Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of PetroEdge
Last Updated: October 1, 2017
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Business Trends

Non-binding it may have been, but the people of three Kurdish governorates and the city of Kirkuk have voted overwhelmingly to seek independence from Iraq. The movement for this has been building up over the years – Saddam Hussein’s administration kept it quashed but the subsequent political landscape in Iraq has encouraged it. The referendum, and its results, was quickly condemned by the central Iraqi government, as well as Kurdistan’s neighbours of Turkey and Iran.

The central Iraq government considers Kurdistan a renegade province, asserting that it holds sovereignty over the land and – more importantly – its oil riches. Yet, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) still calls the shots, and despite central protests, sells its own oil that powers its own economy. It is a situation analogous to China and Taiwan or Spain and Barcelona. The original proposition for the referendum was for the three major Kurdish regions. This had been given a lukewarm response by Iraq’s central government, but when it was expanded to include Kirkuk – where oil was first discovered in Iraq in 1927 – hackles were raised and retaliation was threatened.

At Iraq’s requests, Iran closed its airspace surrounding the Kurdish regions, preventing flights, while also conducting military exercises at the border in a show of force.  Turkey condemned the referendum in no uncertain terms, going as far as threatening military intervention. The issue is optics. Turkey is dealing with its own restive Kurdish minority population, as is Iran, and the worry is that the referendum would spur Turkish and Iranian Kurds to band together to force an independent Kurdistan carved out of bits of Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

It is Turkey that the KRG should worry about. Even though the vote was declared as non-binding – merely an indication of the people’s desire of independence – Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the vote was ‘laying the ground for conflict.’ This is crucial because Turkey is the only conduit for Kurdish crude oil to reach the wider market, shipped via pipeline to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Kurdish oil could pass through Iraqi ports, but because the Iraqi central government considers all oil produced within its borders under the authority of state crude marketing agency SOMO, the KRG would receive no revenue from this. And now Turkey is threatening to close this sole valve, which would leave the landlocked KRG with much oil and no place to sell it. And the KRG has a lot of oil. The region produced some 550,000 b/d of oil last year, and looks set to boost output to 600,000 b/d, putting it on par with OPEC members Qatar and Ecuador. The entire region itself is estimated to hold some 45 billion barrels of crude reserves, which is more than Nigeria. This is the root of the conflict. The region is rich – very rich – in oil. And the Iraqi government will not let it go without a fight.

Worst still for the KRG is that Turkey is now leaning to treating all oil originating from Iraq as under Iraqi central control through SOMO. The current pipeline leading to Ceyhan is controlled by the Kurds and piggybacked upon by the federal North Oil Company; Turkey’s new policy would mean that revenue from all that oil will go to Iraq, not split between the KRG and Iran as it now is. It may not lead to that. Most signs are pointing to this being political bluster and grandstanding to indicate disapproval. Oil continues to flow through the Turkish pipeline without any interruption, and looks set to do so for a while. The KRG has recently signed plans with Russia’s Rosneft to build and expand natural gas pipelines in Kurdistan, while Chevron drilled its first exploration well in the Sarta block in Iraqi Kurdistan in two years.

What the referendum has achieved, is to draw the lines in the battleground for Kurdistan. These lines will not be crossed. They will form the basis of negotiation between the KRG and the Iraqi government on how best to move forward with their relationship. The KRG cannot afford to make new enemies; their ‘friends’ in Turkey and Iran are problems enough. But what they have is oil. And that is a very good bargaining chip in their quest for independence.

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In 2018, the United States consumed more energy than ever before

U.S. total energy consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Primary energy consumption in the United States reached a record high of 101.3 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2018, up 4% from 2017 and 0.3% above the previous record set in 2007. The increase in 2018 was the largest increase in energy consumption, in both absolute and percentage terms, since 2010.

Consumption of fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and coal—grew by 4% in 2018 and accounted for 80% of U.S. total energy consumption. Natural gas consumption reached a record high, rising by 10% from 2017. This increase in natural gas, along with relatively smaller increases in the consumption of petroleum fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear electric power, more than offset a 4% decline in coal consumption.

U.S. total energy consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Petroleum consumption in the United States increased to 20.5 million barrels per day (b/d), or 37 quadrillion Btu in 2018, up nearly 500,000 b/d from 2017 and the highest level since 2007. Growth was driven primarily by increased use in the industrial sector, which grew by about 200,000 b/d in 2018. The transportation sector grew by about 140,000 b/d in 2018 as a result of increased demand for fuels such as petroleum diesel and jet fuel.

Natural gas consumption in the United States reached a record high 83.1 billion cubic feet/day (Bcf/d), the equivalent of 31 quadrillion Btu, in 2018. Natural gas use rose across all sectors in 2018, primarily driven by weather-related factors that increased demand for space heating during the winter and for air conditioning during the summer. As more natural gas-fired power plants came online and existing natural gas-fired power plants were used more often, natural gas consumption in the electric power sector increased 15% from 2017 levels to 29.1 Bcf/d. Natural gas consumption also grew in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors in 2018, increasing 13%, 10%, and 4% compared with 2017 levels, respectively.

Coal consumption in the United States fell to 688 million short tons (13 quadrillion Btu) in 2018, the fifth consecutive year of decline. Almost all of the reduction came from the electric power sector, which fell 4% from 2017 levels. Coal-fired power plants continued to be displaced by newer, more efficient natural gas and renewable power generation sources. In 2018, 12.9 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity were retired, while 14.6 GW of net natural gas-fired capacity were added.

U.S. fossil fuel energy consumption by sector

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Renewable energy consumption in the United States reached a record high 11.5 quadrillion Btu in 2018, rising 3% from 2017, largely driven by the addition of new wind and solar power plants. Wind electricity consumption increased by 8% while solar consumption rose 22%. Biomass consumption, primarily in the form of transportation fuels such as fuel ethanol and biodiesel, accounted for 45% of all renewable consumption in 2018, up 1% from 2017 levels. Increases in wind, solar, and biomass consumption were partially offset by a 3% decrease in hydroelectricity consumption.

U.S. energy consumption of selected fuels

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Nuclear consumption in the United States increased less than 1% compared with 2017 levels but still set a record for electricity generation in 2018. The number of total operable nuclear generating units decreased to 98 in September 2018 when the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey was retired. Annual average nuclear capacity factors, which reflect the use of power plants, were slightly higher at 92.6% in 2018 compared with 92.2% in 2017.

More information about total energy consumption, production, trade, and emissions is available in EIA’s Monthly Energy Review.

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April, 17 2019
A New Frontier for LNG Pricing and Contracts

How’s this for a first? As the world’s demand for LNG continues to grow, the world’s largest LNG supplier (Shell) has inked an innovative new deal with one of the world’s largest LNG buyers (Tokyo Gas), including a coal pricing formula link for the first time in a large-scale LNG contract. It’s a notable change in an industry that has long depended on pricing gas off crude, but could this be a sign of new things to come?

Both parties have named the deal an ‘innovative solution’, with Tokyo Gas hailing it as a ‘further diversification of price indexation’ and Shell calling it a ‘tailored solutions including flexible contract terms under a variety of pricing indices.’ Beneath the rhetoric, the actual nuts and bolts is slightly more mundane. The pricing formula link to coal indexation will only be used for part of the supply, with the remainder priced off the conventional oil & gas-linked indexation ie. Brent and Henry Hub pricing. This makes sense, since Tokyo Gas will be sourcing LNG from Shell’s global portfolio – which includes upcoming projects in Canada and the US Gulf Coast. Neither party provided the split of volumes under each pricing method, meaning that the coal-linked portion could be small, acting as a hedge.

However, it is likely that the push for this came from Tokyo Gas. As one of the world’s largest LNG buyers, Tokyo Gas has been at the forefront of redefining the strict traditions of LNG contracts. Reading between the lines, this deal most likely does not include any destination restriction clauses, a change that Tokyo Gas has been particularly pushing for. With the trajectory for Brent crude prices uncertain – owing to a difficult-to-predict balance between OPEC+ and US shale – creating a third link in the pricing formula might be a good move. Particularly since in Japan, LNG faces off directly with coal in power generation. With the general retreat from nuclear power in the country, the coal-LNG battle will intensify.

What does this mean for the rest of the industry? Could coal-linked contracts become the norm? The industry has been discussing new innovations in LNG contracts at the recent LNG2019 conference in Shanghai, while the influx of new American LNG players hungry to seal deals has unleashed a new sense of flexibility. But will there be takers?

I am not a pricing expert but the answer is maybe. While Tokyo Gas predominantly uses natural gas as its power generation fuel (hence the name), it is competing with other players using cheaper coal-based generation. So in Japan, LNG and coal are direct competitors. This is also true in South Korea and much of Southeast Asia. In the two rising Asian LNG powerhouses, however, the situation is different. In China – on track to become the world’s largest LNG buyer in the next two decades – LNG is rarely used in power generation, consumed instead by residential heating. In India – where LNG imports are also rising sharply – LNG is primarily aimed at petrochemicals and fertiliser. LNG based power generation in China and India could see a surge, of course, but that will take plenty of infrastructure, and time, to build. It is far more likely that their contracts will be based off existing LNG or natural gas benchmarks, several of which are being developed in Asia alone.

If it takes off  the coal-link LNG formula is likely to remain a Asian-based development. But with the huge volumes demanded by countries in this region, that’s still a very big niche. Enough perhaps for the innovation to slowly gain traction elsewhere, next stop -  Europe?

The Shell-Tokyo Gas Deal:

Contract – April 2020-March 2030 (10 Years)

Volume – 500,000 metric tons per year

Source – Shell global portfolio

Pricing – Formula based on coal and oil & gas-linked indexes

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