Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of PetroEdge
Last Updated: April 10, 2017
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Business Trends
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Conservative estimates suggest that in the wake of oil prices crashing in late 2014, the Malaysian oil and gas services and equipment (OGSE) sector contracted by at least 11%. Analysis of overall financials for the OGSE sector by the Malaysian Petroleum Resource Corp, an agency under the Prime Minister’s Department, reveal that revenue for 2015 fell by 11%, while profits contracted by a severe 52.3%. Including companies such as MISC, Sapura Energy, Dialog, Scomi, Bumi Armada, the numbers for 2016 are not available yet, but a glance over the financial reports released for the bigger players indicate that while sector revenue will probably be down for the year, profits maybe be up, after aggressive cost-cutting that included a tide of retrenchments.

So what is in store in 2017 and beyond?

If we go by the health of Petroliam Nasional Berhad, better known as Petronas, the word seems to be “cautiously optimistic”. The guardian and bellwether of Malaysia’s Oil & Gas sector, Petronas is one of the few major integrated state oil companies that is holding up fairly well during the current on-going oil crises. Petrobras is engulfed in debt, as is PDVSA, while Pertamina appears to be struggling with corruption and clarity of its long term investment direction while select Russian entities battle being used as political tools. Full year 2016 revenue for Petronas fell by 17.3% from lower sales coupled with weak crude prices but profit was up by a whopping 28% to RM16.95 billion (US$3.82 billion), just slightly behind Shell’s own profit for 2016. For 2017, Petronas projects better times ahead, promising no more staff redundancies and bolstering defences by pegging its 2017 capex expenditure at US$45/b, while it prepares to focus on natural gas - both at home in Sarawak and Sabah, and abroad in its Canadian LNG export project, and the recent go-ahead given to its massive US$27 billion RAPID refinery and petrochemicals project.

However if oil prices fall any further or just lingers within the US$50-55/b range, the so called recovery being experienced now, may just stagnate or not be strong enough to re-boot the industry to its previous glorious days and create the jobs badly needed for Malaysia. The threat of market oversupply is still there as US shale oil continues to grow unabatedly. The reality is low oil prices for (much) longer. The future prosperity of Petronas would depend on how much it can increase its productivity and lower production costs. Petronas has moved very decisively and embarked on intensifying its internal cost competitiveness through better collaboration amongst other upstream operators in Malaysia through the CORAL 2.0 project, and is beginning to see lower cost scenarios for its well engineering programs already. On the new technology front, Petronas is collaborating with MIT Innovation Sdn Bhd (MIT) to promote a smart and efficient technology that significantly lowers drilling costs. All moves in the right direction.

The weak link to Petronas’s current cost strategy and competitiveness globally could however be its very own local supply chain. As Petronas tries to prosper in the current climate, the industry that supports it needs to be similarly positioned to do the same - efficient and cost competitive. With the exception of a few large players like MISC, Sapura Energy and Dialog that have the width and breadth to survive challenging conditions like in 2015 and 2016, further down the supply chain, the smaller players many of whom are just agents or third-party equipment representatives do not necessarily own technology, are extremely vulnerable to volatility. (Debt is a particularly pressing concern in this end of spectrum especially in the offshore segment, with players like UMW Oil & Gas, Dayang Entreprise and Perisai Petroleum Teknologi facing recent problems in renegotiating their debt incurred during the good times. Those who can’t keep afloat will be targets for acquisition or forced mergers, like the recent merger between UMW Oil and Gas, Icon Offshore and Orkim.) In a recent business seminar, Malaysia Petroleum Resources Corp (MPRC) senior vice-president Syed Azlan Syed Ibrahim said that “although we foresee 2017 will not be far off than 2016, I do not think it will be worse. This is the opportunity for players to make the hard decision to restructure or reform. That time is now. They (local oil & gas supply chain companies) need to do it now so that when the market goes back up they will be ready” Calls for consolidation amongst local companies, especially in the upstream segment will help strengthen the industry, allowing for greater combination of resources for increased technological innovation and value creation that is urgently needed for Petronas to be competitive locally and overseas. Less reliance on foreign US dollar denominated technology or service providers will help Petronas achieve its low cost operations goal.

As Petronas announces fewer projects in 2017 compared to pre-2014 levels, local service player will need to compete and work outside Malaysia for revenue and business growth. It will be useful here for the local oil industry to emulate the success in the Norway. As we have seen and witnessed the growth of Statoil, Norway's national oil company, as a global player in the oil industry, it is backed-up with a group of highly matured and capable technology and services providers. The grouping is now known as Norwegian Energy Partners or NORWEP in short. NORWEP looks beyond the shores of Norway for new business, and compete for projects globally. It independently (without Statoil’s direct assistance) builds relations with other governments and strategically partners with other state controlled oil companies. To date, it has achieved a respectable track record in developing new technologies in enhanced oil recovery methods as well as strong health & safety in its operations.

Looking into the future of energy, the argument for diversification into how energy will be generated, distributed and utilised also seems compelling. Shell is convinced that the next phase of fossil fuel energy will belong to gas. Petronas is well positioned in the gas business, as it continues to be within the top 3 exporters of LNG globally with strong gas reserves and infrastructure locally as well as internationally, especially in Canada. However the argument for energy diversification goes further from fossil fuels. During the 2017 CERAWeek, the fossil fuel big annual conference, most speakers proclaim a long and prosperous future for their industry. But companies and countries that rely on oil and gas income are recognizing that renewable forms of electricity are gaining traction as prices come down and their popularity rises. Oil executives are adapting their portfolios to add cleaner fuels and moderating their rhetoric on climate change. "A low-carbon future will reshape the energy space. Some see this as a threat to our industry, but we should rather look for and act on the opportunities it offers," said Eldar Sætre, CEO of Norway's Statoil. "We have to respond more forcefully to the challenge of climate change." The oil and gas industry has clearly recognized that its monopoly on transportation fuels is weakening for the first time since automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages. To be fair, Petronas has embarked on feasibility projects in renewable energy space with the commissioning of a Solar Independent Power Plant (IPP) project in Gebeng in Kuantan. The Solar IPP project came on-stream in 2013 has a capacity of 10 megawatt peak (MWp). However this venture seems to be dwarfed by recent announcements especially from the gulf operators. Saudi Aramco is planning to produce 10 gigawatts of power from renewable energy sources including solar, wind and nuclear by 2023 and transform Aramco into a diversified energy company. The kingdom also plans to develop a renewable energy research and manufacturing industry as part of an economic transformation plan announced by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, has also recently established a separate division, called New Energies, to invest in renewable and low-carbon power. The new division brings together its existing hydrogen, biofuels and electrical activities. Should Petronas make bigger investment in-roads into the renewable energy sector now rather than later? Shell is projecting that it will not make any money from renewable investments at least for another 10 years. Getting ahead in the game will certainly help any new player. Noting of course that there are other players in Malaysia in the renewable energy scene, for example Tenaga Nasional Berhad or TNB is growing its portfolio in solar energy aggressively.

In conclusion, Petronas seems to be generally on the right path in evolving its energy mix and growth strategy in the energy sector. Being a state controlled company, it will require undivided political support to transform its local supply chain and embark on a commercially driven low cost structure. If the large dividends that Petronas pays annually to Government are to continue, it should be an incentive for the Government for more action to reform the industry’s supply and support base. 

Petronas being a large and complex business, reforms typically take time. However due to the prolonged nature of the low oil price climate, the pace of change impacting the industry seems to be moving faster compared to previous downturns. As the oil business is global and fairly transparent in terms of revenue and cost structure, Petronas is unfortunately unable to dictate it’s not own timeline in reforming itself and the industry that supports it. “Faster the better..lah” seems to come to mind. Easier said than done.

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ConocoPhillips vs PDVSA - Round 2

Things just keep getting more dire for Venezuela’s PDVSA – once a crown jewel among state energy firms, and now buried under debt and a government in crisis. With new American sanctions weighing down on its operations, PDVSA is buckling. For now, with the support of Russia, China and India, Venezuelan crude keeps flowing. But a ghost from the past has now come back to haunt it.

In 2007, Venezuela embarked on a resource nationalisation programme under then-President Hugo Chavez. It was the largest example of an oil nationalisation drive since Iraq in 1972 or when the government of Saudi Arabia bought out its American partners in ARAMCO back in 1980. The edict then was to have all foreign firms restructure their holdings in Venezuela to favour PDVSA with a majority. Total, Chevron, Statoil (now Equinor) and BP agreed; ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips refused. Compensation was paid to ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, which was considered paltry. So the two American firms took PDVSA to international arbitration, seeking what they considered ‘just value’ for their erstwhile assets. In 2012, ExxonMobil was awarded some US$260 million in two arbitration awards. The dispute with ConocoPhillips took far longer.

In April 2018, the International Chamber of Commerce ruled in favour of ConocoPhillips, granting US$2.1 billion in recovery payments. Hemming and hawing on PDVSA’s part forced ConocoPhillips’ hand, and it began to seize control of terminals and cargo ships in the Caribbean operated by PDVSA or its American subsidiary Citgo. A tense standoff – where PDVSA’s carriers were ordered to return to national waters immediately – was resolved when PDVSA reached a payment agreement in August. As part of the deal, ConocoPhillips agreed to suspend any future disputes over the matter with PDVSA.

The key word being ‘future’. ConocoPhillips has an existing contractual arbitration – also at the ICC – relating to the separate Corocoro project. That decision is also expected to go towards the American firm. But more troubling is that a third dispute has just been settled by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes tribunal in favour of ConocoPhillips. This action was brought against the government of Venezuela for initiating the nationalisation process, and the ‘unlawful expropriation’ would require a US$8.7 billion payment. Though the action was brought against the government, its coffers are almost entirely stocked by sales of PDVSA crude, essentially placing further burden on an already beleaguered company. A similar action brought about by ExxonMobil resulted in a US$1.4 billion payout; however, that was overturned at the World Bank in 2017.

But it might not end there. The danger (at least on PDVSA’s part) is that these decisions will open up floodgates for any creditors seeking damages against Venezuela. And there are quite a few, including several smaller oil firms and players such as gold miner Crystallex, who is owed US$1.2 billion after the gold industry was nationalised in 2011. If the situation snowballs, there is a very tempting target for creditors to seize – Citgo, PDVSA’s crown jewel that operates downstream in the USA, which remains profitable. And that would be an even bigger disaster for PDVSA, even by current standards.

Infographic: Venezuela oil nationalisation dispute timeline

  • 2003 – National labour strikes cripple Venezuela’s oil industry
  • 2005 – Hugo Chavez begins a re-nationalisation drive
  • 2007 – Oil re-nationalisation, PDVSA to have at least 50% of all projects
  • 2008 – ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips launch dispute arbitration
  • 2012 – ExxonMobil awarded damages from PDVSA
  • 2014 – ExxonMobil awarded damages from government of Venezuela
  • 2018 – ConocoPhillips awarded damages from PDVSA
  • 2019 – ConocoPhillips awarded damages from government of Venezuela
March, 21 2019
This Week in Petroleum
The United States exported 2 million barrels per day of crude oil in 2018 to 42 different destinations

In 2018, U.S. exports of crude oil continued to increase to 2.0 million barrels per day (b/d), up 846,000 b/d (73%) from 2017 (Figure 1). The number of destinations for U.S. crude oil exports also increased from 37 to 42. Volumes by destination changed significantly between the first and second halves of 2018.

Figure 1. U.S. crude oil exports (1920 - 2018)

The increase in U.S. crude oil exports was the result of increasing U.S. crude oil production and infrastructure changes. U.S. crude oil production increased 1.6 million b/d from 2017 to 10.9 million b/d in 2018, with the U.S. Gulf Coast—where more than 90% of U.S. crude oil exports depart from—producing 7.1 million b/d. The increased production is mostly of light, sweet crude oils, but U.S. Gulf Coast refineries are configured mostly to process heavy, sour crude oils. This increasing production and mismatch between crude oil type and refinery configuration causes more of the increasing U.S. crude oil production to be exported.

In early 2018, modifications were made at the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) in the Gulf of Mexico to enable the loading of vessels for crude oil exports. LOOP is currently the only U.S. facility capable of accommodating fully loaded Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC), vessels capable of carrying approximately 2 million barrels of crude oil. After LOOP was modified to also allow exports, the increase in cargo scale led U.S. crude oil exports to surpass 2 million b/d for 25 weeks in 2018 compared with just 1 week in 2017. In addition to LOOP, other U.S Gulf Coast export facilities in and around Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas, have been investing in increasing the scale of U.S. crude oil export cargos.

In 2018, Asia was the largest regional destination for U.S. crude oil exports, followed by Europe, and, as in previous years, Canada was the largest single destination for U.S. crude oil exports. Canada received 378,000 b/d of U.S. crude oil exports, representing 19% of total U.S. crude oil exports in 2018. South Korea surpassed China to become the second-largest single destination for U.S. crude oil exports in 2018, receiving 236,000 b/d compared with China’s 228,000 b/d (Figure 2).

Figure 2. 2018 U.S. crude oil export destinations

However, the distribution of U.S. crude oil exports by destination varied significantly from the first half of 2018 to the second half. In the first half of 2018, the United States exported 376,000 b/d of crude oil to China, which made China the largest single destination for U.S. crude oil exports for that period. However, in August, September, and October of 2018, the United States exported no crude oil to China, and then in November and December it exported significantly less than in earlier months. In the second half of 2018, the United States exported 83,000 b/d of crude oil to China, a decrease of 294,000 b/d from the first half (Figure 3).

Figure 3. U.S. crude oil exports by destination (1H 2018 vs. 2H 2018)

In the summer of 2018, as part of ongoing trade negotiations between the United States and China, China temporarily included U.S. crude oil on a list of goods potentially subject to an increase in import tariffs. At the same time, the difference between the international crude oil benchmark Brent and the U.S. domestic price West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures prices narrowed rapidly between June and July 2018. Brent prices went from $9 per barrel (b) higher than WTI in June to $6/b higher than WTI in July. The rapidly narrowing price discount of U.S. crude oils versus international crude oils and the potential for higher import tariffs caused Chinese buying of U.S. crude oil to slow.

Although U.S. crude oil exports to China slowed in the second half of 2018, exports to South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, and India increased significantly. U.S. crude oil exports to South Korea increased 247,000 b/d (222%) between the first and second half of 2018. U.S. crude oil exports to other destinations in Asia also increased, particularly to Taiwan, which rose 111,000 b/d (168%) in the second half of 2018 compared with the first half, and to India, which increased 86,000 b/d (97%) during the same period.

Despite the volume changes in U.S. crude oil destination between the first and second halves of 2018, the list of destinations has remained consistent over the past three years. Of the 27 destinations that took U.S. crude oil in 2016, the first year of unrestricted U.S. crude oil exports, 22 destinations did so again in 2017 and again in 2018 (Figure 4). Furthermore, few destinations appear to be one-time recipients of U.S. crude oil, other than those such as the Marshall Islands that were listed because of data collection methods and ship-to-ship transfers.

Figure 4. U.S. crude oil export destinations

U.S. average regular gasoline price increases, diesel price falls

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price rose nearly 8 cents from the previous week to $2.55 per gallon on March 18, down 5 cents from the same time last year. The East Coast price rose nearly 9 cents to $2.52 per gallon, the Gulf Coast price rose over 8 cents to $2.30 per gallon, the Midwest price rose nearly 8 cents to $2.48 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain price rose nearly 7 cents to $2.32 per gallon, and the West Coast price rose nearly 5 cents to $3.03 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell nearly 1 cent to $3.07 per gallon on March 18, nearly 10 cents higher than a year ago. The Midwest price fell nearly 2 cents to $2.99 per gallon, the Gulf Coast price fell over 1 cent to $2.87 per gallon, and the West Coast price fell nearly 1 cent to $3.50 per gallon. The Rocky Mountain price increased nearly 1 cent, remaining at $2.94 per gallon, and the East Coast price rose less than 1 cent, remaining at $3.12 per gallon.

Propane/propylene inventories rise

U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 1.0 million barrels last week to 51.1 million barrels as of March 15, 2019, 6.3 million barrels (14.0%) greater than the five-year (2014-2018) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast, East Coast, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories increased by 1.2 million barrels, 0.4 million barrels, and 0.1 million barrels, respectively, while Midwest inventories decreased by 0.7 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 12.1% of total propane/propylene inventories.

Residential heating fuel prices decrease

As of March 18, 2019, residential heating oil prices averaged nearly $3.22 per gallon, 1 cent per gallon below last week’s price but 16 cents per gallon above last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged $2.09 per gallon, nearly 4 cents per gallon less than last week’s price but 8 cents per gallon more than a year ago.

Residential propane prices averaged $2.41 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon lower than last week’s price and almost 8 cents per gallon lower than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged nearly $0.84 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon above last week’s price but 3 cents per gallon below last year’s price.

March, 21 2019
U.S. renewable electricity generation has doubled since 2008

U.S. annual renewable generation

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly

Renewable generation provided a new record of 742 million megawatthours (MWh) of electricity in 2018, nearly double the 382 million MWh produced in 2008. Renewables provided 17.6% of electricity generation in the United States in 2018.

Nearly 90% of the increase in U.S. renewable electricity between 2008 and 2018 came from wind and solar generation. Wind generation rose from 55 million MWh in 2008 to 275 million MWh in 2018 (6.5% of total electricity generation), exceeded only by conventional hydroelectric at 292 million MWh (6.9% of total generation).

U.S. solar generation has increased from 2 million MWh in 2008 to 96 million MWh in 2018. Solar generation accounted for 2.3% of electricity generation in 2018. Solar generation is generally categorized as small-scale (customer-sited or rooftop) solar installations or utility-scale installations. In 2018, 69% of solar generation, or 67 million MWh, was utility-scale solar.

U.S. annual net generation, wind and solar

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly

Increases in U.S. wind and solar generation are driven largely by capacity additions. In 2008, the United States had 25 gigawatts (GW) of wind generating capacity. By the end of 2018, 94 GW of wind generating capacity was operating on the electric grid. Almost all of this capacity is onshore; one offshore wind plant, located on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, has a capacity of 30 megawatts. Similarly, installed solar capacity grew from an estimated less than 1 GW in 2008 to 51 GW in 2018. In 2018, 1.8 GW of this solar capacity was solar thermal, 30 GW was utility-scale solar photovoltaics (PV), and the remaining 20 GW was small-scale solar PV.

Growth in renewable technologies in the United States, particularly in wind and solar, has been driven by federal and state policies and declining costs. Federal policies such as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 and the Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credits for wind and solar have spurred project development.

In addition, state-level policies, such as renewable portfolio standards, which require a certain share of electricity to come from renewable sources, have increasing targets over time. As more wind and solar projects have come online, economies of scale have led to more efficient project development and financing mechanisms, which has led to continued cost declines.

Conventional hydroelectric capacity has remained relatively unchanged in the United States, increasing by 2% since 2008. Changes in hydroelectric generation year-over-year typically reflect changes in precipitation and drought conditions. Between 2008 and 2018, annual U.S. hydroelectric generation was as low as 249 million MWh and as high as 319 million MWh, with hydroelectric generation in 2018 totaling 292 million MWh. Generation from other renewable resources, including biomass and geothermal, increased from 70 million MWh to 79 million MWh in the United States between 2008 and 2018, and it collectively represented 1.9% of total generation in 2018.

March, 20 2019