The US-China trade war took a turn for the worse this week and could fester for months, potentially denting Chinese economic growth and oil demand well into 2019. That spectre controlled oil market sentiment almost to the exclusion of all other influences this week and had forced Brent to re-test recent support levels around $71/barrel on Friday.
Decisions by Washington and Beijing on August 7 and 8, to proceed with a second round of bilateral tariffs on $16 billion worth of annual imports starting from August 23, squashed any hopes of a return to negotiations. The Trump administration wants to narrow the $375-billion trade gap the US had with China as of 2017 and has threatened to impose duties on all $500 billion worth of its imports from the Asian giant. China is expected to run out of ammunition in its reciprocal retaliation much before that finish line, and yet, it is hard to see it backing off.
Chinese oil consumption is still centered around manufacturing despite the economy’s ongoing pivot to a services-led growth model, and there have been other signs of a demand slowdown, especially after the independent refiners or “teapots”, were hit hard by tightened tax regulations in March that had nothing to do with the tariffs dispute.
Crude imports by China, the largest in the world and a closely monitored proxy for its appetite, slipped two months in a row over May and June. Though there was a slight uptick in July imports to around 8.52 million b/d from a six-month nadir of 8.39 million b/d in June, market confidence in the country’s growth has been shaken.
Consensus expectations on US economic growth remain sanguine but it may be worth paying closer attention to its oil consumption data. Refined products supplied across the US, a proxy for consumption, averaged around 20.93 million b/d in the week to August 3, a slump of 1 million b/d from the corresponding week of 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration. Gasoline use, which accounts for nearly 45% of US oil demand, slid by 540,000 b/d from a week ago to around 9.35 million b/d, in the midst of the country’s peak summer driving demand season. However, four-week average figures, which smooths out volatility that may be more noise than signal, do not indicate any major downtrends.
In a curious last-minute twist in the trade war, China dropped US crude from its list of items that will attract 25% import duty from August 23 and included diesel, jet fuel, naphtha and propane, alongside a host of petrochemical products. The about-turn on crude could be aimed at alleviating pressure on Chinese refiners and holding it as a trump card for later use when Beijing’s leverage in terms of the value of remaining goods to tax withers.
China was the largest overseas buyer of US crude in May, averaging 427,000 b/d of imports, according to the latest monthly data from the EIA. Imports spiked to a record 553,000 b/d in June, according to Reuters. However, Chinese refiners began shunning US crude from July and may not risk resuming imports despite the commodity having been left off the latest tariff list, for fear that it may be reinstated any time. US LNG, which China had left alone but decided to threaten with a 25% import tariff on August 3, is a case in point.
The broader global economic fallout of a bitter fight between the world’s two largest economies defies prediction, but appears to have invited a general sense of gloom as far as oil demand is concerned. That may have been helped by bearishness closing in from the supply side as well. Growing flows from some of the OPEC/non-OPEC producers who have been ramping up in line with the ministerial agreement in Vienna on June 23 to boost collective output by up 1 million b/d have hit progressively the market since June (the Saudis had likely started ramping up that month, even before the Vienna deal).
A moderate-sized contango has entrenched itself at the front end of the Brent forward curve since mid-July, a market state that typically signals supply overshadowing demand. However, WTI, Dubai and Oman time spreads are in backwardation.
What's next for oil? We see no escape from the vortex of bearishness for the next few weeks, though we expect the OPEC/non-OPEC leadership to regroup to shore up prices if Brent breaches the key psychological level of $70/barrel. Looking beyond the next few weeks, the combination of Iran sanctions, moderating US oil production growth, and an exhausted OPEC/non-OPEC spare production capacity could hit the market with a perfect storm in Q4.
Something interesting to share?
Join NrgEdge and create your own NrgBuzz today
Less than two weeks ago, the VLCC Navarin arrived at Tanjung Pengerang, at the southern end of Peninsular Malaysia. It was carrying two million barrels of crude oil, split equally between Saudi Arab Medium and Iraqi Basra Light grades.
The RAPID refinery in Johor. An equal joint partnership between Malaysia’s Petronas and Saudi Aramco whose 300 kb/d mega refinery is nearing completion. Once questioned for its economic viability, RAPID is now scheduled to start up in early 2019, entering a market that is still booming and in demand of the higher quality, Euro IV and Euro V level fuels RAPID will produce.
Beyond fuel products, RAPID will also have massive petrochemical capacity. Meant to come on online at a later date, RAPID will have a collective capacity of some 7.7 million tons per annum of differentiated and specialty chemicals, including 3 mtpa of propylene. To be completed in stages, Petronas nonetheless projects that it will add some 3.3 million tons of petrochemicals to the Asia market by the end of next year. That’s blockbuster numbers, and it will elevate Petronas’ stature in downstream, bringing more international appeal to a refining network previously focused mainly on Malaysia. For its partner Saudi Aramco, RAPID is part of a multi-pronged strategy of investing mega refineries in key parts of the world, to diversify its business and ensure demand for its crude flows as it edges towards an IPO.
RAPID won’t be alone. Vietnam’s second refinery – the 200 kb/d Nghi Son – has finally started up this year after multiple delays. And in the same timeframe as RAPID, the Zhejiang refinery by Rongsheng Petro Chemical and the Dalian refinery by Hengli Petrochemical in China are both due to start up. At 400 kb/d each, that could add 1.1 mmb/d of new refining capacity in Asia within 1H19. And there’s more coming. Hengli’s Pulau Muara Besar project in Brunei is also aiming for a 2019 start, potentially adding another 175 kb/d of capacity. And just like RAPID, each of these new or recent projects has substantial petrochemical capacity planned.
That’s okay for now, since demand remains strong. But the danger is that this could all unravel. With American sanctions on Iran due to kick in November, even existing refineries are fleeing from contributing to Tehran in favour of other crude grades. The new refineries will be entering a tight market that could become even tighter. RAPID can rely on Saudi Arabia and Nghi Son can depend on Kuwait, both the Chinese projects are having to scramble to find alternate supplies for their designed diet of heavy sour crude. This race to find supplies has already sent Brent prices to four-year highs, and most in the industry are already predicting that crude oil prices will rise to US$100/b by the year’s end. At prices like this, demand destruction begins and the current massive growth – fuelled by cheap oil prices – could come to an end. The market can rapidly change again, and by the end of this decade, Asia could be swirling with far more oil products that it can handle.
Upcoming and recent Asia refineries:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 October 2018 – Brent: US$84/b; WTI: US$74/b
Headlines of the week
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
As domestic production continues to increase, the average density of crude oil produced in the United States continues to become lighter. The average API gravity—a measure of a crude oil’s density where higher numbers mean lower density—of U.S. crude oil increased in 2017 and through the first six months of 2018. Crude oil production with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees grew by 310,000 barrels per day (b/d) to more than 4.6 million b/d in 2017. This increase represents 53% of total Lower 48 production in 2017, an increase from 50% in 2015, the earliest year for which EIA has oil production data by API gravity.
API gravity is measured as the inverse of the density of a petroleum liquid relative to water. The higher the API gravity, the lower the density of the petroleum liquid, meaning lighter oils have higher API gravities. The increase in light crude oil production is the result of the growth in crude oil production from tight formations enabled by improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Along with sulfur content, API gravity determines the type of processing needed to refine crude oil into fuel and other petroleum products, all of which factor into refineries’ profits. Overall U.S. refining capacity is geared toward a diverse range of crude oil inputs, so it can be uneconomic to run some refineries solely on light crude oil. Conversely, it is impossible to run some refineries on heavy crude oil without producing significant quantities of low-valued heavy products such as residual fuel.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
API gravity can differ greatly by production area. For example, oil produced in Texas—the largest crude oil-producing state—has a relatively broad distribution of API gravities with most production ranging from 30 to 50 degrees API. However, crude oil with API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees accounted for the largest share of Texas production, at 55%, in 2017. This category was also the fastest growing, reaching 1.9 million b/d, driven by increasing production in the tight oil plays of the Permian and Eagle Ford.
Oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken formation also tends to be less dense and lighter. About 90% of North Dakota’s 2017 crude oil production had an API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees. The oil coming from the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) tends to be more dense and heavier. More than 34% of the crude oil produced in the GOM in 2017 had an API gravity of lower than 30 degrees and 65% had an API gravity of 30 to 40 degrees.
In contrast to the increasing production of light crude oil in the United States, imported crude oil continues to be heavier. In 2017, 7.6 million b/d (96%) of imported crude oil had an API gravity of 40 or below, compared with 4.2 million b/d (48%) of domestic production.
EIA collects API gravity production data by state in the monthly crude oil and natural gas production report as well as crude oil quality by company level imports to better inform analysis of refinery inputs and utilization, crude oil trade, and regional crude oil pricing. API gravity is also projected to continue changing: EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2018 Reference case projects that U.S. oil production from tight formations will continue to increase in the coming decades.