Brent had vaulted over the key psychological level of $70/barrel as we wrapped up this edition Friday night in Singapore, while WTI had climbed above $65. “Geopolitical storms poised to shake crude out of its languor” was the headline of our Viewsletter last Friday, and it proved to be prescient.
Worries over the fate of the Iran nuclear deal had already started gathering steam last week after US President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a moderate, and named Iran hardliner Mike Pompeo as his replacement.
The anxiety got worse this week. First, it was comments by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir during their visit to the US. Al-Jubeir denounced the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement as “flawed,” echoing Trump’s sentiment, while MBS reiterated his threat that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear bomb if Iran did so.
Exacerbating the picture was Trump’s appointment Thursday of John Bolton, a hawk on North Korea and Iran, as his national security advisor effective April 9, replacing H R McMaster. In an August 2017 piece Bolton wrote in the National Review magazine, he laid out a game plan for the US to abrogate the nuclear deal on the basis of “significant Iran violations,” which he said should be documented in detail in a white paper, alongside early consultations with “key players such as the UK, France, Germany, Israel and Saudi Arabia”, to get them on board.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile across the border into Saudi Arabia’s Najran province Thursday. Though no damage or disruption to the oil and gas processing and loading operations was reported, the incident served as a reminder of the tensions bubbling just below the surface in the Middle East. Yemen has been racked by a proxy war between regional archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Canadian oil sands producer Cenovus Thursday said it had been forced to reduce output in the face of pipeline and rail capacity constraints in shipping crude. The country’s growing oil transportation bottlenecks over the past few months were well-known, but the Cenovus news lent more gravity to the situation and added to the market’s supply concerns.
NYMEX WTI futures comfortably returned to backwardation at the front end of the forward curve Wednesday, ending six days of contango. The backwardation along the rest of the curve also strengthened, suggesting tightening supply-demand balances.
The US Federal Reserve announced a quarter-point hike in interest rates Wednesday, as was widely expected, and more importantly, signalled it remained on course for two more increases this year. That gave the financial markets, rattled by fears of accelerating inflation leading to a more hawkish Fed since February, some breathing room. But not for long. The US announced plans to slap tariffs on $60 billion worth of annual imports of Chinese goods, and China retaliated with its own list of tariffs against the US. The trade wars have only just begun, it seems. The stock markets took a beating, but not crude — it was back in the grip of fundamentals and fears.
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Less than two weeks ago, the VLCC Navarin arrived at Tanjung Pengerang, at the southern end of Peninsular Malaysia. It was carrying two million barrels of crude oil, split equally between Saudi Arab Medium and Iraqi Basra Light grades.
The RAPID refinery in Johor. An equal joint partnership between Malaysia’s Petronas and Saudi Aramco whose 300 kb/d mega refinery is nearing completion. Once questioned for its economic viability, RAPID is now scheduled to start up in early 2019, entering a market that is still booming and in demand of the higher quality, Euro IV and Euro V level fuels RAPID will produce.
Beyond fuel products, RAPID will also have massive petrochemical capacity. Meant to come on online at a later date, RAPID will have a collective capacity of some 7.7 million tons per annum of differentiated and specialty chemicals, including 3 mtpa of propylene. To be completed in stages, Petronas nonetheless projects that it will add some 3.3 million tons of petrochemicals to the Asia market by the end of next year. That’s blockbuster numbers, and it will elevate Petronas’ stature in downstream, bringing more international appeal to a refining network previously focused mainly on Malaysia. For its partner Saudi Aramco, RAPID is part of a multi-pronged strategy of investing mega refineries in key parts of the world, to diversify its business and ensure demand for its crude flows as it edges towards an IPO.
RAPID won’t be alone. Vietnam’s second refinery – the 200 kb/d Nghi Son – has finally started up this year after multiple delays. And in the same timeframe as RAPID, the Zhejiang refinery by Rongsheng Petro Chemical and the Dalian refinery by Hengli Petrochemical in China are both due to start up. At 400 kb/d each, that could add 1.1 mmb/d of new refining capacity in Asia within 1H19. And there’s more coming. Hengli’s Pulau Muara Besar project in Brunei is also aiming for a 2019 start, potentially adding another 175 kb/d of capacity. And just like RAPID, each of these new or recent projects has substantial petrochemical capacity planned.
That’s okay for now, since demand remains strong. But the danger is that this could all unravel. With American sanctions on Iran due to kick in November, even existing refineries are fleeing from contributing to Tehran in favour of other crude grades. The new refineries will be entering a tight market that could become even tighter. RAPID can rely on Saudi Arabia and Nghi Son can depend on Kuwait, both the Chinese projects are having to scramble to find alternate supplies for their designed diet of heavy sour crude. This race to find supplies has already sent Brent prices to four-year highs, and most in the industry are already predicting that crude oil prices will rise to US$100/b by the year’s end. At prices like this, demand destruction begins and the current massive growth – fuelled by cheap oil prices – could come to an end. The market can rapidly change again, and by the end of this decade, Asia could be swirling with far more oil products that it can handle.
Upcoming and recent Asia refineries:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 October 2018 – Brent: US$84/b; WTI: US$74/b
Headlines of the week
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
As domestic production continues to increase, the average density of crude oil produced in the United States continues to become lighter. The average API gravity—a measure of a crude oil’s density where higher numbers mean lower density—of U.S. crude oil increased in 2017 and through the first six months of 2018. Crude oil production with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees grew by 310,000 barrels per day (b/d) to more than 4.6 million b/d in 2017. This increase represents 53% of total Lower 48 production in 2017, an increase from 50% in 2015, the earliest year for which EIA has oil production data by API gravity.
API gravity is measured as the inverse of the density of a petroleum liquid relative to water. The higher the API gravity, the lower the density of the petroleum liquid, meaning lighter oils have higher API gravities. The increase in light crude oil production is the result of the growth in crude oil production from tight formations enabled by improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Along with sulfur content, API gravity determines the type of processing needed to refine crude oil into fuel and other petroleum products, all of which factor into refineries’ profits. Overall U.S. refining capacity is geared toward a diverse range of crude oil inputs, so it can be uneconomic to run some refineries solely on light crude oil. Conversely, it is impossible to run some refineries on heavy crude oil without producing significant quantities of low-valued heavy products such as residual fuel.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
API gravity can differ greatly by production area. For example, oil produced in Texas—the largest crude oil-producing state—has a relatively broad distribution of API gravities with most production ranging from 30 to 50 degrees API. However, crude oil with API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees accounted for the largest share of Texas production, at 55%, in 2017. This category was also the fastest growing, reaching 1.9 million b/d, driven by increasing production in the tight oil plays of the Permian and Eagle Ford.
Oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken formation also tends to be less dense and lighter. About 90% of North Dakota’s 2017 crude oil production had an API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees. The oil coming from the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) tends to be more dense and heavier. More than 34% of the crude oil produced in the GOM in 2017 had an API gravity of lower than 30 degrees and 65% had an API gravity of 30 to 40 degrees.
In contrast to the increasing production of light crude oil in the United States, imported crude oil continues to be heavier. In 2017, 7.6 million b/d (96%) of imported crude oil had an API gravity of 40 or below, compared with 4.2 million b/d (48%) of domestic production.
EIA collects API gravity production data by state in the monthly crude oil and natural gas production report as well as crude oil quality by company level imports to better inform analysis of refinery inputs and utilization, crude oil trade, and regional crude oil pricing. API gravity is also projected to continue changing: EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2018 Reference case projects that U.S. oil production from tight formations will continue to increase in the coming decades.