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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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Natural gas inventories surpass five-year average for the first time in two years

Working natural gas inventories in the Lower 48 states totaled 3,519 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the week ending October 11, 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report (WNGSR). This is the first week that Lower 48 states’ working gas inventories have exceeded the previous five-year average since September 22, 2017. Weekly injections in three of the past four weeks each surpassed 100 Bcf, or about 27% more than typical injections for that time of year.

Working natural gas capacity at underground storage facilities helps market participants balance the supply and consumption of natural gas. Inventories in each of the five regions are based on varying commercial, risk management, and reliability goals.

When determining whether natural gas inventories are relatively high or low, EIA uses the average inventories for that same week in each of the previous five years. Relatively low inventories heading into winter months can put upward pressure on natural gas prices. Conversely, relatively high inventories can put downward pressure on natural gas prices.

This week’s inventory level ends a 106-week streak of lower-than-normal natural gas inventories. Natural gas inventories in the Lower 48 states entered the winter of 2017–18 lower than the previous average. Episodes of relatively cold temperatures in the winter of 2017–18—including a bomb cyclone—resulted in record withdrawals from storage, increasing the deficit to the five-year average.

In the subsequent refill season (typically April through October), sustained warmer-than-normal temperatures increased electricity demand for natural gas. Increased demand slowed natural gas storage injection activity through the summer and fall of 2018. By November 30, 2018, the deficit to the five-year average had grown to 725 Bcf. Inventories in that week were 20% lower than the previous five-year average for that time of year. Throughout the 2019 refill season, record levels of U.S. natural gas production led to relatively high injections of natural gas into storage and reduced the deficit to the previous five-year average.

The deficit was also decreased as last year’s low inventory levels are rolled into the previous five-year average. For this week in 2019, the preceding five-year average is about 124 Bcf lower than it was for the same week last year. Consequently, the gap has closed in part based on a lower five-year average.

Lower 48 natural gas inventories, difference to five-year average

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report

The level of working natural gas inventories relative to the previous five-year average tends to be inversely correlated with natural gas prices. Front-month futures prices at the Henry Hub, the main price benchmark for natural gas in the United States, were as low as $1.67 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in early 2016. At about that same time, natural gas inventories were 874 Bcf more than the previous five-year average.

By the winter of 2018–19, natural gas front-month futures prices reached their highest level in several years. Natural gas inventories fell to 725 Bcf less than the previous five-year average on November 30, 2018. In recent weeks, increasing the Lower 48 states’ natural gas storage levels have contributed to lower natural gas futures prices.

Lower 48 natural gas inventories and Henry Hub futures prices

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report and front-month futures prices from New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX)

October, 21 2019
Your Weekly Update: 14 - 18 October 2019

Market Watch  

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 14 October 2019 – Brent: US$59/b; WTI: US$53/b

  • Crude oil prices remain stubbornly stuck in their range, despite several key issues that could potentially move the market occurring over the week
  • The sudden thawing of the icy trade relations between the US and China last week – announcing a partial trade deal where new tariffs would be halted – was a positive for the waning health of the global economy; this, however, failed to send prices any higher as previous optimism has always been dashed
  • The trade spat has already caused fears of an economic recession and tumbling global oil demand, with the IEA projecting yet another drop in the demand that has neutralised another possible ‘geopolitical premium’ on prices
  • That geopolitical premium focuses on the fragile situation in the Middle East, with risk spiking up as Iran announced that one of its tankers in the Red Sea – far away from the Persian Gulf - had been struck by missiles; an initial accusation that Saudi Arabia was behind the attack was later withdrawn
  • Meanwhile, news emerged that Nigeria had been quietly handed an increased quota under the OPEC+ supply deal, from 1.685 mmb/d to 1.774 mmb/d, in July, which would help it meet compliance under the deal
  • After more than two months of continuous declines, the US active rig count increased for the first time, but not by much; two oil rigs were added, offset by the loss of a gas rig, but a net gain of 1 to a total of 856
  • We expect prices to remain entrenched as it displays resilience against political and economic factors, with Brent hovering in the US$58-60/b area and WTI at the US$52-54/b range


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • The US Department of the Interior will be opening up 722,000 acres of federal land along California’s central coast near Fresno, San Benito and Monterey for oil and gas leasing – the first sale in the state since 2013
  • Alongside the lease sale in California, the US will also be opening up some 78 million acres in Gulf of Mexico federal waters for sale in 2020, covering all available unleased areas not subject to Congressional moratorium
  • Santos has confirmed oil flows at the Dorado-3 well in the Bedout Basin offshore Western Australia, with some 11,1000 b/d in place
  • After having exited Norway, ExxonMobil is now reportedly looking into selling its Malaysian offshore upstream assets as part of its divestiture programme, fetching up to US$3 billion for assets including the Tapis Blend operations
  • Equinor has won a new exploration permit – WA-542-P – in the offshore Western Australia Northern Carnarvon Basin, located new the Dorado well
  • Nigeria is looking to settle a US$62 billion income-sharing dispute with international oil firms such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Total and Eni operating in the country, with hopes of reaching a settlement
  • Barbados is looking to emulate its nearby neighbour Guyana as it gears up for its third offshore bid round that will launch in early 2020
  • Petroecuador has been forced to declare force majeure on its crude exports, as widespread protests over the removal of fuel subsidies have led to the shutdown of some oilfields
  • Abu Dhabi is looking to create a new benchmark price for Middle Eastern crude based on its Murban grade that could compete with Brent and WTI

Midstream/Downstream

  • Aruba has ended its contract with Citgo – PDVSA’s US refining arm – to operate its 209,000 b/d refinery that is currently idled; a new operator is being sought, paralleling the situation over Curacao’s Isla refinery and PDVSA
  • Poland’s crude pipeline operator expects to only be able to clear its system of contaminated Russian oil from the Druzhba incident by July 2020
  • Gunvor’s Rotterdam refinery will only be able to produce low sulfur fuel oil by March 2020, part of a larger planned overhaul of the 88,000 b/d site

Natural Gas/LNG

  • After Total’s departure, it is now the turn of CNPC to quit the South Pars Phase 11 project in Iran, leaving Iran to go ahead alone its largest natural gas project ever as the threat of US sanctions bites down
  • CNPC has taken over operation of the Chuandongbei sour gas field in China’s Sichuan basin from Chevron, and will kick of Phase 2 development soon
  • Qatar has invited ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, ConocoPhillips and some other ‘big players’ to assist in the North Field expansion that will underpin its ambitions to boost gas output to 110 million tpa from a current 77 million tpa
  • The FID on the Rovuma LNG project in Mozambique has been pushed back by a year, with first production now expected by 2025 at the earliest
  • Pakistan has cancelled a ‘huge’ 10-year tender covering 240 LNG cargoes to its second LNG terminal, turning instead to spot cargoes due to inadequate demand
  • Inpex has formally received a 35-year extension for the PSC covering the Abadi LNG project in Indonesia, extending its operation of the Masela block to 2055
October, 18 2019
Ecuador Exits OPEC

Amid ongoing political unrest, Ecuador has chosen to withdraw from OPEC in January 2020. Citing a need to boost oil revenues by being ‘honest about its ability to endure further cuts’, Ecuador is prioritising crude production and welcoming new oil investment (free from production constraints) as President Lenin Moreno pursues more market-friendly economic policies. But his decisions have caused unrest; the removal of fuel subsidies – which effectively double domestic fuel prices – have triggered an ongoing widespread protests after 40 years of low prices. To balance its fiscal books, Ecuador’s priorities have changed.

The departure is symbolic. Ecuador’s production amounts to some 540,000 b/d of crude oil. It has historically exceeded its allocated quota within the wider OPEC supply deal, but given its smaller volumes, does not have a major impact on OPEC’s total output. The divorce is also not acrimonious, with Ecuador promising to continue supporting OPEC’s efforts to stabilise the oil market where it can. 

This isn’t the first time, or the last time, that a country will quit OPEC. Ecuador itself has already done so once, withdrawing in December 1992. Back then, Quito cited fiscal problems, balking at the high membership fee – US$2 million per year – and that it needed to prioritise increasing production over output discipline. Ecuador rejoined in October 2007. Similar circumstances over supply constraints also prompted Gabon to withdraw in January 1995, returning only in July 2016. The likelihood of Ecuador returning is high, given this history, but there are also two OPEC members that have departed seemingly permanently.

The first is Indonesia, which exited OPEC in 2008 after 46 years of membership. Chronic mismanagement of its upstream resources had led Indonesia to become a net importer of crude oil since the early 2000s and therefore unable to meet its production quota. Indonesia did rejoin OPEC briefly in January 2016 after managing to (slightly) improve its crude balance, but was forced to withdraw once again in December 2016 when OPEC began requesting more comprehensive production cuts to stabilise prices. But while Indonesia may return, Qatar is likely gone permanently. Officially, Qatar exited OPEC in January 2019 after 48 years of continuous membership to focus on natural gas production, which dwarfs its crude output. Unofficially, geopolitical tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia – which has resulted in an ongoing blockade and boycott – contributed to the split.

The exit of Ecuador will not make much material difference to OPEC’s current goal of controlling supply to stabilise prices. With Saudi production back at full capacity – and showing the willingness to turn its taps on or off to control the market – gains in Ecuador’s crude production can be offset elsewhere. What matters is optics. The exit leaves the impression that OPEC’s power is weakening, limiting its ability to influence the market by controlling supply. There are also ongoing tensions brewing within OPEC, specifically between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The continued implosion of the Venezuelan economy is also an issue. OPEC will survive the exit of Ecuador; but if Iran or Venezuela choose to go, then it will face a full-blown existential crisis. 

Current OPEC membership:

  • Middle East: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE
  • Africa: Algeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Libya, Nigeria, Republic of Congo
  • Latin America: Venezuela
  • Total: 13
  • Withdrawing: Ecuador (January 2020)
  • Membership under consideration: Sudan (October 2015)
October, 18 2019