Total liquid fuels inventories return to five-year average levels in the United States and the OECD
The extended period of oversupply in global petroleum markets that began before the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) November 2016 agreement to cut production has ended, and the large buildup of global inventories during that period has now been drawn down. As OPEC plans to reconvene on June 22, markets now appear more in balance, but uncertainty remains going forward.
The November 2016 OPEC supply agreement took effect in January 2017, whereby OPEC member countries agreed to reduce crude oil production by 1.2 million barrels per day (b/d) compared with October 2016 levels and to limit total OPEC production to 32.5 million b/d. In addition, Russia agreed to reduce its crude oil production. OPEC extended the agreement in November 2017, with the production cuts remaining in place until the end of 2018.
Since January 2017, one of the primary indicators of a tightening world oil market has been a decline in crude oil and other liquids inventories. After sustained increases in quarterly global liquid inventories from mid-2014 through most of 2016, inventories declined throughout 2017 and into the first quarter of 2018 (Figure 1).
Data for global petroleum inventories are not collected directly. Instead, increases or decreases in global inventories are implied based on the difference between world production and world consumption estimates. However, inventory data for the United States and for countries within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are available and can indicate what is happening globally.
From January 2017 to April 2018, U.S. crude oil and other liquids inventories decreased by 162 million barrels while OECD inventories decreased by 234 million barrels. Over this same period, U.S. and OECD crude oil and other liquids inventories moved from 229 million barrels and 334 million barrels, respectively, higher than their five-year averages to 16 million barrels and 2 million barrels lower (Figure 2).
Between the first quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018, estimated total world petroleum and other liquids production rose 1.6 million b/d. OECD petroleum and other liquids production rose 1.3 million b/d, and most of this growth came from increased crude oil production in the United States, which increased by 1.2 million b/d, from 9.0 million b/d to 10.2 million b/d. Total OPEC petroleum (crude and other liquids) production increased by 0.4 million b/d over this period. Total OPEC crude oil production remained lower than the 32.5 million b/d agreement level, increasing 0.27 million b/d to 32.4 million b/d.
Total world petroleum and other liquids consumption, on the other hand, increased by an estimated 1.9 million b/d between the first quarters of 2017 and 2018, exceeding the growth in production and resulting in inventory declines. This consumption growth occurred primarily in the United States (0.6 million b/d), China (0.5 million b/d), and other Non-OECD Asia (0.6 million b/d) (Figure 3).
The days of supply measure (current inventory level divided by next month’s estimated consumption) provides additional insight into market balances. Between January 2017 and April 2017, U.S. and OECD crude oil days of supply fell by 11.5 and 4.5 days, respectively, to 59.2 and 60.6 days. U.S. crude oil and other liquids days of supply fell from 12 days higher than the five-year average to 3.6 days lower. OECD crude oil and other liquids days of supply dropped from 7.4 days higher than the five-year average to 1.6 days lower (Figure 4).
EIA forecasts that the tightening trend in global petroleum markets will reverse. In the May 2018 Short-Term Energy Outlook, EIA forecasts that both U.S. and OECD petroleum and other liquids inventories will return to surpluses compared with their five-year averages, although on a smaller scale compared with the period between 2015 and 2016. U.S. and OECD days of supply are forecast to remain in a band that is close to the five-year average level through 2019. However, additional uncertainty about future global oil market balances remains in light of, among other factors, the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the continued instability in Venezuela.
U.S. average diesel price increases
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price for May 14, 2018 was $2.87 per gallon. Please note that on May 14, 2018, EIA implemented new statistical methodologies for conducting the Motor Gasoline Price Survey. Because of these changes, the published price estimates this week are not directly comparable with those published for May 7, 2018, which were based on EIA’s previous sample.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price increased nearly 7 cents to $3.24 per gallon on May 14, 2018, nearly 70 cents higher than a year ago. Midwest prices rose over eight cents to almost $3.18 per gallon, West Coast and Rocky Mountain prices each rose nearly seven cents to $3.73 per gallon and $3.32 per gallon, respectively, and East Coast and Gulf Coast prices each rose nearly six cents to $3.24 per gallon and $3.01 per gallon, respectively.
Propane/propylene inventories rise
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 1.7 million barrels last week to 40.4 million barrels as of May 11, 2018, 12.3 million barrels (23.4%) lower than the five-year average inventory level for this same time of year. Midwest, East Coast, and Gulf Coast inventories increased by 0.8 million barrels, 0.6 million barrels, and 0.4 million barrels, respectively, while Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased by 0.1 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 7.2% of total propane/propylene inventories.
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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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