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Last Updated: March 29, 2017
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Last week in World Oil:

Prices

  • Crude oil seems stuck in its current range – US$48/b for WTI and US$51/b for Brent – as traders remain pessimistic of an extension to the OPEC supply freeze that, even if implemented, may not have much effect given the rise in American drilling that is sure to follow.

Upstream & Midstream

  • Permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline has been issued by President Donald Trump. The battleground now shifts to courtroom, where activists and landowners are plotting regulatory and legal challenges to keep the TransCanada pipeline from moving ahead.
  • The 29th offshore licensing round in the UK North Sea has been completed, with 25 licences handed out to mostly majors, including Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and Statoil. Centred on frontier areas off the Hebrides and Shetlands, the success of the round indicates renewed vigour that has been gaining over the last year in what was once a declining area.
  • The US active rig count jumped by a massive 20 last week, led mainly by oil rig gains, as American drillers put faith in steady crude oil prices. The bulk of the gains were in the onshore Permian Basin, with gains in Eagle Ford and Marcellus shale plays as well.

Downstream

  • A shakeup is happening at PDVSA, where high-level managers across all refining and downstream divisions have been removed recently. Ostensibly to battle corruption, the changes while Venezuela is struggling to provide fuel for its citizens, with reports of long queues to buy gasoline as PDVSA struggles with debt, imports and distribution woes.
  • Shell has completed talks with Tesoro to lease its capacity at an oil terminal in Panama. The three-year agreement at Petroterminal de Panama, which has 14 million barrels of capacity, and a pipeline network connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, bolsters Shell’s storage capacity in the Gulf and Caribbean, which anchors its crude trading operations.
  • The US government is considering retaliatory actions against Argentina and Indonesia over biodiesel dumping. Between 2014 and 2016, biodiesel imports from both countries have risen by 464%, prompting complaints by American biodiesel producers of underpricing. Indonesia, facing similar complaints from the EU, plans to protest together with Argentina.

Natural Gas and LNG

  • Unable to rely on Saudi Arabia to supply its energy needs, Egypt has been looking elsewhere, issuing a flurry of tenders late last year. The Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company has signed an agreement with Russia’s Rosneft to buy 10 LNG cargoes this year, starting in May, up from three cargoes bought in 2016. Until Egypt’s natural gas discoveries, including Zohr, begin producing, tenders such as this will be more common. 

Corporate

  • Petrobras has raised its target for divestitures, aiming to raise US$21 billion over 2017 and 2018 in a bid to pare down debt. Despite legal challenges in Brazilian courts that have blocked several of attempted sales, Petrobras intends to accelerate its asset sales plan, while expanding joint ventures in key areas such as refining and E&P.

Last week in Asian oil:

Upstream & Midstream

  • A trend is emerging, as Japan’s Inpex has decided to exit the Natuna Sea in Indonesia. Selling its entire stake in subsidiary Inpex Natuna to Indonesia’s PT Medco Daya Sentosa (a subsidiary of PT Medco Energi Internasional), the sale will see Inpex leave the South Natuna Sea Block B. This follows ConocoPhillips’ decision to exit the Natuna Sea block last year, with PT Medco also gaining in that case. Inpex has been involved in the prodigious Natuna Sea since 1977, but returns have been dwindling recently with little replenishment, leading to declining interest.
  • Petronas is beefing up its presence in Myanmar, farming into two ultra-deep water exploration permits operated by Shell in the Rakhine basin of the Bay of Bengal. Petronas already operates the Yetagun field in Myanmar, and plans to boost involvement in Myanmar as it seeks to deepen its external asset base. With the upstream business in the country heating up, UK oilfield services firm James Fisher and Sons last week signed an MoU with Myanmar’s Royal Marine Technology to expand the country’s marine services industry.

Downstream & Shipping

  • China’s Sinopec has officially acquired its first major refining operation in Africa, following in the footsteps of its upstream division by paying almost US$1 billion for a 75% stake in Chevron’s South African downstream assets, which includes the 100 kb/d Cape Town refinery, the Durban lubricants plant and operations in Botswana. Sinopec will retain the Caltex brand for six years for all retail operations, before rebranding.
  • Indian Oil has inked an agreement with the government of Nepal to supply the landlocked Himalayan nation’s refined product demand for the next five years. This extends a supply agreement dating back to 1974, with the new contract involving 1.3 million tons of refined products, principally gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and LPG for cooking. A natural gas pipeline is also being considered, as well as a refined products pipeline linking Motihari in the Indian state of Bihar to Amlekhgunj in Nepal.

Natural Gas & LNG

  • As the gigantic Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG projects, collectively costing US$88 billion, approached completion, Chevron has signalled that it does not intend to sanction any further expansion. Instead, it will focus on boosting returns and perhaps smaller, linked developments, as the LNG industry adjusts to the slump in oil prices.
  • South Korea’s KOGAS has signed an agreement with Japan’s JERA and China’s CNOOC, as the world’s largest LNG buyers aim to boost cooperation as bargaining power in the LNG industry increasingly shifts from sellers to buyers. Jointly, the three companies buy a third of global LNG, and the agreement potentially creates an influential buyers’ club that could demand more favourable contracts and clauses.

Corporate

  • Indonesian President Joko Widodo has named Elia Massa Manik as the new CEO of Pertamina, tasked with turning around the beleaguered state giant. A relative outsider to the country’s vast oil and gas bureaucracy, Elia lands in the position with a solid reputation for restructuring state-owned firms, including turning around operations at his previous position as head of PTPN III, Indonesia’s state plantation company, and at PT Elnusa, Pertamina’s oil services subsidiary.
  • Malaysia’s oilfield services firm Sapura Kencana will now be known as Sapura Energy Berhad. Proposed in early February and adopted at the recent AGM, the name was chosen to reflect the firm’s ‘global corporate identity.’

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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.

End of Article

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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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