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.
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.
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.
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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After the OPEC+ club met on September 1st, and confirmed that it would be sticking to its plan of increasing its crude supply by 400,000 b/d a month through December, China made a rather unusual announcement. It announced that it was going to release some crude oil from its strategic petroleum reserves, selling it to domestic refiners that were grappling with crude’s heady price rise over 2021. The release of strategic oil reserves isn’t news in itself. What is news is that the usually secretive China did it and did it publicly.
And it did it to send a message to OPEC+: attempts to create artificial scarcity to maintain crude prices will not be tolerated. China has a right to feel that way. Even though great strides have been made to ease the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide, the virus is still exerting major effects on the global economy. Not least a massive ripple through the health of global supply chains that has seen the price of almost everything – plastics, semiconductors, agricultural commodity, lumber, steel – spike due to supply issues. In some cases, the prices of raw materials are at historic highs. Crude oil is still nowhere near its peak of above US$100/b, but it is high enough to be concerning, especially since it is happening within a major inflationary environment. And for a manufacturing-heavy economy like China, that matters. That matters a lot. So China’s National Food and Strategic Reserves announced that it would be releasing some of the country’s crude stocks to ‘better stabilise domestic market supply and demand, and effectively guarantee the country’s energy security’, a month after the country’s producer price inflation – ie. the cost of manufacturing – hit a 13-year high.
China made good on that promise, releasing 7.38 million barrels from its stockpile to domestic bidders on September 24 with more tranches expected. This was the first ever recorded release from China’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR), which began back in 2009 in serendipitous response to crude oil prices exceeding the US$100/b mark for the first time in 2008. But curiously, it may not have been the first ever release. So secretive is the SPR that China does not reveal the size of the reserve, although analysts have estimated it at some 300-400 million barrels with total capacity of 500 million barrels using satellite imaging. It has been speculated that batches of crude from the SPR have been released before on the quiet. But this is the first time China has gone public. Compared to the country’s overall oil consumption, 7.38 million barrels is small, almost tiny. And even if additional supplies are released, it will not make a major impact on China’s oil balances. But the message is what is important.
It is a message that China is not alone in sending. US President Joe Biden has already called on OPEC+ to accelerate its supply easing plans, given indications that the crude glut built up over 2020 has been all but erased. It is a notion that would be supported by some OPEC+ members – Russia, Mexico, the UAE – but so far, the discipline advocated by Saudi Arabia has held. The US too has attempted to release of its own crude reserve stocks – the largest in the world with a capacity of 727 million barrels – but this was also in response to the devastating impact of Hurricane Ida. India, China’s closest analogue to size and stage, has been complaining too. As a major oil importer and with a shakier economic situation, India is particularly sensitive to oil price swings. US$70/b is way above what New Delhi is comfortable with. But since India’s appeals to OPEC+ have fallen on deaf ears, it is attempting domestic directives instead. India’s state refiners have been ordered to reduce crude purchases from the Middle East, but with supply tight, there aren’t many other people to buy from. India has also been selling oil from its strategic reserve – officially stated to be for clearing space to lease storage capacity to refiners – although since India is more transparent about these announcements, the announcement isn’t as surprising.
Will it work? At least immediately, no. Crude prices did come under pressure in the wake of China’s announcement, but then recovered with Brent hitting US$75/b. But the fact that China timed the announcement of the September 24 auction to coincide with peak global trading time and with a lot of details (again an unusual move) shows that Beijing is serious about wielding its strategic reserves as weapons. If not to moderate crude prices, then to at least stabilise it. But this is a war of attrition. China may very well have a planned schedule to release more crude reserves over 2021 and 2022 if prices remain high, but its supplies are finite. And they will have to eventually be replenished, possibly at an even higher cost if the attempt to quell crude price inflation fails. Thus far, the details of the SPR release hint that this is a tentative dip in the pool: the volume of 7.38 million barrels was far lower than the 35-70 million barrels predicted by some market participants. And because successful bidders can lift the oil up to December 10, it seems unlikely that a second auction for 2021 is in concrete plans at this point.
But, at the very least, the message has been sent. Beijing has a tool that it can wield if crude prices get out of hand, and it is not afraid to use it. The first step might have been small, and it is a giant leap in what mechanics are available to influence crude prices. And as history has proven, China can be very quick to scale up and very single-minded in its approach. Over to you, OPEC+.
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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