The United States remained the world's top producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons in 2016 for the fifth straight year despite production declines for both petroleum and natural gas relative to their 2015 levels. The United States has been the world's top producer of natural gas since 2009, when U.S. natural gas production surpassed that of Russia, and it has been the world's top producer of petroleum hydrocarbons since 2013, when its production exceeded Saudi Arabia’s.
For the United States and Russia, total petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbon production in energy content terms is almost evenly split between petroleum and natural gas, while Saudi Arabia's production heavily favors petroleum. Total petroleum production is made up of several different types of liquid fuels, including crude oil and lease condensate, tight oil, extra-heavy oil, and bitumen. In addition, various processes produce natural gas plant liquids (NGPL), biofuels, and refinery processing gain, among other liquid fuels.
In the United States, crude oil and lease condensate accounted for roughly 60% of total petroleum hydrocarbon production in 2016. In Saudi Arabia and Russia, this share is much greater, as those countries produce lesser amounts of natural gas plant liquids, and they also have much smaller volumes of refinery gain and biofuels production. U.S. petroleum production fell by 300,000 barrels per day in 2016, as a result of relatively low oil prices.
With rapid growth in natural gas production through 2015 and a very mild 2015–2016 winter that reduced demand for natural gas as a heating fuel, average U.S. natural gas prices in 2016 were at their lowest level since 1999. Despite a modest recovery in prices later in the year, natural gas production decreased by 2.3 billion cubic feet per day in 2016.
Russian hydrocarbon production has been rising as capital expenditure spending on exploration and production increased. Russia also has favorable tax regimes and exchange rates (Russian company expenditures are in Russian Rubles, but oil sales are in U.S. Dollars) that resulted in record levels of Russian petroleum production in the second half of 2016. Russian natural gas production also rose in 2016, in part to meet growth in European natural gas demand. In 2016, natural gas demand increased by an estimated 6% in European countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In contrast to past actions to raise or lower oil production levels to balance global oil markets, Saudi Arabia did not reduce its petroleum production between late 2014 and 2016 in an effort to defend its market share, even as prices remained low and world oil inventories continued to grow. In 2016, Saudi Arabia's total petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbon production rose by 3%.
In EIA’s June Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), U.S. petroleum and other liquid fuels production is expected to increase, reaching 15.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2017 and 16.7 million b/d in 2018, up from 14.8 million b/d in 2016.
The June STEO forecasts Russian liquid fuels production to average 11.18 million b/d over 2017 and 2018, close to the 2016 production of 11.24 million b/d. The STEO provides a production forecast for members of OPEC as a whole rather than for individual OPEC countries. OPEC liquid fuels production, which was 39.0 million b/d in 2017, is forecast to be 39.2 million b/d in 2017 and 39.9 million b/d in 2018. This outlook takes into account recent agreements among OPEC member countries, as well as pledges by key non-OPEC producers, including Russia, to restrain production. In November 2016, OPEC had agreed to production cuts that would last through the first half of 2017. At their May 25 meeting, OPEC agreed to extend these cuts through March 2018.
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Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.
A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.
Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.
Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.
And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.
That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.
Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.
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