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:
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In its January 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects that energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States will increase in 2021. Economic growth and the lessening of pandemic-related restrictions result in more energy consumption and associated CO2 emissions. EIA expects total energy-related CO2 emissions to increase to 4.8 billion metric tons in 2021 and 4.9 billion metric tons in 2022.
U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell by an estimated 11% in 2020, largely because of reduced travel and other factors that have led to less energy consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the short term, EIA forecasts rising CO2 emissions as a result of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, changes in fuel mix, and greater demand for residential electricity as colder winter weather leads to more heating demand in 2021.
EIA expects petroleum to account for about 46% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021 and 47% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2022. Most of these emissions come from the transportation sector as a result of increased travel as the economy recovers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
EIA expects natural gas, which accounted for about 36% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020, to decline to about 34% of total emissions in 2021. Emissions from natural gas are declining mainly because natural gas consumption is declining as natural gas prices increase relative to coal prices. EIA expects natural gas prices to increase by 98 cents per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2021 while prices for coal increase by 12 cents/MMBtu. As a result, EIA forecasts that natural gas’s share of total energy-related CO2 emissions will decline to 32% in 2022 as natural gas prices rise.
Coal accounted for 19% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020. EIA expects this share of total emissions to rise to 21% in 2021 and 2022 as coal becomes more economical for use in electricity generation amid higher natural gas prices.
More information on EIA’s forecasts is available in the January Short-Term Energy Outlook.
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Two acquisitions in the energy sector were announced in the last week that illustrate the growing divergence in approaching the future of oil and gas between Europe and the USA. In France, Total announced that it had bought Fonroche Biogaz, the market leader in the production of renewable gas in France. In North America, ConocoPhillips completed its acquisition of Concho Resources, deepening the upstream major’s foothold into the lucrative Permian Basin and its shale riches. One is heading towards renewables, and the other is doubling down on conventional oil and gas.
What does this say about the direction of the energy industry?
Total’s move is unsurprising. Like almost all of its European peers operating in the oil and gas sector, Total has announced ambitious targets to become carbon-neutral by 2050. It is an ambition supported by the European population and pushed for by European governments, so in that sense, Total is following the wishes of its investors and stakeholders – just like BP, Shell, Repsol, Eni and others are doing. Fonroche Biogaz is therefore a canny acquisition. The company designs, builds and operates anaerobic digestion units that convert organic waste such as farming manure into biomethane to serve a gas feedstock for power generation. Fonroche Biogaz already has close to 500 GWh of installed capacity through seven power generation units with four in the pipeline. This feeds into Total’s recent moves to expand its renewable power generation capacity, with the stated intention of increasing the group’s biomethane capacity to 1.5 terawatts per hour (TWh) by 2025. Through this, Total vaults into a leading position within the renewable gas market in Europe, which is already active through affiliates such as Méthanergy, PitPoint and Clean Energy.
In parallel to this move, Total also announced that it has decided not to renew its membership in the American Petroleum Institute for 2021. Citing that it is only ‘partially aligned’ with the API on climate change issues in the past, Total has now decided that those positions have now ‘diverged’ particularly on rolling back methane emission regulations, carbon pricing and decarbonising transport. The French supermajor is not alone in its stance. BP, which has ditched the supermajor moniker in favour of turning itself into a clean energy giant, has also expressed reservations over the API’s stance over climate issues, and may very well choose to resign from the trade group as well. Other European upstream players might follow suit.
However, the core of the API will remain American energy firms. And the stance among these companies remains pro-oil and gas, despite shareholder pressure to bring climate issues and clean energy to the forefront. While the likes of ExxonMobil and Chevron have balanced significant investments into prolific shale patches in North America with public overtures to embrace renewables, no major US firm has made a public commitment to a carbon-neutral future as their European counterparts have. And so ConocoPhillips acquisition of Concho Resources, which boosts its value to some US$60 billion is not an outlier, but a preview of the ongoing consolidation happening in US shale as the free-for-all days give way to big boy acquisitions following the price-upheaval there since 2019.
That could change. In fact, it will change. The incoming Biden administration marks a significant break from the Trump administration’s embrace of oil and gas. Instead of opening of protected federal lands to exploration, especially in Alaska and sensitive coastal areas and loosening environmental regulations, the US will now pivot to putting climate change at the top of the agenda. Although political realities may water it down, the progressive faction of the Democrats are pushing for a Green New Deal embracing sustainability as the future for the US. Biden has already hinted that he may cancel the controversial and long-running Keystone XL pipeline via executive order on his first day in the office. His nominees for key positions including the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and Council on Environmental Quality suggest that there will be a major push on low-carbon and renewable initiatives, at least for the next 4 years. A pledge to reach net zero fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035 has been mooted. More will come.
The landscape is changing. But the two approaches still apply, the aggressive acceleration adopted by European majors, and the slower movement favoured by US firms. Political changes in the USA might hasten the change, but it is unlikely that convergence will happen anytime soon. There is room in the world for both approaches for now, but the future seems inevitable. It just depends on how energy companies want to get there.
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