World production of crude and liquids has been revised slightly downward from EIA’s May Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) for both 2017 and 2018. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met on May 25, 2017, and announced an extension to production cuts that were originally set to end this month. The agreed-upon OPEC crude oil production target remains at 32.5 million barrels per day (b/d) through the end of the first quarter of 2018. EIA now forecasts OPEC members’ crude oil production to average 32.3 million b/d in 2017 and 32.8 million b/d in 2018, about 0.2 million b/d and 0.4 million b/d, respectively, lower than previously forecast. However, continuing production growth in many non-OPEC countries is expected to moderate the pace of global liquid fuels inventory draws in 2017 and lead to a small inventory build in 2018.
EIA now forecasts OPEC crude oil and other liquids production to average 39.6 million b/d from the third quarter of 2017 through the first quarter of 2018 (340,000 b/d lower than previously forecast). Non-OPEC production averages 59.6 million b/d over this period, up from 58.3 million b/d over the same period a year earlier. Considering both OPEC and non-OPEC production forecasts and the outlook for demand growth, EIA now expects an average global inventory draw of 100,000 b/d through the first quarter of 2018. The largest draws are expected in the third quarter of 2017, when global crude oil and other liquids inventories are forecast to fall by an average of 430,000 b/d
Inventory draws of this magnitude suggest the possibility of some upward pressure on crude oil prices over the coming months. The third quarter 2017 Brent spot price forecast is $54/b in EIA’s June STEO, up from $52/b in the May STEO. However, because U.S. tight oil production is relatively responsive to changes in oil prices, and given an estimated six-month lag between a change in oil prices and realized production, higher crude oil prices in mid-2017 have the potential to raise U.S. supply in 2018.
The largest global inventory increase in the forecast occurs in the second quarter of 2018, when Brazilian and OPEC production are expected to realize quarterly increases of 570,000 b/d and 220,000 b/d, respectively. The expectation of supply growth in 2018 could contribute to oil price weakness in late 2017 and early 2018; the June STEO’s Brent spot price forecast for the first quarter of 2018 is $52/b, $3/b lower than in the previous forecast. The current forecast assumes OPEC cuts will be extended beyond March 2018, but that non-compliance, which begins to grow late in 2017, increases somewhat in the second half of 2018. Although this forecast reflects the assumption of only partial OPEC compliance with a second production-cut extension in 2018, any extension provides some support for crude oil prices, even if only temporarily, and partially offsets downward price pressure from growing inventories.
The June STEO forecasts a 2017 average spot price for Brent crude oil of $53/b, unchanged from the previous STEO, along with a $56/b price forecast for 2018, $1/b lower than expected last month. WTI prices are forecast to average $2/b less than Brent in both 2017 and 2018 (Figure 2). As always, all oil price forecasts are subject to considerable uncertainty. For example, NYMEX contract values for September 2017 delivery that traded during the five-day period ending June 1 suggest that a range of $39/b to $64/b encompasses the market expectation for WTI prices in September 2017 at the 95% confidence level; also, as shown in the figure, the range encompassing current market expectations at this confidence level widens for longer time horizons.
U.S. crude oil production increases through the forecast, averaging 9.3 million b/d in 2017 and 10.0 million b/d in 2018. The 2018 forecast exceeds the previous record production level of 9.6 million b/d set in 1970. Growth in U.S. production of crude oil and hydrocarbon gas liquids has been the largest contributor to the 820,000 b/d of non-OPEC liquids supply growth from January through May 2017. Continued increases in drilling activity in U.S. shale basins, particularly in Texas, support production increases throughout the forecast. The largest expansion for U.S. production occurs in the fourth quarter of 2017, which averages a quarter-over-quarter rise of 330,000 b/d.
U.S. average regular gasoline price increases, diesel retail price drops
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price rose slightly from the previous week, remaining virtually unchanged at $2.41 per gallon on May 29, up three cents from the same time last year. The Midwest and Gulf Coast prices each rose two cents to $2.32 per gallon and $2.17 per gallon, respectively, while the Rocky Mountain and East Coast prices each increased one cent to $2.43 per gallon per gallon and $2.35 per gallon, respectively. The West Coast price dropped two cents to $2.94 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell one cent to $2.56 per gallon on May 29, 16 cents higher than a year ago. The West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, and Gulf Coast prices each dropped one cent to $2.84 per gallon, $2.60 per gallon, $2.51 per gallon, and $2.42 per gallon, respectively, while the Rocky Mountain price increased less than a penny, remaining at $2.66 per gallon.
Propane inventories gain
U.S. propane stocks increased by 3.3 million barrels last week to 50.4 million barrels as of June 2, 2017, 26.9 million barrels (34.8%) lower than a year ago. Gulf Coast, Midwest, Rocky Mountain/West Coast, and East Coast inventories increased by 2.3 million barrels, 0.5 million barrels, 0.3 million barrels, and 0.1 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 5.5% of total propane inventories.
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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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