OPEC/non-OPEC supply boost likely but keeps oil market on a knife-edge
A fortnight after an unexpected proposal to boost global oil supply by 1 million b/d emerged from a meeting of the Saudi and Russian energy ministers in St. Petersburg, the market has been left hanging in suspense as to whether or not it will be implemented.
The difference between a “yes” and a “no” has so far amounted to a spread of around $4/barrel for Brent futures, between a nervous market driving up prices towards the $80/bbl psychological mark and furiously selling off to pre-empt an increase in supply.
Should a production hike of 1 million b/d be agreed, we estimate a slump of another $4/barrel or so in Brent, cooling it to the low-$70s compared with the 42-month high close of $79.80 notched on May 23.
Between the two diametrically opposite options of raising output by 1 million b/d and keeping the current cuts intact, lies the possibility of agreeing a smaller boost, as we discussed in last weeks viewsletter. The increment would need to be at least more than 500,000 b/d. Anything less would be ineffective in countering the unintended losses from Venezuela and Iran, among others, likely leaving Brent in the mid-$70s, ready to spike again if the supply tightness worsens. As we have said before, even an increase of 1 million b/d is conservative.
Global oil production uncertainties are the highest since the Arab Spring took hold in 2011 and could swing the market into a supply shock that leaves OPEC struggling to plug the gap promptly, or worse, plugging it at all, given the group’s limited spare capacity.
These supply uncertainties arise from accelerating natural declines in conventional oil fields across the globe, amplified by sustained and severe cuts in upstream investment since 2015; delays and teething issues in the few greenfield oil projects coming online; and heightened geopolitical tensions haunting several major oil-producing countries.
Meanwhile, WTI has drifted off again, disconnecting from the global markets. August NYMEX WTI futures closed at a discount of $11.43/barrel to the corresponding ICE Brent contract on June 7, the widest since February 2015. WTI Midland, the price of tight oil in the prolific Permian basin, remains under pressure as surging production has bumped against pipeline takeaway capacity and the forward curve shows a dim view of wellhead prices until September 2019.
WTI Midland is also dragging down NYMEX WTI futures, which represent the value of barrels at the Cushing storage in Oklahoma. Such is the bearish outlook due to the Permian/Cushing bottleneck that not even a third consecutive weekly decline in Cushing stocks reported by the US Energy Information Administration on Wednesday provided any lift.
The drama around Venezuelan output and Iran sanctions has reached a crescendo. We bring you our perspective on the latest twists and what they mean for the ministers meeting in Vienna on June 22.
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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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