SINGAPORE (Bloomberg) -- While Syria makes only 0.04% of global petroleum supplies -- less than Cuba, New Zealand or Pakistan -- it calls one of the world’s biggest producing regions its neighborhood.
The nation borders Iraq, the second-biggest member in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, while other producing giants, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, lie just beyond. The Turkish port of Ceyhan, from where shipments including those from Kurdistan are exported, is also close. Apart from its proximity to the Middle East nations, the ongoing conflict in Syria involves Russia and the U.S., two other major crude producers.
Global oil prices jumped more than 2% on Friday on news the U.S. launched a cruise missile attack against the nation, two days after Bashar al-Assad’s regime used poison gas to kill scores of civilians. The task of military planners was made riskier by the presence of Russian forces in Syria who support Assad’s regime in its battle against rebel groups, which include Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters but also some backed by the U.S.
“Given that two big producers -- the U.S. and Russia -- are involved, potentially on opposite sides, geopolitical risk has certainly increased and this is getting reflected in prices,” said Tushar Tarun Bansal, director at industry consultant Ivy Global Energy. “If, after the initial strikes, there is no further action by the U.S., prices will slip back to where they were prior to the strike.”
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Unplanned crude oil production outages for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) averaged 2.5 million barrels per day (b/d) in the first half of 2019, the highest six-month average since the end of 2015. EIA estimates that in June, Iran alone accounted for more than 60% (1.7 million b/d) of all OPEC unplanned outages.
EIA differentiates among declines in production resulting from unplanned production outages, permanent losses of production capacity, and voluntary production cutbacks for OPEC members. Only the first of those categories is included in the historical unplanned production outage estimates that EIA publishes in its monthly Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO).
Unplanned production outages include, but are not limited to, sanctions, armed conflicts, political disputes, labor actions, natural disasters, and unplanned maintenance. Unplanned outages can be short-lived or last for a number of years, but as long as the production capacity is not lost, EIA tracks these disruptions as outages rather than lost capacity.
Loss of production capacity includes natural capacity declines and declines resulting from irreparable damage that are unlikely to return within one year. This lost capacity cannot contribute to global supply without significant investment and lead time.
Voluntary cutbacks are associated with OPEC production agreements and only apply to OPEC members. Voluntary cutbacks count toward the country’s spare capacity but are not counted as unplanned production outages.
EIA defines spare crude oil production capacity—which only applies to OPEC members adhering to OPEC production agreements—as potential oil production that could be brought online within 30 days and sustained for at least 90 days, consistent with sound business practices. EIA does not include unplanned crude oil production outages in its assessment of spare production capacity.
As an example, EIA considers Iranian production declines that result from U.S. sanctions to be unplanned production outages, making Iran a significant contributor to the total OPEC unplanned crude oil production outages. During the fourth quarter of 2015, before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action became effective in January 2016, EIA estimated that an average 800,000 b/d of Iranian production was disrupted. In the first quarter of 2019, the first full quarter since U.S. sanctions on Iran were re-imposed in November 2018, Iranian disruptions averaged 1.2 million b/d.
Another long-term contributor to EIA’s estimate of OPEC unplanned crude oil production outages is the Partitioned Neutral Zone (PNZ) between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Production halted there in 2014 because of a political dispute between the two countries. EIA attributes half of the PNZ’s estimated 500,000 b/d production capacity to each country.
In the July 2019 STEO, EIA only considered about 100,000 b/d of Venezuela’s 130,000 b/d production decline from January to February as an unplanned crude oil production outage. After a series of ongoing nationwide power outages in Venezuela that began on March 7 and cut electricity to the country's oil-producing areas, EIA estimates that PdVSA, Venezuela’s national oil company, could not restart the disrupted production because of deteriorating infrastructure, and the previously disrupted 100,000 b/d became lost capacity.
The UK has just designated the Persian Gulf as a level 3 risk for its ships – the highest level possible threat for British vessel traffic – as the confrontation between Iran with the US and its allies escalated. The strategically-important bit of water - and in particular the narrow Strait of Hormuz – is boiling over, and it seems as if full-blown military confrontation is inevitable.
The risk assessment comes as the British warship HMS Montrose had to escort the BP oil tanker British Heritage out of the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean from being blocked by Iranian vessels. The risk is particularly acute as Iran is spoiling for a fight after the Royal Marines seized the Iranian crude supertanker Grace-1 in Gibraltar on suspicions that it was violating sanctions by sending crude to war-torn Syria. Tensions over the Gibraltar seizure kept the British Heritage tanker in ‘safe’ Saudi Arabian waters for almost a week after making a U-turn from the Basrah oil terminal in Iraq on fears of Iranian reprisals, until the HMW Montrose came to its rescue. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have warned of further ‘reciprocation’ even as it denied the British Heritage incident ever occurred.
This is just the latest in a series of events around Iran that is rattling the oil world. Since the waivers on exports of Iranian crude by the USA expired in early May, there were four sabotage attacks on oil tankers in the region and two additional attacks in June, all near the major bunkering hub of Fujairah. Increased US military presence resulted in Iran downing an American drone, which almost led to a full-blown conflict were it not for a last-minute U-turn by President Donald Trump. Reports suggest that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have moved military equipment to its southern coast surrounding the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is 39km at its narrowest. Up to a third of all seaborne petroleum trade passes through this chokepoint and while Iran would most likely overrun by US-led forces eventually if war breaks out, it could cause a major amount of damage in a little amount of time.
The risk has already driven up oil prices. While a risk premium has already been applied to current oil prices, some analysts are suggesting that further major spikes in crude oil prices could be incoming if Iran manages to close the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time. While international crude oil stocks will buffer any short-term impediment, if the Strait is closed for more than two weeks, crude oil prices could jump above US$100/b. If the Strait is closed for an extended period of time – and if the world has run down on its spare crude capacity – then prices could jump as high as US$325/b, according to a study conducted by the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre in Riyadh. This hasn’t happened yet, but the impact is already being felt beyond crude prices: insurance premiums for ships sailing to and fro the Persian Gulf rose tenfold in June, while the insurance-advice group Joint War Committee has designated the waters as a ‘Listed Area’, the highest risk classification on the scale. VLCC rates for trips in the Persian Gulf have also slipped, with traders cagey about sending ships into the potential conflict zone.
This will continue, as there is no end-game in sight for the Iranian issue. With the USA vague on what its eventual goals are and Iran in an aggressive mood at perceived injustice, the situation could explode in war or stay on steady heat for a longer while. Either way, this will have a major impact on the global crude markets. The boiling point has not been reached yet, but the waters of the Strait of Hormuz are certainly simmering.
The Strait of Hormuz:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 July 2019 – Brent: US$64/b; WTI: US$57/b
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