In Vienna yesterday, OPEC announced that it would be rolling over the landmark supply freeze that began in January 2017 by another nine months. Joining them will be the key non-OPEC members – principally Russia, but other major Central Asian producers – extending the 1.8 mmb/d cuts (1.2 mmb/d for OPEC and 600 kb/d for non-OPEC) through to March 2018. Ordinarily this would be cause for cheer. But instead, the markets reacted in dismay. Brent and WTI plunged by almost 5%, erasing all gains from the last week.
It is an overreaction, certainly, but also evident that the market was expecting a more drastic cut from OPEC to help bolster prices. The extension of the freeze is good, but had already been telegraphed weeks ago by rumblings out of Russia and Saudi Arabia. So that has already been factored into the price – one of the reasons why crude rose over the past week – and traders were looking for a little bit more good news, deeper cuts. When that did not materialise, the sell-off happened.
What’s going on? It took no rocket scientist to predict back in January that the OPEC freeze effect would be blunted by rising production elsewhere. Despite record compliance within the OPEC block – even Iran and Iraq toed the line – once the supply cuts took place, crude from elsewhere rushed to take its place. We saw crude from Alaska shipped to China for the first time, while Japan and South Korea offset Saudi Arabia’s cuts to their supply with crude from West Africa. Buoyed by price signals, American production from onshore shale deposits surged. Two weeks, the American oil rig count blasted past 700 active rigs, the highest in almost two years and is now marching towards 800. This rise in American production is estimated to have offset at least two-thirds of the lost OPEC output. And at current trends, it is estimated that some additional 900 kb/d of oil from the US will be added to global production. Nelson Martinez, Venezuela's oil minister said "In terms of the threat, we still don't know how much (U.S. shale) will be producing in the near future” after the recent OPEC talks. The Energy Minister if UAE, Suhail bin Mohammed al-Mazroui commented that he personally did not believe U.S. oil production would rise by 1 million bpd by next year. Representatives from US Shale who attended the Vienna meeting did not provide any specific guidance or projections either, keeping plans close to their chest.
So analysts were hoping that OPEC would match that with another cut. But getting OPEC to agree on additional cuts is like herding cats. The original November 2016 was landmark, and the high compliance another rare occurrence. But despite this, global inventories and supplies remain high. Part of this is artificial; in the six weeks between announcement and implementation, OPEC members pumped record volumes of crude, stockpiling them to sell during the freeze period. This is evident when you look at OPEC export statistics; they have fallen, but not nearly by as much as production. Extending the freeze may do the trick, to account for this lag. Saudi Arabia certainly seems to agree, pointing out that US crude supplies may have risen over the early period of the freeze, but had fallen for the past seven weeks, which helped convince some OPEC members of the delayed impact. The second half of the year is also a more strategic time to see the impact of the cuts, when the Middle East nations hoard crude to burn for summer power requirements and American/European drivers go out for summer, driving gasoline demand.
But still, there are issues. Libya and Nigeria were exempt for the original OPEC freeze. Their production has been rising following quelling of insurgent activity, while OPEC welcomed its 14th members, Equatorial Guinea, which replaces Indonesia that left last year. The wording of the OPEC announcement suggest that all three will not be expected to produce within the existing quotas, potentially blunting the impact further. Gone are the days when an OPEC freeze was a standalone solution.
Now is this merely a band-aid, kicking the ball further down the road to March 2018 where OPEC will once again have to ask themselves or do we need more cuts earlier? OPEC meets again in November to reconsider output its policy. Reuters reports that “while most in the group now appear to believe that shale has to be accommodated, there are still those in OPEC who think another fight is around the corner". Nigerian Oil Minister Emmanuel Kachikwu commented that “If we get to a point where we feel frustrated by a deliberate action of shale producers to just sabotage the market, OPEC will sit down again and look at what process it is we need to do”.
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Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.
Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.
Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.
Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.
But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.
Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.
Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)
|Region||Consumption (mmb/d)*||Refining Capacity (mmb/d)|
*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.
The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.
Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.
Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.
Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.
Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.
Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett