According to the US Energy Department, US crude production hit 11 million barrels per day in early July. This was always seen as an inevitability, but the speed at which the mark has been achieved has been astonishing. It was only eight months ago in November 2017 that the US production reached 10 mmb/d – a level that had only been reached (briefly) in 1970. Back then, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted that American output would reach 11 mmb/d by November 2018. While the Energy Department’s figures have yet to be confirmed by the EIA – which releases confirmed data on a lag of 2 months – there is no reason not to believe that the mark hasn’t been achieved.
In any other month, this would make the USA the largest crude producer in the world, except for a jump in Russian production to 11.2 mmb/d. The recent OPEC+ agreement means there is room for Russian (and Saudi Arabian) output to grow, so the race for the title of world’s largest crude producer will be tight for a while, but America has more potential and it seems only a matter of time before American production nears the 12 mmb/d mark. Perhaps next year? With crude prices at their healthiest levels for 4 years, there is every reason for American drillers to keep pumping, although concerns over geopolitical issues about supply and global oil demand could curb potential.
The nature of the shale revolution is the US is also changing. Just last week, Concho Resources completed its US$9.5 billion acquisition of RSP Permian, creating the largest unconventional shale producer in the Permian Basin. ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell are moving in on the Permian, while BP is looking to be the frontrunner in purchasing BHP Billiton’s onshore shale and gas assets. At the start, the US shale revolution was characterised by a large number of small and nimble players riddled with debt; as it now matures, consolidation is setting in to create a smaller number of larger players. This is viewed as necessary to make the sort of large-scale investments required to take the shale revolution to the next level, but this can also cause inertia in growth, since merged and larger firms are likely to be far more risk averse due, as they are answerable to shareholders.
However there are still some challenges ahead in the Permian. The most important for now seems to be infrastructure, or lack thereof. Pipeline bottlenecks in the onshore shale plays, particularly the Permian, are making it increasingly difficult for producers to get their oil to market, especially the clearing point in Cushing, Oklahoma. This constraint has been behind the large Brent-WTI differential over the past two months, as crude volumes remained stuck without access to the market. Figures indicate that the Permian currently has some 3.56 million barrels per day of pipeline capacity, equivalent to current production, meaning that pipelines are operating at full capacity. New pipelines are being planned, but this will take time, restricting immediate growth. And with more drilling activities taking place, costs in the supply chain is also expected to go up in tandem. The issue about actual profit margins in the Permian has often been debated due to the amount of debt poured into the region, when oil prices were at marginal levels. Current prices do provide some relief but existing operators who are highly leveraged do run a high risk, if prices trend downhill.
Despite all that, the 12 million barrel per day mark seems to be a question of when, not if. If the US succeeds in its aim to reduce Iranian crude exports significantly by November, the additional American volumes could be a necessity, not a spanner. The pieces are all in place for that to happen, and while the Energy Department and the EIA have not issued any formal forecast, we would not be surprised if American oil output came very close to the mark this time next year.
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The Permian is in desperate need of pipelines. That much is true. There is so much shale liquids sloshing underneath the Permian formation in Texas and New Mexico, that even though it has already upended global crude market and turned the USA into the world’s largest crude producer, there is still so much of it trapped inland, unable to make the 800km journey to the Gulf Coast that would take them to the big wider world.
The stakes are high. Even though the US is poised to reach some 12 mmb/d of crude oil production next year – more than half of that coming from shale oil formations – it could be producing a lot more. This has already caused the Brent-WTI spread to widen to a constant US$10/b since mid-2018 – when the Permian’s pipeline bottlenecks first became critical – from an average of US$4/b prior to that. It is even more dramatic in the Permian itself, where crude is selling at a US$10-16/b discount to Houston WTI, with trends pointing to the spread going as wide as US$20/b soon. Estimates suggest that a record 3,722 wells were drilled in the Permian this year but never opened because the oil could not be brought to market. This is part of the reason why the US active rig count hasn’t increased as much as would have been expected when crude prices were trending towards US$80/b – there’s no point in drilling if you can’t sell.
Assistance is on the way. Between now and 2020, estimates suggest that some 2.6 mmb/d of pipeline capacity across several projects will come onstream, with an additional 1 mmb/d in the planning stages. Add this to the existing 3.1 mmb/d of takeaway capacity (and 300,000 b/d of local refining) and Permian shale oil output currently dammed away by a wall of fixed capacity could double in size when freed to make it to market.
And more pipelines keep getting announced. In the last two weeks, Jupiter Energy Group announced a 90-day open season seeking binding commitments for a planned 1 mmb/d, 1050km long Jupiter Pipeline – which could connect the Permian to all three of Texas’ deepwater ports, Houston, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Plains All American is launching its 500,000 b/d Sunrise Pipeline, connecting the Permian to Cushing, Oklahoma. Wolf Midstream has also launched an open season, seeking interest for its 120,000 b/d Red Wolf Crude Connector branch, connecting to its existing terminal and infrastructure in Colorado City.
Current estimates suggest that Permian output numbered around 3.5 mmb/d in October. At maximum capacity, that’s still about 100,000 b/d of shale oil trapped inland. As planned pipelines come online over the next two years, that trickle could turn into a flood. Consider this. Even at the current maxing out of Permian infrastructure, the US is already on the cusp on 12 mmb/d crude production. By 2021, it could go as high as 15 mmb/d – crude prices, permitting, of course.
As recently reported in the WSJ; “For years, the companies behind the U.S. oil-and-gas boom, including Noble Energy Inc. and Whiting Petroleum Corp. have promised shareholders they have thousands of prospective wells they can drill profitably even at $40 a barrel. Some have even said they can generate returns on investment of 30%. But most shale drillers haven’t made much, if any, money at those prices. From 2012 to 2017, the 30 biggest shale producers lost more than $50 billion. Last year, when oil prices averaged about $50 a barrel, the group as a whole was barely in the black, with profits of about $1.7 billion, or roughly 1.3% of revenue, according to FactSet.”
The immense growth experienced in the Permian has consequences for the entire oil supply chain, from refining balances – shale oil is more suitable for lighter ends like gasoline, but the world is heading for a gasoline glut and is more interested in cracking gasoil for the IMO’s strict marine fuels sulphur levels coming up in 2020 – to geopolitics, by diminishing OPEC’s power and particularly Saudi Arabia’s role as a swing producer. For now, the walls keeping a Permian flood in are still standing. In two years, they won’t, with new pipeline infrastructure in place. And so the oil world has two years to prepare for the coming tsunami, but only if crude prices stay on course.
Recent Announced Permian Pipeline Projects
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 3 December 2018 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
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