Last Updated: August 6, 2018
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Two big bearish influences have yanked Brent and WTI down by $5-6/barrel from their 42-month peaks, but may be overturned by a supply shock as we approach the fourth quarter of this year. The price slide was triggered by a substantial boost in Saudi production in June and reinforced this week by reports of a rising tide in July not only from the kingdom, but joined by growing flows from Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, Algeria, Russia and Brazil. The countries are pumping at their highest levels since end-2016. 

Within OPEC, the hikes more than offset the declines from Venezuela, Iran and Libya, to produce a net increase of around 340,000 b/d in July compared with June. 

Incremental supply resulting from the OPEC/non-OPEC ministers’ agreement for a 1 million b/d boost in Vienna on June 23, meant to calm Brent down from the $80/barrel mark that had rattled several producer countries, may have come too soon. 

Much would depend on how the second factor weighing on crude prices — mounting trade conflict between the US and China — pans out. Tensions spiked this week after the US said it was considering raising the proposed import tariff rate on $200 billion worth of goods from China from 10% to 25%. 

China said it would have to retaliate “to defend the nation’s dignity”. The country might be running out of ammunition, though, as it buys much less from the US than what it sells to that country — an annual trade deficit of around $370 billion, which is at the heart of Donald Trump’s crusade. 

China might compensate for that lack of leverage by continuing to shun US crude imports and rejecting Washington’s demands to curtail its business with Iran. And it might let the yuan depreciate against the US dollar, which makes Chinese exports more competitive, while discouraging imports, as they become relatively costlier. 

The yuan has slumped by around 8.8% against the dollar since mid-April, accelerating its fall in recent weeks. The first round of tit-for-tat tariffs by the US and China on $34 billion worth of imports went into effect on July 6. 

Data this week showed Chinese manufacturing activity grew at its slowest pace in eight months in July as new export orders contracted for the fourth month in a row, a fallout of the bitter trade dispute with the US. The full impact on China’s economy is not expected to be felt until early 2019. But it has begun to weigh on an oil market predisposed to bearishness due to the additional barrels flowing from the OPEC/non-OPEC producers who had been curtailing output since January 2017. 

Fears of the trade war dampening Chinese oil demand — the second-largest in the world after the US — come on top of two successive monthly contractions in China’s crude imports, which saw June purchase volumes shrinking to the lowest level since December 2017. A marked slowdown in the appetite of the country’s independent refiners or so-called “teapots”, which have slashed operating rates due to shrinking margins after the government plugged some tax loopholes in March, is expected to sustain. These refiners hold 25-30% of China’s 15 million b/d refining capacity. 

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump this week dangled an ad hoc offer through the press to meet the Iranian leaders without pre-conditions, to which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promptly added a list of conditions. Tehran, as expected, scoffed at the proposal. While the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen declared a two-week halt to attacking ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb strait linked the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea after targeting two Saudi oil tankers in the choke point last week, Iran decided to flex its muscles by launching naval exercises in the Persian Gulf. 

With the first round of US sanctions targeting Iran’s automobiles, gold and currency due to take effect on Monday (August 6), the Iranian rial has gone into a tailspin and there are reports of public protests erupting across the country again. 

The oil market may remain complacent for a few more weeks. But it may be in for a rude shock once US sanctions against Iran’s oil sector begin to bite.

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January, 24 2020
EIA expects U.S. net natural gas exports to almost double by 2021

In its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on January 14, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that U.S. natural gas exports will exceed natural gas imports by an average 7.3 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2020 (2.0 Bcf/d higher than in 2019) and 8.9 Bcf/d in 2021. Growth in U.S. net exports is led primarily by increases in liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports and pipeline exports to Mexico. Net natural gas exports more than doubled in 2019, compared with 2018, and EIA expects that they will almost double again by 2021 from 2019 levels.

The United States trades natural gas by pipeline with Canada and Mexico and as LNG with dozens of countries. Historically, the United States has imported more natural gas than it exports by pipeline from Canada. In contrast, the United States has been a net exporter of natural gas by pipeline to Mexico. The United States has been a net exporter of LNG since 2016 and delivers LNG to more than 30 countries.

In 2019, growth in demand for U.S. natural gas exports exceeded growth in natural gas consumption in the U.S. electric power sector. Natural gas deliveries to U.S. LNG export facilities and by pipeline to Mexico accounted for 12% of dry natural gas production in 2019. EIA forecasts these deliveries to account for an increasingly larger share through 2021 as new LNG facilities are placed in service and new pipelines in Mexico that connect to U.S. export pipelines begin operations.

Net U.S. natural gas imports from Canada have steadily declined in the past four years as new supplies from Appalachia into the Midwestern states have displaced some pipeline imports from Canada. U.S. pipeline exports to Canada have increased since 2018 when the NEXUS pipeline and Phase 2 of the Rover pipeline entered service. Overall, EIA projects the United States will remain a net natural gas importer from Canada through 2050.

U.S. pipeline exports to Mexico increased following expansions of cross-border pipeline capacity, averaging 5.1 Bcf/d from January through October 2019, 0.5 Bcf/d more than the 2018 annual average, according to EIA’s Natural Gas Monthly. The increase in exports was primarily the result of increased flows on the newly commissioned Sur de Texas–Tuxpan pipeline in Mexico, which transports natural gas from Texas to the southern Mexican state of Veracruz. Several new pipelines in Mexico that were scheduled to come online in 2019 were delayed are expected to enter service in 2020:

  • Pipelines in Central and Southwest Mexico (1.2 Bcf/d La Laguna–Aguascalientes and 0.9 Bcf/d Villa de Reyes–Aguascalientes–Guadalajara)
  • Pipelines in Western Mexico (0.5 Bcf/d Samalayuca–Sásabe)

U.S. LNG exports averaged 5 Bcf/d in 2019, 2 Bcf/d more than in 2018, as a result of several new facilities that placed their first trains in service. This year, several new liquefaction units (referred to as trains) are scheduled to be placed in service:

  • Trains 2 and 3 at Cameron LNG in Louisiana
  • Train 3 at Freeport LNG in Texas
  • Trains 5–10, six Moveable Modular Liquefaction System (MMLS) units, at Elba Island in Georgia

In 2021, the third train at the Corpus Christi facility in Texas is scheduled to come online, bringing the total U.S. liquefaction capacity to 10.2 Bcf/d (baseload) and 10.8 Bcf/d (peak). EIA expects LNG exports to continue to grow and average 6.5 Bcf/d in 2020 and 7.7 Bcf/d in 2021, as facilities gradually ramp up to full production.

monthly natural gas trade

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Natural Gas Monthly

January, 24 2020
EIA forecasts U.S. crude oil production growth to slow in 2021

In the January 2020 update of its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that U.S. crude oil production will average 13.3 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2020, a 9% increase from 2019 production levels, and 13.7 million b/d in 2021, a 3% increase from 2020. Slowing crude oil production growth results from a decline in drilling rigs during the past year that EIA expects will continue through most of 2020. Despite the decline in rigs, EIA forecasts production will continue to grow as rig efficiency and well-level productivity rise, offsetting the decline in the number of rigs until drilling activity accelerates in 2021.

Figure 1. U.S. crude oil production

EIA’s U.S. crude oil production forecast is based on the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) price forecast in the January 2020 STEO, which rises from an average of $57 per barrel (b) in 2019 to an average of $59/b in 2020 and $62/b in 2021. The price forecast is highly uncertain, and any significant divergence of actual prices from the projected price path could change the pace of drilling and new well completion, which would in turn affect production.

Crude oil production in the Lower 48 states has a relatively short investment and production cycle. Changes in Lower 48 crude oil production typically follow changes in crude oil prices and rig counts with about a four- to six-month lag. Because EIA forecasts WTI prices will decline during the first half of 2020 but begin increasing in the second half of the year and into 2021, forecast U.S. crude oil production grows slowly month over month until the end of 2020. In contrast, crude oil production in Alaska and the Federal Offshore Gulf of Mexico (GOM) is driven by long-term investment that is typically less sensitive to short-term price movements.

In 2019, Lower 48 production reached its largest annual average volume of 9.9 million b/d, and EIA expects it to increase further by an average of 1.0 million b/d in 2020 and 0.4 million b/d in 2021. EIA forecasts the GOM region will grow by 0.1 million b/d in 2020 to 2.0 million b/d and to remain relatively flat in 2021 because several projects expected to come online in 2021 will not start producing until late in the year and will be offset by declines from other producing fields. Alaska’s crude oil production will remain relatively unchanged at about 0.5 million b/d in 2020 and in 2021.

The Permian region remains the most prolific growth region in the United States. Favorable geology combined with technological improvements have contributed to the Permian region’s high returns on investment and years of remaining oil production growth potential. EIA forecasts that Permian production will average 5.2 million b/d in 2020, an increase of 0.8 million b/d from 2019 production levels. For 2021, the Permian will produce an average of 5.6 million b/d. EIA forecasts that the Bakken region in North Dakota will be the second-largest growth area in 2020 and 2021, growing by about 0.1 million b/d in each year (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Monthly U.S. crude oil production by region

EIA expects crude oil prices higher than $60/b in 2021 will contribute to rising crude oil production because producers will be able to fund drilling programs through cash flow and other funding sources, despite a somewhat more restrictive capital market. Financial statements of 46 publically-traded U.S. oil producers reveal that these companies generated sufficient cash from operating activities to fund investment and grow production with WTI prices in the $55/b–$60/b range. The 46 selected companies produced more than 30% of total U.S. liquids production in the third quarter of 2019. The four-quarter moving average free cash flow for these companies ranged between $1.7 billion and $3.5 billion from the fourth quarter of 2017 through the second quarter of 2019. The third quarter of 2019—the latest quarter for which data are available—had less cash from operations than investing activities, but this figure was skewed by the large, one-time acquisition cost of Anadarko Petroleum by Occidental, valued at $55 billion (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Cash flow statement items for 46 U.S. oil producers

Results for these 46 publicly traded companies do not represent all U.S. oil producers because private companies that do not publish financial statements are not included in EIA’s analysis. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Energy Survey sheds some light on the financial position of a broader set of companies. Released quarterly, the bank’s survey asks oil companies about business activity and employment and asks a few special questions that change each quarter. The number of companies that participate varies each quarter, but generally the survey includes about 100 exploration and production companies. In the most recent survey (from the fourth quarter of 2019), 75% of survey respondents said they can cover their capital expenditures through cash flow from operations at a WTI price of less than $60/b. In addition, 40% of survey respondents plan to increase capital expenditures in 2020 compared with 2019, while 24% of respondents expect to spend about the same (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Selected questions from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas' Energy Survey

Since about 2017, large, globally integrated oil companies have acquired more acreage in Lower 48 regions, particularly in the Permian. These companies have announced investment plans to make Lower 48 production an increasing portion of their portfolios. These companies can typically fund their investment programs through cash flow from operations and are generally less susceptible to tighter capital markets than smaller oil companies. The financial results of the public companies shown in Figure 3 and the Federal Reserve survey support EIA’s production forecast and suggest that U.S. crude oil production can continue to grow under EIA’s price forecast for 2020 and 2021 because many companies are less dependent on debt or equity to fund investment.

U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices decline

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell more than 3 cents from the previous week to $2.54 per gallon on January 20, 29 cents higher than the same time last year. The Midwest price fell over 5 cents to $2.39 per gallon, the Gulf Coast price fell nearly 5 cents to $2.23 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain price fell more than 3 cents to $2.57 per gallon, the East Coast price fell more than 2 cents to $2.50 per gallon, and the West Coast price fell nearly 2 cents to $3.18 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell nearly 3 cents from the previous week to $3.04 per gallon on January 20, 7 cents higher than a year ago. The Rocky Mountain price fell nearly 6 cents to $3.01 per gallon, the East Coast price fell nearly 4 cents to $3.08 per gallon, the Midwest price declined almost 3 cents to $2.94 per gallon, the West Coast price fell nearly 2 cents to $3.57 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price dropped more than 1 cent to $2.80 per gallon.

Propane/propylene inventories decline

U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 1.4 million barrels last week to 86.5 million barrels as of January 17, 2020, 17.1 million barrels (24.6%) greater than the five-year (2015-19) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Midwest, East Coast, Gulf Coast, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased by 0.7 million barrels, 0.4 million barrels, 0.2 million barrels, and 0.1 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 6.9% of total propane/propylene inventories.

Residential heating fuel prices decrease

As of January 20, 2020, residential heating oil prices averaged nearly $3.07 per gallon, 3 cents per gallon below last week’s price and 10 cents per gallon lower than last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged almost $1.96 per gallon, more than 7 cents per gallon below last week’s price and more than 7 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.

Residential propane prices averaged almost $2.01 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon below last week’s price and more than 42 cents per gallon less than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged more than $0.60 per gallon, nearly 4 cents per gallon lower than last week’s price and 20 cents per gallon below last year’s price.

January, 24 2020