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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At the start of February, a major new find was jointly announced by the two largest emirates within the UAE: the oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the ambitious Dubai. Between them, they literally made the world’s largest natural gas discovery since 2005. Located at the border between the two sheikdoms, the Jebel Ali field is estimated to contain some 80 trillion scf of natural gas, the largest global find since the Galkynysh field in Turkmenistan.
Stretching over 5,000 square km, an exploration campaign by Abu Dhabi involving over 10 wells confirmed the enormous discovery in early January 2020. The shallow nature of the onshore reserves should make it easier to extract gas at lower costs, hastening the time-to-market. At current estimated figures, Jebel Ali would be the fourth-largest gas field in the Middle East, behind Qatar’s North Field, Iran’s South Pars and Abu Dhabi’s own Bab field.
The politics of the UAE can be complicated; each emirate is essentially self-governing with federal oversight, which is dominated by Abu Dhabi and Dubai (which always hold the President and Prime Minister roles, according to convention). This essentially means that each emirate has grew quite independently. Fujairah, for example, developed into a bunkering port, while Sharjah went into industry and manufacturing. Dubai is globally famous for its titanic real estate projects, pursued finance, services and media, while Abu Dhabi, the largest and most blessed of all with hydrocarbon resources, turned into an energy powerhouse. Oil & gas wealth in the UAE is mainly in Abu Dhabi; so while the Jebel Ali discovery is a welcome addition for Abu Dhabi, it is a game changer for Dubai, which imports most of its energy needs.
Speculation has raised that possibility that the Jebel Ali field could vault the UAE into gas self-sufficiency, because even Abu Dhabi imports gas. The UAE has a stated goal to be gas independent by 2030. On paper, that’s possible. Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC has agreed to develop the field with Dubai’s gas supplier, the Dubai Supply Authority (DUSUP), with the entire supply will be channel to DUSUP for use in Dubai. Jebel Ali could begin producing gas by 2023, and will likely be distributed domestically through pipeline. The enormous reserves could supply the entire UAE’s gas demand for nearly 30 years, assuming optimal recovery conditions. However, in practice, self-sufficiency might take longer to achieve.
Dubai and indeed, Abu Dhabi are currently reliant on Qatar for their gas supply. An existing sales agreement that expires in 2032 sees Qatar pipe 2 bcf/d of gas to the UAE through Abu Dhabi. The problem is that these neighbours are erstwhile friends. A division in the Middle East between the pro-Saudi Arabia and pro-Iran blocs has caused a rift. Led by Saudi Arabia, several Persian Gulf states including the UAE implemented a diplomatic and trade blockade on Qatar, isolating it. The blockade, slightly weakened, still continues today. Even now, planes flying into Qatar have to make strange manoeuvres when approaching to avoid encroaching on Saudi and UAE airspace. However, the gas supply arrangement remains in place.
And this is where the Jebel Ali discovery could come in handy. Qatar is already on track to be self-sufficient in gas terms by 2025, but will probably honour the Qatar deal until expiration. Dubai has been increasingly reliant on LNG through an FSRU for power generation, but has attempted over the years to kick-start a number of coal or solar-power projects. Jebel Ali won’t kick the addiction, but it could definitely reduce Dubai’s reliance on Qatari gas.
Jebel Ali wasn’t the only recent gas discovery made in the UAE. Further north, the Sharjah National Oil Corp and Italy’s Eni announced a new onshore gas and condensate discovery. Though tiny in comparison to Jebel Ali, some 50 mscf/d of lean gas and condensate. The cumulative effects of these discoveries could make gas self-sufficiency a reality sooner. At this point, the UAE consumes some 7.4 bcf gas per day, while marketed production is some 6.2 bcf/d. An ambitious plan to develop Abu Dhabi’s large gas fields was the rationale behind naming the 2030 self-sufficiency deadline. With the discovery of Jebel Ali, that can now be brought forward by a couple of years at least. And there might even be some left over to be exported as LNG
The UAE Major Gas Projects:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 17 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
Headlines of the week
Forecast growth in demand for U.S. petroleum and other liquids is not driven by transportation and not supplied by refineries
The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) forecasts that in 2021, U.S. consumption (as measured by product supplied) of total petroleum and other liquid fuels will average 20.71 million barrels per day (b/d), surpassing the 2007 pre-recession level of 20.68 million b/d. However, the drivers of this consumption growth have changed. Since the 2007–09 recession, U.S. consumption growth has shifted toward liquid fuels that are used primarily outside the transportation sector and are supplied mostly from non-refinery sources. Despite this shift away from domestic demand for refinery-produced fuels, U.S. refinery runs have increased, and the excess products have been exported, greatly contributing to the United States becoming a net exporter of petroleum in September 2019. EIA expects these trends to continue for at least the next 10 years.
Hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL) have been the main driver of U.S. petroleum and other liquids demand growth since 2007 (Figure 1). U.S. production and consumption of HGLs—a group of products that include ethane, propane, normal butane and isobutane, natural gasoline, and refinery olefins—have risen with increased natural gas production and demand from an expanding petrochemical sector. As a result, EIA forecasts U.S. HGL consumption will be 1.27 million b/d more in 2021 than in 2007, and will average 3.45 million b/d.
With the exception of jet fuel, EIA expects less U.S. consumption of refinery-produced products in 2021 than in 2007. Since 2007, increases in U.S. vehicle miles traveled, which normally increases total motor gasoline consumption, have been countered to some extent by increases in vehicle fuel efficiency. In addition, although U.S. total motor gasoline consumption exceeded 2007 levels for the first time in 2016, increased blending of ethanol into finished motor gasoline has displaced some of the petroleum-based, or refinery-produced, portion of gasoline consumption. Therefore, EIA forecasts 570,000 b/d less consumption of refinery-produced gasoline in the United States in 2021 than in 2007, while ethanol will be 0.5 million b/d higher. Ethanol is almost exclusively produced at non-petroleum refinery sites.
Some HGLs can be produced by both refineries and natural gas processing plants. Natural gas plant liquids (NGPLs)—a subset of HGLs that includes ethane, propane, normal butanes and isobutanes, and natural gasoline—can be extracted from natural gas production streams or produced at refineries that process crude oil. However, as U.S. natural gas production increased from 55.3 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2007 to 98.9 Bcf/d in 2019, the amount of HGLs extracted from natural gas production increased from 1.78 million b/d in 2007 to 4.83 million b/d in 2019. EIA expects HGL production from natural gas processing plants to continue to increase to 5.47 million b/d in 2021. Meanwhile, refinery HGL production has been flat at about 600,000 b/d (Figure 2).
Although HGLs have several different end uses, such as propane for space heating and normal butane for blending with motor gasoline, most of the growth in consumption stems from the use of HGLs as feedstock for petrochemical processes. The large increase in U.S. production of HGLs, and the resulting low prices, led to large investments in U.S. infrastructure to extract and transport HGLs to market, as well as investments in petrochemical facilities to consume it. Many of these facilities consume ethane, and to a lesser degree propane and normal butane, as feedstocks to produce intermediate building blocks for plastics, resins, and other materials with nonenergy uses. EIA forecasts that U.S. ethane consumption will reach 1.96 million b/d in 2021, up from 743,000 b/d in 2007, which represents 96% of the increase in U.S. HGL consumption between 2007 and 2021.
Removing HGL and ethanol consumption from the total demand for U.S. petroleum and other liquids indicates that EIA’s 2021 forecast U.S. demand for principally refinery-produced products is about 16.31 million b/d, on par with the 1997 level (Figure 3).
Despite domestic demand shifting away from traditionally refinery-produced products, U.S. refinery capacity has increased 1.7 million b/d between 2007 and 2019. U.S. refineries have adapted to falling domestic demand for certain products, such as residual fuel, by investing in downstream coking capacity to upgrade it into more valuable products. More importantly, international demand for refinery-produced products has increased since 2007, allowing U.S. refineries to increase runs and utilization beyond what the domestic market demanded to supply products to export markets. As a result, the United States became a net exporter on an annual basis of distillate and residual fuel in 2008, of jet fuel in 2011, and of motor gasoline in 2016.
Similarly, demand for HGLs outside of the United States has increased and caused U.S exports of HGLs to increase from 70,000 b/d in 2007 to 2.07 million b/d in November 2019. Between 2013 and 2016, exports of HGLs were the largest contributor to the increase in U.S. exports of petroleum products. U.S. exports of HGLs are mostly of propane and ethane to markets in Asia and Europe, where they are also displacing refinery-produced naphtha as a petrochemical feedstock.
EIA projects that these trends of increasing U.S. production of HGLs, increasing domestic consumption of HGLs, and increasing exports of HGLs will continue beyond 2021. EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2020 (AEO2020), released in January, shows projections for further growth in HGL production at natural gas processing plants from 4.91 million b/d in 2019 to a peak of 6.58 million b/d in 2029 and then slowly decline to 6.17 million b/d by 2050. Domestic consumption of HGLs will also increase, driven by continued petrochemical demand for feedstock, which rises from about 3.14 million b/d in 2019 to more than 4.0 million b/d in 2029. Meanwhile, in the AEO2020 Reference case, U.S. consumption of motor gasoline declines until 2042, distillate consumption declines until 2040, and residual fuel consumption continues declining out to 2050.
U.S. average regular gasoline prices rise, diesel prices decline
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price increased nearly 1 cent from the previous week to $2.43 per gallon on February 17, 11 cents higher than the same time last year. The Midwest price rose nearly 5 cents to $2.31 per gallon. The Rocky Mountain price fell more than 3 cents to $2.47 per gallon, the West Coast price fell 1 cent to $3.14 per gallon, the East Coast price fell nearly 1 cent to $2.36 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price declined by less than 1 cent to $2.08 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell 2 cents from the previous week to $2.89 per gallon on February 17, 12 cents lower than a year ago. The Rocky Mountain price fell nearly 4 cents to $2.86 per gallon, the East Coast price fell more than 2 cents to $2.94 per gallon, the Midwest and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 2 cents to $2.76 per gallon and $2.66 per gallon, respectively, and the West Coast price fell more than 1 cent to $3.47 per gallon.
Residential heating oil prices increase, propane prices decrease
As of February 17, 2020, residential heating oil prices averaged more than $2.91 per gallon, almost 1 cent per gallon above last week’s price but more than 31 cents per gallon lower than last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged $1.80 per gallon, more than 5 cents per gallon above last week’s price but 34 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.
Residential propane prices averaged more than $1.98 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon below last week’s price and nearly 45 cents per gallon less than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged more than $0.56 per gallon, more than 1 cent per gallon higher than last week’s price but almost 27 cents per gallon below last year’s price.
Propane/propylene inventories decline
U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 3.0 million barrels last week to 74.3 million barrels as of February 14, 2020, 18.4 million barrels (32.9%) greater than the five-year (2015-19) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Midwest, Gulf Coast, East Coast, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased by 1.1 million barrels, 1.0 million barrels, 0.6 million barrels, and 0.4 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 7.5% of total propane/propylene inventories.