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Last Updated: November 24, 2016
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Tighter marine fuel sulfur limits will spark changes by both refiners and vessel operators.

The sulfur content of transportation fuels has been declining for many years due to increasingly stringent regulations. In the United States, federal and state regulations limit the amount of sulfur present in motor gasoline, diesel fuel, and heating oil. New international regulations limiting sulfur in fuels for ocean-going vessels, set to take effect in 2020, have further implications for both refiners and vessel operators at a time of high uncertainty in future crude oil prices, which will be a major factor in their decisions.

Bunker fuelthe fuel typically used in large ocean-going vesselsis a mixture of petroleum-based oils. Residual oilthe long-chain hydrocarbons remaining after lighter and shorter hydrocarbon fractions such as gasoline and diesel have been separated from crude oilcurrently makes up the largest component of bunker fuel. The sulfur content of crude oil tends to be more concentrated in heavier hydrocarbon molecules, with heavier petroleum products such as residual oil having higher sulfur content than lighter ones like gasoline and diesel.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the 171-member state United Nations agency that sets standards for marine fuels, decided in October to move forward with a plan to reduce the maximum amount of sulfur and other pollutants present in marine fuels used on the open seas from 3.5% by weight to 0.5% by weight by 2020. This decision follows several other marine fuel regulations limiting sulfur content, such as the implementation of Emissions Control Area (ECA) requirements in coastal waters and specific sea-lanes in North America and Europe, where the maximum sulfur content of fuels was limited to 0.1% by weight starting in July 2015 (Figure 1).

Additionally, the state of California and the European Union have regulations on the sulfur content of marine fuels, and the types of fuel used when ships are at dock, waiting to dock, or are maneuvering within port. For example, a vessel approaching the port of San Francisco may have to change its fuel mix twice: once when going from the open seas higher-sulfur fuel of mostly residual oil, to an ECA compliant lower-sulfur fuel mix, and again to a marine diesel fuel compliant with California's ocean-going vessel regulations for use within ports (Figure 2).

The IMO sulfur limits that take effect in 2020 will affect the fuel used in the open seas, the largest portion of the approximately 3.9 million barrels per day of global marine fuel use, according to the International Energy Agency, presenting several challenges for both refiners and shippers.

The first challenge for refiners is to increase the supply of lower-sulfur blendstocks to the bunker fuel market. Refiners have several potential paths. One approach is to divert more low sulfur distillates into the bunker fuel market. Another option would be to use low sulfur intermediate refinery feedstocks in bunker blends. In both cases, care is required to assure that new fuels continue to meet specifications for use in marine engines.
A second challenge for refiners is what to do with the high sulfur residual oil that can no longer be blended into bunker fuel. Adding capacity to desulfurize residual oil is one option, but the economics do not currently appear to be attractive. An alternative strategy is to build or expand refinery units that take heavy hydrocarbons, such as residual oil, and upgrade them into lighter, more valuable products, but this would require large investments. In either of these cases, refineries would be faced with investments and costs that are acceptable only if there is certainty of future demand from the shipping industry.

Vessel operators also have several choices for compliance with the new IMO sulfur limits. For example, IMO regulations allow for the installation of scrubbers, which remove pollutants from ships exhaust, allowing them to continue to use higher-sulfur fuels. Some ship owners that operate primarily in coastal areas, such as cruise lines and ferries, opted to install scrubbers on their vessels as the new ECA regulations came into force. The possibility of widespread scrubber installations, which would allow for continued use of higher sulfur residual oils, could make refiners hesitant about making large investments to build refining units capable of upgrading the residual oils.

Ships also have the option of switching to new lower sulfur blends or to non-petroleum based fuels. Some newer ships and some currently being built have engines that would allow them to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) rather than petroleum-based products. However, the infrastructure to support use of LNG as a shipping fuel is currently limited in both scale and availability.
Vessel operators and shippers will also likely be faced with the higher costs as the sulfur content in marine fuels decreases and the role of distillate in the bunker fuel market increases. An example of the price difference between fuels can be observed at the refining and trading hub in Northwest Europe, known as the ARA, collectively the cities Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the Netherlands and Antwerp, in Belgium. Prices for low sulfur gasoil, a type of distillate, in the ARA has averaged over $20 per barrel more than high sulfur fuel oil (residual oil for use as a fuel) to date in 2016. Fuel blends used to meet the new IMO regulations are likely to price somewhere in between these two fuels (Figure 3).

U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel retail prices decline
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price dropped three cents from the previous week to $2.16 per gallon on November 21, up six cents from the same time last year. The Gulf Coast price fell six cents to $1.92 per gallon, while the West Coast, Rocky Mountain, and East Coast prices each fell five cents to $2.59 per gallon, $2.19 per gallon, and $2.17 per gallon, respectively. The Midwest price rose two cents to $2.01 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price dropped two cents to $2.42 per gallon, down two cents from the same time last year. The Rocky Mountain price fell four cents to $2.46 per gallon, while the West Coast and Midwest prices each fell three cents to $2.73 per gallon and $2.36 per gallon, respectively. The Gulf Coast price dipped two cents to $2.30 per gallon, and the East Coast price fell a penny to $2.44 per gallon.

Propane inventories gain U.S. propane stocks increased by 1.8 million barrels last week to 102.7 million barrels as of November 18, 2016, 3.5 million barrels (3.3%) lower than a year ago. Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories increased by 1.7 million barrels and 0.1 million barrels, respectively, while East Coast and Midwest inventories remained virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 4.0% of total propane inventories.

Residential heating oil price unchanged while residential propane price increases as of November 21, 2016, residential heating oil prices averaged around $2.38 per gallon, virtually unchanged from last week and less than one cent per gallon higher than last year at this time. The average wholesale heating oil price is $1.55 per gallon, nearly eight cents per gallon higher than last week and 13 cents per gallon more than a year ago.

Residential propane prices averaged nearly $2.06 per gallon, one cent per gallon more than last week and almost 11 cents per gallon more than one year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged $0.62 per gallon, about the same price as last week but 13 cents per gallon more than last year's price.

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Latest NrgBuzz

Financial Review: 2019

Key findings

  • Brent crude oil daily average prices were $64.16 per barrel in 2019—11% lower than 2018 levels
  • The 102 companies analyzed in this study increased their combined liquids and natural gas production 2% from 2018 to 2019
  • Proved reserves additions in 2019 were about the same as the 2010–18 annual average
  • Finding plus lifting costs increased 13% from 2018 to 2019
  • Occidental Petroleum’s acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum contributed to the largest reserve acquisition costs incurred for the group of companies since 2016
  • Refiners’ earnings per barrel declined slightly from 2018 to 2019

See entire annual review

May, 26 2020
From Certain Doom To Cautious Optimism

A month ago, the world witnessed something never thought possible – negative oil prices. A perfect storm of events – the Covid-19 lockdowns, the resulting effect on demand, an ongoing oil supply glut, a worrying shortage of storage space and (crucially) the expiry of the NYMEX WTI benchmark contract for May, resulted in US crude oil prices falling as low as -US$37/b. Dragging other North American crude markers like Louisiana Light and Western Canadian Select along with it, the unique situation meant that crude sellers were paying buyers to take the crude off their hands before the May contract expired, or risk being stuck with crude and nowhere to store it. This was seen as an emblem of the dire circumstances the oil industry was in, and although prices did recover to a more normal US$10-15/b level after the benchmark contract switched over to June, there was immense worry that the situation would repeat itself.

Thankfully, it has not.

On May 19, trade in the NYMEX WTI contract for June delivery was retired and ticked over into a new benchmark for July delivery. Instead of a repeat of the meltdown, the WTI contract rose by US$1.53 to reach US$33.49/b, closing the gap with Brent that traded at US$35.75b. In the space of a month, US crude prices essentially swung up by US$70/b. What happened?

The first reason is that the market has learnt its lesson. The meltdown in April came because of an overleveraged market tempted by low crude oil prices in hope of selling those cargoes on later at a profit. That sort of strategic trading works fine in a normal situation, but against an abnormal situation of rapidly-shrinking storage space saw contract holders hold out until the last minute then frantically dumping their contracts to avoid having to take physical delivery. Bruised by this – and probably embarrassed as well – it seems the market has taken precautions to avoid a recurrence. Settling contracts early was one mechanism. Funds and institutions have also reduced their positions, diminishing the amount of contracts that need to be settled. The structural bottleneck that precipitated the crash was largely eliminated.

The second is that the US oil complex has adjusted itself quickly. Some 2 mmb/d of crude production has been (temporarily) idled, reducing supply. The gradual removal of lockdowns in some US states, despite medical advisories, has also recovered some demand. This week, crude draws in Cushing, Oklahoma rose for the second consecutive week, reaching a record figure of 5.6 million barrels. That increase in demand and the parallel easing of constrained storage space meant that last month’s panic was not repeated. The situation is also similar worldwide. With China now almost at full capacity again and lockdowns gradually removed in other parts of the world, the global crude marker Brent also rose to a 2-month high. The new OPEC+ supply deal seems to be working, especially with Saudi Arabia making an additional voluntary cut of 1 mmb/d. The oil world is now moving rapidly towards a new normal.

How long will this last? Assuming that the Covid-19 pandemic is contained by Q3 2020, then oil prices could conceivably return to their previous support level of US$50/b. That is a big assumption, however. The Covid-19 situation is still fragile, with major risks of additional waves. In China and South Korea, where the pandemic had largely been contained, recent detection of isolated new clusters prompted strict localised lockdowns. There is also worry that the US is jumping the gun in easing restrictions. In Russia and Brazil – countries where the advice to enforce strict lockdowns was ignored as early warning signs crept in – the number of cases and deaths is still rising rapidly. Brazil is a particular worry, as President Jair Bolosnaro is a Covid-19 skeptic and is still encouraging normal behaviour in spite of the accelerating health crisis there. On the flip side, crude output may not respond to the increase in demand as easily, as many clusters of Covid-19 outbreaks have been detected in key crude producing facilities worldwide. Despite this, some US shale producers have already restarted their rigs, spurred on by a need to service their high levels of debt. US pipeline giant Energy Transfer LP has already reported that many drillers in the Permian have resumed production, citing prices in the high-US$20/b level as sufficient to cover its costs.

The recovery is ongoing. But what is likely to happen is an erratic recovery, with intermittent bouts of mini-booms and mini-busts. Consultancy IHS Markit Energy Advisory envisions a choppy recovery with ‘stop-and-go rallies’ over 2020 – particularly in the winter flu season – heading towards a normalisation only in 2021. It predicts that the market will only recover to pre-Covid 19 levels in the second half of 2021, and a smooth path towards that only after a vaccine is developed and made available, which will be late 2020 at the earliest. The oil market has moved from certain doom to cautious optimism in the space of a month. But it will take far longer for the entire industry to regain its verve without any caveats.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$33-37/b, WTI – US$30-33/b
  • Demand recovery has underpinned a rally in oil prices, on hopes that the worst of the demand destruction is over
  • Chinese oil demand is back to the 13 mmb/d level, almost on par year-on-year
  • News that development of potential Covid-19 vaccines are reaching testing phase also cheered the market
  • The US active oil and gas rig count lost another 35 rigs to 339, down 648 sites y-o-y

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May, 23 2020
EIA expects record liquid fuels inventory builds in early 2020, followed by draws

quarterly global liquid fuels productionand consumption balance

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020

As mitigation efforts to contain the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic continue to lead to rapid declines in petroleum consumption around the world, the production of liquid fuels globally has changed more slowly, leading to record increases in the amount of crude oil and other petroleum liquids placed into storage in recent months. In its May Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects global inventory builds will be largest in the first half of 2020. EIA estimates that inventory builds rose at a rate of 6.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in the first quarter and will increase by 11.5 million b/d in the second quarter because of widespread travel limitations and sharp reductions in economic activity.

After the first half of 2020, EIA expects global liquid fuels consumption to increase, leading to inventory draws for at least six consecutive quarters and ultimately putting upward pressure on crude oil prices that are currently at their lowest levels in 20 years.

As with the March and April STEO, EIA’s forecast reductions in global oil demand arise from three main drivers: lower economic growth, less air travel, and other declines in demand not captured by these two categories, largely related to reductions in travel because of stay-at-home orders. Based on incoming economic data and updated assessments of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders across dozens of countries, EIA has further lowered its forecasts for global oil demand in 2020 in the May STEO. The STEO is based on macroeconomic projections by Oxford Economics (for countries other than the United States) and by IHS Markit (for the United States).

changes in quarterly global petroleum liquids consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020

In the May STEO, EIA forecasts global liquid fuels consumption will average 92.6 million b/d in 2020, down 8.1 million b/d from 2019. EIA forecasts both economic growth and global consumption of liquid fuels to increase in 2021 but remain lower than 2019 levels. Any lasting behavioral changes to patterns in transportation and other forms of oil consumption once COVID-19 mitigation efforts end, however, present considerable uncertainty to the increase in consumption of liquid fuels, even if gross domestic product (GDP) growth increases.

Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) agreed to new production cuts in early April that will remain in place throughout the STEO forecast period ending in 2021. EIA assumes OPEC members will mostly adhere to announced cuts during the first two months of the agreement (May and June) and that production compliance will relax later in the forecast period as stated production cuts are reduced and global oil demand begins growing.

EIA forecasts OPEC crude oil production will fall to less than 24.1 million b/d in June, a 6.3 million b/d decline from April, when OPEC production increased following an inconclusive meeting in March. If OPEC production declines to less than 24.1 million b/d, it would be the group’s lowest level of production since March 1995. The forecast for June OPEC production does not account for the additional voluntary cuts announced by Saudi Arabia’s Energy Ministry on May 11.

EIA expects OPEC production will begin increasing in July 2020 in response to rising global oil demand and prices. From that point, EIA expects a gradual increase in OPEC crude oil production through the remainder of the forecast and for production to rise to an average of 28.5 million b/d during the second half of 2021.

changes in quarterly global petroleum liquids production

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020

EIA forecasts the supply of non-OPEC petroleum and other liquid fuels will decline by 2.4 million b/d in 2020 compared with 2019. The steep decline reflects lower forecast oil prices in the second quarter as well as the newly implemented production cuts from non-OPEC participants in the OPEC+ agreement. EIA expects the largest non-OPEC production declines in 2020 to occur in Russia, the United States, and Canada.

May, 20 2020