In about three weeks, a mammoth ship will arrive at the Browse Basin, some 475km off the coast of Broome in Western Australia. It will anchor there to 16 mooring chains, floating above the Prelude and Concerto fields, processing natural gas into valuable LNG, then transferring it to gas carriers that will ship it to the rest of the world. This is Shell’s Prelude, the largest floating LNG (FLNG) facility in the world, and its completion marks a new era in the LNG world.
As it departed from the Samsung Heavy Industries shipyard in Geoje, South Korea on a month-long journey, the vital statistics of the Prelude are this – 488m long, 74m wide, using 260,000 tons of steel. It has the capacity of some 3.6 mtpa of LNG, 1.2 mtpa of condensate and 400 ktpa of LPG, rivalling some of the largest onshore plants. Commissioned in 2011 during the ascendance of LNG, repeated delays saw completion postponed since its 2012 construction start and also saw costs spiral. The initial estimate of cost was US$10.8-12.6 billion back in 2012; Shell (with partners Inpex, Kogas and CPC) in 2014 admitted the costs were rising, putting the price at US$3.5 billion per mtpa capacity – which means the upper range of costs are US$17.85 billion. With production beginning in 2018, Prelude starts life in a world very different from when it was first conceived. Back then, LNG prices were strong as demand outstripped supply. But now supply has outpaced demand, and prices have fallen in response. Spot LNG prices in Asia are now hovering at about US$5/mmbTu, compared to US$15/mmBtu back in 2012. Those aren’t good numbers; and with the wave of LNG coming out of Australia, Canada and the US growing, those prices could fall even further.
But Prelude is a long game. All FLNG vessels are. Designed to be gigantic industrial complexes on ships, their strength is versatility – they can sail to where the gas is. Shell certainly has the financial muscle to weather some rocky times of low LNG prices, and its acquisition of the BG Group gives it a larger portfolio to pour LNG into, and clients to sell to. The process of creating this vast new LNG portfolio, however, piled debt onto Shell’s financials books – which explains why the supermajor has been furiously cutting debt and selling assets over the past 18 months. Prelude is a calculated gamble, and one that Shell took at a very high buy-in.
Others also remain convinced that FLNG is the future. While Qatar seems happy with expanding its onshore Ras Laffan facilities and landed LNG plants spring up along the North American Pacific Coast, Malaysia’s Petronas believes in a life at sea. The first ever operational FLNG facility is actually a Petronas facility – the PFLNG Satu that delivered its first cargo from the Kanowit field off Bintulu in Malaysia in April. With a capacity of 1.2 mtpa of LNG, it is certainly smaller, but that keeps the stakes lower, though it too saw cost overruns and delays, with a price tag of some US$10 billion. And soon, it will have a brother – PFLNG Dua – which is scheduled to be completed in 2020 and join Satu in the South China Sea.
Elsewhere, FLNG projects are still far and few between. The mammoth upfront cost does not always offset potential versatility, particularly since LNG prices waned. GDF Suez and Santos’ Bonaparte FLNG project, for example, was shelved in favour of a more traditional pipeline approach. But there is still interest. Keppel Offshore & Marine will soon be delivering the first FLNG conversion (from an LNG carrier) to Golar LNG, who will put the Hilli Episeyo to service offshore Cameroon. And China seems to believe in the strength of numbers – it will be investing up to US$7 billion in FLNG projects on both coasts of Africa to secure LNG supplies for what it projects will be a boom in Chinese natural gas demand. With multiple projects, that can spread the cost – and also capitalise when, or if, LNG prices begin to recover.
The world will need more energy in the future and that is certain. It requires cleaner, reliable and accessible fuel options, and LNG does fit that bill in a long way. FLNG operators, especially Shell in this instance will be hoping the demand for LNG will keep rising at a pace that will make their investment (or gamble) eventually pay off.
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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