Depends on who you ask, there are signs that the friction in the oil rich South China Sea may be abating. Tensions seem to be easing in the short term, with nothing resolved to the long-term problem of border demarcation. Two countries in particular have been China’s main thorn in their quest to claim the entire sweep of the South China Sea – Vietnam and the Philippines – and in its dealings with both of them, China is rewarding cooperation and punishing dissidence.
Last month, Vietnam ordered Spanish firm Repsol to halt work on its Ca Rong Do (Red Emperor), where commercial drilling was imminent, later asking it to declare ‘force majeure’ following pressure from China. It is the second major cancellation in the southern Nam Con Son basin – which skirts China’s nine-dashed line – and could cost Repsol and partners some US$200 million in sunk investment. Vietnam has been vocal about pursuing its own energy agenda, but in the end, ended up having to kowtow to China.
The Philippines has also loudly proclaimed sovereignty over its part of the South China Sea, going as far as to bring the case to UNCLOS, which ruled in favour of the Philippines in a 2016 verdict that China refuses to recognise. However, since then, President Duterte has made cordial overtures to joint developments. While both sides have reiterated that joint oil and gas exploration will not affect their legal positions. The Philippines announced last week that cooperation was moving ahead after both countries claimed to recognise and accept each other’s ‘firm red lines’. It by no means settles the issue in the long run – indeed, successive governments could reverse the position – but it paves way for resources to be developed like in the Thailand-Malaysia Joint Development Area, legally unsettled but commercially viable. In choosing to engage, China has seemingly rewarded the Philippines with a mutually beneficial arrangement, a stance that it has not taken with the more belligerent Vietnam.
That’s not the best outcome, though, as the issue of maritime borders is still unsettled. China has always favoured bilateral talks with each of the claimants to the South China Sea – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei included – a divide and conquer strategy that allows it to throw its weight around. But with the USA absent to exert pressure for encompassing solution, favoured by the Obama administration but ignored by Trump, the countries of the South China Sea rim are sitting ducks against the might of China. Either they capitulate – and are rewarded with some crumbs – like the Philippines; or they defy – and end up capitulating anyway with nothing to show – like Vietnam. The vibe in the South China Sea may be seemingly calmer right now, but there are still dangerous currents beneath the surface.
The Current Weather Forecast: China and the South China Sea Nations
Vietnam – Choppy. China has been pressuring Vietnam to halt fishing and upstream activity.
The Philippines – Calmer. China has agreed to joint development of hydrocarbon resources
Malaysia – Calm. No clashes yet, but Malaysia controls part of the disputed Spratly islands.
Brunei – Calm. No clashes yet, but Brunei claims part of the disputed Spratly islands.
Indonesia – Choppy. No clashes yet, but Indonesia claims the waters around the Natuna islands are its ‘traditional fishing grounds’, effectively re-naming it “North Natuna Sea”
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Two acquisitions in the energy sector were announced in the last week that illustrate the growing divergence in approaching the future of oil and gas between Europe and the USA. In France, Total announced that it had bought Fonroche Biogaz, the market leader in the production of renewable gas in France. In North America, ConocoPhillips completed its acquisition of Concho Resources, deepening the upstream major’s foothold into the lucrative Permian Basin and its shale riches. One is heading towards renewables, and the other is doubling down on conventional oil and gas.
What does this say about the direction of the energy industry?
Total’s move is unsurprising. Like almost all of its European peers operating in the oil and gas sector, Total has announced ambitious targets to become carbon-neutral by 2050. It is an ambition supported by the European population and pushed for by European governments, so in that sense, Total is following the wishes of its investors and stakeholders – just like BP, Shell, Repsol, Eni and others are doing. Fonroche Biogaz is therefore a canny acquisition. The company designs, builds and operates anaerobic digestion units that convert organic waste such as farming manure into biomethane to serve a gas feedstock for power generation. Fonroche Biogaz already has close to 500 GWh of installed capacity through seven power generation units with four in the pipeline. This feeds into Total’s recent moves to expand its renewable power generation capacity, with the stated intention of increasing the group’s biomethane capacity to 1.5 terawatts per hour (TWh) by 2025. Through this, Total vaults into a leading position within the renewable gas market in Europe, which is already active through affiliates such as Méthanergy, PitPoint and Clean Energy.
In parallel to this move, Total also announced that it has decided not to renew its membership in the American Petroleum Institute for 2021. Citing that it is only ‘partially aligned’ with the API on climate change issues in the past, Total has now decided that those positions have now ‘diverged’ particularly on rolling back methane emission regulations, carbon pricing and decarbonising transport. The French supermajor is not alone in its stance. BP, which has ditched the supermajor moniker in favour of turning itself into a clean energy giant, has also expressed reservations over the API’s stance over climate issues, and may very well choose to resign from the trade group as well. Other European upstream players might follow suit.
However, the core of the API will remain American energy firms. And the stance among these companies remains pro-oil and gas, despite shareholder pressure to bring climate issues and clean energy to the forefront. While the likes of ExxonMobil and Chevron have balanced significant investments into prolific shale patches in North America with public overtures to embrace renewables, no major US firm has made a public commitment to a carbon-neutral future as their European counterparts have. And so ConocoPhillips acquisition of Concho Resources, which boosts its value to some US$60 billion is not an outlier, but a preview of the ongoing consolidation happening in US shale as the free-for-all days give way to big boy acquisitions following the price-upheaval there since 2019.
That could change. In fact, it will change. The incoming Biden administration marks a significant break from the Trump administration’s embrace of oil and gas. Instead of opening of protected federal lands to exploration, especially in Alaska and sensitive coastal areas and loosening environmental regulations, the US will now pivot to putting climate change at the top of the agenda. Although political realities may water it down, the progressive faction of the Democrats are pushing for a Green New Deal embracing sustainability as the future for the US. Biden has already hinted that he may cancel the controversial and long-running Keystone XL pipeline via executive order on his first day in the office. His nominees for key positions including the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and Council on Environmental Quality suggest that there will be a major push on low-carbon and renewable initiatives, at least for the next 4 years. A pledge to reach net zero fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035 has been mooted. More will come.
The landscape is changing. But the two approaches still apply, the aggressive acceleration adopted by European majors, and the slower movement favoured by US firms. Political changes in the USA might hasten the change, but it is unlikely that convergence will happen anytime soon. There is room in the world for both approaches for now, but the future seems inevitable. It just depends on how energy companies want to get there.
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In its January Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects global demand for petroleum liquids will be greater than global supply in 2021, especially during the first quarter, leading to inventory draws. As a result, EIA expects the price of Brent crude oil to increase from its December 2020 average of $50 per barrel (b) to an average of $56/b in the first quarter of 2021. The Brent price is then expected to average between $51/b and $54/b on a quarterly basis through 2022.
EIA expects that growth in crude oil production from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) will be limited because of a multilateral agreement to limit production. Saudi Arabia announced that it would voluntarily cut production by an additional 1.0 million b/d during February and March. Even with this cut, EIA expects OPEC to produce more oil than it did last year, forecasting that crude oil production from OPEC will average 27.2 million b/d in 2021, up from an estimated 25.6 million b/d in 2020.
EIA forecasts that U.S. crude oil production in the Lower 48 states—excluding the Gulf of Mexico—will decline in the first quarter of 2021 before increasing through the end of 2022. In 2021, EIA expects crude oil production in this region will average 8.9 million b/d and total U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d, which is less than 2020 production.
EIA expects that responses to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases will continue to limit global oil demand in the first half of 2021. Based on global macroeconomic forecasts from Oxford Economics, however, EIA forecasts that global gross domestic product will grow by 5.4% in 2021 and by 4.3% in 2022, leading to energy consumption growth. EIA forecasts that global consumption of liquid fuels will average 97.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2021 and 101.1 million b/d in 2022, only slightly less than the 2019 average of 101.2 million b/d.
EIA expects global inventory draws will contribute to forecast rising crude oil prices in the first quarter of 2021. Despite rising forecast crude oil prices in early 2021, EIA expects upward price pressure will be limited through the forecast period because of high global oil inventory, surplus crude oil production capacity, and stock draws decreasing after the first quarter of 2021. EIA forecasts Brent crude oil prices will average $53/b in both 2021 and 2022.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
You can find more information on EIA’s expectations for changes in global petroleum liquids production, consumption, and crude oil prices in EIA’s latest This Week in Petroleum article and its January STEO.
The Skullcandy Jib True is a pair of well-built headphones that resemble its premium sibling Skullcandy Sesh Truly Wireless. They are low-profile Truly wireless headphones that look good and don't feel too cheap. They are definitely some of the smaller earbuds that we have tested and do not protrude too much from your ears.
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