Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: September 25, 2018
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Business Trends
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Brent crude is once again flirting with the US$80/b level. By the time October begins, it is likely that Brent prices will be comfortably over the mark, pulling WTI prices up towards the same level. The last time crude prices surged (and sustained) above this level, US$80/b was identified as the level where demand destruction began, as countries and companies scaled back on oil usage. Since the price crash in 2015, demand has managed to pick up tremendously, in no small part due to cheap prices. Where do prices go from here? Can they return to the US$100/b level? That would be cheery news for oil firms, who are finally emerging from a tough slump, but it could also return us to the excesses of the previous cycle, repeating the same problems.

The direction for oil prices – at least for the foreseeable futures – is definitely up. The main thrust for this is Iran. Or rather, renewed American sanctions on Iran. Though the Trump administration’s aim to reduce Iranian crude exports to zero is probably a pipe dream – in no small part due to pushback from India and China – the sanctions will still manage to remove at least 1 million b/d from the market. At a time when Venezuela production is in a downward spiral and disruption continually threatens OPEC’s North African members, this supply risk is constantly pushing prices levels up. OPEC has vowed to turn on the spigots in association with its NOPEC partners, but not to a level that can offset all the losses, to appease members such as Iran and Iraq. This is unlikely to be revised drastically at the upcoming OPEC meeting in December. The US is not happy about the situation – witness President Trump’s flailing tweets – and the American Congress is considering an anti-cartel bill that could open OPEC to lawsuits, all to rectify a situation that it itself created.

Because of this, major oil trading houses and banks are predicting prices to rise even further. Goldman Sachs, which once famously predicted prices could spike to US$200/b during the 2008 boom, is curiously cautious in maintaining its prediction at a floor of US$80/b, as is Citibank. JP Morgan, however, expects Brent to hit US$85/b as early as November, on a path to rise to US$90/b. Trading houses are more bullish. Mercuria and Trafigura are both predicting US$100/b prices by early 2019 – citing the lack of spare capacity in the market to replace lost volumes. Even the shale rush in the US that has made America the world’s largest crude producer will not be enough to replace lost Iranian volumes in the short- and medium-term. Most analysts expect the Iranian losses to be at least 1 mmb/d, with some analysts predicting that Iranian exports would fall to just 700,000 b/d from 2.1 mmb/d last year, shipped mostly to China and to India, with land routes used to circumvent shipping and insurance sanctions.

At prices like this, one would expect oil producers to rush in to fill the gap. But pipeline infrastructure limitations in the Permian are hampering distribution to Gulf Coast export hubs, while promising upstream production in Guyana, Mexico and Australia are still far, far off from commercialisation. Meanwhile, vast new LNG facilities has come onstream, together with major natural gas finds, accelerating oil’s displacement by gas in key sectors such as power and petrochemicals. Meanwhile, oil firms expect the bonanza to continue; service firms, particularly deepwater-focused ones, are seeing enthusiastic signs, as firms push towards riskier projects made economical only at high oil prices. This has happened before, as most would remember, but the oil industry has a short memory. Where will crude prices go from here? Nobody can agree on the exact magnitude, but everyone agrees that the direction is up.

Factors influencing the rise to US$100/b oil: 

  • Sanctions on Iranian crude, removing up to 1.5 mmb/d of oil – UP
  • Risk of military escalation between Iran and US - UP
  • OPEC’s reluctance to expand output quotas – UP
  • Financial turmoil in Venezuela, affecting PDVSA – UP
  • Expanding trade war between China and US – UP
  • US sanctions on Russian energy exports - UP
  • ISIS/militant clashes in Libya - UP
  • Limited pipeline infrastructure preventing onshore shale oil in the US from coming to market – UP
  • Slowing demand in China – DOWN
  • Emerging currency woes in key oil importers like India, Indonesia and Turkey - DOWN

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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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