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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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 February 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
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2018 was a year that started with crude prices at US$62/b and ended at US$46/b. In between those two points, prices had gently risen up to peak of US$80/b as the oil world worried about the impact of new American sanctions on Iran in September before crashing down in the last two months on a rising tide of American production. What did that mean for the financial health of the industry over the last quarter and last year?
Nothing negative, it appears. With the last of the financial results from supermajors released, the world’s largest oil firms reported strong profits for Q418 and blockbuster profits for the full year 2018. Despite the blip in prices, the efforts of the supermajors – along with the rest of the industry – to keep costs in check after being burnt by the 2015 crash has paid off.
ExxonMobil, for example, may have missed analyst expectations for 4Q18 revenue at US$71.9 billion, but reported a better-than-expected net profit of US$6 billion. The latter was down 28% y-o-y, but the Q417 figure included a one-off benefit related to then-implemented US tax reform. Full year net profit was even better – up 5.7% to US$20.8 billion as upstream production rose to 4.01 mmboe/d – allowing ExxonMobil to come close to reclaiming its title of the world’s most profitable oil company.
But for now, that title is still held by Shell, which managed to eclipse ExxonMobil with full year net profits of US$21.4 billion. That’s the best annual results for the Anglo-Dutch firm since 2014; product of the deep and painful cost-cutting measures implemented after. Shell’s gamble in purchasing the BG Group for US$53 billion – which sparked a spat of asset sales to pare down debt – has paid off, with contributions from LNG trading named as a strong contributor to financial performance. Shell’s upstream output for 2018 came in at 3.78 mmb/d and the company is also looking to follow in the footsteps of ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP in the Permian, where it admits its footprint is currently ‘a bit small’.
Shell’s fellow British firm BP also reported its highest profits since 2014, doubling its net profits for the full year 2018 on a 65% jump in 4Q18 profits. It completes a long recovery for the firm, which has struggled since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, allowing it to focus on the future – specifically US shale through the recent US$10.5 billion purchase of BHP’s Permian assets. Chevron, too, is focusing on onshore shale, as surging Permian output drove full year net profit up by 60.8% and 4Q18 net profit up by 19.9%. Chevron is also increasingly focusing on vertical integration again – to capture the full value of surging Texas crude by expanding its refining facilities in Texas, just as ExxonMobil is doing in Beaumont. French major Total’s figures may have been less impressive in percentage terms – but that it is coming from a higher 2017 base, when it outperformed its bigger supermajor cousins.
So, despite the year ending with crude prices in the doldrums, 2018 seems to be proof of Big Oil’s ability to better weather price downturns after years of discipline. Some of the control is loosening – major upstream investments have either been sanctioned or planned since 2018 – but there is still enough restraint left over to keep the oil industry in the black when trends turn sour.
Supermajor Net Profits for 4Q18 and 2018
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$6 billion (-28%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$20.8 (+5.7%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$5.69 billion (+32.3%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$21.4 billion (+36%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.73 billion (+19.9%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$14.8 billion (+60.8%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.48 billion (+65%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$12.7 billion (+105%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.88 billion (+16%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$13.6 billion (+28%)