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Last Updated: December 20, 2018
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The decline in oil prices since the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2018 is of similar magnitude to the fourth-quarter price decline in 2014. After the fourth-quarter 2014 price decline, prices dropped further in 2015 amid high volatility for several years, which contributed to bankruptcies, consolidations, and closures within the industry. When comparing the financial positions of U.S. oil producers as of the third quarter of 2018 with the third quarter of 2014, most measures of profitability and balance sheet fitness indicate companies should be able to weather the recent price downturn. Oil price volatility and uncertainty remain high, however, and financial pressures could increase if prices continue to decline.

The percentage price decline from the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2018 through December 18 followed a similar path when compared with the same period starting at the fourth quarter of 2014 (Figure 1). From October 1 through December 18, front-month West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices declined 39%. In 2014, they declined 40% during the same period. A key difference in assessing the financial position of U.S. oil producers in 2014 compared with 2018, however, is that oil price levels were significantly higher in the years leading up to the 2014 price declines compared with 2018. In addition, in 2014 oil prices had already declined 15% from their highs in June by the start of the fourth quarter. In 2018, the start of the fourth quarter marked the highest prices of the year.

Figure 1. WTI crude oil price

Given the different price levels, oil company revenues per barrel were significantly lower in the third quarter of 2018 compared with the third quarter of 2014. According to the third-quarter 2018 financial results of 40 U.S. oil companies, their median upstream revenue was $45.33 per barrel of oil equivalent (BOE). This same set of companies in the third quarter of 2014 had median upstream revenues of $64.57/BOE (Figure 2). The 44 companies included then have been reduced to 40 companies because of consolidation through mergers and acquisitions. Another evident difference between these two periods is that the companies have significantly reduced production expenses since 2014, ultimately contributing to higher profitability despite the decline in revenues. Median company production expenses declined from $13.97/BOE in the third quarter of 2014 to $9.87/BOE in the third quarter of 2018. In fact, the median company's production expenses in the third quarter of 2014 would have been in the 75th percentile of production expenses in the third quarter of 2018, highlighting a broad reduction in production expenses among U.S. oil producers.

Figure 2. Upstream revenue and production

In contrast to the different operating environments of the two periods, measures of leverage (debt) and liquidity (ability to pay short-term liabilities quickly) do not appear to have significantly changed between 2014 and 2018. After the oil price decline of 2014, many companies restructured their balance sheets through debt consolidation, asset impairments, and asset sales. In the third quarters of 2014 and 2018, nearly all of the companies had long-term debt-to-asset ratios of less than 50%, meaning most of their assets were financed by the owners of the companies (Figure 3). Although no defined standard for an appropriate long-term debt-to-asset ratio for oil and natural gas production companies exists, the financial risk of inability to repay loans typically increases as the ratio increases. Alternatively, a ratio that is too low can indicate an inefficient use of resources available for investment.

Even though measures of leverage between the two periods are comparable, this group of U.S. oil producers has slightly different measures of liquidity in 2018 compared with 2014. In the third quarter of 2018, 80% of the companies had a ratio of cash assets to short-term liabilities of less than 40%, compared with 66% of companies with this ratio as of the third quarter of 2014. Similar to leverage ratios, no standard ratio is considered adequate, but a higher ratio indicates that a company has more ability to weather financial downturns.

Figure 3. Financial comparison for U.S.

An important caveat with comparative analysis of oil companies in two different periods is the survivor bias inherent in company selection. In this case, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) cannot assess a company's financial position in 2018 if the company did not survive the 2014 price decline, either because the company restructured from bankruptcy, delisted from a public securities exchange, or closed entirely. Companies that survived the 2014 price decline may provide a more positive picture of the overall financial position of the oil industry in 2018. However, this possible bias could be small because many of the same companies reported in both periods.

As discussed recently in EIA's Short-Term Energy Outlook and previous editions of This Week in Petroleum, price volatility and uncertainty remain high. The recent decision for countries inside and outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to reduce production levels could stabilize prices, but other supply factors or lower-than-expected demand could put further downward pressure on oil prices.

U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices decrease

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price decreased more than 5 cents from last week to $2.37 per gallon on December 17, 2018, down more than 8 cents per gallon from the same time last year. Rocky Mountain prices fell 8 cents to $2.58 per gallon, Midwest prices decreased nearly 8 cents to $2.14 per gallon, West Coast prices fell nearly 6 cents to $3.11 per gallon, Gulf Coast prices fell more than 4 cents to $2.03 per gallon, and East Coast prices decreased more than 3 cents to $2.35 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price decreased 4 cents from last week to $3.12 per gallon on December 17, 2018, 22 cents per gallon higher than a year ago. Rocky Mountain prices fell more than 6 cents to $3.18 per gallon, West Coast and Midwest prices each decreased nearly 5 cents to $3.60 per gallon and $3.02 per gallon, respectively, Gulf Coast prices decreased more than 3 cents to $2.90 per gallon, and East Coast prices fell nearly 3 cents to $3.17 per gallon.

Propane/propylene inventories decline

U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 3.3 million barrels last week to 73.2 million barrels as of December 14, 2018, 5.6 million barrels (7.1%) lower than the five-year (2013–2017) average inventory level for this same time of year. Midwest inventories decreased by 2.5 million barrels, Gulf Coast and East Coast inventories each decreased by 0.4 million barrels, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 6.4% of total propane/propylene inventories.

Residential heating oil prices decrease slightly, propane prices flat

As of December 17, 2018, residential heating oil prices averaged almost $3.19 per gallon, down 1 cent per gallon from last week's price but nearly 30 cents per gallon higher than last year's price at this time. The average wholesale heating oil price for this week averaged $1.96 per gallon, over 3 cents per gallon less than last week and nearly 4 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.

Residential propane prices averaged $2.44 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon higher than last week but 4 cents per gallon lower than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged nearly $0.86 per gallon, almost 6 cents per gallon less than last week and nearly 18 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.

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The United States consumed a record amount of renewable energy in 2019

In 2019, consumption of renewable energy in the United States grew for the fourth year in a row, reaching a record 11.5 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu), or 11% of total U.S. energy consumption. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) new U.S. renewable energy consumption by source and sector chart published in the Monthly Energy Review shows how much renewable energy by source is consumed in each sector.

In its Monthly Energy Review, EIA converts sources of energy to common units of heat, called British thermal units (Btu), to compare different types of energy that are more commonly measured in units that are not directly comparable, such as gallons of biofuels compared with kilowatthours of wind energy. EIA uses a fossil fuel equivalence to calculate primary energy consumption of noncombustible renewables such as wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal.

U.S. renewable energy consumption by sector

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review

Wind energy in the United States is almost exclusively used by wind-powered turbines to generate electricity in the electric power sector, and it accounted for about 24% of U.S. renewable energy consumption in 2019. Wind surpassed hydroelectricity to become the most-consumed source of renewable energy on an annual basis in 2019.

Wood and waste energy, including wood, wood pellets, and biomass waste from landfills, accounted for about 24% of U.S. renewable energy use in 2019. Industrial, commercial, and electric power facilities use wood and waste as fuel to generate electricity, to produce heat, and to manufacture goods. About 2% of U.S. households used wood as their primary source of heat in 2019.

Hydroelectric power is almost exclusively used by water-powered turbines to generate electricity in the electric power sector and accounted for about 22% of U.S. renewable energy consumption in 2019. U.S. hydropower consumption has remained relatively consistent since the 1960s, but it fluctuates with seasonal rainfall and drought conditions.

Biofuels, including fuel ethanol, biodiesel, and other renewable fuels, accounted for about 20% of U.S. renewable energy consumption in 2019. Biofuels usually are blended with petroleum-based motor gasoline and diesel and are consumed as liquid fuels in automobiles. Industrial consumption of biofuels accounts for about 36% of U.S. biofuel energy consumption.

Solar energy, consumed to generate electricity or directly as heat, accounted for about 9% of U.S. renewable energy consumption in 2019 and had the largest percentage growth among renewable sources in 2019. Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, including rooftop panels, and solar thermal power plants use sunlight to generate electricity. Some residential and commercial buildings heat with solar heating systems.

October, 20 2020
Natural gas generators make up largest share of U.S. electricity generation capacity

operating natural-gas fired electric generating capacity by online year

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Electric Generator Inventory

Based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration's (EIA) annual survey of electric generators, natural gas-fired generators accounted for 43% of operating U.S. electricity generating capacity in 2019. These natural gas-fired generators provided 39% of electricity generation in 2019, more than any other source. Most of the natural gas-fired capacity added in recent decades uses combined-cycle technology, which surpassed coal-fired generators in 2018 to become the technology with the most electricity generating capacity in the United States.

Technological improvements have led to improved efficiency of natural gas generators since the mid-1980s, when combined-cycle plants began replacing older, less efficient steam turbines. For steam turbines, boilers combust fuel to generate steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. Combustion turbines use a fuel-air mixture to spin a gas turbine. Combined-cycle units, as their name implies, combine these technologies: a fuel-air mixture spins gas turbines to generate electricity, and the excess heat from the gas turbine is used to generate steam for a steam turbine that generates additional electricity.

Combined-cycle generators generally operate for extended periods; combustion turbines and steam turbines are typically only used at times of peak load. Relatively few steam turbines have been installed since the late 1970s, and many steam turbines have been retired in recent years.

natural gas-fired electric gnerating capacity by retirement year

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Electric Generator Inventory

Not only are combined-cycle systems more efficient than steam or combustion turbines alone, the combined-cycle systems installed more recently are more efficient than the combined-cycle units installed more than a decade ago. These changes in efficiency have reduced the amount of natural gas needed to produce the same amount of electricity. Combined-cycle generators consume 80% of the natural gas used to generate electric power but provide 85% of total natural gas-fired electricity.

operating natural gas-fired electric generating capacity in selected states

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Electric Generator Inventory

Every U.S. state, except Vermont and Hawaii, has at least one utility-scale natural gas electric power plant. Texas, Florida, and California—the three states with the most electricity consumption in 2019—each have more than 35 gigawatts of natural gas-fired capacity. In many states, the majority of this capacity is combined-cycle technology, but 44% of New York’s natural gas capacity is steam turbines and 67% of Illinois’s natural gas capacity is combustion turbines.

October, 19 2020
EIA’s International Energy Outlook analyzes electricity markets in India, Africa, and Asia

Countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Asia, including China and India, and in Africa are home to more than two-thirds of the world population. These regions accounted for 44% of primary energy consumed by the electric sector in 2019, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected they will reach 56% by 2050 in the Reference case in the International Energy Outlook 2019 (IEO2019). Changes in these economies significantly affect global energy markets.

Today, EIA is releasing its International Energy Outlook 2020 (IEO2020), which analyzes generating technology, fuel price, and infrastructure uncertainty in the electricity markets of Africa, Asia, and India. A related webcast presentation will begin this morning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

global energy consumption for power generation

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2020 (IEO2020)

IEO2020 focuses on the electricity sector, which consumes a growing share of the world’s primary energy. The makeup of the electricity sector is changing rapidly. The use of cost-efficient wind and solar technologies is increasing, and, in many regions of the world, use of lower-cost liquefied natural gas is also increasing. In IEO2019, EIA projected renewables to rise from about 20% of total energy consumed for electricity generation in 2010 to the largest single energy source by 2050.

The following are some key findings of IEO2020:

  • As energy use grows in Asia, some cases indicate more than 50% of electricity could be generated from renewables by 2050.
    IEO2020 features cases that consider differing natural gas prices and renewable energy capital costs in Asia, showing how these costs could shift the fuel mix for generating electricity in the region either further toward fossil fuels or toward renewables.
  • Africa could meet its electricity growth needs in different ways depending on whether development comes as an expansion of the central grid or as off-grid systems.
    Falling costs for solar photovoltaic installations and increased use of off-grid distribution systems have opened up technology options for the development of electricity infrastructure in Africa. Africa’s power generation mix could shift away from current coal-fired and natural gas-fired technologies used in the existing central grid toward off-grid resources, including extensive use of non-hydroelectric renewable generation sources.
  • Transmission infrastructure affects options available to change the future fuel mix for electricity generation in India.
    IEO2020 cases demonstrate the ways that electricity grid interconnections influence fuel choices for electricity generation in India. In cases where India relies more on a unified grid that can transmit electricity across regions, the share of renewables significantly increases and the share of coal decreases between 2019 and 2050. More limited movement of electricity favors existing in-region generation, which is mostly fossil fuels.

IEO2020 builds on the Reference case presented in IEO2019. The models, economic assumptions, and input oil prices from the IEO2019 Reference case largely remained unchanged, but EIA adjusted specific elements or assumptions to explore areas of uncertainty such as the rapid growth of renewable energy.

Because IEO2020 is based on the IEO2019 modeling platform and because it focuses on long-term electricity market dynamics, it does not include the impacts of COVID-19 and related mitigation efforts. The Annual Energy Outlook 2021 (AEO2021) and IEO2021 will both feature analyses of the impact of COVID-19 mitigation efforts on energy markets.

Asia infographic, as described in the article text


Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2020 (IEO2020)
Note: Click to enlarge.

With the IEO2020 release, EIA is publishing new Plain Language documentation of EIA’s World Energy Projection System (WEPS), the modeling system that EIA uses to produce IEO projections. EIA’s new Handbook of Energy Modeling Methods includes sections on most WEPS components, and EIA will release more sections in the coming months.

October, 16 2020