A year ago, most analysts were bearish about natural gas prices. I wrote that natural gas prices might double and they did. Today, most analysts are again bearish about gas prices and again, I think that they are probably wrong at least for 2017.
The mainstream narrative is that new pipeline capacity---notably the Rover Pipeline---out of the Marcellus and Utica shale plays will unleash a torrent of pent-up supply. That is because over-production in these plays has saturated the northeastern U.S. markets and 2016 wellhead prices averaged about $0.88/mmBtu less than Henry Hub prices (Figure 1). New take-away capacity to higher-priced markets will fix that problem but gas prices will plummet later in 2017 because of increased output.
Figure 1. Marcellus Wellhead Prices Were $0.88 per mmBtu Less Than Henry Hub Prices in 2016. Source: MarcellusGas.Org, EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Systematic overproduction turned the northeastern U.S. from the highest-margin market to the lowest by 2013. With a second chance to at least be on par with national pricing, shale gas companies will, according to the narrative, over-produce the entire U.S. market to a loss once again. Smart.
Conventional Gas, Shale Gas and Net Imports
There are three components to gas supply: conventional gas production, shale gas production, and imports. These must be understood to establish a context for a potential supply increase from the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.
There is no doubt that low prices resulted in a 4.26 bcf/d (billion cubic feet of gas per day) decline in gas production from September 2015 through October 2016 (Figure 2).
Figure 2. U.S. Gas Production Fell 4.26 bcf/d From September 2015 to October 2016. Source EIA Natural Gas Monthly and Weekly Updates, and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Since 2008, conventional gas production has been in terminal decline and has fallen 26 bcf/d. It is currently falling about 3 bcf/d each year. Shale gas--including associated gas from tight oil---now makes up more than two-thirds of domestic supply. That means that shale gas output must grow by more than 3 bcf/d each year to offset falling conventional supply.
But annual shale gas production growth slowed from almost 7 bcf/d in the first quarter of 2015 to less than 2 bcf/d in the first quarter of 2017 (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Shale Gas Growth Has Slowed from Almost 7 bcf/d in the First Quarter of 2015 to Less Than 2 bcf/d in the First Quarter of 2017. Source: EIA Natural Gas Weekly Update and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
If shale gas production growth doubles in 2017, then supply will be flat but considerably lower than 2015 levels when over-supply crushed gas prices. Gas supply must increase well beyond what is likely this year in order for prices to fall much below current levels of about $3.25 per mmBtu.
Considerable supply potential exists. The shale gas horizontal rig count has more than doubled---from 76 to 167 rigs---since June 2016 with higher gas prices (Figure 4). How quickly can that potential be converted into supply?
Figure 4. Shale Gas Rig Count Has More Than Doubled Since June 2016 With Higher Gas Prices. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
EIA's latest production forecast suggests that it may happen very quickly. The May STEO projects gas growth of 5.6 bcf/d in 2017 which includes an additional 3.5 bcf/d between April and the end of the year (Figure 5).
Figure 5. EIA Forecast is for a 5.6 Bcf/d Gas Production Increase in 2017 with Prices Rising to $3.43 By December. Source: EIA May 2017 STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.[/caption]
Although that may be unreasonably aggressive, it is noteworthy that the overall supply balance (red and blue fill in the figure) remains in deficit for most of the year, and that spot prices continue to increase, ending the year at almost $3.50/mmBtu. Net imports (the third component of total supply in addition to shale gas and conventional gas) are forecast to average -0.3 bcf/d in 2017 compared to +1.7 bcf/d in 2016.
The Rover Pipeline was certificated for construction in mid-February and will connect gas from the Utica and Southwestern Marcellus shale plays to the Defiance Hub in northwestern Ohio (Figure 6). There is a gas surplus (~1.8 bcf/d) in Ohio so this pipeline is a gas exit route to the Dawn Hub in Ontario, and to the Midwest and Gulf Coast via interconnecting Vector, Panhandle Eastern and ANR pipelines. There, it will compete with existing supply and result in lower prices.
Figure 6. Rover Pipeline Route Connecting Utica and Southwestern Marcellus Shale Plays With the Defiance Hub. Source: Energy Transfer and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Although Rover is scheduled to reach Defiance in November, it is unlikely that any gas will move beyond there before 2018. It will not, therefore, have any effect on gas supply in 2017. Depending on how much gas ultimately is sent to Canada, it may have limited effect on U.S. supply in 2018.
What Could Go Wrong?
The consensus of experts has been consistently wrong about natural gas supply for decades. That's why LNG import terminals were built following gas shortages in the 1970s only to be shuttered after imports from Canada, fuel switching to coal and nuclear, and gas industry deregulation resulted in 15 years of stable gas supply.
By the early 2000s, import terminals were re-opened as Canadian gas production began to decline and domestic output failed to rally even with much higher gas-directed rig counts. The shale revolution ended all of that and now, those import terminals are being re-designed to export LNG. Gas export will likely prove to be fully out-of-phase with future gas supply once again.
That is why I am skeptical when experts now declare an impending gas over-supply. Gas prices remain well above $3/mmBtu after one of the warmest winters on record, and most data suggests that supply will remain tight at least through the end of 2017.
What could go wrong with that hypothesis? Weather, of course, and Morgan Stanley has astutely pointed out that 2016 rainfall in California may displace some natural gas with hydro for electric power generation. They and PointLogic note that some cooler summer forecasts might further reduce gas demand.
At the same time, EIA expects higher-than-average consumption for Summer 2017 (Figure 7) and the Browning World Climate Bulletin predicts a warmer-than-average summer with early El Niño onset.
Figure 7. EIA Forecasts Higher-Than-Average Consumption for Summer 2017. Source: EIA May 2017 STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc
Morgan Stanley supposes that associated gas from tight oil plays will be a major factor in increased gas supply. This ignores the considerable dysfunction in the pressure pumping business where frack crews commonly lag demand by at least 6 months. Rig count increases will probably not translate into production gains as quickly as many oil-price bears assume. Gas pipelines out of the Permian basin remain problematic and most gas from the Eagle Ford will go to Mexico.
Morgan Stanley's belief that significant expansion of production in the Haynesville Shale will occur is based on incorrect sub-$3.00 break-even prices. Exco--the second largest Haynesville producer--shows a maintenance spending level of about $3.50 in their 2016 10-K after writing off all proved undeveloped reserves in accordance with the SEC 5-year rule.
It also seems unlikely that losses in major gas-producing areas including Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Arkansas, Utah, Louisiana and the OCS Gulf of Mexico will be quickly offset by gains in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia especially considering frack crew availability (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Unlikely That OH, PA & WV Gains Will Offset TX, OK, WY, AR & OCS Losses in 2017. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Comparative inventories indicate that the mid-cycle price trend has moved upward from $3.00 to $3.60 (or higher) since mid-March reflecting market perception of tight supply (Figure 9). The mid-cycle price---where the trend line intersects the y-axis---represents the median price that the market deems necessary to maintain supply throughout the present price cycle. If this trend persists, it is possible that year-end gas prices will be in the $3.50 to $4.00 range.
Figure 9. Gas Mid-Cycle Price Has Shifted To $3.60/mmBtu or Higher. Black arrows show progression from higher to lower price trend and back again. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
At the same time, it is likely that prices will be substantially lower in 2018 once the Rover and other pipelines are operating and frack crews begin catching up with drilling levels. That possibility is reflected in inverted natural gas forward curves (Figure 10). Note that the price for futures contracts drops sharply in January 2017.
Figure 10. Henry Hub Forward Curves Are Inverted and Rising. Source: CME and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Although forward curves should never be viewed as a price forecast, they reflect current market expectations. Those expectations seem clear and are supported by all available data: natural gas supply should remain fairly tight through 2017 and will probably increase some time in 2018 and that will result in lower gas prices. Understand the uncertainties and plan accordingly.
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The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.
But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.
Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.
Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes.
Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.
So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.
There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.
But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊
Throughout much of its history, the United States has imported more petroleum (which includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other liquids) than it has exported. That status changed in 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) estimates that 2020 marked the first year that the United States exported more petroleum than it imported on an annual basis. However, largely because of declines in domestic crude oil production and corresponding increases in crude oil imports, EIA expects the United States to return to being a net petroleum importer on an annual basis in both 2021 and 2022.
EIA expects that increasing crude oil imports will drive the growth in net petroleum imports in 2021 and 2022 and more than offset changes in refined product net trade. EIA forecasts that net imports of crude oil will increase from its 2020 average of 2.7 million barrels per day (b/d) to 3.7 million b/d in 2021 and 4.4 million b/d in 2022.
Compared with crude oil trade, net exports of refined petroleum products did not change as much during 2020. On an annual average basis, U.S. net petroleum product exports—distillate fuel oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and motor gasoline, among others—averaged 3.2 million b/d in 2019 and 3.4 million b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that net petroleum product exports will average 3.5 million b/d in 2021 and 3.9 million b/d in 2022 as global demand for petroleum products continues to increase from its recent low point in the first half of 2020.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), February 2021
EIA expects that the United States will import more crude oil to fill the widening gap between refinery inputs of crude oil and domestic crude oil production in 2021 and 2022. U.S. crude oil production declined by an estimated 0.9 million b/d (8%) to 11.3 million b/d in 2020 because of well curtailment and a drop in drilling activity related to low crude oil prices.
EIA expects the rising price of crude oil, which started in the fourth quarter of 2020, will contribute to more U.S. crude oil production later this year. EIA forecasts monthly domestic crude oil production will reach 11.3 million b/d by the end of 2021 and 11.9 million b/d by the end of 2022. These values are increases from the most recent monthly average of 11.1 million b/d in November 2020 (based on data in EIA’s Petroleum Supply Monthly) but still lower than the previous peak of 12.9 million b/d in November 2019.
In the past week, crude oil prices have surged to levels last seen over a year ago. The global Brent benchmark hit US$63/b, while its American counterpart WTI crested over the US$60/b mark. The more optimistic in the market see these gains as a start of a commodity supercycle stemming from market forces pent-up over the long Covid-19 pandemic. The more cynical see it as a short-term spike from a perfect winter storm and constrained supply. So, which is it?
To get to that point, let’s examine how crude oil prices have evolved since the start of the year. On the consumption side, the market is vacillating between hopeful recovery and jittery reactions as Covid-19 outbreaks and vaccinations lent a start-stop rhythm to consumption trends. Yes, vaccination programmes were developed at lightning speed; and even plenty of bureaucratic hiccoughs have not hampered a steady rollout across the globe. In the UK, more than 20% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccines, with the USA not too far behind. Israel has vaccinated more than 75% of its population, and most countries should be well into their own programmes by the end of March. That acceleration of vaccinations has underpinned expectations of higher oil demand, with hopes that people will begin to drive again, fly again and buy again. But those hopes have been occasionally interrupted by new Covid-19 clusters detected and, more worryingly, new mutations of the virus.
Against this hopeful demand picture, supply has been managed. Squabbling among the OPEC+ club has prevented a more aggressive approach to managing supply than kingpin Saudi Arabia would like, but OPEC+ has still managed to hold itself together to placate the market that crude spigots will remain restrained. And while the UAE has successfully shifted OPEC+ quota plan for 2021 from quarterly adjustments to monthly, Saudi Arabia stepped into the vacuum to stamp its authority with a voluntary 1 million barrels per day cut. The market was impressed.
That combination of events over January was enough to move Brent prices from the low US$50/b level to the upper US$50/b range. However, US$60/b remained seemingly out of reach. It took a heavy dusting of snow across Texas to achieve that.
Winter weather across the northern hemisphere seemed harsher than usual this year. Europe was hit by two large continent-wide storms, while the American Northeast and Pacific Northwest were buffeted with quite a few snowstorms. Temperatures in East Asia were fairly cold too, which led to strong prices for natural gas and LNG to keep the population warm. But it was a major snowstorm that swept through the southern United States – including Texas – that had the largest effect on prices. Some areas of Texas saw temperatures as low as -18 degrees Celsius, while electricity demand surged to the point where grids failed, leaving 4.3 million people without power. A national emergency was declared, with over 150 million Americans under winter storm warning conditions.
For the global oil complex, the effects of the storm were also direct. Some of the largest oil refineries in the world were forced to shut down due to the Arctic conditions, further disrupting power and fuel supplies. All in all, over 3 mmb/d of oil processing capacity had to be idled in the wake of the storm, including Motiva’s Port Arthur, ExxonMobil’s Baytown and Marathon’s Galveston Bay refineries. And even if the sites were still running, they would have to contend to upstream disruptions: estimates suggest that crude oil production in the prolific Permian Basin dropped by over a million barrels per day due to power outages, while several key pipelines connecting Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast were also forced to shutter.
That perfect storm was enough to send crude prices above the US$60/b level. But will it last? The damage from the Texan snowstorm has already begun to abate, and even then crude prices did not seem to have the appetite to push higher than US$63/b for Brent and US$60/b for WTI.
Instead, the key development that should determine the future range for crude prices going into the second quarter of 2021 will be in early March, when the OPEC+ club meets once again to decide the level of its supply quotas for April and perhaps beyond. The conundrum facing the various factions within the club is this: at US$60/b, crude oil prices are not low enough to scare all members in voting for unanimous stricter quotas and also not high enough to rescind controlled supply. Instead, prices are at a fragile level where arguments can be made both ways. Russia is already claiming that global oil markets are ‘balanced’, while Saudi Arabia is emphasising the need for caution in public messaging ahead of the meeting. Saudi Arabia’s voluntary supply cut will also expire in March, setting up the stage for yet another fractious meeting. If a snow overrun Texans was a perfect storm to push crude prices to a 13-month high, then the upcoming OPEC+ meeting faces another perfect storm that could negate confidence. Which will it be? The answer lies on the other side of the storm.