China is now the world's largest crude oil importer
China surpassed the United States in annual gross crude oil imports in 2017 by importing 8.4 million barrels per day (b/d) compared with 7.9 million b/d of U.S. crude oil imports (Figure 1). China had become the world's largest net importer (imports less exports) of total petroleum and other liquid fuels in 2013. New refinery capacity and strategic inventory stockpiling combined with declining domestic production were the major factors contributing to the recent increase in Chinese crude oil imports.
In 2017, an average of 56% of China's crude oil imports came from countries within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The share of Chinese crude oil imports from OPEC countries declined from a peak of 67% in 2012, while Russia and Brazil increased their market share of Chinese imports more than any other country, from 9% to 14% and from 2% to 5%, respectively (Figure 2). Imports from Russia, which passed Saudi Arabia as China's largest source of foreign crude oil in 2016, totaled 1.2 million b/d in 2017, while Saudi Arabia accounted for 1.0 million b/d. OPEC countries and some non-OPEC countries, including Russia, agreed to reduce crude oil production through the end of 2018, which may have allowed other countries to increase their market share in China in 2017.
Several factors are driving the increase in Chinese crude oil imports. China had the largest decline in domestic petroleum and other liquids production among non-OPEC countries in 2016 and EIA estimates it will have had the second-largest decline in 2017. EIA estimates that total liquids production in China averaged 4.8 million b/d in 2017, a year-over-year decline of 0.1 million b/d (2%), and expects the decline to continue through 2019, according to EIA's January 2018 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO).
In contrast to declining domestic production, EIA estimates that Chinese growth in consumption of petroleum and other liquid fuels in 2017 was the world's largest for the ninth consecutive year, growing 0.4 million b/d (3%) to 13.2 million b/d. Crude oil import growth has been larger than consumption growth because of inventory building for strategic petroleum reserves. In addition, China has reformed its refining sector through liberalizing import and export restrictions. Since mid-2015, China granted crude oil import licenses to independent refineries in northeast China, which have since increased refinery utilization and crude oil imports.
Another factor contributing to increased Chinese crude oil imports is higher refinery runs, which increased by an estimated 0.5 million b/d in 2017 to 11.4 million b/d, driven in part by two refinery expansions in the second half of the year. A 260,000 b/d refinery in Anning in Yunnan province started operating in the third quarter of 2017. This refinery had been delayed several times because of tariff disputes with Myanmar, where crude oil primarily from Saudi Arabia first lands and is then piped to the Anning refinery. In Guangdong province, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) expanded capacity of its Huizhou refinery by 200,000 b/d, increasing its imports from various sources in the third and fourth quarters of 2017 (Figure 3).
Infrastructure expansions will likely contribute to further increases in Chinese crude oil imports. In January 2018, China and Russia began operating an expansion of the East-Siberia Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline, doubling its delivery capacity to approximately 0.6 million b/d (Map – China Import Locations). According to trade press reports, as much as 1.4 million b/d of new refinery capacity is planned to open in China by the end of 2019. Given China's expected decline in domestic crude oil production, imports will likely continue to increase during the next two years.
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices increase
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price rose 4 cents from the previous week to $2.61 per gallon on January 29, 2018, up 31 cents from the same time last year. West Coast prices increased over six cents to $3.09 per gallon, Midwest prices rose four cents to $2.51 per gallon, Gulf Coast prices increased nearly four cents to $2.35 per gallon, East Coast prices increased three cents to $2.59 per gallon, and Rocky Mountain prices increased one cent to $2.48 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price rose nearly 5 cents to $3.07 per gallon on January 29, 2018, 51 cents higher than a year ago. Midwest prices increased by six cents to $3.03 per gallon, Gulf Coast prices increased over five cents to $2.87 per gallon, West Coast prices rose nearly four cents to $3.43 per gallon, East Coast prices increased over three cents to $3.11 per gallon, and Rocky Mountain prices rose one cent to $2.97 per gallon.
Heating oil prices increase, propane prices decrease
As of January 29, 2018, residential heating oil prices averaged $3.22 per gallon, 1 cent per gallon higher than last week and 59 cents per gallon higher than last year's price at this time. The average wholesale heating oil price for this week averaged $2.27 per gallon, almost 7 cents per gallon higher than last week and 58 cents per gallon higher than a year ago.
Residential propane prices averaged nearly $2.60 per gallon, 1 cent per gallon less than last week but 20 cents per gallon higher than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged $1.17 per gallon, 11 cents per gallon less than last week but almost 23 cents per gallon higher than last year's price.
Propane inventories decline
U.S. propane stocks decreased by 0.9 million barrels last week to 53.1 million barrels as of January 26, 2018, 7.9 million barrels (12.9%) lower than the five-year average inventory level for this same time of year. Midwest, Gulf Coast, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased by 0.8 million barrels, 0.2 million barrels, and 0.1 million barrels, respectively, while East Coast inventories increased by 0.2 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 5.5% of total propane inventories.
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In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on January 12, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that generation from natural gas-fired power plants in the U.S. electric power sector will decline by about 8% in 2021. This decline would be the first annual decline in natural gas-fired generation since 2017. Forecast generation from coal-fired power plants will increase by 14% in 2021, after declining by 20% in 2020. EIA forecasts that generation from nonhydropower renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, will grow by 18% in 2021—the fastest annual growth rate since 2010.
The shift from coal to natural gas marked a significant change in the energy sources used to generate electricity in the United States in the past decade. This shift was driven primarily by the sustained low natural gas price. In 2020, natural gas prices were the lowest in decades: the nominal price of natural gas delivered to electric generators averaged $2.37 per million British thermal units (Btu). For 2021, EIA forecasts the average nominal price of natural gas for power generation will rise by 41% to an average of $3.35 per million Btu, about where it was in 2017. In contrast, EIA expects nominal coal prices will rise just 6% in 2021.
The large expected rise in natural gas prices is the primary driver in EIA’s forecast that less electricity will be generated from natural gas and more electricity will come from coal-fired power plants in 2021 than in recent years. EIA expects about 36% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2021 will be fueled by natural gas, down from 39% in 2020. The forecast coal-fired generation share in 2021 rises to 22% from 20% last year. However, these forecast generation shares are still different from 2017, when natural gas and coal each fueled 31% of total U.S. electricity generation.
Significant growth in electricity-generating capacity from renewable energy sources in 2021 is also likely to affect the mix of fuels used for power generation. Power developers are scheduled to add 15.4 gigawatts (GW) of new utility-scale solar capacity this year, which would be a record high. An additional 12.2 GW of wind capacity is scheduled to come online in 2021, following 21 GW of wind capacity that was added last year. Much of this new renewable generating capacity will be located in areas that have relied on natural gas as a primary fuel for power generation in recent years, such as in Texas.
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%.