Oil market participants had largely priced in the US exit from the Iran nuclear deal announced ahead of the May 12 deadline by President Donald Trump this week, but were taken aback somewhat by the full force of economic sanctions that have been lined up against the Islamic Republic.
The sanctions targeting the sales and shipping of Iran’s crude and condensate overseas will kick in on November 4, giving holders of current contracts about six months to wind down their transactions.
These “secondary sanctions”, which were removed by the 2015 nuclear deal, are the most powerful tool the US has for penalising Iran by indirectly restricting non-US entities from doing business with the country. These could push away some of Iran’s crude buyers, force others to pare down their purchase volumes, and deprive Iranian oil shipments of insurance cover.
The International Group of Protection & Indemnity Clubs expects the US decision to have “significant implications for maritime trade with Iran and the insurance of such trade.” But it considers a full assessment possible only after the position of the remaining signatories in the Iran nuclear deal is clear.
Brent and WTI had jumped to new 41-month highs at Thursday’s market close, notching cumulative gains of 4.0-5.6% over four days of rally that began at the end of the previous week and was punctuated by only one day of losses. However, the upward momentum had subsided by Friday. Brent has vaulted over $77 but may not have the steam to reach $80, the psychologically important mark that market participants have been on the lookout for amid a growing Iran fear premium over the past several weeks.
The European signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are said to be scrambling to save the deal, with a meeting of the foreign ministers including Iran planned for Monday. But what would a salvaged deal look like? And what reassurance would it give Iran if US sanctions hit the country where it hurts most? Will the Europeans be able to secure waivers for their refiners and insurers? And if they do, will the US lose its leverage?
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared his intention to begin talks with allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia in a bid to persuade them to press Iran back to the negotiating table over its nuclear and missile development programs. That adds another layer of complexity to European efforts to preserve the current deal. If Pompeo succeeds in initiating discussions, is it possible that the US will hold off on the sanctions and use the threat as leverage? Would Iran be a willing party?
The recent escalation in warfare between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria has added to supply worries stemming from the surging multi-faceted tensions in the Middle East. Could a rattled Iran spark off a bigger conflict in the region or cool off like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un?
The potential loss of 200-300,000 b/d of Iran’s supplies under US sanctions — this time without the support of its European allies — is factored into crude prices for now. Any further moves will demand answers to some fundamental questions and a likely scenario to emerge from a multitude of vastly different possibilities. That will take time.
Fear has brought Brent in the vicinity of $80. However, the leap towards that mark will demand evidence from supply fundamentals.
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U.S. crude oil production in the U.S. Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) averaged 1.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018, setting a new annual record. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects oil production in the GOM to set new production records in 2019 and in 2020, even after accounting for shut-ins related to Hurricane Barry in July 2019 and including forecasted adjustments for hurricane-related shut-ins for the remainder of 2019 and for 2020.
Based on EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook’s (STEO) expected production levels at new and existing fields, annual crude oil production in the GOM will increase to an average of 1.9 million b/d in 2019 and 2.0 million b/d in 2020. However, even with this level of growth, projected GOM crude oil production will account for a smaller share of the U.S. total. EIA expects the GOM to account for 15% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2019 and in 2020, compared with 23% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2011, as onshore production growth continues to outpace offshore production growth.
In 2019, crude oil production in the GOM fell from 1.9 million b/d in June to 1.6 million b/d in July because some production platforms were evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Barry. This disruption was resolved relatively quickly, and no disruptions caused by Hurricane Barry remain. Although final data are not yet available, EIA estimates GOM crude oil production reached 2.0 million b/d in August 2019.
Producers expect eight new projects to come online in 2019 and four more in 2020. EIA expects these projects to contribute about 44,000 b/d in 2019 and about 190,000 b/d in 2020 as projects ramp up production. Uncertainties in oil markets affect long-term planning and operations in the GOM, and the timelines of future projects may change accordingly.
Source: Rystad Energy
Because of the amount of time needed to discover and develop large offshore projects, oil production in the GOM is less sensitive to short-term oil price movements than onshore production in the Lower 48 states. In 2015 and early 2016, decreasing profit margins and reduced expectations for a quick oil price recovery prompted many GOM operators to reconsider future exploration spending and to restructure or delay drilling rig contracts, causing average monthly rig counts to decline through 2018.
Crude oil price increases in 2017 and 2018 relative to lows in 2015 and 2016 have not yet had a significant effect on operations in the GOM, but they have the potential to contribute to increasing rig counts and field discoveries in the coming years. Unlike onshore operations, falling rig counts do not affect current production levels, but instead they affect the discovery of future fields and the start-up of new projects.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Refinery Report
The API gravity of crude oil input to U.S. refineries has generally increased, or gotten lighter, since 2011 because of changes in domestic production and imports. Regionally, refinery crude slates—or the mix of crude oil grades that a refinery is processing—have become lighter in the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and West Coast regions, and they have become slightly heavier in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions.
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, so light oils have high API gravities. Crude oil with an API gravity greater than 38 degrees is generally considered light crude oil; crude oil with an API gravity of 22 degrees or below is considered heavy crude oil.
The crude slate processed in refineries situated along the Gulf Coast—the region with the most refining capacity in the United States—has had the largest increase in API gravity, increasing from an average of 30.0 degrees in 2011 to an average of 32.6 degrees in 2018. The West Coast had the heaviest crude slate in 2018 at 28.2 degrees, and the East Coast had the lightest of the three regions at 34.8 degrees.
Production of increasingly lighter crude oil in the United States has contributed to the overall lightening of the crude oil slate for U.S. refiners. The fastest-growing category of domestic production has been crude oil with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees, according to data in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report.
Since 2015, when EIA began collecting crude oil production data by API gravity, light crude oil production in the Lower 48 states has grown from an annual average of 4.6 million barrels per day (b/d) to 6.4 million b/d in the first seven months of 2019.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report
When setting crude oil slates, refiners consider logistical constraints and the cost of transportation, as well as their unique refinery configuration. For example, nearly all (more than 99% in 2018) crude oil imports to the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain regions come from Canada because of geographic proximity and existing pipeline and rail infrastructure between these regions.
Crude oil imports from Canada, which consist of mostly heavy crude oil, have increased by 67% since 2011 because of increased Canadian production. Crude oil imports from Canada have accounted for a greater share of refinery inputs in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, leading to heavier refinery crude slates in these regions.
By comparison, crude oil production in Texas tends to be lighter: Texas accounted for half of crude oil production above 40 degrees API in the United States in 2018. The share of domestic crude oil in the Gulf Coast refinery crude oil slate increased from 36% in 2011 to 70% in 2018. As a result, the change in the average API gravity of crude oil processed in refineries in the Gulf Coast region was the largest increase among all regions in the United States during that period.
East Coast refineries have three ways to receive crude oil shipments, depending on which are more economical: by rail from the Midwest, by coastwise-compliant (Jones Act) tankers from the Gulf Coast, or by importing. From 2011 to 2018, the share of imported crude oil in the East Coast region decreased from 95% to 81% as the share of domestic crude oil inputs increased. Conversely, the share of imported crude oil at West Coast refineries increased from 46% in 2011 to 51% in 2018.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 7 October 2019 – Brent: US$58/b; WTI: US$52/b
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