Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: January 1, 2017
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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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OPEC And The Current State of Oil Fundamentals

It was shaping up to yet another dull OPEC+ meeting. Cut and dry. Copy and paste. Rubber-stamping yet another monthly increase in production quotas by 432,000 b/d. Month after month of resisting pressure from the largest economies in the world to accelerate supply easing had inured markets to expectations of swift action by OPEC and its wider brethren in OPEC+.

And then, just two days before the meeting, chatter began that suggested something big was brewing. Whispers that Russia could be suspended made the rounds, an about-face for a group that has steadfastly avoided reference to the war in Ukraine, calling it a matter of politics not markets. If Russia was indeed removed from the production quotas, that would allow other OPEC+ producers to fill in the gap in volumes constrained internationally due to sanctions.

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The increase will be divided proportionally across OPEC+, as has been since the landmark supply deal in spring 2020. Crucially this includes Russia, where the new quota will be a paper one, since Western sanctions means that any additional Russian crude is unlikely to make it to the market. And that too goes for other members that haven’t even met their previous lower quotas, including Iraq, Angola and Nigeria. The oil ministers know this and the market knows this. Which is why the surprise announcement didn’t budge crude prices by very much at all.

In fact, there are only two countries within OPEC+ that have enough spare capacity to be ramped up quickly. The United Arab Emirates, which was responsible for recent turmoil within the group by arguing for higher quotas should be happy. But it will be a measure of backtracking for the only other country in that position, Saudi Arabia. After publicly stating that it had ‘done all it can for the oil market’ and blaming a lack of refining capacity for high fuel prices, the Kingdom’s change of heart seems to be linked to some external pressure. But it could seemingly resist no more. But that spotlight on the UAE and Saudi Arabia will allow both to wrench some market share, as both countries have been long preparing to increase their production. Abu Dhabi recently made three sizable onshore oil discoveries at Bu Hasa, Onshore Block 3 and the Al Dhafra Petroleum Concession, that adds some 650 million barrels to its reserves, which would help lift the ceiling for oil production from 4 to 5 mmb/d by 2030. Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco is expected to contract over 30 offshore rigs in 2022 alone, targeting the Marjan and Zuluf fields to increase production from 12 to 13 mmb/d by 2027.

The UAE wants to ramp up, certainly. But does Saudi Arabia too? As the dominant power of OPEC, what Saudi Arabia wants it usually gets. The signals all along were that the Kingdom wanted to remain prudent. It is not that it cannot, there is about a million barrels per day of extra production capacity that Saudi Arabia can open up immediately but that it does not want to. Bringing those extra volume on means that spare capacity drops down to critical levels, eliminating options if extra crises emerge. One is already starting up again in Libya, where internal political discord for years has led to an on-off, stop-start rhythm in Libyan crude. If Saudi Arabia uses up all its spare capacity, oil prices could jump even higher if new emergencies emerge with no avenue to tackle them. That the Saudis have given in (slightly) must mean that political pressure is heating up. That the announcement was made at the OPEC+ meeting and not a summit between US and Saudi leaders must mean that a façade of independence must be maintained around the crucial decisions to raise supply quotas.

But that increase is not going to be enough, especially with Russia’s absence. Markets largely shrugged off the announcement, keeping Brent crude at US$120/b levels. Consumption is booming, as the world rushes to enjoy its first summer with a high degree of freedom since Covid-19 hit. Which is why global leaders are looking at other ways to tackle high energy prices and mitigate soaring inflation. In Germany, low-priced monthly public transport are intended to wean drivers off cars. In the UK, a windfall tax on energy companies should yield US$6 billion to be used for insulating consumers. And in the US, Joe Biden has been busy.

With the Permian Basin focusing on fiscal prudence instead of wanton drilling, US shale output has not responded to lucrative oil prices that way it used to. American rig counts are only inching up, with some shale basins even losing rigs. So the White House is trying more creative ways. Though the suggestion of an ‘oil consumer cartel’ as an analogue to OPEC by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is likely dead on arrival, the US is looking to unlock supply and tame fuel prices through other ways. Regular releases from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve has so far done little to bring prices down, but easing sanctions on Venezuelan crude that could be exported to the US and Europe, as well as working with the refining industry to restart recently idled refineries could. Inflation levels above 8% and gasoline prices at all-time highs could lead to a bloody outcome in this year’s midterm elections, and Joe Biden knows that.

But oil (and natural gas) supply/demand dynamics cannot truly start returning to normal as long as the war in Ukraine rages on. And the far-ranging sanctions impacting Russian energy exports will take even longer to be lifted depending on how the war goes. Yes, some Russian crude is making it to the market. China, for example, has been quietly refilling its petroleum reserves with Russian crude (at a discount, of course). India continues to buy from Moscow, as are smaller nations like Sri Lanka where an economic crisis limits options. Selling the crude is one thing, transporting it is another. With most international insurers blacklisting Russian shippers, Russian oil producers can still turn to local insurance and tankers from the once-derided state tanker firm Sovcomflot PJSC to deliver crude to the few customers they still have.

A 50% hike in OPEC’s monthly supply easing targets might seem like a lot. But it isn’t enough. Especially since actual production will fall short of that quota. The entire OPEC system, and the illusion of control it provides has broken down. Russian oil is still trickling out to global buyers but even if it returned in full, there is still not enough refining capacity to absorb those volumes. Doctors speak of long Covid symptoms in patients, and the world energy complex is experiencing long Covid, now with a touch with geopolitical germs as well. It’ll take a long time to recover, so brace yourselves.

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