Aina Jais

MEng Petroleum Engineering Graduate
Last Updated: August 9, 2017
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Career Development
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Several weeks ago, a foundation student from my university asked me if choosing Petroleum Engineering course will be a right choice, and what is it exactly. I decided then, to create an article to explain in basic terms, of what this industry is about. But I myself is a continuing student and I have yet to be able to assist future petroleum-related students. This exactly shows how little I know about my own industry and I do not want others to feel the exact same way as I do, despite I believe everyone has a gist of it already. 


Miraculously, while attending NrgEdge's 1st Batch of Ambassador Program Boot Camp, the presence of Siti Rasidah, a former Head of Change Management, Group HRM Senior Vice President’s Office, PETRONAS has assisted attendees on having a clear view on the different streams of the industry and what career opportunities they behold.


Allow me to explain in a very simple term on these three streams, based on my current understanding and not in complex terms which us 1st and 2nd years would understand. I welcome opinions and changes in case I get it wrong.

Upstream

- To explore an area that might have crude oil, and ways to producing it.

Midstream

- To transport produced crude oil to be refined.

Downstream

- To refine crude oil and be of use to us Earthlings (consumers).


If you are a level above "knowing nothing", upstream is an exploration, development and production activity on a potential hydrocarbon accumulation in a reservoir which the data is gained by geoscientists. Subjects related in upstream would be reservoir engineering, drilling engineering, formation evaluation (petrophysics) geoscience and production technology; and this area is the main focus of Petroleum Engineers.


Meanwhile downstream is a focus for Chemical Engineers where they refine crude oil to make into a range of products that we unknowingly use daily. As an instance, car fuel (obviously everyone should know this by now), lubricants, roads, kerosene, shockingly (at least, for me) our stationery like liquid paper is also a petroleum product. All these are refined by crude distillation, and some are added with additives to be able to be produced by other techniques like separation, blending, filling and some others you can learn throughout the course.


In between those streams, exist a midstream, which is transporting/shipping the crude oil from the choke (end point of upstream job) to the plant (beginning of downstream job) and it is not just about "moving" the oil. It is about designing pipes and ships that can withstand inner and outer flow of the fluids thus it requires strong Mechanical Engineering knowledge such as strengths and dynamics, making it a focus for Mechanical Engineers.


In my honest opinion, in whichever field of engineering you graduate with, you are able to enter the Oil and Gas and Energy industry, and even if you prefer one stream over the other, you can go through training courses to adapt to another stream in compliance to your career opportunities.


For another advanced level, I shall not explain the following structure as this is a knowledge that we students should require on the 2nd to 3rd year of study. This structure is provided by the speaker during the program and it is arranged in order, for the respective streams.


uploads1502256966773-Capture.PNG


In terms of in the working industry, it is not limited to only these 3 engineering fields. As read above, it needs different division of knowledge to be able to complete a project of a site, ranging from lawyers for leasing, scientists for researching, IT programmers for conducting software, chefs and maids for offshore, marketing and sales of products, actuarists to calculate risk and planning and the most important one, a Human Resource to handle the employees. All these can be divided into 2 main parts; namely technical and non-technical, and to name a few:


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"And the list goes on..." recapped by Siti.

This industry is not limited to one and only field. It is an industry of wide range of fields that needs teamwork in making anything possible.


[I hope this article be of help to those who needs things to be clarified before they choose their journey into their career, and big credits to Siti Rasidah and Anas Asalem for sharing this knowledge for the ambassadors and for us to pass it on to others.]

Upstream Midstream Downstream Knowledge Basic Introduction Oil and Gas Industry
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High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

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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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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