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
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
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
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
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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The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.
But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.
Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.
Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes.
Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.
So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.
There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.
But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊
Throughout much of its history, the United States has imported more petroleum (which includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other liquids) than it has exported. That status changed in 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) estimates that 2020 marked the first year that the United States exported more petroleum than it imported on an annual basis. However, largely because of declines in domestic crude oil production and corresponding increases in crude oil imports, EIA expects the United States to return to being a net petroleum importer on an annual basis in both 2021 and 2022.
EIA expects that increasing crude oil imports will drive the growth in net petroleum imports in 2021 and 2022 and more than offset changes in refined product net trade. EIA forecasts that net imports of crude oil will increase from its 2020 average of 2.7 million barrels per day (b/d) to 3.7 million b/d in 2021 and 4.4 million b/d in 2022.
Compared with crude oil trade, net exports of refined petroleum products did not change as much during 2020. On an annual average basis, U.S. net petroleum product exports—distillate fuel oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and motor gasoline, among others—averaged 3.2 million b/d in 2019 and 3.4 million b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that net petroleum product exports will average 3.5 million b/d in 2021 and 3.9 million b/d in 2022 as global demand for petroleum products continues to increase from its recent low point in the first half of 2020.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), February 2021
EIA expects that the United States will import more crude oil to fill the widening gap between refinery inputs of crude oil and domestic crude oil production in 2021 and 2022. U.S. crude oil production declined by an estimated 0.9 million b/d (8%) to 11.3 million b/d in 2020 because of well curtailment and a drop in drilling activity related to low crude oil prices.
EIA expects the rising price of crude oil, which started in the fourth quarter of 2020, will contribute to more U.S. crude oil production later this year. EIA forecasts monthly domestic crude oil production will reach 11.3 million b/d by the end of 2021 and 11.9 million b/d by the end of 2022. These values are increases from the most recent monthly average of 11.1 million b/d in November 2020 (based on data in EIA’s Petroleum Supply Monthly) but still lower than the previous peak of 12.9 million b/d in November 2019.
In the past week, crude oil prices have surged to levels last seen over a year ago. The global Brent benchmark hit US$63/b, while its American counterpart WTI crested over the US$60/b mark. The more optimistic in the market see these gains as a start of a commodity supercycle stemming from market forces pent-up over the long Covid-19 pandemic. The more cynical see it as a short-term spike from a perfect winter storm and constrained supply. So, which is it?
To get to that point, let’s examine how crude oil prices have evolved since the start of the year. On the consumption side, the market is vacillating between hopeful recovery and jittery reactions as Covid-19 outbreaks and vaccinations lent a start-stop rhythm to consumption trends. Yes, vaccination programmes were developed at lightning speed; and even plenty of bureaucratic hiccoughs have not hampered a steady rollout across the globe. In the UK, more than 20% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccines, with the USA not too far behind. Israel has vaccinated more than 75% of its population, and most countries should be well into their own programmes by the end of March. That acceleration of vaccinations has underpinned expectations of higher oil demand, with hopes that people will begin to drive again, fly again and buy again. But those hopes have been occasionally interrupted by new Covid-19 clusters detected and, more worryingly, new mutations of the virus.
Against this hopeful demand picture, supply has been managed. Squabbling among the OPEC+ club has prevented a more aggressive approach to managing supply than kingpin Saudi Arabia would like, but OPEC+ has still managed to hold itself together to placate the market that crude spigots will remain restrained. And while the UAE has successfully shifted OPEC+ quota plan for 2021 from quarterly adjustments to monthly, Saudi Arabia stepped into the vacuum to stamp its authority with a voluntary 1 million barrels per day cut. The market was impressed.
That combination of events over January was enough to move Brent prices from the low US$50/b level to the upper US$50/b range. However, US$60/b remained seemingly out of reach. It took a heavy dusting of snow across Texas to achieve that.
Winter weather across the northern hemisphere seemed harsher than usual this year. Europe was hit by two large continent-wide storms, while the American Northeast and Pacific Northwest were buffeted with quite a few snowstorms. Temperatures in East Asia were fairly cold too, which led to strong prices for natural gas and LNG to keep the population warm. But it was a major snowstorm that swept through the southern United States – including Texas – that had the largest effect on prices. Some areas of Texas saw temperatures as low as -18 degrees Celsius, while electricity demand surged to the point where grids failed, leaving 4.3 million people without power. A national emergency was declared, with over 150 million Americans under winter storm warning conditions.
For the global oil complex, the effects of the storm were also direct. Some of the largest oil refineries in the world were forced to shut down due to the Arctic conditions, further disrupting power and fuel supplies. All in all, over 3 mmb/d of oil processing capacity had to be idled in the wake of the storm, including Motiva’s Port Arthur, ExxonMobil’s Baytown and Marathon’s Galveston Bay refineries. And even if the sites were still running, they would have to contend to upstream disruptions: estimates suggest that crude oil production in the prolific Permian Basin dropped by over a million barrels per day due to power outages, while several key pipelines connecting Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast were also forced to shutter.
That perfect storm was enough to send crude prices above the US$60/b level. But will it last? The damage from the Texan snowstorm has already begun to abate, and even then crude prices did not seem to have the appetite to push higher than US$63/b for Brent and US$60/b for WTI.
Instead, the key development that should determine the future range for crude prices going into the second quarter of 2021 will be in early March, when the OPEC+ club meets once again to decide the level of its supply quotas for April and perhaps beyond. The conundrum facing the various factions within the club is this: at US$60/b, crude oil prices are not low enough to scare all members in voting for unanimous stricter quotas and also not high enough to rescind controlled supply. Instead, prices are at a fragile level where arguments can be made both ways. Russia is already claiming that global oil markets are ‘balanced’, while Saudi Arabia is emphasising the need for caution in public messaging ahead of the meeting. Saudi Arabia’s voluntary supply cut will also expire in March, setting up the stage for yet another fractious meeting. If a snow overrun Texans was a perfect storm to push crude prices to a 13-month high, then the upcoming OPEC+ meeting faces another perfect storm that could negate confidence. Which will it be? The answer lies on the other side of the storm.