Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: December 2, 2016
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Business Trends
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The countries of OPEC, once all-powerful in determining oil prices, besieged by infighting – have agreed to their first production freeze in eight years. After many aborted attempts to implement a supply cut, many were skeptical that this latest attempt would succeed. It certainly was a rocky road getting here; the cut was informally agreed in September, and very public outcries by Iran, Iraq, Libya and Nigeria cast doubt on OPEC’s ability to whip its members in line.

After the classic display of Game Theory over the past two yeas, OPEC will reduce its output by 1.2 mb/d by January, confirming OPEC’s intention to stick to the 32.5 mb/d level agreed in Algiers two months ago. More importantly, the agreement extends beyond OPEC, with non-OPEC nations also agreeing to implement cuts, including Russia.

The test of this will be actually implementing it, which is the harder portion of the equation. Nigeria and Libya are exempted from the cuts as they recover from infrastructure damage inflicted earlier this year, but Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq have all been given quotas. In particular, Iran has put aside its squabbling with Saudi Arabia to agree to capping its output at 3.8 mb/d, while Saudi Arabia will reduce its production by almost 500 kb/d, the UAE by 140 kb/d and Kuwait by 130 kb/d. Indonesia has requested a suspension of its OPEC membership (only two years after being re-admitted) as production cuts conflict with the country’s urgent need to raise its crude production. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have generally stuck to their quotas in the past, but many other OPEC members haven’t. This will be a constant problem, which may undermine the whole integrity of the agreement. 

But thus far the market seems to think OPEC will stick to the plan, sending Brent and WTI crude above the US$50/b mark, the highest since the OPEC Algiers plan was first announced.

Crucially, the plan also includes participation from non-OPEC members. Exactly what this entails is unknown beyond a vague statement that non-OPEC members are expected to reduce production by some 600 kb/d, with Russia decreasing by 300 kb/d (‘conditional to technical ability’, of course). These cuts are non-binding, and again, the harder part after herding the cats together to agree is actually implementing the plan. OPEC’s talks with non-OPEC producers continues on December 9, and meeting again next May to monitor progress. Analysts at Deutsche Bank said the deal isn’t enough to change the oil market outlook.  The bank is skeptical that the full reduction will be realized, especially from non-OPEC countries. Analysts said oil traders would watch the agreement warily in the coming weeks.

Rising oil prices in the wake of OPEC’s production cut could hit demand from Asia’s emerging energy consumers, where weakening currencies have already led to higher prices. Since oil is priced in dollars, it makes crude more expensive in local currencies that have weakened against the greenback. China and India, the world’s second- and third-largest oil consumers after the U.S., have each seen declines in their currencies versus the U.S. dollar in recent weeks. However the beleaguered Asian oil industry could benefit from OPEC’s decision to cut production

But we are certainly in more positive territory than we were yesterday. OPEC has agreed to a supply freeze. Most would have dismissed this as a Yeti sighting, but it actually has happened. The nuts and bolts of enforcing it will now begin, and there are plenty of ways this house of cards could tumble down, but as it stands now, 2017 looks to be a better year for oil than 2016. Which can only be a good thing for you and me.

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The New Wave of Renewable Fuels

In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.

Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.

Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.

This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.

But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.

But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.

Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.

Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$71-73/b, WTI – US$68-70/b
  • Global crude benchmarks have stayed steady, even as OPEC+ sticks to its plans to ease supply quotas against the uncertainty of rising Covid-19 cases worldwide
  • However, the success of vaccination drives has kindled hope that the effect of lockdowns – if any – will be mild, with pockets of demand resurgence in Europe; in China, where there has been a zero-tolerance drive to stamp out Covid outbreaks, fuel consumption is strengthening again, possibly tightening fuel balances in Q4
  • Meanwhile, much of the US Gulf of Mexico crude production remains hampered by the effects of Hurricane Ida, providing a counter-balance on the supply side

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