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Last Updated: April 26, 2018
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Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 23 April 2017 – Brent: US$74/b; WTI: US$68/b

  • Geopolitical tensions continue to price crude oil at a premium; after US-led military action in Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks and missile attacks from Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen towards Saudi Arabia boosted prices to their highest level since December 2014.
  • Reports of explosions and gunshots outside Saudi Arabian King Salman’s palace over the weekend also spooked talk of attacks and coups, contributing to a fragile atmosphere in the Middle East.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to coax US President Donald Trump into preserving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which mollified the market slightly, but Trump continues to show exasperation.
  • Additional positive sentiment came from OPEC, as a joint finding by OPEC and its NOPEC allies states that the global oil glut has been virtually eliminated, with the original target of the pact in sight.
  • There are signs that the successful OPEC-NOPEC cooperation has fuelled the desire of OPEC to expand cooperation, with UAE Oil Minister Suhail Mohamed Al Mazrouei stating ‘more countries were needed in the pact’ to ensure the burden is spread more evenly.
  • Even as OPEC mulled further cooperation and an extension of the supply cuts, President Trump slammed the cartel for inflating oil prices – an unusual response given that higher prices have been benefited American shale industry.
  • American stockpiles of crude and oil products declined across-the-board according to the EIA, while US crude production inched up by 15,000 barrels/day to 10.5 mmb/d.
  • Five new oil rigs entered service in the US last week, bringing the total active rig count up to 1013, one of many oil industry metrics that are returning to pre-2014 crisis levels.
  • Crude price outlook: OPEC’s seeming willingness to continue its supply pact might signal to the market that higher prices are acceptable, but the real variable is geopolitical sentiment. We expect Brent to move down to US$72/b and WTI/Shanghai to US$66/b.


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • The Indonesian government has transferred rights to eight oil field blocks scheduled to expire to Pertamina, meant to ‘compensate’ the firm for any profitability drag by the government’s fuels subsidy policy. The oil blocks in question were formerly held by Chevron, CNOOC, Total and Inpex.
  • The Philippines is aiming to have a framework for joint oil and gas cooperation with China in the South China Sea by the end of this year, as it faces the prospect of dwindling domestic production.

Downstream

  • The refining crunch at PDVSA is getting worse, as data from the Venezuelan state oil firm shows that its domestic refineries – including the Isla refiner in Curacao – operated at only 31% in Q118.
  • Zambia has reportedly shortlisted five companies, including Glencore and Sahara Energy Resources, to purchase a majority stake in the country’s sole 24 kb/d Indeni refinery.
  • Kazakhstan is looking to upgrade its refineries in a modernisation drive that will lower its fuel oil exports by 35% as it focuses on higher value products. Upgrades at the Pavlodar refinery have been completed, with the Atyrau and Shymkent refineries expected later this year.

Natural Gas/LNG

  • BP and Reliance has formally sanctioned development of the deepwater gas ‘Satellite cluster’ in India’s offshore Block KG D6, the second of three projects to be developed in the integrated KG D6 development.
  • LNG exports from PNG LNG has resumed after a devastating earthquake, with the first export cargo departing from Port Moresby.
  • Having found success elsewhere on the Mediterranean, Eni is now looking at spending ‘billions’ in Algeria over the next three years to expand gas production in partnership with Sonatrach.
  • Australia’s Northern Territory has lifted a two-year moratorium on fracking, potentially unlocking huge onshore shale gas reserves.
  • Eni is moving ahead with the offshore Merakes field in Indonesia after its development plan was approved by the country’s upstream watchdog.
  • Petronas has made its first LNG delivery to South Korea’s S-Oil under a 15-year, 700 mtpa contract.

Corporate

  • With Q1 earnings filtering in, Schlumberger’s reporting of an 88% rise in net profit points to a healthy season for the industry, particularly on the service side, with revenue also jumping by 52% to US$2.84 billion.
  • Indonesia has stepped into Pertamina affairs once again, removing Chief Executive Elia Massa Manik after a recent oil spill and slow progress on refinery development plans. Nicke Widyawati will assume temporary stewardship, as Manik leaves along with four other directors.
  • BP and Petrobras have signed an MoU to ‘explore areas of cooperation’, which will cover upstream, downstream, trading and low carbon plans both inside and outside of Brazil.
  • Total has purchased French power utility company Direct Energie, as it follows in Shell's footsteps to expand for an electric future.

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May, 20 2022
High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

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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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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