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Last Updated: January 13, 2017
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The U.S. Energy Information Administration's (EIA) January Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) forecasts benchmark North Sea Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) to average $53 per barrel (b) and $52/b, respectively, in 2017, close to their levels during the last three weeks of 2016. Average forecast prices rise to $56/b and $55/b, respectively, in 2018.


EIA's price forecasts have wide uncertainty bands, consistent with contract values for future delivery. For example, contacts traded during the five-day period ending January 5 suggest the market expects WTI prices could range from $35/b to $93/b (at the 95% confidence interval) in December 2017 (Figure 1). Strong demand and the recent agreement among members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), as well as key non-OPEC oil producers, are putting upward pressure on crude oil prices. However, forecast increases in global production should provide downward pressure on prices and mitigate the potential for significant crude oil price increases through 2018. Despite the recent OPEC agreement, EIA expects global petroleum and other liquid inventory builds to continue, but at a slowing rate, in 2017 and 2018.


Despite increases in global oil inventories and U.S. oil rig productivity, market reactions to the November OPEC agreement to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day (b/d) starting in January 2017 contributed to rising oil prices in December, when average Brent prices were $9/b above their November level. In response to the price movement, in the January STEO, EIA increased its crude oil price forecast for both Brent and WTI by $2 from the December STEO forecast for 2017. The slight price discount of WTI to Brent in the forecast is based on the assumption of competition between the two crude oils in the U.S. Gulf Coast refinery market.


Brent crude oil spot prices are expected to remain fairly flat over 2017 due in part to the responsiveness of U.S. tight oil production to rising oil prices in late 2016.


EIA forecasts Brent prices will slowly increase in 2018, beginning the year at $54/b in January and ending the year at $59/b in December. During this time, inventory builds will slow, putting modest upward pressure on prices. This will encourage production increases, particularly in the Lower 48 onshore. However, any production increases realized while the global markets are building inventories will moderate price increases, which will in turn limit additional production increases.


Total U.S. crude oil production is estimated to have averaged 8.9 million b/d in 2016, down 0.5 million b/d from 2015, with all of the production decline in the Lower 48 onshore. EIA forecasts U.S. crude oil production will increase to an average of 9.0 million b/d in 2017 and 9.3 million b/d in 2018. Forecast production in 2017 is 0.2 million b/d higher than in the previous forecast, reflecting assumptions of higher drilling activity, drilling efficiency, and well-level productivity than in previous forecasts. On a quarterly basis, EIA expects U.S. crude oil production to increase from 8.9 million b/d in the fourth quarter of 2016 to 9.4 million b/d in the fourth quarter of 2018. In both 2017 and 2018, crude oil production in the third quarter decreases from the previous quarter, when EIA assumes some production declines because of hurricane-related outages.


In the previous forecast, EIA generally expected Lower 48 onshore production to decline through the end of 2017. However, the new forecast reflects crude oil prices near or above $50/b, which have led to increased investment by some U.S. production companies, particularly in the Permian Basin. EIA expects that declines in Lower 48 production have largely ended and forecasts relatively flat production in the first quarter of 2017 at 6.7 million b/d, which will then increase to an annual average of 7.0 million b/d in 2018. Even modest increases in crude oil prices could contribute to supply growth in other U.S. tight oil regions.


EIA estimates global petroleum and other liquids production will increase through the forecast. Annual estimated and forecast production levels for 2016, 2017, and 2018 were revised up to 96.4 million b/d, 97.5 million b/d, and 98.9 million b/d, respectively.


Significant upward revisions to historical consumption in the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in mid-2016 have led to a revision in the historical global balances. The latest data show global petroleum and other liquids stock drew by 0.5 million b/d in the third quarter of 2016. While production was unchanged for the third quarter of 2016 compared to the previous forecast, global consumption of crude and liquid fuels was revised up by 0.6 million b/d. Inventory draws in the third quarter, however, were followed by large builds in the fourth quarter.


EIA estimates that crude and other liquids inventories increased by 2.0 million b/d in the fourth quarter of 2016, driven by an increase in production and a significant, but seasonal, drop in consumption. The production increase largely reflects OPEC members ramping up production in advance of implementing the November agreement on production cuts. Global production is expected to increase by 1.6 million b/d in the fourth quarter of 2016, with OPEC accounting for 0.9 million b/d, or 55%, of this increase. Additionally, large seasonal consumption declines of 1.0 million b/d in the fourth quarter of 2016 contribute to the stock build. This trend is not expected to last as global consumption of petroleum and liquids is forecast to grow at a faster rate than production through 2018, resulting in tighter markets (Figure 2).

http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/weekly/article_images/twip170111fig2-lg.png

Annual consumption for 2016 is estimated at 95.6 million b/d and is forecast to increase by 1.7% to 97.2 million b/d in 2017, compared with a growth rate of 1.1% for production. However, 0.4 million b/d of this increase reflects estimated growth in the use of hydrocarbon gas liquids such as ethane and propane, reflecting growth in production from natural gas processing. Consumption is forecast to grow by 1.6% in 2018 and average of 98.7 million b/d for the year, while production increases by 1.4% and remains slightly above consumption at 98.9 million b/d on an annual basis. However, consumption is greater than production in the third quarter of both 2017 and 2018.

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High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.  

A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.

Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.

Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.

And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.

That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.

Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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