Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of PetroEdge
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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U.S. refineries running at near-record highs

U.S. gross refinery inputs

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Petroleum Status Report

For the week ending July 6, 2018, the four-week average of U.S. gross refinery inputs surpassed 18 million barrels per day (b/d) for the first time on record. U.S. refineries are running at record levels in response to robust domestic and international demand for motor gasoline and distillate fuel oil.

Before the most recent increases in refinery runs, the last time the four-week average of U.S. gross refinery inputs approached 18 million b/d was the week of August 25, 2017. Hurricane Harvey made landfall the following week, resulting in widespread refinery closures and shutdowns along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Despite record-high inputs, refinery utilization as a percentage of capacity has not surpassed the record set in 1998. Rather than higher utilization, refinery runs have increased with increased refinery capacity. U.S. refinery capacity increased by 862,000 barrels per calendar day (b/cd) between January 1, 2011, and January 1, 2018.

The record-high U.S. input levels are driven in large part by refinery operations in the Gulf Coast and Midwest regions, the Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts (PADDs) with the most refinery capacity in the country. The Gulf Coast (PADD 3) has more than half of all U.S. refinery capacity and reached a new record input level the same week as the record-high overall U.S. capacity, with four-week average gross refinery inputs of 9.5 million b/d for the week ending July 6. The Midwest (PADD 2) has the second-highest refinery capacity, and the four-week average gross refinery inputs reached a record-high 4.1 million b/d for the week ending June 1.

Gulf Coast and Midwest gross refinery inputs


U.S. refineries are responding currently to high demand for petroleum products, specifically motor gasoline and distillate. The four-week average of finished motor gasoline product supplied—EIA’s proxy measure of U.S. consumption—typically hits the highest level of the year in August. Weekly data for this summer to date suggest that this year’s peak in finished motor gasoline product supplied is likely to match that of 2016 and 2017, the two highest years on record, at 9.8 million b/d. The four-week average of finished motor gasoline product supplied for the week ending August 3, 2018, was at 9.7 million b/d.

U.S. distillate consumption, again measured as product supplied, is also relatively high, averaging 4.0 million b/d for the past four weeks, 64,000 b/d lower than the five-year average level for this time of year. In addition to relatively strong domestic distillate consumption, U.S. exports of distillate have continued to increase, reaching a four-week average of 1.2 million b/d as of August 3, 2018. For the week ending August 3, 2018, the four-week average of U.S. distillate product supplied plus exports reached 5.2 million b/d.

In its August Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts that U.S. refinery runs will average 16.9 million b/d and 17.0 million b/d in 2018 and 2019, respectively. If achieved, both would be new record highs, surpassing the 2017 annual average of 16.6 million b/d.

August, 14 2018
Offshore discoveries in the Mediterranean could increase Egypt’s natural gas production


Egypt natural gas fields and select infrastructure

Natural gas production in Egypt has been in decline, falling from a 2009 peak of 5.8 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) to 3.9 Bcf/d in 2016, based on estimates in BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy. The startup of a number of natural gas development projects located offshore in the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Egypt’s northern coast has significantly altered the outlook for the region’s natural gas markets. Production from these projects could offset the growing need for natural gas imports to meet domestic demand, according to the Egyptian government.

The West Nile Delta, Nooros, Atoll, and Zohr fields were fast-tracked for development by the Egyptian government and have begun production, providing a substantial increase to Egypt’s natural gas supply. The Zohr field’s estimated recoverable natural gas reserves of up to 22 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) would make it the largest natural gas field in the Mediterranean, based on company reports gathered by IHS Markit. The Zohr field is currently producing 1.1 billion cubic feet (Bcf) per day and is expected to increase to 2.7 Bcf per day by the end of 2019.

Natural gas production in Egypt has declined largely as a result of relatively low investment, according to Business Monitor International research. Meanwhile, domestic demand for energy has grown, driven by economic growth, increased natural gas use for power generation, and energy subsidies. With the exception of small declines in 2013 and 2014, natural gas consumption has increased every year since at least 1990, and it is up 19% from 2009, when domestic production peaked.

Faced with growing demand and declining supply, Egypt had to close its liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals to divert supply to domestic consumption. Egypt became a net natural gas importer in 2015, and although LNG exports resumed in 2016, Egypt’s net imports of natural gas continued to increase.

Egypt dry natural gas production, consumption, and trade

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy

The Middle East Economic Survey (MEES) indicated that Egypt will still need to import small volumes of natural gas in the coming years, particularly for the power sector. MEES reported that the state-owned Egyptian Electricity Holding Company (EEHC) awarded contracts that would add 25 gigawatts (GW) to total generation capacity, 70% of which would come from natural gas-fired projects. Three combined-cycle natural gas turbine power plants with a total capacity of 14.4 GW will collectively require as much as 2.0 Bcf/d of natural gas when they become fully operational in 2020.

August, 15 2018
US Energy Exports Spared the Wrath of the Middle Kingdom

A threat. And then a backing off. As the trade war between the US and China escalates, both countries are moving into politically sensitive areas as they ratchet up the scale of the standoff. When the US first introduced tariffs earlier this year, they were limited to washing machines and solar panels. Then as President Trump moved into a broader range of goods, China responded with tariffs that were designed to maximise impact on Trump’s voter base. That meant the agriculture heartlands of the US in the Midwest where soybeans are grown and shipped in record numbers to China last year to feed its massive demand for animal feed and edible oils. Last week, the US imposed tariffs on an additional US$16 billion worth of Chinese imports, targeting technological sectors, and of course, China replied. The list included for the first time US crude exports, demonstrating China’s willingness to hit one of America’s most vibrant industries. And then, a few days later, it backed down, removing crude oil from the list. 

What happened?

Chatter among the industry suggests that Sinopec had lobbied for the removal. Even though growth has slowed down nominally, China’s fuel demand is still growing massively on an absolute level. In a year where Iranian crude exports are being squeezed by new American sanctions, China needs oil. It may have defied a request by the US to completely halt Iranian exports, but it has also promised not to ramp up orders as well. China imported some 650,000 b/d of crude from Iran last year. To replace even some of that will be challenging without tapping into growing American production, particularly since Sinopec and Petrochina are in a tiff with Saudi Aramco over prices, and the government wants to diversify its crude sources away from overreliance on Russia.

So crude was removed from the tariff list. Leaving only refined fuels and petrochemical feedstocks – tiny in demand except for propane, which has become a key feedstock for China’s petrochemicals producers through PDH plants. But since President Trump has mooted more tariffs, this time on US$200 billion worth of imports, China may have backpedalled for strategic reasons this time – Sinopec’s trading arm had suspended all US purchases until the ‘uncertainty passed’- but can still wield its potent weapon in the future. And not just on crude, but tariffs on LNG as well. The latter is more sensitive, given that many of the LNG projects springing up along the Gulf Coast are depending on projected Chinese demand. Cheniere just signed a 25-year LNG deal with CNPC and is hoping for more to come. That hope burns bright for now, but if the trade war continues escalating at its current pace, the forecast could get a lot cloudier. For now, US energy exports have been spared from the wrath of the Middle Kingdom. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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August, 14 2018