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Last Updated: April 11, 2017
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In 2005, the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar declared a moratorium on production at its North Field. Natural gas from this giant field, part of a larger reservoir that straddles Qatari and Iranian borders, had helped Qatar ramp up production, eight years after it exported its first cargo of LNG to Spain in 1997. The halt came as a bit of a surprise back then, seen as limiting, but in hindsight was a great move. Existing projects with partners ExxonMobil, Shell and Total were more than enough to vault Qatar to become the largest LNG exporter in the world, and there were technically challenging projects like the Pearl and Oryx Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) refineries that demanded attention.

The logic, then, was to prevent overexploitation of the precious North Field, particularly since it was shared with Iran, where it is known as South Pars. Detailed studies on the structure of the field have estimated that, at current production rates, Qatar still has about 135 years of gas reserves underground. With most of the giant Qatari projects now complete, the country can afford to exploit a little more. So 12 years later, the moratorium has been lifted.

Qatar Petroleum, the state oil firm, intends new development to be confined to the southernmost part of the North Field, running almost onshore, contributing a 10% increase – or 2 bcf/d or 400,000 barrels of oil equivalent in national production. It comes after QP merged its two gas subsidiaries – RasGas and Qatargas – into a single entity called Qatargas in December 2016, streamlining the business structure of its gas operations. Together with partners ExxonMobil, Total, Shell and ConocoPhillips, the new Qatargas will operate all Qatari LNG production, while the newly-established Ocean LNG will manage the international marketing of all Qatari LNG.

Put all of those announcements together and the picture is clear; Qatar is moving aggressively to retain its crown as the world’s top LNG exporter, fending off Australia, the USA and Russia as they ramp up their respective output. The flurry of LNG production has resulted in global installed LNG capacity of over 300 million tonnes a year, while only around 268 million tonnes of LNG were traded in 2016, Thomson Reuters data shows. That has helped pull down Asian spot LNG prices LNG-AS by more than 70 percent from their 2014 peaks to $5.65 per million British thermal units (mmBtu).

With LNG prices already waning due to the existing and coming glut, what good will it do for Qatar to add more to the mix?

Qatar's decision to lift the moratorium, is seen as a sign the country will not sit by idly as others scoop up customers in a growing market. For one thing, Qatari costs are low. Qatari LNG is already one of the cheapest to produce in the world, and any new North Field output can be tapped back into infrastructure already in place – allowing Qatar to better weather low LNG prices than say Australia, where Chevron has had to deal with massive ramp-ups in costs for the Gorgon and Wheatstone.

Secondly, the Qatar Petroleum announcement pointedly did not mention whether the new gas will become LNG. Which means Qatargas is looking at other options. More GTL and Gas-to-Petrochemical projects, perhaps? Or perhaps feeding the natural gas demand of its Gulf neighbours? The UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are short on natural gas, so a trans-Arabian Peninsula pipeline might be just what is needed. The lifting of the North Field moratorium also comes just in time since Qatar’s domestic oil and gas production is plateauing, kicking off the next phase of Qatari growth. And when that next phase begins to end, well, Qatar still has a whole lot more of the North Field to tap into. "What we are doing today is something completely new and we will in future of course ... share information on this with them (Iran)."

QP Chief Executive Saad al-Kaabi told reporters Monday at Qatar Petroleum's headquarters in Doha. "For oil there are people who see peak demand in 2030, others in 2042, but for gas, demand is always growing."

Easwaran Kanason

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Ecuador Exits OPEC

Amid ongoing political unrest, Ecuador has chosen to withdraw from OPEC in January 2020. Citing a need to boost oil revenues by being ‘honest about its ability to endure further cuts’, Ecuador is prioritising crude production and welcoming new oil investment (free from production constraints) as President Lenin Moreno pursues more market-friendly economic policies. But his decisions have caused unrest; the removal of fuel subsidies – which effectively double domestic fuel prices – have triggered an ongoing widespread protests after 40 years of low prices. To balance its fiscal books, Ecuador’s priorities have changed.

The departure is symbolic. Ecuador’s production amounts to some 540,000 b/d of crude oil. It has historically exceeded its allocated quota within the wider OPEC supply deal, but given its smaller volumes, does not have a major impact on OPEC’s total output. The divorce is also not acrimonious, with Ecuador promising to continue supporting OPEC’s efforts to stabilise the oil market where it can. 

This isn’t the first time, or the last time, that a country will quit OPEC. Ecuador itself has already done so once, withdrawing in December 1992. Back then, Quito cited fiscal problems, balking at the high membership fee – US$2 million per year – and that it needed to prioritise increasing production over output discipline. Ecuador rejoined in October 2007. Similar circumstances over supply constraints also prompted Gabon to withdraw in January 1995, returning only in July 2016. The likelihood of Ecuador returning is high, given this history, but there are also two OPEC members that have departed seemingly permanently.

The first is Indonesia, which exited OPEC in 2008 after 46 years of membership. Chronic mismanagement of its upstream resources had led Indonesia to become a net importer of crude oil since the early 2000s and therefore unable to meet its production quota. Indonesia did rejoin OPEC briefly in January 2016 after managing to (slightly) improve its crude balance, but was forced to withdraw once again in December 2016 when OPEC began requesting more comprehensive production cuts to stabilise prices. But while Indonesia may return, Qatar is likely gone permanently. Officially, Qatar exited OPEC in January 2019 after 48 years of continuous membership to focus on natural gas production, which dwarfs its crude output. Unofficially, geopolitical tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia – which has resulted in an ongoing blockade and boycott – contributed to the split.

The exit of Ecuador will not make much material difference to OPEC’s current goal of controlling supply to stabilise prices. With Saudi production back at full capacity – and showing the willingness to turn its taps on or off to control the market – gains in Ecuador’s crude production can be offset elsewhere. What matters is optics. The exit leaves the impression that OPEC’s power is weakening, limiting its ability to influence the market by controlling supply. There are also ongoing tensions brewing within OPEC, specifically between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The continued implosion of the Venezuelan economy is also an issue. OPEC will survive the exit of Ecuador; but if Iran or Venezuela choose to go, then it will face a full-blown existential crisis. 

Current OPEC membership:

  • Middle East: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE
  • Africa: Algeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Libya, Nigeria, Republic of Congo
  • Latin America: Venezuela
  • Total: 13
  • Withdrawing: Ecuador (January 2020)
  • Membership under consideration: Sudan (October 2015)
October, 18 2019
U.S. Federal Gulf of Mexico crude oil production to continue to set records through 2020

U.S. crude oil production in the U.S. Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) averaged 1.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018, setting a new annual record. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects oil production in the GOM to set new production records in 2019 and in 2020, even after accounting for shut-ins related to Hurricane Barry in July 2019 and including forecasted adjustments for hurricane-related shut-ins for the remainder of 2019 and for 2020.

Based on EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook’s (STEO) expected production levels at new and existing fields, annual crude oil production in the GOM will increase to an average of 1.9 million b/d in 2019 and 2.0 million b/d in 2020. However, even with this level of growth, projected GOM crude oil production will account for a smaller share of the U.S. total. EIA expects the GOM to account for 15% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2019 and in 2020, compared with 23% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2011, as onshore production growth continues to outpace offshore production growth.

In 2019, crude oil production in the GOM fell from 1.9 million b/d in June to 1.6 million b/d in July because some production platforms were evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Barry. This disruption was resolved relatively quickly, and no disruptions caused by Hurricane Barry remain. Although final data are not yet available, EIA estimates GOM crude oil production reached 2.0 million b/d in August 2019.

Producers expect eight new projects to come online in 2019 and four more in 2020. EIA expects these projects to contribute about 44,000 b/d in 2019 and about 190,000 b/d in 2020 as projects ramp up production. Uncertainties in oil markets affect long-term planning and operations in the GOM, and the timelines of future projects may change accordingly.

anticipated deepwater Federal Gulf of Mexico field starts

Source: Rystad Energy

Because of the amount of time needed to discover and develop large offshore projects, oil production in the GOM is less sensitive to short-term oil price movements than onshore production in the Lower 48 states. In 2015 and early 2016, decreasing profit margins and reduced expectations for a quick oil price recovery prompted many GOM operators to reconsider future exploration spending and to restructure or delay drilling rig contracts, causing average monthly rig counts to decline through 2018.

Brent crude oil price and U.S. Gulf of Mexico rig count

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Thompson Reuters, Baker Hughes

Crude oil price increases in 2017 and 2018 relative to lows in 2015 and 2016 have not yet had a significant effect on operations in the GOM, but they have the potential to contribute to increasing rig counts and field discoveries in the coming years. Unlike onshore operations, falling rig counts do not affect current production levels, but instead they affect the discovery of future fields and the start-up of new projects.

October, 17 2019
Crude oil used by U.S. refineries continues to get lighter in most regions

API gravity of U.S. refinery inputs by region

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Refinery Report

The API gravity of crude oil input to U.S. refineries has generally increased, or gotten lighter, since 2011 because of changes in domestic production and imports. Regionally, refinery crude slates—or the mix of crude oil grades that a refinery is processing—have become lighter in the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and West Coast regions, and they have become slightly heavier in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions.

API gravity is measured as the inverse of the density of a petroleum liquid relative to water. The higher the API gravity, the lower the density of the petroleum liquid, so light oils have high API gravities. Crude oil with an API gravity greater than 38 degrees is generally considered light crude oil; crude oil with an API gravity of 22 degrees or below is considered heavy crude oil.

The crude slate processed in refineries situated along the Gulf Coast—the region with the most refining capacity in the United States—has had the largest increase in API gravity, increasing from an average of 30.0 degrees in 2011 to an average of 32.6 degrees in 2018. The West Coast had the heaviest crude slate in 2018 at 28.2 degrees, and the East Coast had the lightest of the three regions at 34.8 degrees.

Production of increasingly lighter crude oil in the United States has contributed to the overall lightening of the crude oil slate for U.S. refiners. The fastest-growing category of domestic production has been crude oil with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees, according to data in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report.

Since 2015, when EIA began collecting crude oil production data by API gravity, light crude oil production in the Lower 48 states has grown from an annual average of 4.6 million barrels per day (b/d) to 6.4 million b/d in the first seven months of 2019.

lower 48 states production of crude oil by API gravity

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report

When setting crude oil slates, refiners consider logistical constraints and the cost of transportation, as well as their unique refinery configuration. For example, nearly all (more than 99% in 2018) crude oil imports to the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain regions come from Canada because of geographic proximity and existing pipeline and rail infrastructure between these regions.

Crude oil imports from Canada, which consist of mostly heavy crude oil, have increased by 67% since 2011 because of increased Canadian production. Crude oil imports from Canada have accounted for a greater share of refinery inputs in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, leading to heavier refinery crude slates in these regions.

By comparison, crude oil production in Texas tends to be lighter: Texas accounted for half of crude oil production above 40 degrees API in the United States in 2018. The share of domestic crude oil in the Gulf Coast refinery crude oil slate increased from 36% in 2011 to 70% in 2018. As a result, the change in the average API gravity of crude oil processed in refineries in the Gulf Coast region was the largest increase among all regions in the United States during that period.

U.S. refinery inputs by region

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Imports Report and Monthly Refinery Report

East Coast refineries have three ways to receive crude oil shipments, depending on which are more economical: by rail from the Midwest, by coastwise-compliant (Jones Act) tankers from the Gulf Coast, or by importing. From 2011 to 2018, the share of imported crude oil in the East Coast region decreased from 95% to 81% as the share of domestic crude oil inputs increased. Conversely, the share of imported crude oil at West Coast refineries increased from 46% in 2011 to 51% in 2018.

October, 14 2019