Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of PetroEdge
Last Updated: January 1, 2017
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Business Trends
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Oil in 2017

With OPEC defying the pessimists and actually agreeing on a production freeze, oil prices have rallied. Will this be a good sign as we enter into 2017? The World Bank predicts that oil prices would average US$53-55/b over 2017, a sentiment echoed by the EIA in the US. Both have no issued new forecasts since OPEC’s agreement to slash production by 1.2 mb/d, but it is likely that the target range has now shifted to the a range of US$60-65/b.

With Saudi Arabia already informing its customers of cuts in their January 2017 deliveries, it seems there is will enough within OPEC to follow through on the agreement. The issue now moved from agreement to enforcement, and therein lies some thorns. Historically, the Gulf state – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait – have been the most disciplined in enforcing cuts, with members elsewhere – Venezuela, Ecuador and Angola – more likely to discreetly flout the quotas. OPEC is also meeting with some non-OPEC producers in Vienna this week to see if consensus can be made on non-OPEC cuts; Russia has publically agreed to a 300 kb/d cut (with caveats, of course), and OPEC says a non-OPEC cut of 600 kb/d is a ‘must.’

This might be an issue in the US, particularly with the new Trump administration that wishes to encourage drilling. While oil prices rose immediately in the wake of the OPEC announcement, they fell back quickly again as US oil production announced a weekly increase. The Baker Hughes survey of active oil rigs in the US has risen to its highest weekly level in almost a year, as onshore producers restarted rigs in response to higher price signal. From US$55/b last Thursday, crude oil prices are now in the low US$50s. Donald Trump’s provisional cabinet is full of climate skeptics and energy bulls and he has named Scott Pruitt as the head of the new American Environmental Protection Agency, with the fossil fuel industry ally is likely to call for further deregulation in American hydrocarbons. With Keystone XL back as a possibility and longer-term moves to open up drilling in new areas like the Arctic likely, it could unleash a new wave of oil in the market depressing prices. The US under Trump is not going to agree to any supply cuts, which may very well defeat the entire purpose of the OPEC exercise. Saudi Arabia’s attempt to wipe up US shale oil by keeping prices down has only kept the shale producers at bay, who will return once prices hit a decent level. This ebb and flow will persist, and we believe a general oversupply will endure.

Here’s our prediction. The OPEC quotas will hold, but the cuts will not be as deep as envisioned because some members – especially Iran – will take advantage of the situation to sneak extra sales. The big producers – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran will focus on relative pricing to defend their market share. American production will continue to be nimbly driven by price signals, balancing out the cuts elsewhere. Oil prices will strengthen – probably to the US$55-60/b level – which is a good place to be, all things considered. It won’t be the dramatic recovery that many will hope for, but it won’t be a complete collapse either, and in this environment that’s good enough already.

Natural Gas in 2017

With OPEC and a group of major non-OPEC producers coming together to agree on shave up to 1.8 mb/d in their oil production, it is a rising tide that will lift all other energy commodities. This includes natural gas, once the red-headed cousin of oil but now a crowning beauty of its own.

In the natural gas space, this will lead to higher prices for pipeline gas, rising slightly from prices that are already relatively cheap. With a cold winter expected, natural gas demand will be high in the northern hemisphere as well, while domestic consumption in both Europe and the US is on a steady growth trend. However, the bigger impact will be in the LNG space.

On the LNG side, higher crude prices means higher LNG prices. Spot prices in Asia have already hit US$8.10/mmbtu in the last week, the highest since mid-2015, due to the OPEC agreement and cold weather in north Asia and Europe. LNG, though, is a contract market. It is estimated that some 80% of LNG sold in the world in based on long-term contracts linked to oil. Typically a function of oil, indexation may vary but the general rule of thumb is that a US$1/b increase leads to a US$0.07-0.15/mmbtu increase in oil-indexed LNG contract prices. But those are for existing contracts, inherited from the days when the seller was king and could command all sorts of price structures – S-curves, for example - to benefit them. Today, that is a thing of the past. With the glut of LNG currently existing and more still to come – Wheatstone and Gorgon in Australia being the two big ones in 2017 – LNG has been a buyer’s market for the last two years And the buyers are getting bolder.

Specifically, the Japanese buyers are getting bolder. If 2015 and 2016 were the years when Japanese buyers realised that a low price environment gave them far more clout, 2017 will be the year when they begin to assert themselves. Moves towards this are already happening. Japan is trying to render location destination clauses in existing long-term LNG contracts void through anti-competitive laws, which would free Japan buyers like Tokyo Gas and Chubu Electric to swap and re-route cargoes, instead of being locked into specific ports. Newer contracts will probably have to do away with the clauses altogether. This creates a more dynamic environment where buyers can move their LNG cargoes around based on supply and demand, effectively becoming traders. It is a step towards creating an Asia trading hub for LNG, with Singapore having already developed its own sport LNG price assessments and agreeing to work with Japan to possibly create a Singapore-Japan benchmark. China and Korea, both large LNG consumers as well, have also launched attempts of their own, with the Shanghai gas derivatives exchange starting up last month. Efforts towards this will continue, and 2017 will see a more vibrant LNG trading market.

Looking ahead, there is so much LNG coming onto the market that it is almost a tsunami. Canada’s projects on the BC Pacific Coast. The US Gulf of Mexico projects, with the newly-expanded Panama Canal as a conduit. The vast projects off Western Australia. Plenty of supply coming from Mozambique and Papua New Guinea as well. All of these volumes will be chasing Asian clients. LNG will be a buyer’s market for a long time to come, and 2017 will be the year that companies, utilities and governments will step up to expand and create infrastructure to support a gas-rich future.

Downstream Oil in 2017

The upstream portion of the oil industry is ending the year on a bit of a cheer, with rallying crude prices. In the downstream section, however, it has been a challenging year and 2017 repeats the same situation as 2016.

Looking specifically at Asia, refined oil product demand is slowing down. Part of this is due to the natural decline in Japan and South Korea, and part of this is due to a natural deceleration in China, where annual growth rates at 9-10% could never be sustained indefinitely. Demand growth in India and developing economies is improving, but years of high oil prices have pushed their infrastructure in different directions, not necessarily to the benefit of oil, even in a lower price environment.

Even if there is good demand growth, not all of it will benefit refineries. One bright spark in the downstream arena has been petrochemicals, with countries like China still adding capacity. Traditionally, these have depended on naphtha as their feedstock – hence the trend over the past decade for integrated refinery-petchem facilities. US shale gas remains a gamechanger here. There is so much ethane (and to a lesser extent, LPG liquids propane and butane) coming out of the US that prices are low and petrochemical operations in Asia are reconfiguring to focus on natural gas liquids as feedstock. BP estimates that a third of global downstream demand growth may bypass refineries altogether, placing further pressure on refineries.

This is not good for refiners. In general, refined oil product cracks in Asia have been at historical lows in 2016, thought there are few bright spots like naphtha. Though this will ebb and flow depending on shortages and seasonal demand, the overall trend is shrinking cracks. Cheap oil prices have not caused an equivalent surge in Asian oil demand. In fact, there is simply too much product sloshing around the market. This is been exacerbated in 2016 when Chinese independent refiners – the teapots – were granted licences to import crude for the first time, leading to them raising runs to records levels and lifting Chinese exports. Far from being a ‘sink’ for refined products, China is now becoming a net exporter. However, in a move last week, China removed export quotas for the teapots, effectively preventing them from exporting any of their products. Their import licences may still be held steady, but the teapots will now have to consider the limited domestic market when planning runs. This could improve the supply glut in Asia somewhat, but traditional product ‘sinks’ are evolving on their own.

Vietnam’s second refinery, Nghi Son, is supposed to start up in mid-2017. It will face delays. And if Dong Quat is any precedent, Nghi Son will face production troubles in its first year. So Vietnam will remain a reliable product ‘sink’ in 2017, but this will dissipate when Nghi Son comes onstream. India, where oil product growth has been strong this year, will also absorb major amounts of products, but the Indian refiners – IOC, BPCL and HPCL – all have extensive capacity upgrade plans over the next five years, removing this window. Indonesia continues to claim ambitious refining plans that could potentially eliminate the need for imports, but it has been spouting this line for a decade now and there seems to be little movement beyond announcement in this arena, leaving Indonesia a large ‘sink’ for the time being. But Indonesian oil product specs are generally lower than the average Asian standards, limiting the refineries it can buy product from. There will be growth else – notably Myanmar and Bangladesh – but this will be unable to offset the declines in Japan and South Korea.

This is a death knell for major export-oriented refinery projects in Asia. Projects like Petronas’ RAPID in Malaysia, due for startup in 2019, will go ahead, but fewer will make it off the drawing board. New refineries will be contained to net importer countries, as they try to reduce their import burden, as we have seen this year in Pakistan, Uganda and Middle East countries moving up the value chain. Product demands will also continue to move up the barrel, placing more pressure on simple, topping refineries. 2016 saw a slew of refinery sales and closures in Europe – even low oil prices couldn’t help a determined structural trend – and that is a likely future for Asian downstream. There will be no major surprised downstream in 2017, just confirmation of ongoing trends.

Corporate Oil in 2017

Rex Tillerson, head of ExxonMobil since 2006, is packing his bags and heading to the White House to serve as Donald Trump’s Secretary of State. As part of his job, he will be jetting around the world promoting American interests. That’s not much different in scope from his current position, except that corporate deal-making is very different from diplomacy.

It’s an indication that 2017 will be a pivot away from prevailing corporate trends in the energy business. Under Tillerson, US ties with Russia are likely to get closer, as the Trump administration places business and capitalist interests above issues such as healthcare, environment and social justice that have taken the forefront. Tillerson will pass his seat to Darren Woods, the current head of refining at ExxonMobil, with the company likely to be the only one that will pursue a diversified strategy among the supermajors. Under Woods, ExxonMobil’s refining arm has remained strong despite low margins, having already embarked on a divestment drive that saw the company dispose of peripheral assets in marginal markets.

ExxonMobil, like Shell and Chevron, will remain global brands. But the assets will no longer be controlled by them. Shell has been following ExxonMobil’s move, selling its downstream and upstream assets globally to pay for its pricey acquisition of the BG Group. Natural gas and chemicals are in Shell’s future, with downstream now of lesser concern; Shell, like ExxonMobil in Latin America, will now merely licences its name to third-party players. BP has already done the same over the last decade, with its logo now a rarity in retail across the world, though oddly enough it is tying up with Reliance in India. Chevron’s divestment extends further than downstream, moving into smaller-scale upstream assets, with its attempt to exit Bangladesh and Thailand in recent months. 2016 has been a year of divestments and debt-paring among the supermajors as they seek to become leaner and meaner, just like Petrobras, though for completely different reasons. Meanwhile, France’s Total still has ambitions of being a global behemoth that the supermajors once were, picking up assets in Asia and Africa. This will continue in 2017, with the directions clear. Shell to natural gas and chemicals, BP to LNG, Chevron to large-scale upstream and ExxonMobil everywhere, with top priority to sort out its acquisition of InterOil in PNG.

The vacuum left by the supermajors particularly in downstream has been picked up by global traders. Players like Vitol, Glencore and Gunvor have been extending their trading empires to actual retail participation since 2013, and the move will continue in 2017. Some might even try to set up brands of their own, instead of piggy-backing on existing ones (and their associated licensing fees).

Meanwhile, the national counterparts of the supermajors, the major NOCs, will still find 2017 a challenging year. Oil prices have risen, but nowhere near the level that required to balance national budgets. Saudi Aramco and to a lesser extent Adnoc and KPC have the reserves to see through the storm, but PDVSA is in trouble. Iraq and Iran will flout OPEC supply quotas to sneak a few extra sales to resume what they see as their rightful position, while Libya tries to rebuild its infrastructure and Nigeria tries its hand at privatisation. Indonesia’s Pertamina will continue to flounder in too many directions, Malaysia’s Petronas will remain weak and Brazil’s Petrobras will continue its fire sale to reduce its huge debts. China’s triad – PetroChina, Sinopec and CNOOC – will continue to extend their tendrils oversees, while Japan’s bloated energy sector will try to consolidate. And largely fail, resulting in a friendly informal cooperation instead. Russia has a lot of debt issues simmering under Putin’s bluster. India’s state players are probably in the best position, where energy demand is sprinting ahead.

Higher crude oil prices will be a good way to start off 2017 for most energy companies; but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Much like the global political landscape, corporate energy players will become more insular, focusing on specific areas of profit instead of a broad-based strategy. The notion of an integrated player with tentacles in every pie is over. With the possible exception of ExxonMobil.

Have a productive year ahead!

 

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Your Weekly Update: 18 - 22 March 2019

Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 18 March 2019 – Brent: US$67/b; WTI: US$58/b

  • Global crude oil prices slipped at the start of the week, as OPEC and its OPEC+ allies met in Azerbaijan to discuss the state of the club’s oil output cuts
  • Crude oil prices had risen prior as on speculation that the OPEC+ group would extend its supply deal, but this was dashed when OPEC+ instead decided to defer a decision until June, scrapping a planned OPEC extraordinary meeting in April because it was ‘too soon to make a decision on extending oil-supply cuts’
  • Observed friction between Russia and Saudi Arabia over the cuts could be behind the delay; Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih is said to be in favour of continue supply reduction through 2019 while his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak said that uncertainty over Venezuela and Iran would ‘make it difficult’ to decide until May or June
  • Other OPEC members have also not expressed any more willingness to extend the cuts, and Saudi Arabia seems to be unusually focused on a united front, rather than strong-arming the rest of the gang to its own aims
  • Some reprieve could be coming for OPEC, as the US Energy Information Administration trimmed its 2019 output forecast by 110,000 b/d to 12.3 mmb/d, seeing a scale-back in smaller shale plays and the US Gulf of Mexico
  • Echoing this, the US active rig count declined for a fourth consecutive week, following up a 9 and 11 rig drop with the net loss of a single oil rig
  • A better prognosis on demand leading into the northern summer and faith that OPEC+ will continue to work towards preventing a major crude surplus from returning should keep crude prices trending higher. We are looking at a range of US$66-68/b for Brent and US$58-60/b for WTI

Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Eni has announced a major oil discovery in Angola’s Block 15/06, with the Agogo prospect joining the Kalimba and Afoxé discoveries, adding some 450-650 million barrels of light oil in place to the block
  • ExxonMobil has delayed its US$1.9 billion, 75,000 b/d Aspen oil project as Canada’s Alberta province continues to grapple with the pipeline bottleneck that has caused a glut of production trapped in the inland province
  • Lukoil had hit a new milestone with the Vladimir Filanovsky field, which has now reached 10 million tons of crude oil supplied through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) system, transporting oil to the Black Sea for transport
  • ExxonMobil is looking to reduce field costs in its Permian Basin assets to about US$15/b, a highly-competitive target usually only seen in the Middle East
  • Eni and Qatar Petroleum have agreed to a farm-out agreement that will allow QP to take a 25.5% interest in Mozambique’s Block A5-A, joining other partners Sasol (25.5%) and Empresa Nacional de Hidrocarbonetos (15%)
  • Successive industrial action strikes have begun in the UK, affecting the Shetland Gas Plant and Total Alwyn, Dunbar and Elgin platforms in the North Sea
  • ADNOC has begun planning for an output drive at its Umm Shaif field, which would increase output at the giant field to 360,000 b/d

Midstream & Downstream

  • Shell is planning to restart the Wilhelmshaven refinery in Germany through a deal with terminal firm HES, which will re-convert the existing tank farm into a 260 kb/d refinery that will focus on producing IMO-mandated low sulfur fuels
  • Petronas is offering first oil products cargos from its 300 kb/d RAPID refinery in April, ahead of planned full commercial production in October 2019
  • Lukoil is now planning to invest some US$60 million in its 320 kb/d ISAB refinery in Augusta, Italy to produce high-quality, low-sulfur fuels to meet IMO standards, instead of selling it as previously considered in 2017
  • The Ugandan government has approved the technical proposal for the country’s first refinery in Kabaale, which will run on crude from the Albertine rift basin
  • Kenya expects to have the Lamu crude export terminal operational by the end of 2019, syncing with the start of Tullow Oil’s Kenyan oilfields

Natural Gas/LNG

  • The UK Onshore Oil and Gas body has published updated figures for UK onshore shale potential based on three test sites in north England, estimating that productivity could be at 5.5 bcf per well leading to annual gas production reaching 1.4 tcf by the early 2030s
  • Eni’s winning streak in Egypt continues, announcing a new gas discovery in the Nour 1 New Field Wildcat, which join its existing assets under evaluation there
  • Conrad Petroleum’s development plan for the Mako gas field in Indonesia has been approved by Indonesian authorities, paving way for development to start on the field with its estimated 276 bcf of recoverable resources
  • Ventures Global LNG is planning to double the capacity of its LNG projects – including the Calcasieu Pass and Plaquemines LNG sites in Louisiana – from 30 mtpa to a new 60 mtpa, having already booked all output from Calcasieu
  • Darwin LNG is set to choose the source of its backfill gas by the end of 2019, with the Barossa field more likely to be taken than the Evans Shoal field
March, 22 2019
Technology may be a game changer for future oil supply

Risk and reward – improving recovery rates versus exploration

A giant oil supply gap looms. If, as we expect, oil demand peaks at 110 million b/d in 2036, the inexorable decline of fields in production or under development today creates a yawning gap of 50 million b/d by the end of that decade.

How to fill it? It’s the preoccupation of the E&P sector. Harry Paton, Senior Analyst, Global Oil Supply, identifies the contribution from each of the traditional four sources.

1. Reserve growth

An additional 12 million b/d, or 24%, will come from fields already in production or under development. These additional reserves are typically the lowest risk and among the lowest cost, readily tied-in to export infrastructure already in place. Around 90% of these future volumes break even below US$60 per barrel.

2. pre-drill tight oil inventory and conventional pre-FID projects

They will bring another 12 million b/d to the party. That’s up on last year by 1.5 million b/d, reflecting the industry’s success in beefing up the hopper. Nearly all the increase is from the Permian Basin. Tight oil plays in North America now account for over two-thirds of the pre-FID cost curve, though extraction costs increase over time. Conventional oil plays are a smaller part of the pre-FID wedge at 4 million b/d. Brazil deep water is amongst the lowest cost resource anywhere, with breakevens eclipsing the best tight oil plays. Certain mature areas like the North Sea have succeeded in getting lower down the cost curve although volumes are small. Guyana, an emerging low-cost producer, shows how new conventional basins can change the curve. 


3. Contingent resource


These existing discoveries could deliver 11 million b/d, or 22%, of future supply. This cohort forms the next generation of pre-FID developments, but each must overcome challenges to achieve commerciality.

4. Yet-to-find

Last, but not least, yet-to-find. We calculate new discoveries bring in 16 million b/d, the biggest share and almost one-third of future supply. The number is based on empirical analysis of past discovery rates, future assumptions for exploration spend and prospectivity.

Can yet-to-find deliver this much oil at reasonable cost? It looks more realistic today than in the recent past. Liquids reserves discovered that are potentially commercial was around 5 billion barrels in 2017 and again in 2018, close to the late 2030s ‘ask’. Moreover, exploration is creating value again, and we have argued consistently that more companies should be doing it.

But at the same time, it’s the high-risk option, and usually last in the merit order – exploration is the final top-up to meet demand. There’s a danger that new discoveries – higher cost ones at least – are squeezed out if demand’s not there or new, lower-cost supplies emerge. Tight oil’s rapid growth has disrupted the commercialisation of conventional discoveries this decade and is re-shaping future resource capture strategies.

To sustain portfolios, many companies have shifted away from exclusively relying on exploration to emphasising lower risk opportunities. These mostly revolve around commercialising existing reserves on the books, whether improving recovery rates from fields currently in production (reserves growth) or undeveloped discoveries (contingent resource).

Emerging technology may pose a greater threat to exploration in the future. Evolving technology has always played a central role in boosting expected reserves from known fields. What’s different in 2019 is that the industry is on the cusp of what might be a technological revolution. Advanced seismic imaging, data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, the cloud and supercomputing will shine a light into sub-surface’s dark corners.

Combining these and other new applications to enhance recovery beyond tried-and-tested means could unlock more reserves from existing discoveries – and more quickly than we assume. Equinor is now aspiring to 60% from its operated fields in Norway. Volume-wise, most upside may be in the giant, older, onshore accumulations with low recovery factors (think ExxonMobil and Chevron’s latest Permian upgrades). In contrast, 21st century deepwater projects tend to start with high recovery factors.

If global recovery rates could be increased by a percentage or two from the average of around 30%, reserves growth might contribute another 5 to 6 million b/d in the 2030s. It’s just a scenario, and perhaps makes sweeping assumptions. But it’s one that should keep conventional explorers disciplined and focused only on the best new prospects. 


Global oil supply through 2040 


March, 22 2019
ConocoPhillips vs PDVSA - Round 2

Things just keep getting more dire for Venezuela’s PDVSA – once a crown jewel among state energy firms, and now buried under debt and a government in crisis. With new American sanctions weighing down on its operations, PDVSA is buckling. For now, with the support of Russia, China and India, Venezuelan crude keeps flowing. But a ghost from the past has now come back to haunt it.

In 2007, Venezuela embarked on a resource nationalisation programme under then-President Hugo Chavez. It was the largest example of an oil nationalisation drive since Iraq in 1972 or when the government of Saudi Arabia bought out its American partners in ARAMCO back in 1980. The edict then was to have all foreign firms restructure their holdings in Venezuela to favour PDVSA with a majority. Total, Chevron, Statoil (now Equinor) and BP agreed; ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips refused. Compensation was paid to ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, which was considered paltry. So the two American firms took PDVSA to international arbitration, seeking what they considered ‘just value’ for their erstwhile assets. In 2012, ExxonMobil was awarded some US$260 million in two arbitration awards. The dispute with ConocoPhillips took far longer.

In April 2018, the International Chamber of Commerce ruled in favour of ConocoPhillips, granting US$2.1 billion in recovery payments. Hemming and hawing on PDVSA’s part forced ConocoPhillips’ hand, and it began to seize control of terminals and cargo ships in the Caribbean operated by PDVSA or its American subsidiary Citgo. A tense standoff – where PDVSA’s carriers were ordered to return to national waters immediately – was resolved when PDVSA reached a payment agreement in August. As part of the deal, ConocoPhillips agreed to suspend any future disputes over the matter with PDVSA.

The key word being ‘future’. ConocoPhillips has an existing contractual arbitration – also at the ICC – relating to the separate Corocoro project. That decision is also expected to go towards the American firm. But more troubling is that a third dispute has just been settled by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes tribunal in favour of ConocoPhillips. This action was brought against the government of Venezuela for initiating the nationalisation process, and the ‘unlawful expropriation’ would require a US$8.7 billion payment. Though the action was brought against the government, its coffers are almost entirely stocked by sales of PDVSA crude, essentially placing further burden on an already beleaguered company. A similar action brought about by ExxonMobil resulted in a US$1.4 billion payout; however, that was overturned at the World Bank in 2017.

But it might not end there. The danger (at least on PDVSA’s part) is that these decisions will open up floodgates for any creditors seeking damages against Venezuela. And there are quite a few, including several smaller oil firms and players such as gold miner Crystallex, who is owed US$1.2 billion after the gold industry was nationalised in 2011. If the situation snowballs, there is a very tempting target for creditors to seize – Citgo, PDVSA’s crown jewel that operates downstream in the USA, which remains profitable. And that would be an even bigger disaster for PDVSA, even by current standards.

Infographic: Venezuela oil nationalisation dispute timeline

  • 2003 – National labour strikes cripple Venezuela’s oil industry
  • 2005 – Hugo Chavez begins a re-nationalisation drive
  • 2007 – Oil re-nationalisation, PDVSA to have at least 50% of all projects
  • 2008 – ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips launch dispute arbitration
  • 2012 – ExxonMobil awarded damages from PDVSA
  • 2014 – ExxonMobil awarded damages from government of Venezuela
  • 2018 – ConocoPhillips awarded damages from PDVSA
  • 2019 – ConocoPhillips awarded damages from government of Venezuela
March, 21 2019