The US has just rebuffed high-level pleas from the European Union to grant exemptions to European companies operating in and with Iran, underlining America’s hardline stance in implementing its renewed sanctions on Iran. The goal is, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, is to reduce Iranian oil exports ‘down to zero’ to ‘pressure Iran into changing its threatening behaviour.’
In May, Iranian crude and condensate exports totalled 2.7 mmb/d. If the US unwaveringly continues on its stance, that will be a major shock to the market. All across the world, crude buyers are adjusting their habits. Most major European refiners, along with South Korea and Japan, have drastically reduced their purchases. Loopholes had allowed China and India to continue trading with Iran during the Obama-era sanctions, but America’s hardline stance this time appears to be dissuading them – US crude exports to India rose to an all-time high in June as it moves to replace supplies from Iran and Venezuela. Small waivers were allowed under Obama’s sanctions, which was coordinated with the EU, but this new unilateral US move appears to be far, far stricter. At risk is not just global crude oil flows, but billions in investment – Total will now be forced to pull out of the South Pars project, having already spent some US$90 million out of a projected US$2 billion investment. This would leave the South Pars project in the hands of China’s CNPC, but even that is uncertain, given the wide-ranging impact of the sanctions. China and the US are spoiling for a fight, having ramped up trade moves against each other and if China chooses to ignore the sanctions, things could get quite messy. However just recently, Iran announced that Russia is able and willing to get into the ring with an investment close to US$50 billion. President Putin himself affirming this plan with deals of at least US$15 billion being put on offer for exploration, production as well as refining.
Crude prices have been rallying over the last two months, as traders fear the supply-side shock that could arrest the oil’s demand recovery. Quixotically, the Trump administration has balked against this self-inflicted higher level of prices – road gasoline prices in the US are at their highest levels since 2014, making Republicans more vulnerable to dissatisfaction in a crucial mid-term election year. Add to that the outage of the SynCrude facility in Alberta bumping WTI prices up significantly, pulling American fuel prices up to their lowest differential with Brent since late last year. The US is mulling tapping its emergency crude supply to mitigate rising pump prices, but Trump has gone on the offensive instead, accusing OPEC of colluding to keep prices high. But whatever good that OPEC’s deal to raise production levels at its June 22 meeting in Vienna is being neutered by America’s decision to allow Iran no space. Saudi Arabia has said it has spare capacity of some 2 mmb/d, but is reluctant to use all of that. And even if it did, it would not be able to make up for the complete loss of Iranian volumes.
So prices must rise. Morgan Stanley is predicting Brent prices of US$85/b in the second half of 2018. Goldman Sachs thinks prices will definitely rise above US$80/b. And the Bank of America is warning that a complete cut-off of Iranian oil could see prices jumping to US$120/b. That will be a political disaster for the Trump administration, as it battles to keep its majority in both US Houses of Congress. The solution to this is rather simple. Drop, or at the very least soften, its stance on Iranian sanctions. It seems logical, but logic does not always dictate geopolitical decisions.
Countdown to the US – Iran Sanctions
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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: