Belt up! Oil prices have embarked on a big roller-coaster ride that has plenty of sharp ascents, descents and twists along the way. The track’s direction is generally higher, but its end is not in sight.
Benchmark crude futures rallied throughout this week and were swinging either side of their Thursday’s three-year-high close in volatile intra-day trading Friday.
Speculative net length in ICE Brent and NYMEX WTI crude futures, at a combined 1.15 billion barrels equivalent, was close to its historic high as of April 3 based on the latest data available, and might have set a new record since, given this week’s price spike. That forebodes heightened crude price volatility in the coming weeks.
Oil prices have progressively come under the biggest and most diverse set of influencing factors in recent memory, which are not easy to aggregate on any given day or even over the short term.
The financial markets turmoil that began in early February amid a panic attack over accelerating inflation and spiking interest rates was the first major distraction for an oil market that was already juggling fundamentals with geopolitical tensions. Barely had it subsided, when a rash of planned and implemented US import tariffs against major trading partners rattled stock indexes around the world and shook the confidence of oil bulls.
A fresh round of US sanctions against Russia over its suspected role in a spy poisoning case in the UK and Moscow’s alleged meddling in the US presidential elections brought a third wave of tremors in the financial markets, which have not yet subsided.
This week, talk of a US missile strike against Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack in the country last Saturday and the spectre of it triggering a wider conflict in the Middle East region jolted equities, oil as well as gold.
In the meantime, the approaching May 12 deadline for President Donald Trump to extend the waiver of US sanctions against Iran promises to keep oil market players on the edge of their seats.
Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, a presumed Iran hardliner, signalled a moderate stance on the nuclear deal in his confirmation hearing in the US Senate this week. That may whittle down some of the fear premium in crude but is not substantial enough for the market to revise its base-case scenario on the Iran deal just yet, especially with Iran hawk John Bolton starting his tenure as National Security Advisor April 9.
Oil market fundamentals remain strong and rebalancing is firmly underway. The latest monthly oil market reports this week from OPEC and the Parisbased International Energy Agency confirmed that view. Both reported a resumption of decline in OECD oil stocks in February after a small build in January and OPEC supply shrinking to its lowest level in several months in March. OPEC as well as the IEA maintained a robust oil demand growth outlook for 2018 despite the recent turbulence in global trade and geopolitics. In short, the reports had plenty of grist for the oil bulls.
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The week started off ominously. Qatar, a member of OPEC since 1960, quit the organisation. Its reasoning made logical sense – Qatar produces very little crude, so to have a say in a cartel focused on crude was not in its interests, which lie in LNG – but it hinted at deep-seated tensions in OPEC that could undermine Saudi Arabia’s attempts to corral members. Qatar, under a Saudi-led blockade, was allied with Iran – and Saudi Arabia and Iran were not friends, to say the least. This, and other simmering divisions, coloured the picture as OPEC went into its last meeting for the year in Vienna.
Against all odds, OPEC and its NOPEC allies managed to come to an agreement. After a nervy start to the conference – where it looked like no consensus could be reached – OPEC+ announced that they would cut 1.2 mmb/d of crude oil production beginning January. Split between 800,000 b/d from OPEC members and 400,000 b/d from NOPEC, the supply deal contained a little bit of everything. It was sizable enough to placate the market (market analysts had predicted only a 800,000 b/d cut). It was not country-specific (beyond a casual mention by the Saudi Oil Minister that the Kingdom was aiming for a 500,000 b/d cut), a sly way of building in Iran’s natural decline in crude exports from American sanctions into the deal without having individual member commitments. And since the baseline for the output was October production levels, it represents pre-sanction Iranian volumes, which were 3.3 mmb/d according to OPEC – making the mathematics of the deal simpler.
Crude oil markets rallied in response. Brent climbed by 5%, breaking a long losing streak, as the market reacted to the move. But the deal doesn’t so much as solve the problem as it does kick the can further down the road. A review is scheduled for April; coincidentally (or not), American waivers granted to eight countries on the import of Iranian crude expire in May. By April, it should be clear whether those will continue, allowing OPEC+ to monitor the situation and the direction of Washington’s policy against Iran in a new American political environment post-midterm elections. If the waivers continue, then the deal might stick. If they don’t, then OPEC+ has time to react.
There are caveats as well. OPEC members, who are shouldering the bigger part of the burden, said there would be ‘special considerations’ for its members. Libya and Venezuela - both facing challenging production environments – received official exemptions from the new group-level quota. Nigeria, exempted in the last round, did not. Iran claims to have been given an exemption but OPEC says that Iran had agreed to a ‘symbolic cut’ – a situation of splitting hairs over language that ultimately have the same result. But more important will be adherence. The supply deals of the last 18 months have been unusual in the high adherence by OPEC members. Can it happen again this time? Russia – which is rumoured to be targeting a 228,000 b/d cut – has already said that it would take the country ‘months’ to get its production level down to the requested level. There might be similar inertia in other members of OPEC+. Meanwhile, American crude output is surging and there is a risk to OPEC+ that they will be displaced out of their established markets. For now, OPEC remains powerful enough to sway the market. How long it will remain that way?
Infographic: OPEC+ December Supply Deal
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 December 2018 – Brent: US$62/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
The Permian is in desperate need of pipelines. That much is true. There is so much shale liquids sloshing underneath the Permian formation in Texas and New Mexico, that even though it has already upended global crude market and turned the USA into the world’s largest crude producer, there is still so much of it trapped inland, unable to make the 800km journey to the Gulf Coast that would take them to the big wider world.
The stakes are high. Even though the US is poised to reach some 12 mmb/d of crude oil production next year – more than half of that coming from shale oil formations – it could be producing a lot more. This has already caused the Brent-WTI spread to widen to a constant US$10/b since mid-2018 – when the Permian’s pipeline bottlenecks first became critical – from an average of US$4/b prior to that. It is even more dramatic in the Permian itself, where crude is selling at a US$10-16/b discount to Houston WTI, with trends pointing to the spread going as wide as US$20/b soon. Estimates suggest that a record 3,722 wells were drilled in the Permian this year but never opened because the oil could not be brought to market. This is part of the reason why the US active rig count hasn’t increased as much as would have been expected when crude prices were trending towards US$80/b – there’s no point in drilling if you can’t sell.
Assistance is on the way. Between now and 2020, estimates suggest that some 2.6 mmb/d of pipeline capacity across several projects will come onstream, with an additional 1 mmb/d in the planning stages. Add this to the existing 3.1 mmb/d of takeaway capacity (and 300,000 b/d of local refining) and Permian shale oil output currently dammed away by a wall of fixed capacity could double in size when freed to make it to market.
And more pipelines keep getting announced. In the last two weeks, Jupiter Energy Group announced a 90-day open season seeking binding commitments for a planned 1 mmb/d, 1050km long Jupiter Pipeline – which could connect the Permian to all three of Texas’ deepwater ports, Houston, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Plains All American is launching its 500,000 b/d Sunrise Pipeline, connecting the Permian to Cushing, Oklahoma. Wolf Midstream has also launched an open season, seeking interest for its 120,000 b/d Red Wolf Crude Connector branch, connecting to its existing terminal and infrastructure in Colorado City.
Current estimates suggest that Permian output numbered around 3.5 mmb/d in October. At maximum capacity, that’s still about 100,000 b/d of shale oil trapped inland. As planned pipelines come online over the next two years, that trickle could turn into a flood. Consider this. Even at the current maxing out of Permian infrastructure, the US is already on the cusp on 12 mmb/d crude production. By 2021, it could go as high as 15 mmb/d – crude prices, permitting, of course.
As recently reported in the WSJ; “For years, the companies behind the U.S. oil-and-gas boom, including Noble Energy Inc. and Whiting Petroleum Corp. have promised shareholders they have thousands of prospective wells they can drill profitably even at $40 a barrel. Some have even said they can generate returns on investment of 30%. But most shale drillers haven’t made much, if any, money at those prices. From 2012 to 2017, the 30 biggest shale producers lost more than $50 billion. Last year, when oil prices averaged about $50 a barrel, the group as a whole was barely in the black, with profits of about $1.7 billion, or roughly 1.3% of revenue, according to FactSet.”
The immense growth experienced in the Permian has consequences for the entire oil supply chain, from refining balances – shale oil is more suitable for lighter ends like gasoline, but the world is heading for a gasoline glut and is more interested in cracking gasoil for the IMO’s strict marine fuels sulphur levels coming up in 2020 – to geopolitics, by diminishing OPEC’s power and particularly Saudi Arabia’s role as a swing producer. For now, the walls keeping a Permian flood in are still standing. In two years, they won’t, with new pipeline infrastructure in place. And so the oil world has two years to prepare for the coming tsunami, but only if crude prices stay on course.
Recent Announced Permian Pipeline Projects