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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Working natural gas inventories in the Lower 48 states totaled 3,519 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the week ending October 11, 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report (WNGSR). This is the first week that Lower 48 states’ working gas inventories have exceeded the previous five-year average since September 22, 2017. Weekly injections in three of the past four weeks each surpassed 100 Bcf, or about 27% more than typical injections for that time of year.
Working natural gas capacity at underground storage facilities helps market participants balance the supply and consumption of natural gas. Inventories in each of the five regions are based on varying commercial, risk management, and reliability goals.
When determining whether natural gas inventories are relatively high or low, EIA uses the average inventories for that same week in each of the previous five years. Relatively low inventories heading into winter months can put upward pressure on natural gas prices. Conversely, relatively high inventories can put downward pressure on natural gas prices.
This week’s inventory level ends a 106-week streak of lower-than-normal natural gas inventories. Natural gas inventories in the Lower 48 states entered the winter of 2017–18 lower than the previous average. Episodes of relatively cold temperatures in the winter of 2017–18—including a bomb cyclone—resulted in record withdrawals from storage, increasing the deficit to the five-year average.
In the subsequent refill season (typically April through October), sustained warmer-than-normal temperatures increased electricity demand for natural gas. Increased demand slowed natural gas storage injection activity through the summer and fall of 2018. By November 30, 2018, the deficit to the five-year average had grown to 725 Bcf. Inventories in that week were 20% lower than the previous five-year average for that time of year. Throughout the 2019 refill season, record levels of U.S. natural gas production led to relatively high injections of natural gas into storage and reduced the deficit to the previous five-year average.
The deficit was also decreased as last year’s low inventory levels are rolled into the previous five-year average. For this week in 2019, the preceding five-year average is about 124 Bcf lower than it was for the same week last year. Consequently, the gap has closed in part based on a lower five-year average.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report
The level of working natural gas inventories relative to the previous five-year average tends to be inversely correlated with natural gas prices. Front-month futures prices at the Henry Hub, the main price benchmark for natural gas in the United States, were as low as $1.67 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in early 2016. At about that same time, natural gas inventories were 874 Bcf more than the previous five-year average.
By the winter of 2018–19, natural gas front-month futures prices reached their highest level in several years. Natural gas inventories fell to 725 Bcf less than the previous five-year average on November 30, 2018. In recent weeks, increasing the Lower 48 states’ natural gas storage levels have contributed to lower natural gas futures prices.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report and front-month futures prices from New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX)
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 14 October 2019 – Brent: US$59/b; WTI: US$53/b
Headlines of the week
Amid ongoing political unrest, Ecuador has chosen to withdraw from OPEC in January 2020. Citing a need to boost oil revenues by being ‘honest about its ability to endure further cuts’, Ecuador is prioritising crude production and welcoming new oil investment (free from production constraints) as President Lenin Moreno pursues more market-friendly economic policies. But his decisions have caused unrest; the removal of fuel subsidies – which effectively double domestic fuel prices – have triggered an ongoing widespread protests after 40 years of low prices. To balance its fiscal books, Ecuador’s priorities have changed.
The departure is symbolic. Ecuador’s production amounts to some 540,000 b/d of crude oil. It has historically exceeded its allocated quota within the wider OPEC supply deal, but given its smaller volumes, does not have a major impact on OPEC’s total output. The divorce is also not acrimonious, with Ecuador promising to continue supporting OPEC’s efforts to stabilise the oil market where it can.
This isn’t the first time, or the last time, that a country will quit OPEC. Ecuador itself has already done so once, withdrawing in December 1992. Back then, Quito cited fiscal problems, balking at the high membership fee – US$2 million per year – and that it needed to prioritise increasing production over output discipline. Ecuador rejoined in October 2007. Similar circumstances over supply constraints also prompted Gabon to withdraw in January 1995, returning only in July 2016. The likelihood of Ecuador returning is high, given this history, but there are also two OPEC members that have departed seemingly permanently.
The first is Indonesia, which exited OPEC in 2008 after 46 years of membership. Chronic mismanagement of its upstream resources had led Indonesia to become a net importer of crude oil since the early 2000s and therefore unable to meet its production quota. Indonesia did rejoin OPEC briefly in January 2016 after managing to (slightly) improve its crude balance, but was forced to withdraw once again in December 2016 when OPEC began requesting more comprehensive production cuts to stabilise prices. But while Indonesia may return, Qatar is likely gone permanently. Officially, Qatar exited OPEC in January 2019 after 48 years of continuous membership to focus on natural gas production, which dwarfs its crude output. Unofficially, geopolitical tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia – which has resulted in an ongoing blockade and boycott – contributed to the split.
The exit of Ecuador will not make much material difference to OPEC’s current goal of controlling supply to stabilise prices. With Saudi production back at full capacity – and showing the willingness to turn its taps on or off to control the market – gains in Ecuador’s crude production can be offset elsewhere. What matters is optics. The exit leaves the impression that OPEC’s power is weakening, limiting its ability to influence the market by controlling supply. There are also ongoing tensions brewing within OPEC, specifically between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The continued implosion of the Venezuelan economy is also an issue. OPEC will survive the exit of Ecuador; but if Iran or Venezuela choose to go, then it will face a full-blown existential crisis.
Current OPEC membership: