated cost of US$18-20 billion, it will be the single largest investment in Indonesia and one of the largest LNG plants operated by a Japanese firm. FID is expected within 3 years, with a tentative target operational timeline of the late 2020s. LNG output will be targeted at Japan’s massive market, but also growing demand centres such as China. But Abadi will be entering into a far more crowded field that it would have if initial plans had gone ahead in 2010; with US Gulf Coast LNG producers furiously constructing at the moment and mega-LNG projects in Australia, Canada and Russia beating Abadi’s current timeline, Abadi will have a tougher fight for market share when it starts operations. The demand will be there, but the huge rise in the level of supplies will dilute potential profits.
It is a risk worth taking, at least according to Inpex and its partner Shell, which owns the remaining 35% of the Abadi gas field. But development of Abadi will be more important to Indonesia. Faced with a challenging natural gas environment – output from the Bontang, Tangguh and Badak LNG plants will soon begin their decline phase, while the huge potential of the East Natuna gas field is complicated by its composition of sour gas – Indonesia sees Abadi as a way of getting its gas ship back on track. Abadi is one of Indonesia’s few remaining large natural gas discoveries with a high potential commercialisation opportunities. The new agreement with Inpex extends the firm’s licence to operate the Masela field by 27 years to 2055 with the 150 mscf pipeline and the onshore plant expected to be completed by 2027. It might be too late by then to reverse Indonesia’s chronic natural gas and LNG production decline, but to Indonesia, at least some progress is better than none.
The Abadi LNG Project:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 June 2019 – Brent: US$62/b; WTI: US$53/b
Headlines of the week
Midstream & Downstream
A month ago, crude oil prices were riding a wave, comfortably trading in the mid-US$70/b range and trending towards the US$80 mark as the oil world fretted about the expiration of US waivers on Iranian crude exports. Talk among OPEC members ahead of the crucial June 25 meeting of OPEC and its OPEC+ allies in Vienna turned to winding down its own supply deal.
That narrative has now changed. With Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov suggesting that there was a risk that oil prices could fall as low as US$30/b and the Saudi Arabia-Russia alliance preparing for a US$40/b oil scenario, it looks more and more likely that the production deal will be extended to the end of 2019. This was already discussed in a pre-conference meeting in April where Saudi Arabia appeared to have swayed a recalcitrant Russia into provisionally extending the deal, even if Russia itself wasn’t in adherence.
That the suggestion that oil prices were heading for a drastic drop was coming from Russia is an eye-opener. The major oil producer has been dragging its feet over meeting its commitments on the current supply deal; it was seen as capitalising on Saudi Arabia and its close allies’ pullback over February and March. That Russia eventually reached adherence in May was not through intention but accident – contamination of crude at the major Druzhba pipeline which caused a high ripple effect across European refineries surrounding the Baltic. Russia also is shielded from low crude prices due its diversified economy – the Russian budget uses US$40/b oil prices as a baseline, while Saudi Arabia needs a far higher US$85/b to balance its books. It is quite evident why Saudi Arabia has already seemingly whipped OPEC into extending the production deal beyond June. Russia has been far more reserved – perhaps worried about US crude encroaching on its market share – but Energy Minister Alexander Novak and the government is now seemingly onboard.
Part of this has to do with the macroeconomic environment. With the US extending its trade fracas with China and opening up several new fronts (with Mexico, India and Turkey, even if the Mexican tariff standoff blew over), the global economy is jittery. A recession or at least, a slowdown seems likely. And when the world economy slows down, the demand for oil slows down too. With the US pumping as much oil as it can, a return to wanton production risks oil prices crashing once again as they have done twice in the last decade. All the bluster Russia can muster fades if demand collapses – which is a zero sum game that benefits no one.
Also on the menu in Vienna is the thorny issue of Iran. Besieged by American sanctions and at odds with fellow OPEC members, Iran is crucial to any decision that will be made at the bi-annual meeting. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, has stated that Iran has no intention of departing the group despite ‘being treated like an enemy (by some members)’. No names were mentioned, but the targets were evident – Iran’s bitter rival Saudi Arabia, and its sidekicks the UAE and Kuwait. Saudi King Salman bin Abulaziz has recently accused Iran of being the ‘greatest threat’ to global oil supplies after suspected Iranian-backed attacks in infrastructure in the Persian Gulf. With such tensions in the air, the Iranian issue is one that cannot be avoided in Vienna and could scupper any potential deal if politics trumps economics within the group. In the meantime, global crude prices continue to fall; OPEC and OPEC+ have to capability to change this trend, but the question is: will it happen on June 25?
Expectations at the 176th OPEC Conference