Brent plunged nearly 6% from its 42-month high settle of $79.80 at the beginning of the week after the energy ministers of Saudi Arabia and Russia, de facto leaders of the OPEC and non-OPEC producers cutting output, said on May 25 that they had agreed on the need to raise supply by 1 million b/d. The market had been overly squeezed due to unintended output reductions in recent months and crude prices were overheated, was the shared view from their meeting in St. Petersburg.
However, by mid-week, doubts set in that all the OPEC and non-OPEC ministers were on board with the idea and would agree to ease the cuts when they meet in Vienna on June 22. The combined curbs by OPEC and its 10 non-OPEC collaborators, aimed at suppressing about 1.72 million b/d of supply, are currently valid until the end of December 2018.
The doubt not only arrested crude’s sell-off, but also prompted a nervous market to quickly rebuild some length — albeit in Brent, not WTI.
By Thursday’s market close, front-month ICE Brent futures had clawed back more than half of their $4.50/barrel drop from the 42-month peak but not WTI, which clung to its losses. The WTI/Brent spread blew out to more than minus $10/barrel, the widest since the US lifted its crude export restrictions in December 2015. There are forces at work on both ends — WTI is being weighed down by surging US supply running against pipeline capacity constraints, especially in the Permian region, while Brent is being propped up by an over-tightened OPEC production and an anticipated crimping of Iranian supply under US sanctions.
The OPEC/non-OPEC meeting later this month will likely be a contentious one, unless a consensus is forged in advance during closed-door negotiations, in which case those would be tough as well. The oil ministers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait were reportedly due to meet in Kuwait City this weekend to discuss production policy.
We expect the cuts to be relaxed, likely starting from July 1. With several producers in both camps unable to sustainably increase production, it could end up being an unconventional arrangement, involving bigger contributions by Russia and Saudi Arabia. The proposed 1 million b/d increment is conservative, in our view, as close to 1.5 million b/d has been removed from the market due to unavoidable declines in Venezuela, Mexico, Angola, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan as well as outages in Nigeria and Libya in recent months.
However, OPEC now probably has more price hawks than ever before, keen to preserve crude’s price gains and to prevent the market from tipping into oversupply again. These members could negotiate down the quantum of increase or push for phased hikes.
As the anxiety levels in Tehran continue to rise, it has been pushing the Europeans and even OPEC for support against US sanctions, while furiously lobbying its crude buyers to stay put. But China and India, the biggest buyers of Iranian crude, are prepared to cut back, anticipating major shipping insurance and payment problems.
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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
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 3 December 2018 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
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The demand for industrial oil will continue to rise at least for the next 15 years, as the quick rental power plants need a huge quantity of lube oil to run.
The industries account for 30% of the total lubricant consumption; however, it is expected to take over 35% of the overall demand in the next 10 years.
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