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Last Updated: June 18, 2018
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In the June 2018 update of its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts Brent crude oil prices will average $71 per barrel (b) in 2018 and $68/b in 2019. The updated 2019 forecast price is $2/b higher than in the May STEO. Brent crude oil spot prices averaged $77/b in May, an increase of $5/b from April and the highest monthly average price since November 2014. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) prices are forecast to average almost $7/b lower than Brent prices in 2018 and $6/b lower in 2019.


Crude oil prices have reached high levels as global oil inventories have generally declined from January 2017 through April 2018. Even though the 2019 oil price forecast is higher than it was in the May STEO, EIA expects oil prices to decline in the coming months because global oil inventories are expected to rise slightly during the second half of 2018 and in 2019.


Expected inventory growth results from forecast oil supply growth outpacing forecast oil demand growth in 2019. EIA currently forecasts global petroleum and other liquids inventories will increase by 210,000 barrels per day (b/d) next year, a factor that, all else being equal, typically puts downward pressure on oil prices.


Most of the growth in global oil production in the coming months is expected to come from the United States. EIA projects that U.S. crude oil production will average 10.8 million b/d for full-year 2018, up from 9.4 million b/d in 2017, and will average 11.8 million b/d in 2019. If the 2018 and 2019 forecast annual averages materialize, they would be the highest levels of production on record, surpassing the previous record set in 1970.


Tight oil production in the Permian region of West Texas and New Mexico is the main driver of rising U.S. production. Among other countries outside of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Canada and Brazil are also expected to experience significant growth in oil production in 2019.


EIA expects that OPEC crude oil production will average 32.0 million b/d in 2018, a decrease of about 0.4 million b/d from the 2017 level. Total OPEC crude oil output is expected to increase slightly in 2019 to an average of 32.1 million b/d. The 2018 and 2019 levels are 0.2 million b/d and 0.3 million b/d lower, respectively, than forecast in the May STEO, reflecting revised expectations of crude oil production in Venezuela and Iran. The lower OPEC forecast is one of the main reasons EIA expects oil prices to be slightly higher in 2019 compared with last month’s forecast.


OPEC, Russia, and other non-OPEC countries will meet on June 22 to assess current oil market conditions associated with their existing crude oil production reductions. Current reductions are scheduled to continue through the end of 2018. Oil ministers from Saudi Arabia and Russia have announced that they will re-evaluate the production reduction agreement given accelerated output declines from Venezuela and uncertainty surrounding Iran’s production levels.


In the June STEO, EIA assumes declining Venezuelan and Iranian crude oil production in 2019 will be offset by increasing production from Persian Gulf producers, primarily Saudi Arabia. Depending on the outcome of the June 22 meeting, however, the magnitude of any supply response is uncertain. Overall, EIA expects global oil production to increase by almost 2.0 million b/d in 2019 compared with forecast oil demand growth of 1.7 million b/d.

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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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