OPEC extended oil production cuts last week and oil prices plunged.
OPEC’s goal was to keep a floor under current prices but the market expected the cartel to move prices higher through inventory reduction. OPEC was satisfied with greater revenues from higher prices compared to a year ago, but the market wanted deeper production cuts. OPEC takes the long view but the market is concerned with the near term. OPEC extended the cuts and the market reacted with lower prices.
Analysts have created the unfounded but widely accepted belief that OPEC has a strategy that involves a price war with U.S. tight oil producers and a play for greater market share. The cartel’s inaction before last November’s production cuts reflected an unwillingness to repeat the mistake of cutting 14 million barrels per day between 1980 and 1985 with little effect on world over-supply and financial damage for OPEC members.
OPEC’s members have disparate needs and interests. They are not unified behind any mission statement or over-arching principles except to maximize revenues and minimize losses. IEA calculated that recent production cuts earned the cartel an additional $75 million per day year-over-year in the first quarter of 2017. It also was a gift to competitors so the idea of making deeper cuts had no cost benefit.
Last week’s price plunge was the third time in 2017 that prices have adjusted downward toward the $45 per barrel level suggested by market fundamentals (Figure 1).
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Figure 1. Third Deflation of the OPEC Expectation Premium in 2017. Source: EIA, Bloomberg and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
At first, OPEC did nothing after oil prices collapsed in 2014. When prices fell to $26 per barrel in early 2016, OPEC floated the idea of a production freeze and that established a floor from which prices increased to more than $50 per barrel during the first half of the year (Figure 2).
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Figure 2. Oil Markets Continue Testing $55 Ceiling & $45 Floor. Source: EIA, CBOE, Bloomberg and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
In June 2016, markets lost faith in OPEC’s resolve and prices fell from $51 to below $40 per barrel. OPEC then set another price floor by announcing tentative agreement on a production cut. When prices fell below $43 in November, another price floor was created when OPEC enacted production cuts.
The world price floor moved up almost 75% from $26 to $45 per barrel in just over a year. That looks like success to me. Production cuts were extended last week to reinforce the current $45 floor without helping the competition too much—not to meet market expectations of higher prices.
Oil traders understand this better than analysts and they began unwinding their long positions in February. Net long positions on WTI futures have fallen 25% since then but most of the sell-off has been since April 2017 (Figure 3).
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Figure 3. Net Long Futures Positions Have Fallen 17% Since Mid-April 2017 and 25% Since March 2017. Source: CFTC, EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Reasons For Lower Prices
Many analysts proclaim that Brent prices will be near $65 by the end of the year. Although IEA and EIA production data suggests good OPEC compliance with the November agreement, global markets remain well supplied. OPEC shipments to its biggest customers—the U.S. and China—are more than 10% higher than a year ago. Production cuts are not reflected in well-supplied markets nor are global inventories falling much.
Market concerns are valid that U.S. tight oil output may cancel OPEC production cuts. Despite frack crew shortages and limits to pressure pumping equipment, 2017 well completion rates appear strong in the Bakken, Eagle Ford and Permian basin plays (Figure 4).
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Figure 4. Increased Tight Oil Well Completion in 2017. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
OECD comparative inventory for April was approximately 300 million barrels above the 5-year average. The price vs. comparative inventory yield curve suggests that Brent is as much as $7 per barrel over-valued at $52 per barrel (Figure 5). If recent withdrawal levels hold, it may take a year to reduce inventories to levels that support $65 Brent prices. On the other hand, EIA forecasts suggest relatively minor OECD inventory drawdowns through year-end and rising inventories in 2018.
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Figure 5. Brent is ~ $7 over-valued at $52.31. Source: EIA STEO May 2017 and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
World production surpluses have been falling for the last year but EIA expects these to start increasing as early as May (Figure 6). Surpluses may persist through the middle of 2018 before decreasing again. Its forecast is for Brent prices to remain less than $60 per barrel through the end of 2018.
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Figure 6. EIA Forecasts Production Surplus To Increase in the Second Half of 2017 Through the First Half of 2018. Source: EIA STEO May 2017 and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Recent modeling by Macquarie Research supports this view and predicts sub-$60 Brent prices through the second quarter of 2019 (Figure 7).
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Figure 7. Macquarie Forecasts Brent Prices Below $60 Through the Second Quarter of 2019. Source: Macquarie Research and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Although OPEC cuts appear to be real, Macquarie sees U.S., Russia and Brazil production growth as bearish drivers on price. Maintaining OPEC cuts beyond the end of 2017 will be difficult and recent talk of selling half of U.S. strategic reserves potentially puts an additional 300 million barrels of oil on an already over-supplied market.
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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