Last week, OPEC sounded an alarm. Previously hopeful that the global crude markets would be balanced by June, which would allow it to walk back on the supply freeze that propped prices up at the cost of OPEC market share, the OPEC monthly report raised its expectations for non-OPEC supply for a fourth consecutive month. OPEC now expects global oil demand to grow by 1.6 mmb/d this year, which is more than previously expected. However, non-OPEC oil supplies will grow by 1.66 mmb/d, more than covering demand. The culprit, as always, is the US, where output is expected to grow by 12%. And this is not even the most optimistic forecast; the IEA expects non-OPEC supplies to grow by 1.8 mmb/d this year.
While this has near term implications – Saudi Arabia has already signalled that the OPEC supply curbs may have to extend into 2019 – the more important question is, how far can shale go? American oil production can consistently surpassed expectations over the past year, as the recovery in oil prices triggered a return rush to shale drilling. This will help US oil production reach 11 mmb/d by Q418; it could be even earlier, based on current production trends. By 2030, BP expects US shale oil to grow to 10 mmb/d, almost double its current level.
Despite the base case for shale production being constantly revised upwards – requiring lower long-term oil prices to clear – it is worth asking how realistic it is. There are suggestions that American shale production could hitting the wall; not because the of finite reserves in the Permian, but because of technology limitations. The application of new technology does not in itself create new energy, it only improves the recovery of hydrocarbons and at a faster rate. As reported in CNBC, "Mark Papa, a pioneer in the U.S. shale oil revolution, is warning that forecasts for booming U.S. production growth will leave industry watchers disappointed in the coming years as drillers burn through their best wells and tighten their purse strings. The impression of U.S. shale as the big bad wolf is perhaps a bit overstated, Papa told an audience at this year's CERAWeek by IHS Markit in Houston this year. Papa's comments were a stark contrast to the tone of cautious optimism at the conference, where many executives claimed that data analytics and technology, like machine learning, will improve efficiency in the oil patch and fuel further gains." Most people are focused on additions to the US rig count, productivity rates in shale wells are actually declining, while costs per well are rising. Major players seem to be mitigating this by creating larger fields by connecting wells, but there is also a looming logistical and manpower crunch. The WSJ reports that "Oil infrastructure is the most glaring constraint to limitless growth in U.S. shale output, said analysts for Energy Aspects in a recent note. The Permian basin had 10 oil takeaway pipelines with a combined capacity of 2.92 million barrels a day as of February 2018, said analysts. There will be a shortage of takeaway capacity in the Permian by August, which will only get worse into year-end, noted experts." This suggests that while shale production is still on the steep part of its growth curve, that could soon plateau out and that long-term forecasts are overstated. That would be good news for oil prices in the long run.
However, there are signs that the opposite could be true. Investment into shale players is increasing, giving them more funds to play with. With money, come more interest – solving, or at least, mitigating most of the upcoming bottlenecks. It seems that either more debt through borrowings or the capital markets is driving this production surge, particularly in the USA. However it is worth noting that the USA is not the only place the shale revolution is taking place. By the end of this month, Saudi Arabia will have produced its first shale gas from the North Arabia basin. The giant South Ghawar and Jafurah basins – which reportedly rival Eagle Ford in size – are also underway. Promising finds are improving moods in China and Argentina shale as well, while the UK drilled its first shale well last year. Even if the American shale revolution hits the brakes, the movement could continue elsewhere, which would mean that current non-US share oil production forecasts maybe understated? There is little data out there about the profitability or economics of non-US shale fields.
Both the low and high scenarios make compelling cases. Both, however are closely tied to current developments in US oil production. Ultimately the base case for shale will depend on economics but more importantly the demand for hydrocarbons in the medium to long term. If oil demand keeps growing, so will the need for more oil, but any large surge would only dampen prices all over again, effectively killing shale production. So can shale go far, technically possible, as there are proven reserves all around the world that are still untapped. But like with everything else, it's the economics and geopolitical factors that will define its days ahead.
Various production forecasts for American shale tight oil production
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Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.
A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.
Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.
Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.
And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.
That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.
Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.
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