Oil prices will be lower for longer—that is the conventional wisdom. Data suggests, however, that oil supplies are tightening and that higher prices are likely in the relatively near-future.
Refined Product Demand and Crude Oil Exports
U.S. crude oil plus products comparative inventories have fallen 120 mmb (million barrels) in 26 of the last 32 weeks (Figure 1). Strong domestic demand for refined products and increased crude oil exports are the main reasons. That translates into lower net imports of both crude oil and petroleum products to the United States. The year-to-date average of U.S. product net imports is down 0.5 mmb/day from 2016. That’s 3.5 mmb/week which is about the average weekly storage withdrawal since mid-February.
Figure 1. Approximately 3.3 mmb/week (470 kb/d) Decrease in Net Petroleum Product Imports Account for Most Inventory Reductions in 2017. Comparative Inventories Have Fallen 126 mmb Since Mid-February. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
U.S. crude oil exports have increased reaching a record 1.9 mmb/d during the week ending September 29 (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Record Crude Exports of 1.9 mmb/d Week Ending Sept. 29 2017. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Increased exports have been part of how producers cope with limited U.S. refining capacity for the ultra-light oil from tight oil plays. Recent increases in exports levels, however, are because of higher international oil prices compared with domestic prices.
Brent has traded at a premium to WTI since U.S. tight oil became a factor in global supply in late 2010. That was largely because of limited take-away and refining capacity for the new U.S. supply in the early days of tight oil production. The Brent-WTI “spread” reached $28 per barrel in September 2011 but decreased when infrastructure caught up with supply. It averaged about $1.68 in the first half of 2017.
In June, the spread began increasing and is currently almost $7 per barrel (Figure 3). Some of this is a “fear premium” because of tensions in the Middle East—the GCC boycott of Qatar and the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum. Some of it is also a buildup of inventories at the Cushing, Oklahoma storage facility and WTI pricing point.
Figure 3. Brent Premium to WTI Has Increased More Than $5/barrel From 1H Average. Middle East Fear Premium plus Cushing Inventory Levels are the Cause. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Inventory increases at Cushing may be partly explained by refinery and pipeline outages following recent hurricanes but the build ups actually began in July a month before Hurricane Harvey. The causes are not entirely clear but rising inventories at Cushing especially when its storage exceeds 80% is generally a negative factor for WTI prices.
In addition to crude oil, exports of distillate, liquefied petroleum gases, and liquefied refinery gases have also increased in 2017.
Comparative Inventories and The Yield Curve
Falling U.S. comparative inventories (C.I.) in 2017 is a trend and not an anomaly. Figure 4 shows the 120 mmb decrease in C.I. since mid-February and the associated “yield curve” (Bodell, 2009) that correlates inventory with WTI price.
Figure 4. U.S. Crude + Product Comparative Inventory Has Fallen 120 mmb Since Mid-February–Yield Curve Suggests Higher Oil Prices Sooner Than Later. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
The magnitude of the inventory drawdown cannot be over-stated. The fact that it is driven by increasing demand suggests that that U.S. supply is moving steadily toward balance.
OECD comparative inventory (less the U.S.) has fallen 99 mmb since July 2016 (Figure 5). Although the data frequency is lower (monthly vs. weekly) and less systematic than U.S. inventory data, the reduction in C.I. is the main point.
Figure 5. OECD (minus U.S.) Comparative Inventory Has Fallen 99 mmb Since July 2016. Source: EIA, IEA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
The relative lack of price increase with falling C.I. for both the U.S. and OECD is because the yield curve was flat for much of the reduction because of the the magnitude of storage volume. Now, enough inventory has been drawn down that the curvature of the trend is increasing. Greater price response with incremental reduction in C.I. is likely as volumes approach the 5-year average.
Misplaced Concern About Shale Supply
Fears about burgeoning U.S. supply from shale reservoirs has been a consistent drag on market sentiment about price for at least a year. This has been based more on rig count than real evidence. Continental Resources chairman Harold Hamm has loudly blamed overly optimistic EIA supply forecasts for low U.S. oil prices. This is misplaced and typical of the hyperbole regularly heard from shale company executives.
The fact is that U.S. output has been flat since early 2017 and the EIA has adjusted its forecasts as data replaces sampling algorithms in their accounting (Figure 6).
Figure 6. U.S. Output Has Been Flat in 2017. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
The reason is that despite increased drilling, frack crews and equipment are not sufficient to meet demand for well completions. Pressure pumping equipment was not maintained and parts were cannibalized after the oil price collapse, and crews were laid off. It may take another year of strong demand to rebuild this capacity.
The result is that far more tight oil wells are being drilled than completed and I expect that this pattern will continue (Figure 7).
Figure 7. More Permian Wells Have Been Drilled Than Completed in 2016 and 2017. The Number of DUCs (Drilled Uncompleted Wells) is Increasing. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Fears that DUCs (drilled uncompleted wells) will flood the market with supply are unrealistic. When these wells are completed, it will be gradual and the natural ~30% annual decline in legacy shale production will be difficult to overcome. Moreover, production from the Eagle Ford and Bakken plays is declining. Only Permian production is increasing and on balance, it is unlikely that net shale production will increase much unless production trends outside the Permian basin somehow reverse.
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, January 2019
EIA’s January Short-Term Energy Outlook forecasts that world benchmark Brent crude oil will average $61 per barrel (b) in 2019 and $65/b in 2020, an increase from the end of 2018, but overall it will remain lower than the 2018 average of $71/b. U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices were $8/b lower than Brent prices in December 2018, and EIA expects this difference to narrow to $4/b in the fourth quarter of 2019 and throughout 2020.
EIA expects U.S. regular retail gasoline prices to follow changes to the cost of crude oil, dipping from an average of $2.73/gallon in 2018 to $2.47/gallon in 2019, before rising to $2.62/gallon in 2020. Because each barrel of crude oil holds 42 gallons, a $1-per-barrel change in the price of crude oil generally translates to about a 2.4-cent-per-gallon change in the price of petroleum products such as gasoline, all else being equal.
EIA estimates that global petroleum and other liquid fuels inventories grew by an average rate of 0.4 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018 and by an estimated 1.0 million b/d in the fourth quarter of 2018. EIA expects growth in liquid fuels production in the United States and in other countries not part of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will contribute to global oil inventory growth rates of 0.2 million b/d in 2019 and 0.4 million b/d in 2020.
Although EIA forecasts that oil prices will remain lower than during most of 2018, the forecast includes some increase in prices from December 2018 levels in early 2019 in order to keep up with demand growth and support the increased need for global oil inventories to maintain five-year average levels of demand cover. EIA expects crude oil prices to continue to increase in late 2019 and early 2020 because of an increase in refinery demand for light-sweet crude oil, which is the result of regulations from the International Maritime Organization that will limit the sulfur content in marine fuels used by ocean-going vessels.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, January 2019
EIA expects global oil production growth in 2019 to be led by countries that are not part of OPEC, particularly the United States. EIA expects non-OPEC producers will increase oil supply by 2.4 million b/d in 2019 which will offset forecast supply declines from OPEC members, resulting in an average of 1.4 million b/d in total global supply growth in 2019.
In 2020, EIA expects oil production to increase by 1.7 million b/d because of production growth in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Russia, while overall OPEC crude oil production is expected to remain flat. EIA forecasts global oil demand to grow by 1.5 million b/d in 2019 and in 2020. In both 2019 and 2020, China is the leading contributor to global oil demand growth.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 7 January 2019 – Brent: US$57/b; WTI: US$49/b
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