EIA now forecasts Brent crude oil spot prices to average $51 per barrel (b) in 2017 and $52/b in 2018. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices are expected to be $2/b lower than Brent prices in 2017 and 2018. Daily and monthly average prices could vary significantly from this forecast because global economic developments and geopolitical events in the coming months have the potential to push oil prices higher or lower than the current Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) price forecast.
For example, EIA's forecast for the average WTI price in October 2017 is $48/b, while the options markets indicate an expected range of WTI prices from $36/b to $60/b (at the 95% confidence interval) based on the recent prices of futures and options contracts for October 2017 delivery.
U.S. crude oil production patterns in the Lower 48 onshore basins continue to vary by region, and quickly evolving trends in this sector can affect both current prices and expectations for future prices. However, lasting price movements could be limited over the next year because some U.S. tight oil producers have used financial instruments to guarantee a price above $50/b for their expected production.
Crude oil prices reached their lowest year-to-date levels in late June. Prices fell after EIA reported builds in total U.S. crude oil and petroleum products inventories that were above the five-year average during the weeks ending June 2 and June 9. The build in total U.S. petroleum inventories for the week ending June 2 was the largest for any week since 2008. Rising Libyan and Nigerian production in June also put downward pressure on prices.
EIA forecasts total U.S. crude oil production to average 9.3 million b/d in 2017, up 0.5 million b/d from 2016. In 2018, crude oil production is forecast to rise to an average of 9.9 million b/d. If achieved, 2018 production would be the highest annual average on record, surpassing the previous record of 9.6 million b/d set in 1970. The 2018 forecast is 0.1 million b/d lower than in last month’s STEO because of lower forecast crude oil prices in late 2017 and in 2018.
Forecast Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) crude oil production is expected to fall by 0.2 million b/d in 2017, as OPEC members have limited production based on their November 2016 agreement. In May 2017, this agreement was extended through the first quarter of 2018. Uncertainty remains regarding the duration of and adherence to the current OPEC production cuts, which could influence prices in either direction. EIA’s forecast assumes a further extension of the agreement in 2018 but with lesser compliance. Without a further extension of the OPEC agreement, EIA would expect larger inventory builds and lower prices in 2018 than are included in this forecast.
Global liquids consumption growth is expected to be 1.5 million b/d in 2017 and 1.6 million b/d in 2018. In both years, most of this growth (about 1.2 million b/d annually) comes from countries outside of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with China and India expected to be the largest contributors to non-OECD liquid fuels consumption growth. Global oil inventories are forecast to be relatively unchanged in the second half of 2017 before returning to average inventory builds of 0.2 million b/d in 2018.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, July 2017
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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