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Last Updated: October 12, 2017
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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.

uploads1507791513398-3.3-mmb-week-470-kb-d-Decrease-in-Net-Petroleum-Product-Imports-.jpg

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).

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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.

uploads1507791622139-Brent-Premium-to-WTI-Has-Increased-More-Than-5-barrel-From-1H-Average-.jpg

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.

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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.

uploads1507791801714-OECD-minus-U.S.-Comparative-Inventory-Has-Fallen-99-mmb-Since-July-2016-.jpg

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).

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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).

uploads1507791943762-More-Permian-Wells-Have-Been-Drilled-Than-Completed-in-2016-2017-The-Number-of-DUCs-is-Increasing-.jpg

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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OPEC And The Current State of Oil Fundamentals

It was shaping up to yet another dull OPEC+ meeting. Cut and dry. Copy and paste. Rubber-stamping yet another monthly increase in production quotas by 432,000 b/d. Month after month of resisting pressure from the largest economies in the world to accelerate supply easing had inured markets to expectations of swift action by OPEC and its wider brethren in OPEC+.

And then, just two days before the meeting, chatter began that suggested something big was brewing. Whispers that Russia could be suspended made the rounds, an about-face for a group that has steadfastly avoided reference to the war in Ukraine, calling it a matter of politics not markets. If Russia was indeed removed from the production quotas, that would allow other OPEC+ producers to fill in the gap in volumes constrained internationally due to sanctions.

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The increase will be divided proportionally across OPEC+, as has been since the landmark supply deal in spring 2020. Crucially this includes Russia, where the new quota will be a paper one, since Western sanctions means that any additional Russian crude is unlikely to make it to the market. And that too goes for other members that haven’t even met their previous lower quotas, including Iraq, Angola and Nigeria. The oil ministers know this and the market knows this. Which is why the surprise announcement didn’t budge crude prices by very much at all.

In fact, there are only two countries within OPEC+ that have enough spare capacity to be ramped up quickly. The United Arab Emirates, which was responsible for recent turmoil within the group by arguing for higher quotas should be happy. But it will be a measure of backtracking for the only other country in that position, Saudi Arabia. After publicly stating that it had ‘done all it can for the oil market’ and blaming a lack of refining capacity for high fuel prices, the Kingdom’s change of heart seems to be linked to some external pressure. But it could seemingly resist no more. But that spotlight on the UAE and Saudi Arabia will allow both to wrench some market share, as both countries have been long preparing to increase their production. Abu Dhabi recently made three sizable onshore oil discoveries at Bu Hasa, Onshore Block 3 and the Al Dhafra Petroleum Concession, that adds some 650 million barrels to its reserves, which would help lift the ceiling for oil production from 4 to 5 mmb/d by 2030. Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco is expected to contract over 30 offshore rigs in 2022 alone, targeting the Marjan and Zuluf fields to increase production from 12 to 13 mmb/d by 2027.

The UAE wants to ramp up, certainly. But does Saudi Arabia too? As the dominant power of OPEC, what Saudi Arabia wants it usually gets. The signals all along were that the Kingdom wanted to remain prudent. It is not that it cannot, there is about a million barrels per day of extra production capacity that Saudi Arabia can open up immediately but that it does not want to. Bringing those extra volume on means that spare capacity drops down to critical levels, eliminating options if extra crises emerge. One is already starting up again in Libya, where internal political discord for years has led to an on-off, stop-start rhythm in Libyan crude. If Saudi Arabia uses up all its spare capacity, oil prices could jump even higher if new emergencies emerge with no avenue to tackle them. That the Saudis have given in (slightly) must mean that political pressure is heating up. That the announcement was made at the OPEC+ meeting and not a summit between US and Saudi leaders must mean that a façade of independence must be maintained around the crucial decisions to raise supply quotas.

But that increase is not going to be enough, especially with Russia’s absence. Markets largely shrugged off the announcement, keeping Brent crude at US$120/b levels. Consumption is booming, as the world rushes to enjoy its first summer with a high degree of freedom since Covid-19 hit. Which is why global leaders are looking at other ways to tackle high energy prices and mitigate soaring inflation. In Germany, low-priced monthly public transport are intended to wean drivers off cars. In the UK, a windfall tax on energy companies should yield US$6 billion to be used for insulating consumers. And in the US, Joe Biden has been busy.

With the Permian Basin focusing on fiscal prudence instead of wanton drilling, US shale output has not responded to lucrative oil prices that way it used to. American rig counts are only inching up, with some shale basins even losing rigs. So the White House is trying more creative ways. Though the suggestion of an ‘oil consumer cartel’ as an analogue to OPEC by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is likely dead on arrival, the US is looking to unlock supply and tame fuel prices through other ways. Regular releases from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve has so far done little to bring prices down, but easing sanctions on Venezuelan crude that could be exported to the US and Europe, as well as working with the refining industry to restart recently idled refineries could. Inflation levels above 8% and gasoline prices at all-time highs could lead to a bloody outcome in this year’s midterm elections, and Joe Biden knows that.

But oil (and natural gas) supply/demand dynamics cannot truly start returning to normal as long as the war in Ukraine rages on. And the far-ranging sanctions impacting Russian energy exports will take even longer to be lifted depending on how the war goes. Yes, some Russian crude is making it to the market. China, for example, has been quietly refilling its petroleum reserves with Russian crude (at a discount, of course). India continues to buy from Moscow, as are smaller nations like Sri Lanka where an economic crisis limits options. Selling the crude is one thing, transporting it is another. With most international insurers blacklisting Russian shippers, Russian oil producers can still turn to local insurance and tankers from the once-derided state tanker firm Sovcomflot PJSC to deliver crude to the few customers they still have.

A 50% hike in OPEC’s monthly supply easing targets might seem like a lot. But it isn’t enough. Especially since actual production will fall short of that quota. The entire OPEC system, and the illusion of control it provides has broken down. Russian oil is still trickling out to global buyers but even if it returned in full, there is still not enough refining capacity to absorb those volumes. Doctors speak of long Covid symptoms in patients, and the world energy complex is experiencing long Covid, now with a touch with geopolitical germs as well. It’ll take a long time to recover, so brace yourselves.

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