The oil market may be underestimating Iran’s ability to disrupt oil flows in and out of the Middle East and its potential repercussions.
Consensus opinion has been dismissive of Iran’s recently renewed threats to block oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation against US sanctions as pure bluster, especially in view of the heavy US military presence around the Persian Gulf. But an attack by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen on two Saudi oil tankers, which prompted Aramco to indefinitely suspend oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb strait from July 26, shows that Tehran has the other major chokepoint of the Arabian Peninsula within its reach as well.
Other Middle Eastern producers’ oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow waterway that connects the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea, have remained normal and traders were expecting Saudi shipments to resume once the kingdom had made adequate security escort arrangements for its tankers. But it would be dangerous to discount the nuisance value of the Houthis, who have stepped up missile attacks against Saudi Arabia over the past several months, and who may be leveraged even more by Tehran amid an escalating war rhetoric with the US.
While the target of the Houthi rebels, who took over the government in Sana’a in late 2014, is Saudi Arabia, which backs the now exiled government of Yemen, an escalation of attacks in the Bab el-Mandeb strait or the Red Sea could bring all oil traﬃc through those waters to a complete halt.
The strait is a busy channel for crude and refined product shipments moving in both directions, north and south. An estimated 4.8 million b/d of crude and refined products flowed through the waterway in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The strait is also a conduit for Middle East crude and refined product shipments to Europe and the US through the Suez Canal and the SUMED pipeline to its north in Egypt, which connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Some 3.9 million b/d of crude and products passed through the Suez Canal in 2016, while the SUMED pipeline system has the capacity to move 2.34 million b/d of crude, according to the EIA.
Crude flows into and refined product exports out of the Yanbu and Rabigh refineries on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, each with a capacity of 400,000 b/d, also need access to the Bab el-Mandeb. Only the Yanbu refinery can receive Saudi crude from Jubail via an overland East-West pipeline system.
For Iran, targeting the Bab el-Mandeb and onshore Saudi oil installations through the Houthis provides wider access to the kingdom’s facilities as well as deniability, which it would not have, were it to attack the Strait of Hormuz on its own.
The crude market largely shrugged oﬀ the growing war of words between the US administration and Iranian leaders this week. But it will be forced to take notice if the Houthis escalate attacks against Saudi Arabia and maybe even its ally the UAE, or continue targeting ship movements through the Red Sea. Houthis claimed they attacked the international airport in Abu Dhabi using an armed drone that flew over 1,500 km to its destination on Thursday, though the UAE flatly denied such an incident occurred, while experts doubted that the rebels have such capability.
Though crude’s price recovery this week from the depths plumbed last week was also helped by a draw reported for last week in US crude and refined product stocks, the upside was limited. Two major bearish factors remain in view: increased supply from Saudi Arabia and a few other OPEC/non-OPEC producers, and a possible slowdown in oil demand if the US-China trade war continues to fester.
A potential supply shock if Washington adopts a tough stance against buyers of Iran crude may seem distant, given the November 4 implementation of US sanctions against Iran’s oil sector. But the Bab el-Mandeb attack this week shows oil supply could be jolted from other directions and at any time.
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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: