You could have been away for a summer break any time over the past three weeks and come back to find benchmark crude prices just where you left them. Low price volatility can be good for the consumer in general, but not if it is the calm before the storm. OPEC, despite its epic efforts to actively manage the oil market into equilibrium after three years of oversupply and growing inventories, may have been forced into a stalemate. While Brent is clinging on to the lower end of OPEC’s desired $50-60/barrel range, the top end seems to be slipping out of reach, even as the risk of a slide towards $40 grows. US production growth does not show any signs of slowing down, the latest EIA data shows, the deceleration in new rig deployments notwithstanding. Together with the supply growth from Libya and Nigeria, it is wiping out 94% of the pledged OPEC/non-OPEC cuts.
Crude has been stuck in a tug of war between equally compelling bullish and bearish signals for the past few weeks. This week’s reports showing another big drawdown in US crude inventories, neatly counterbalanced by a smart jump in the country’s crude production, further locked prices in a tight range, leaving Brent hovering around $50-51/barrel and WTI around $47-48/barrel.
What should be worrying about this seeming impasse for OPEC is that there is also a clear downside bias to crude, as a continued decline in US crude stocks at the feverish pace seen since April this year looks unlikely beyond the summer peak demand season, while expectations of a persistent global supply glut have taken a firm hold.
It is hard to fathom the possibility of the market rebalancing while almost 94% of the 1.72 million b/d of pledged OPEC/non-OPEC production cuts are being wiped out by increases from the US, Libya and Nigeria. And the higher end of OPEC’s target range of $50-60 has begun to look remote.
OPEC has been pushed into a corner and could well remain there for as long as it opts to play the waiting game — believing that it is only a matter of time before OECD
inventories drop down to their five-year average level. OECD oil stocks, aggregate of crude and refined products, declined by an average of 200,000 b/d in the second quarter, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest estimates. At this rate, the surplus at the end of June to the current five year average — pegged at 219 million barrels by the IEA— would take three years to mop up, not accounting for changes in the moving five-year average. That is a long time in the oil market.
Meanwhile, the short-term view on oil consumption growth helping erode excess inventories has also soured, as we approach the end of the summer holiday travel-induced bump in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel demand across the globe. A second successive weekly build in US gasoline stockpiles, even if a modest one, and a 275,000 b/d or 2.8% dive in gasoline consumption in the week to August 11 drove home that realisation, capping crude’s gains from the massive 8.95 million-barrel draw in the country’s crude stocks.
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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