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Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 26 February 2017 – Brent: US$67/b; WTI: US$64/b

  • Crude prices chalked up a week of gains last week, gaining on positive signs in US demand and continued statements of support from OPEC to ‘manage global crude oil supply.’
  • Last week, US data showed a surprise drawdown of 1.6 million barrels in US crude inventories, with net imports dropping to a record low and exports surging. Stocks at the important Cushing, OK hub declined even further, defying market predictions that oil inventories were set to rise.
  • With US crude exports hitting 2 mmb/d, American net crude imports fell below 5 mmb/d, the lowest level since the EIA began recording data in 2001. Strong demand from US refineries supported the drawdown.
  • Various OPEC ministers voiced positive statements on the effectiveness of the supply freeze. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said the ‘market is rebalancing’ and ‘inventories should continue to decline’ over the year.
  • Al-Falih said Saudi Arabia’s exports have been averaging less than 7 mmb/d over January-March, with output well below its production cap. He also said OPEC and its allies were hoping to create a permanent framework to stabilise oil markets after the current agreement ends.
  • Algerian Energy Minister Mustapha Guitouni stated OPEC was looking to preserve ‘market stability’ to balance producers and consumers, suggesting that it could intervene again if prices fall dramatically.
  • American crude inventories are expected to reverse last week’s surprise decline, with data pointing to a million barrel gain, that capped gains in crude prices earlier this week.
  • The US active oil and gas rig count gained 3 sites last week. It was a fifth consecutive week of gains for oil rigs, inching up by 1 to 790, just shy of the 800 mark.
  • Crude price outlook: Lingering concerns over the swell of US crude output should trim crude prices back to US$65-66/b range for Brent and US$62-63/b for WTI.

Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • BHP Billiton and ExxonMobil, 50:50 partners in the Gippsland Basin Joint Venture, have dropped plans to sell their 13 fields, licences and associated infrastructure in some of Australia’s largest and oldest onshore oilfields.
  • Abu Dhabi has chosen Spain’s Cepsa to develop its offshore oil shores in a push to diversify partnerships; the Madrid-based player will take a 20% stake in the Umm Lulu and Sateh Al Razboot Persian Gulf fields.
  • India also gained a foothold in Abu Dhabi, with an ONGC-led consortium securing a 10% stake in the Lower Zakum concession for US$600 million.
  • Aker BP announced a moderate discovery in the North Sea’s Alvheim, with the Frosk well yielding ‘encouraging’ flows of 30-60 mmboe.
  • With turmoil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region dying down, Chevron has resumed drilling operations in the area, starting the Sarta 3 field.
  • South Korea’s SK Innovation has made an oil discovery in the PRMB 17/03 Block in China’s section of the South China Sea; SK Innovation has an 80% stake in the block, with CNOOC holding the remainder.
  • India’s ONGC has turn to international service firms for the first time, shortlisting Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Highs to assist in boosting production at its onshore Gujarat and Assam oil fields.
  • As Egypt prepares to offer ten new onshore blocks for exploration, Kuwait Energy announced it had struck oil in the South Kheir-1X well, with small flows of some 2,000 b/d of crude oil.

Downstream

  • Turkey’s first new oil refinery in 30 years, SOCAR’s US$6 billion 300 kb/d Star refinery, is scheduled to start up in the third quarter of 2018.
  • Amid US sanctions and Venezuela’s financial woes, PDVSA’s American arm Citgo Petroleum has slowed plans to upgrade its 235 kb/d refinery in Aruba. The Dutch territory has raised the issue with the US government.
  • Total, Borealis and NOVA Chemicals have formed a US Gulf Coast 50:50 petrochemicals joint venture, integrating the Bayport and Port Arthur facilities of Total and Novealis (a Borealis-NOVA joint venture).
  • ExxonMobil has acquired a 2.5% stake in the crucial Baku-Tblisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in Azerbaijan from Itochu’s subsidiary CIECO.

Natural Gas/LNG

  • ExxonMobil has halted operations at PNG LNG as a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the highlands Papua New Guinea; Oil Search also halted its drilling activities in the wake of the quake.
  • Petronas has inked its first LNG contract with India, agreeing to supply an undisclosed amount of LNG to Dubai-based H-Energy Mideast DMCC.
  • Spain’s Repsol will be selling its ‘non-strategic’ 20% stake in Gas Natural to CVC Capital Partners for €3.82 billion euros.
  • Thailand has pushed the new auctions for the Erawan and Bongkot gas fields back by a month to April, with a decision expected by end-2018.

Corporate

  • Extending a partnership that began with the Subsea Integration Alliance in 2015, Schlumberger and Subsea 7 have announced plans to form a 50:50 joint venture, which would boost their FEED capabilities.

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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

End of Article

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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