Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: June 19, 2018
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Business Trends
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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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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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