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 (STEO)
In its January 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that annual U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d in 2021, down 0.2 million b/d from 2020 as result of a decline in drilling activity related to low oil prices. A production decline in 2021 would mark the second consecutive year of production declines. Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic led to supply and demand disruptions. EIA expects crude oil production to increase in 2022 by 0.4 million b/d because of increased drilling as prices remain at or near $50 per barrel (b).
The United States set annual natural gas production records in 2018 and 2019, largely because of increased drilling in shale and tight oil formations. The increase in production led to higher volumes of natural gas in storage and a decrease in natural gas prices. In 2020, marketed natural gas production fell by 2% from 2019 levels amid responses to COVID-19. EIA estimates that annual U.S. marketed natural gas production will decline another 2% to average 95.9 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2021. The fall in production will reverse in 2022, when EIA estimates that natural gas production will rise by 2% to 97.6 Bcf/d.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
EIA’s forecast for crude oil production is separated into three regions: the Lower 48 states excluding the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) (81% of 2019 crude oil production), the GOM (15%), and Alaska (4%). EIA expects crude oil production in the U.S. Lower 48 states to decline through the first quarter of 2021 and then increase through the rest of the forecast period. As more new wells come online later in 2021, new well production will exceed the decline in legacy wells, driving the increase in overall crude oil production after the first quarter of 2021.
Associated natural gas production from oil-directed wells in the Permian Basin will fall because of lower West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices and reduced drilling activity in the first quarter of 2021. Natural gas production from dry regions such as Appalachia depends on the Henry Hub price. EIA forecasts the Henry Hub price will increase from $2.00 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2020 to $3.01/MMBtu in 2021 and to $3.27/MMBtu in 2022, which will likely prompt an increase in Appalachia's natural gas production. However, natural gas production in Appalachia may be limited by pipeline constraints in 2021 if the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is delayed. The MVP is scheduled to enter service in late 2021, delivering natural gas from producing regions in northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Natural gas takeaway capacity in the region is quickly filling up since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled in mid-2020.
Just when it seems that the drama of early December, when the nations of the OPEC+ club squabbled over how to implement and ease their collective supply quotas in 2021, would be repeated, a concession came from the most unlikely quarter of all. Saudi Arabia. OPEC’s swing producer and, especially in recent times, vocal judge, announced that it would voluntarily slash 1 million barrels per day of supply. The move took the oil markets by surprise, sending crude prices soaring but was also very unusual in that it was not even necessary at all.
After a day’s extension to the negotiations, the OPEC+ club had actually already agreed on the path forward for their supply deal through the remainder of Q1 2021. The nations of OPEC+ agreed to ease their overall supply quotas by 75,000 b/d in February and 120,000 b/d in March, bringing the total easing over three months to 695,000 b/d after the UAE spearheaded a revised increase of 500,000 b/d for January. The increases are actually very narrow ones; there were no adjustments for quotas for all OPEC+ members with the exception of Russia and Kazakshtan, who will be able to pump 195,000 additional barrels per day between them. That the increases for February and March were not higher or wider is a reflection of reality: despite Covid-19 vaccinations being rolled out globally, a new and more infectious variant of the coronavirus has started spreading across the world. In fact, there may even be at least of these mutations currently spreading, throwing into question the efficacy of vaccines and triggering new lockdowns. The original schedule of the April 2020 supply deal would have seen OPEC+ adding 2 million b/d of production from January 2021 onwards; the new tranches are far more measured and cognisant of the challenging market.
Then Saudi Arabia decides to shock the market by declaring that the Kingdom would slash an additional million barrels of crude supply above its current quota over February and March post-OPEC+ announcement. Which means that while countries such as Russia, the UAE and Nigeria are working to incrementally increase output, Saudi Arabia is actually subsidising those planned increases by making a massive additional voluntary cut. For a member that threw its weight around last year by unleashing taps to trigger a crude price war with Russia and has been emphasising the need for strict compliant by all members before allowing any collective increases to take place, this is uncharacteristic. Saudi Arabia may be OPEC’s swing producer, but it is certainly not that benevolent. Not least because it is expected to record a massive US$79 billion budget deficit for 2020 as low crude prices eat into the Kingdom’s finances.
So, why is Saudi Arabia doing this?
The last time the Saudis did this was in July 2020, when the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was at devastating levels and crude prices needed some additional propping up. It succeeded. In January 2021, however, global crude prices are already at the US$50/b level and the market had already cheered the resolution of OPEC+’s positions for the next two months. There was no real urgent need to make voluntary cuts, especially since no other OPEC member would suit especially not the UAE with whom there has been a falling out.
The likeliest reason is leadership. Having failed to convince the rest of the OPEC+ gang to avoid any easing of quotas, Saudi Arabia could be wanting to prove its position by providing a measure of supply security at a time of major price sensitivity due to the Covid-19 resurgence. It will also provide some political ammunition for future negotiations when the group meets in March to decide plans for Q2 2021, turning this magnanimous move into an implicit threat. It could also be the case that Saudi Arabia is planning to pair its voluntary cut with field maintenance works, which would be a nice parallel to the usual refinery maintenance season in Asia where crude demand typically falls by 10-20% as units shut for routine inspections.
It could also be a projection of soft power. After isolating Qatar physically and economically since 2017 over accusations of terrorism support and proximity to Iran, four Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – have agreed to restore and normalise ties with the peninsula. While acknowledging that a ‘trust deficit’ still remained, the accord avoids the awkward workarounds put in place to deal with the boycott and provides for road for cooperation ahead of a change on guard in the White House. Perhaps Qatar is even thinking of re-joining OPEC? As Saudi Arabia flexes its geopolitical muscle, it does need to pick its battles and re-assert its position. Showcasing political leadership as the world’s crude swing producer is as good a way of demonstrating that as any, even if it is planning to claim dues in the future.
It worked. It has successfully changed the market narrative from inter-OPEC+ squabbling to a more stabilised crude market. Saudi Arabia’s patience in prolonging this benevolent role is unknown, but for now, it has achieved what it wanted to achieve: return visibility to the Kingdom as the global oil leader, and having crude oil prices rise by nearly 10%.