It’s been a quiet past few years in Kitimat, the town of just over 8,000 in Canada’s British Columbia that is closer to Alaska than it is to Vancouver. Boasting a natural harbour in a deep inlet, Kitimat has geographical promise. It is the closest launch point in North America to deliver LNG volumes to the ravenous markets of East Asia. Eight years ago, when the Asian wave of demand first began cresting and Canada’s ambitious LNG ambitions took shape, Kitimat was a hub of activity. Then hopes were dashed as energy prices crashed. It was a return to sleepiness for the town, nestled by stunning mountainous terrain.
But over the past six months, activity has crept back in. Empty parking lots are now full again. Landlords are raising rents. Workers at the nearby Rio Tinto smelter are considering switching jobs. As Shell and its partners rumble towards a Final Investment Decision on the US$40 billion Kitimat LNG project, the town is hoping that this will finally be its time to shine.
It’s been a rough few years for Canadian LNG. There is plenty of natural gas in British Columbia but not many local markets that it can be piped to. So it stayed in the ground until the rise of Asian LNG demand spurred Canada into considering using its proximity to Japan, South Korea and China to its full advantage. Between 2011 and 2014, some 20 LNG projects were announced in British Columbia alone. Some were speculative, but some were also concrete. Fast forward to 2018, and there is still no LNG terminal operational, let alone being built. In contrast, Australia is on the verge is completing the last of its LNG megaprojects when Ichthys begins operations this year.
The problem here is government redtape and environmental sensitivity. Last year, Malaysia’s Petronas – the world’s third largest exporter of LNG – walked away from the Pacific Northwest LNG project. At that point, it was the furthest along of all Canadian LNG projects, but intense debate over the environmental impact of its location and political hostility from the National Democratic Party (which took over the state government in 2017) along with the Green Party scuppered that. At the time Petronas expressed ‘major disappointment’ with the cancellation, but went on to purchase 25% in the Kitimat project.
So with Shell, Petronas , PetroChina, Mitsubishi and Korea Gas all on board as partners, Kitimat has become the nexus for BC’s previous LNG ambition failures. Crucially, it has backing from the new NDP-led government as well as endorsement from First Nations indigenous groups, something that Pacific Northwest LNG lacked. Shell has claimed that Kitimat is ‘very promising’ but stopped short of full endorsement, choosing to wait (until the end of 2018?) to sanction the project. The reason is that the market has changed.
The world is still hungry for LNG, but with Australia now already fully mobilised and the US surging ahead with Gulf Coast infrastructure, there is concern that the market may not be able to support another mammoth LNG project. If sanctioned, Kitimat will only come onstream by 2022 at the earliest, by which time the opportunity for Canadian LNG may already be running late in the game. But the people of Kitimat will be hoping that their catalytic LNG project will be able to find a place in this new cleaner energy world.
LNG Canada, Kitimat Project
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U.S. crude oil production in the U.S. Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) averaged 1.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018, setting a new annual record. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects oil production in the GOM to set new production records in 2019 and in 2020, even after accounting for shut-ins related to Hurricane Barry in July 2019 and including forecasted adjustments for hurricane-related shut-ins for the remainder of 2019 and for 2020.
Based on EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook’s (STEO) expected production levels at new and existing fields, annual crude oil production in the GOM will increase to an average of 1.9 million b/d in 2019 and 2.0 million b/d in 2020. However, even with this level of growth, projected GOM crude oil production will account for a smaller share of the U.S. total. EIA expects the GOM to account for 15% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2019 and in 2020, compared with 23% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2011, as onshore production growth continues to outpace offshore production growth.
In 2019, crude oil production in the GOM fell from 1.9 million b/d in June to 1.6 million b/d in July because some production platforms were evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Barry. This disruption was resolved relatively quickly, and no disruptions caused by Hurricane Barry remain. Although final data are not yet available, EIA estimates GOM crude oil production reached 2.0 million b/d in August 2019.
Producers expect eight new projects to come online in 2019 and four more in 2020. EIA expects these projects to contribute about 44,000 b/d in 2019 and about 190,000 b/d in 2020 as projects ramp up production. Uncertainties in oil markets affect long-term planning and operations in the GOM, and the timelines of future projects may change accordingly.
Source: Rystad Energy
Because of the amount of time needed to discover and develop large offshore projects, oil production in the GOM is less sensitive to short-term oil price movements than onshore production in the Lower 48 states. In 2015 and early 2016, decreasing profit margins and reduced expectations for a quick oil price recovery prompted many GOM operators to reconsider future exploration spending and to restructure or delay drilling rig contracts, causing average monthly rig counts to decline through 2018.
Crude oil price increases in 2017 and 2018 relative to lows in 2015 and 2016 have not yet had a significant effect on operations in the GOM, but they have the potential to contribute to increasing rig counts and field discoveries in the coming years. Unlike onshore operations, falling rig counts do not affect current production levels, but instead they affect the discovery of future fields and the start-up of new projects.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Refinery Report
The API gravity of crude oil input to U.S. refineries has generally increased, or gotten lighter, since 2011 because of changes in domestic production and imports. Regionally, refinery crude slates—or the mix of crude oil grades that a refinery is processing—have become lighter in the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and West Coast regions, and they have become slightly heavier in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions.
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, so light oils have high API gravities. Crude oil with an API gravity greater than 38 degrees is generally considered light crude oil; crude oil with an API gravity of 22 degrees or below is considered heavy crude oil.
The crude slate processed in refineries situated along the Gulf Coast—the region with the most refining capacity in the United States—has had the largest increase in API gravity, increasing from an average of 30.0 degrees in 2011 to an average of 32.6 degrees in 2018. The West Coast had the heaviest crude slate in 2018 at 28.2 degrees, and the East Coast had the lightest of the three regions at 34.8 degrees.
Production of increasingly lighter crude oil in the United States has contributed to the overall lightening of the crude oil slate for U.S. refiners. The fastest-growing category of domestic production has been crude oil with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees, according to data in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report.
Since 2015, when EIA began collecting crude oil production data by API gravity, light crude oil production in the Lower 48 states has grown from an annual average of 4.6 million barrels per day (b/d) to 6.4 million b/d in the first seven months of 2019.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report
When setting crude oil slates, refiners consider logistical constraints and the cost of transportation, as well as their unique refinery configuration. For example, nearly all (more than 99% in 2018) crude oil imports to the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain regions come from Canada because of geographic proximity and existing pipeline and rail infrastructure between these regions.
Crude oil imports from Canada, which consist of mostly heavy crude oil, have increased by 67% since 2011 because of increased Canadian production. Crude oil imports from Canada have accounted for a greater share of refinery inputs in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, leading to heavier refinery crude slates in these regions.
By comparison, crude oil production in Texas tends to be lighter: Texas accounted for half of crude oil production above 40 degrees API in the United States in 2018. The share of domestic crude oil in the Gulf Coast refinery crude oil slate increased from 36% in 2011 to 70% in 2018. As a result, the change in the average API gravity of crude oil processed in refineries in the Gulf Coast region was the largest increase among all regions in the United States during that period.
East Coast refineries have three ways to receive crude oil shipments, depending on which are more economical: by rail from the Midwest, by coastwise-compliant (Jones Act) tankers from the Gulf Coast, or by importing. From 2011 to 2018, the share of imported crude oil in the East Coast region decreased from 95% to 81% as the share of domestic crude oil inputs increased. Conversely, the share of imported crude oil at West Coast refineries increased from 46% in 2011 to 51% in 2018.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 7 October 2019 – Brent: US$58/b; WTI: US$52/b
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