As weather systems batter the Atlantic and Pacific – Hurricane Florence hitting the Carolinas in the US and Typhoon Mangkhut cleaving its way through East Asia – the oil industry is watching for signs of continued turbulence, worried that it could add to a market jittery over upcoming Iranian sanctions. Particularly in the Atlantic, where the 2017 hurricane season was very disruptive over crude production in the Gulf of Mexico. A year later, with growing onshore production, the risk of disruption is now higher than ever, with tropical storms liable to cause major flooding in major shale basins like the Permian.
While destructive, the typhoons of the west Pacific generally do not have a large impact on crude prices. The major crude production areas of Southeast and East Asia tend to be relatively insulated from the direct path of storms, which will already have had their strength sapped after hitting the Pacific bulwark of the Philippines. The refining centres in Japan, South Korea and China do get impacted, but preparedness tend to dull the impact. However, the situation is different in the Atlantic. Two weeks ago, when Tropical Storm Gordon whipped its way through the Gulf Coast, WTI prices leapt in response as offshore rigs shut down and evacuated workers. Traditionally, the hurricane seasons of past will largely be confined in impact to WTI prices, but the increasingly international reach of American crude now has a direct discernible impact on the global Brent benchmark as well.
After Florence and Gordon, there are three more storms brewing in the Atlantic. Even though Gordon proved weaker than expected, some 160,000 b/d of production was shut down for over a week, while Florence avoided major output areas. Up next is Hurricane Helene, which looped back towards Europe after developing in West Africa. Hurricane Isaac headed straight towards the Caribbean, where refining infrastructure has been fragile due to PDVSA’s chronic woes, but has now weakened into a tropical depression. Tropical Storm Joyce started out looking like a direct threat, but now appears that it will peter out in the middle of the Atlantic without making landfall.
The Atlantic hurricane season is now at its peak, and will continue until the end of November. For now, the 2018 season does not look to be as disruptive as 2017 or even 2016, which is why the WTI discount to Brent has dropped down to US$10/b, down from US$7/b when Gordon started threatening. Major weather prediction agencies have also revised their forecast for storm numbers down, with the Colorado State University cutting its prediction of named storms from 14 to 11 in August. There is still time for a major hurricane to develop, but for now, the 2018 Atlantic season looks to be relatively benign for crude production and prices.
The impact of Atlantic hurricane seasons on GOM output
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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
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 3 December 2018 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
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