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The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that during May 2019, Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production approached a four-year low, averaging an estimated 9.9 million barrels per day (b/d). Production declined more than 1 million b/d since its estimated all-time high production levels in October and November 2018 (Figure 1). Although the country’s total crude oil exports are also lower than recent highs, its crude oil exports to some Asia Pacific countries actually increased during the period of declining production. China in particular has increased its crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia, which is partially a result of new Chinese refining capacity. In contrast, U.S. crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia reached a 31-year low in February, with weekly estimates for April, May, and June suggesting even further declines.
Four Asia Pacific countries that publish crude oil imports by country of origin—China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—collectively imported an average of 3.5 million b/d of crude oil from Saudi Arabia in 2018 (Figure 2). Chinese and Japanese 2019 year-to-date crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia are higher than their 2018 annual averages, whereas Taiwan’s are flat and South Korea’s have declined slightly. China’s crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia, in particular, have increased by 0.4 million b/d year-to-date through April compared with the 2018 annual average, significantly higher than Japan’s increase of less than 0.1 million b/d.
In contrast, U.S. crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia have declined year-to-date through March 2019 compared with the 2018 average by more than 0.2 million b/d, averaging 0.6 million b/d for the first quarter of 2019. Weekly estimates through June 14 of this year show continued declines, indicating that imports from Saudi Arabia averaged less than 0.5 million b/d in May and the first half of June. As a result of these shifts in crude oil flows, the U.S. share of total Saudi Arabian crude oil exports fell to 9% in March, and China’s share increased to 24% (Figure 3). Collectively, the United States, China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea historically accounted for about 60%–65% of total Saudi Arabian crude oil exports.
These recent changes in crude oil trade patterns are partially because of long-term structural trends within China and the United States, but they are also a result of recent oil market dynamics. From 2010 through 2018, EIA estimates total Chinese petroleum consumption has increased from 9.3 million b/d to 13.9 million b/d, whereas Chinese domestic production has increased from 4.6 million b/d to 4.8 million b/d. As a result, China’s need to meet incremental oil consumption has come primarily from imports. China’s crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia have gradually increased in recent years, and in March 2019 reached the highest level for any month since at least 2004, at 1.7 million b/d. Other countries, including Russia and Brazil, have had larger increases in crude oil export growth to China, however, with Russia overtaking Saudi Arabia as the largest source of crude oil on an annual average basis in 2016.
U.S. crude oil imports, on the other hand, have steadily decreased during this period as domestic crude oil production has increased. In addition, U.S. crude oil imports from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have declined, in particular, following increases from other countries such as Canada. Canadian crude oil can substitute for certain OPEC grades and have lower transportation costs when shipped by available pipeline capacity.
Saudi Arabian crude oil exports to China increased recently at least in part as a result of the startup of a new 0.4 million b/d refinery in Dalian, Liaoning Province, which has a supply agreement with Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company. Saudi Aramco also has a supply agreement with another 0.4 million b/d refining and petrochemical complex in Zhejiang Province, which started trial operations this year.
Other near-term developments, however, could reduce the volume of Saudi Arabian crude oil headed to China for May, June, and through the summer. Saudi Arabia typically increases domestic crude oil consumption in the summer months because the country directly burns the fuel for power generation. Although Saudi Arabia has gradually been increasing the use of fuel oil and natural gas instead of crude oil for power generation, the seasonal increase is dependent on the weather and can still amount to several hundred thousand barrels per day in additional domestic consumption during summer months. The five-year (2014–18) average crude oil burn for electric power generation peaks in July at 0.7 million b/d, an increase of 0.3 million b/d from the April average. In addition, Chinese crude oil refinery demand could be lower in the second quarter of 2019 than in the first quarter of 2019. Bloomberg data suggest that Chinese refinery outages in May and June month-to-date were 2.1 million b/d and 1.7 million b/d, respectively, 0.5 million b/d and 0.6 million b/d higher than their respective five-year averages for those months.
Recent global oil supply issues could keep Saudi Arabian crude oil exports to China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan relatively high in the coming months, however, in spite of the previously mentioned seasonal factors. These four countries were all initially granted Iranian sanctions waivers through May 2019. However, because waivers were not renewed, each country will likely need an alternative to Iranian crude oil. This development could keep their crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia near first-quarter 2019 levels for the coming months as a partial substitute for Iranian barrels. Saudi Arabia’s support of maintaining current OPEC production cuts or increasing output levels in the upcoming late-June or early-July OPEC meeting will be a critical determinant for future export flows.
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices fall
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell more than 6 cents from the previous week to $2.67 per gallon on June 17, 21 cents lower than the same time last year. The Midwest price fell nearly 8 cents to $2.54 per gallon, the West Coast price fell nearly 7 cents to $3.45 per gallon, the East Coast price fell more than 6 cents to $2.56 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain price fell nearly 4 cents to $2.91 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price fell nearly 3 cents to $2.34 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell nearly 4 cents to $3.07 per gallon on June 17, more than 17 cents lower than a year ago. The West Coast and Midwest prices each fell nearly 5 cents to $3.67 per gallon and $2.96 per gallon, respectively, the Rocky Mountain price fell more than 4 cents to $3.07 per gallon, the East Coast price fell nearly 3 cents to $3.10 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price fell more than 2 cents to $2.82 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories rise
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 3.3 million barrels last week to 74.5 million barrels as of June 14, 2019, 10.7 million barrels (16.8%) greater than the five-year (2014-2018) average inventory levels for this same time of year. East Coast, Midwest, and Gulf Coast inventories each increased by 1.1 million barrels. Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories fell slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 6.6% of total propane/propylene inventories.
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
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