Almost everyone seems to agree that US$80/b – at least in this current environment – is not conducive for the oil business. While oil producing countries are reaping benefits right now, they are also worried that prices sustaining at this level will cause demand destruction in key markets like China and India, which have underpinned global oil growth over the last year.
They are also, correctly, worried that the longer oil stays at this level, the greater the reaction by US shale producers will be, causing another crash further down the line. OPEC is worried that this derails their carefully calculated alliance over the past 18 months that has seen an unprecedented level of cooperation and that implosions in Venezuela and sanctions against Iran will exacerbate the situation.
And most of all, American President Donald Trump, who took to Twitter once again recently to accuse OPEC of colluding to keep prices high – as the Republicans worry that high pump prices for gasoline over summer will further erode political support in the upcoming midterm elections.
So as OPEC and the NOPEC alliance meet once again in Vienna on Friday (June 22) for their bi-annual meeting, the mood of the meeting has swung from the need to support oil prices to the need to manage oil prices. On paper, OPEC’s heavyweight fighter – Saudi Arabia – is pushing for higher production, supported by its allies Kuwait, the UAE and Algeria. Several other big producers including Iran, Iraq and Venezuela, however, don’t seem to agree and have threatened to veto any proposal for a production increase, with Iran stating that ‘we do not need to appease Trump and the market is well-supplied’. Russia, the leading producer in the NOPEC alliance is also pushing for higher production, and the countries in NOPEC look liable to be whipped into line. But OPEC decisions rely on consensus and if the countries cannot come to one, unilateral actions could trigger a return to the destructive free-for-all attitude within OPEC where producers compete for market share and depress prices as a result. After enduring three years of low prices, no one in the industry wants a return to that.
At the opening match of the World Cup 2018 in Moscow, Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were spotted getting chummy, despite Russia thrashing Saudi Arabia 5-0. This has fuelled speculation that the two producers could be forging an alliance separate to OPEC, possibly jeopardising coordination within the oil cartel. Despite Iran and Iraq being very vocal about not agreeing to any supply increase, Russia has suggested that OPEC and NOPEC could begin gradually increasing oil production starting from July 1. That itself is not controversial – the November 2017 meeting predicted this, stating then that the world market was rebalancing more quickly than expected and a review of the supply freeze was required in June 2018. That requires cooperation, but as it stands now OPEC looks to be divided into two cooperatives – Russia, Saudi Arabia and their allies on one side and Iraq, Iran and Venezuela on the other.
The butting of these heads will define the upcoming meeting and one can only hope that they will come to an agreement, given that previous disagreements have proved damaging.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 October 2018 – Brent: US$84/b; WTI: US$74/b
Headlines of the week
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
As domestic production continues to increase, the average density of crude oil produced in the United States continues to become lighter. The average API gravity—a measure of a crude oil’s density where higher numbers mean lower density—of U.S. crude oil increased in 2017 and through the first six months of 2018. Crude oil production with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees grew by 310,000 barrels per day (b/d) to more than 4.6 million b/d in 2017. This increase represents 53% of total Lower 48 production in 2017, an increase from 50% in 2015, the earliest year for which EIA has oil production data by API gravity.
API gravity is measured as the inverse of the density of a petroleum liquid relative to water. The higher the API gravity, the lower the density of the petroleum liquid, meaning lighter oils have higher API gravities. The increase in light crude oil production is the result of the growth in crude oil production from tight formations enabled by improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Along with sulfur content, API gravity determines the type of processing needed to refine crude oil into fuel and other petroleum products, all of which factor into refineries’ profits. Overall U.S. refining capacity is geared toward a diverse range of crude oil inputs, so it can be uneconomic to run some refineries solely on light crude oil. Conversely, it is impossible to run some refineries on heavy crude oil without producing significant quantities of low-valued heavy products such as residual fuel.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
API gravity can differ greatly by production area. For example, oil produced in Texas—the largest crude oil-producing state—has a relatively broad distribution of API gravities with most production ranging from 30 to 50 degrees API. However, crude oil with API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees accounted for the largest share of Texas production, at 55%, in 2017. This category was also the fastest growing, reaching 1.9 million b/d, driven by increasing production in the tight oil plays of the Permian and Eagle Ford.
Oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken formation also tends to be less dense and lighter. About 90% of North Dakota’s 2017 crude oil production had an API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees. The oil coming from the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) tends to be more dense and heavier. More than 34% of the crude oil produced in the GOM in 2017 had an API gravity of lower than 30 degrees and 65% had an API gravity of 30 to 40 degrees.
In contrast to the increasing production of light crude oil in the United States, imported crude oil continues to be heavier. In 2017, 7.6 million b/d (96%) of imported crude oil had an API gravity of 40 or below, compared with 4.2 million b/d (48%) of domestic production.
EIA collects API gravity production data by state in the monthly crude oil and natural gas production report as well as crude oil quality by company level imports to better inform analysis of refinery inputs and utilization, crude oil trade, and regional crude oil pricing. API gravity is also projected to continue changing: EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2018 Reference case projects that U.S. oil production from tight formations will continue to increase in the coming decades.
Less than two weeks ago, the VLCC Navarin arrived at Tanjung Pengerang, at the southern end of Peninsular Malaysia. It was carrying two million barrels of crude oil, split equally between Saudi Arab Medium and Iraqi Basra Light grades.
The RAPID refinery in Johor. An equal joint partnership between Malaysia’s Petronas and Saudi Aramco whose 300 kb/d mega refinery is nearing completion. Once questioned for its economic viability, RAPID is now scheduled to start up in early 2019, entering a market that is still booming and in demand of the higher quality, Euro IV and Euro V level fuels RAPID will produce.
Beyond fuel products, RAPID will also have massive petrochemical capacity. Meant to come on online at a later date, RAPID will have a collective capacity of some 7.7 million tons per annum of differentiated and specialty chemicals, including 3 mtpa of propylene. To be completed in stages, Petronas nonetheless projects that it will add some 3.3 million tons of petrochemicals to the Asia market by the end of next year. That’s blockbuster numbers, and it will elevate Petronas’ stature in downstream, bringing more international appeal to a refining network previously focused mainly on Malaysia. For its partner Saudi Aramco, RAPID is part of a multi-pronged strategy of investing mega refineries in key parts of the world, to diversify its business and ensure demand for its crude flows as it edges towards an IPO.
RAPID won’t be alone. Vietnam’s second refinery – the 200 kb/d Nghi Son – has finally started up this year after multiple delays. And in the same timeframe as RAPID, the Zhejiang refinery by Rongsheng Petro Chemical and the Dalian refinery by Hengli Petrochemical in China are both due to start up. At 400 kb/d each, that could add 1.1 mmb/d of new refining capacity in Asia within 1H19. And there’s more coming. Hengli’s Pulau Muara Besar project in Brunei is also aiming for a 2019 start, potentially adding another 175 kb/d of capacity. And just like RAPID, each of these new or recent projects has substantial petrochemical capacity planned.
That’s okay for now, since demand remains strong. But the danger is that this could all unravel. With American sanctions on Iran due to kick in November, even existing refineries are fleeing from contributing to Tehran in favour of other crude grades. The new refineries will be entering a tight market that could become even tighter. RAPID can rely on Saudi Arabia and Nghi Son can depend on Kuwait, both the Chinese projects are having to scramble to find alternate supplies for their designed diet of heavy sour crude. This race to find supplies has already sent Brent prices to four-year highs, and most in the industry are already predicting that crude oil prices will rise to US$100/b by the year’s end. At prices like this, demand destruction begins and the current massive growth – fuelled by cheap oil prices – could come to an end. The market can rapidly change again, and by the end of this decade, Asia could be swirling with far more oil products that it can handle.
Upcoming and recent Asia refineries: