In the August 2018 update of its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts Brent crude oil prices to average $73 per barrel (b) in the second half of 2018 and decline to an average of $71/b in 2019 (Figure 1). Competing upside and downside price risks are expected to play a large role in price formation during the forecast period. Upside price risks stem largely from the possibility of supply outages when both petroleum inventories and spare crude oil production capacity for members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are lower than average. Downside price risks stem largely from potentially reduced demand because economic growth and resulting crude oil demand could be lower than forecast.
Daily and monthly average crude oil prices could vary significantly from annual average forecasts because global economic developments and geopolitical events in the coming months have the potential to push oil prices higher or lower than the current STEO price forecast.
EIA forecasts total global liquid fuels inventories to decrease by 0.3 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018, followed by an increase of 0.3 million b/d in 2019 (Figure 2). Inventory changes of this magnitude should be considered mostly balanced, contributing to forecast Brent crude oil prices remaining between $70/b and $73/b from August 2018 through the end of 2019. However, the forecast for slight inventory increases in 2019 contributes to expectations of modest downward price pressure in 2019.
On the supply side, the combination of relatively low inventory and OPEC spare capacity levels elevates the risk of upward price movements if a supply disruption occurs or if forecast production growth does not materialize.
Changes in global petroleum inventories data are not collected directly, but are estimated based on forecasts for global production and consumption. However, inventory data for the United States and other countries within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are available and may provide insight into global supply. In terms of days of supply, OECD inventories are expected to remain less than the monthly average for the previous five years, so any outages could have a significant effect on crude oil prices (Figure 3).
In 2018 and in 2019, EIA expects OPEC spare crude oil production capacity to decrease from 2017 levels (Figure 4). Although spare capacity in 2016 was lower than that forecast for 2018 and 2019, OECD inventories were higher in 2016, as seen in Figure 3. OPEC spare production capacity is forecast to average 1.6 million b/d in 2018 and to fall to 1.3 million b/d in 2019, down from 2.1 million b/d in 2017 and lower than the 10-year (2008–17) average of 2.3 million b/d. With little spare capacity, risks on the supply side (including greater-than-forecast disruptions in Iran, Venezuela, or Libya) may have significant price impacts.
EIA forecasts OPEC’s petroleum and other liquids production to decrease from the 2017 level of 39.5 million b/d to 39.1 million b/d in 2018 and to 39.0 million b/d in 2019. The small decline in 2019 reflects crude oil production increases from some producers that nearly offset anticipated declines from other OPEC members.
Brent spot prices averaged more than $74/b in June 2018, up $10/b from December 2017. Price increases in 2018 have been largely driven by unplanned supply disruptions and the expected loss of some Iranian crude oil production by the end of the year because of renewed sanctions. The August 2018 STEO reflects the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the plan to reinstate sanctions on companies doing business with Iran. Sanctions will likely affect the Iranian oil sector, which would limit the country’s crude oil production and exports by the end of 2018. Uncertainty remains regarding the degree to which the U.S. sanctions will take Iranian crude oil off the market.
Future crude oil production in Venezuela and Libya and the magnitude of the production response from other OPEC members and Russia are also highly uncertain. Developments regarding these and other variables could influence prices in either direction.
Concerns about the pace of future economic and oil consumption growth have likely contributed to demand side uncertainty. The August STEO forecasts global demand growth for petroleum and other liquids to average 1.66 million b/d in 2018 and 1.57 million b/d in 2019, down from the July STEO forecast of 1.72 million b/d and 1.71 million b/d for 2018 and 2019, respectively.
U.S. average regular gasoline price increases, diesel price decreases
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price increased less than one cent from last week to remain at $2.85 per gallon on August 6, 2018, up 47 cents from the same time last year. Rocky Mountain and East Coast prices each rose over a penny to $2.92 per gallon and $2.80 per gallon, respectively, and Midwest prices increased less than one cent to $2.77 per gallon. West Coast and Gulf Coast prices each decreased less than one cent to $3.34 per gallon and $2.59 per gallon, respectively.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price decreased less than one cent from last week to $3.22 per gallon on August 6, 2018, 64 cents higher than year ago. Midwest prices fell nearly one cent to $3.15 per gallon, and West Coast, East Coast, and Gulf Coast prices each decreased less than a penny, remaining virtually unchanged at $3.72 per gallon, $3.22 per gallon, and $3.00 per gallon, respectively. Rocky Mountain prices were unchanged at $3.36 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories rise slightly
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 0.1 million barrels last week to 66.4 million barrels as of August 3, 2018, 9.3 million barrels (12.2%) lower than the five-year (2013-2017) average inventory level for this same time of year. Gulf Coast inventories increased by 0.3 million barrels and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories rose slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Midwest and East Coast inventories decreased by 0.2 million barrels and 0.1 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 4.3% of total propane/propylene inventories.
For questions about This Week in Petroleum, contact the Petroleum Markets Team at 202-586-4522.
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The week started off ominously. Qatar, a member of OPEC since 1960, quit the organisation. Its reasoning made logical sense – Qatar produces very little crude, so to have a say in a cartel focused on crude was not in its interests, which lie in LNG – but it hinted at deep-seated tensions in OPEC that could undermine Saudi Arabia’s attempts to corral members. Qatar, under a Saudi-led blockade, was allied with Iran – and Saudi Arabia and Iran were not friends, to say the least. This, and other simmering divisions, coloured the picture as OPEC went into its last meeting for the year in Vienna.
Against all odds, OPEC and its NOPEC allies managed to come to an agreement. After a nervy start to the conference – where it looked like no consensus could be reached – OPEC+ announced that they would cut 1.2 mmb/d of crude oil production beginning January. Split between 800,000 b/d from OPEC members and 400,000 b/d from NOPEC, the supply deal contained a little bit of everything. It was sizable enough to placate the market (market analysts had predicted only a 800,000 b/d cut). It was not country-specific (beyond a casual mention by the Saudi Oil Minister that the Kingdom was aiming for a 500,000 b/d cut), a sly way of building in Iran’s natural decline in crude exports from American sanctions into the deal without having individual member commitments. And since the baseline for the output was October production levels, it represents pre-sanction Iranian volumes, which were 3.3 mmb/d according to OPEC – making the mathematics of the deal simpler.
Crude oil markets rallied in response. Brent climbed by 5%, breaking a long losing streak, as the market reacted to the move. But the deal doesn’t so much as solve the problem as it does kick the can further down the road. A review is scheduled for April; coincidentally (or not), American waivers granted to eight countries on the import of Iranian crude expire in May. By April, it should be clear whether those will continue, allowing OPEC+ to monitor the situation and the direction of Washington’s policy against Iran in a new American political environment post-midterm elections. If the waivers continue, then the deal might stick. If they don’t, then OPEC+ has time to react.
There are caveats as well. OPEC members, who are shouldering the bigger part of the burden, said there would be ‘special considerations’ for its members. Libya and Venezuela - both facing challenging production environments – received official exemptions from the new group-level quota. Nigeria, exempted in the last round, did not. Iran claims to have been given an exemption but OPEC says that Iran had agreed to a ‘symbolic cut’ – a situation of splitting hairs over language that ultimately have the same result. But more important will be adherence. The supply deals of the last 18 months have been unusual in the high adherence by OPEC members. Can it happen again this time? Russia – which is rumoured to be targeting a 228,000 b/d cut – has already said that it would take the country ‘months’ to get its production level down to the requested level. There might be similar inertia in other members of OPEC+. Meanwhile, American crude output is surging and there is a risk to OPEC+ that they will be displaced out of their established markets. For now, OPEC remains powerful enough to sway the market. How long it will remain that way?
Infographic: OPEC+ December Supply Deal
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 December 2018 – Brent: US$62/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
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