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Last Updated: October 19, 2018
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Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 15 October 2018 – Brent: US$81/b; WTI: US$71/b

  • After settling lower on promises of increased supply, the crude oil markets were rocked this week as it became clearer and clearer that the Saudi Arabian state was involved in the disappearance and alleged assassination of prominent Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul
  • Internal condemnation has been loud, but US President Donald Trump has ruled out trade sanctions and cancelling of defense contracts with Saudi Arabia; the Kingdom issued veiled threats to use its vast oil reserves as a political weapon if punitive measures are taken against it – the first time it has made such a threat since the 1973 Arab oil war.
  • Grapevine chatter suggests that Saudi Arabia is preparing to admit its involvement of Khashoggi’s disappearance as the result of an ‘investigation gone wrong’, and has activated its diplomatic network to push back against criticism
  • This comes at a fragile time, with Saudi Arabia required to play a key role in balancing the market ahead of the new American sanctions on Iran and the upcoming OPEC meeting on December 3
  • Meanwhile, global oil demand and supply have risen to new records according to the International Energy Agency, with global supply rising to 100.3 mmb/d and demand very close to the 100 mmb/d level, implying a very narrow level of spare supply in the market
  • Fears of the removal of Iranian crude from the market continue to haunt prices, but Saudi Arabia did state that the Kingdom was ready to absorb the shock and supply additional to India to counter their loss of Iranian volumes
  • The level of crude prices is expected to persist at their current levels for a while, with BP now looking to sanction projects that would require crude oil prices at the US$60-65/b level, up from US$50-55/b last year
  • While China hasn't imposed sanctions on US crude imports yet, Chinese importers have largely halted all imports of American crude since August, moving to using West Africa and also tapping into cheap Canadian oil sands crude, which is currently selling for under US$50/b
  • With the American EIA reporting an unexpected decline in US crude inventories, crude prices also got a boost from that early this week
  • After weeks of caution, American drills boosted active rig numbers last week, adding 8 new oil rigs and 4 new gas rigs for a net gain of 11 sites, with all new rigs being onshore ones; this comes as signs are showing that mature wells in the Permian are showing high decline rates
  • Crude price outlook: The Saudi scandal over Jamal Khashoggi is concerning, but there is resistance to taking too harsh an action on the fear that it could lead to a deliberate supply shock. As the market settles, we think Brent and WTI will trend downwards to the US$79-80/b and US$69-70/b this week


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • BP, Eni and Libya’s National Oil Corporation have agreed to work towards resuming exploration activities on the EPSA production contract in Libya, covering the onshore Ghadames basin and the offshore Sirt basin, with Eni acquiring 42.5% interest in the contract
  • Chevron is fully exiting the Norwegian portion of the North Sea Basin, transferring its 20% stake in the PL859 licence in the Barents Sea to DNO ASA, part of the plan to completely exit the area in search of higher returns elsewhere
  • While others are exiting the North Sea, others are still keen; RockRose Energy has sanctioned FID on the Arran field, expecting to produce 100 mscf/d and 4,000 b/d of condensate at peak production
  • Murphy Oil and Petrobras’ American subsidiary have agreed to enter into a joint venture merging their Gulf of Mexico, with Murphy holding 80% and Petrobras the remaining 20% of a JV covering the St. Malo field and other assets
  • ConocoPhillips has achieved first oil at the Greater Mooses Tooth#1 site on the Alaskan North Slope, with peak output expected to be 25-30,000 b/d

Downstream

  • Hammered by the recent rise in crude prices, India is taking a commercial model for its strategic petroleum reserves, inviting global oil producers and traders to invest US$1.5 billion in storing some 6.5 million tons of crude at two sites
  • Saudi Aramco and Total have signed a new joint development agreement for engineering and design of the giant 1.5 mtpa petrochemicals plant in Jubail, located next to the SATORP refinery and now scheduled for start-up in 2024
  • Fresh off signing an MoU with Italy’s Eni on developing bio-refineries, Indonesia is mulling plans to convert two of its aging refineries – Plaju and Dumai – into biofuels plants producing 100% biodiesel from palm oil
  • The new 200 kb/d SOCAR Star refinery in Turkey – the first in the country in 30 years – will be starting up this month, boosting Turkish capacity by 30%
  • Total has opened up a new state-of-the-art 40,000 tpa lubricants blending plant in Russia’s Kaluga region, aimed at localising production to feed Russia’s growing hunger for top quality lubricants

Natural Gas/LNG

  • The first cargo at Inpex’s Ichthys LNG export project in Australia is ready for loading this week, finally bringing to a fruition a much-delayed project
  • Qatar Petroleum has signed a new mid-term supply agreement with China’s Oriental Energy, providing 600,000 tpa of LNG over a five year period
  • Egypt’s plan to import natural gas from Israel is accelerating, with partners now evaluating the condition of the East Mediterranean Gas pipeline, expecting the first gas to flow in March 2019 at 100 mscf/d
  • Shell is reportedly dropping plans to purchase a stake in Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGas National Co, after the results of a due diligence study into the role of the Kazakh state in the natural gas firm
  • ExxonMobil has signed a long-term, 20-year deal to supply Zhejiang Provincial Energy Group with LNG, as the Chinese power utility player expands on its role in energy after agreeing to a joint venture with Glencore this year
  • Novatek has made a massive 11 tcf gas discovery in the Ob Bay area of the North Obsk licence area, expected to feed into a future Arctic LNG project

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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.

End of Article

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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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