The year 2018 has been quite a rollercoaster. It started off with optimism, veered into uncertainty and ends with the blues. Oil prices started on an upward swing at US$66/b for Brent, reached a peak of US$81/b, then fell to a low of US$49/b. The market swang from balanced supply/demand to a supply crunch to a glut – dealing with American sanctions on Iranian crude exports, surging American crude oil production, the implosion of Venezuela’s economy and signs that the global economy might be entering a slowdown. If this was a wild ride, what could 2019 hold?
Quarter 1 2019 – The crude oil market will start the year off in a slightly stronger position than it ended 2018, bouncing back from recent lows at US$54/b. The new OPEC+ supply deal – which aims to curb production by 1.2 mmb/d – goes into effect, and traders will be watching to see if the cuts have a material impact. Sometime in the first quarter, American crude oil production will hit 12 mmb/d, cementing its position as the world’s largest oil producer as Saudi Arabia and Russia cut back output as part of the OPEC+ supply deal. Upstream production curbs in Canada’s Alberta – hampered by pipeline capacity – will continue. A new Democrat-led House of Representatives takes office in the US, which could frustrate President Donald Trump’s agenda, with the threat of investigation and impeachment raising the risk of triggering volatility.
Quarter 2 2019 – OPEC+ meets in April to review the supply deal agreed in December 2018. Saudi Arabia has been promising ‘deeper cuts’, but there will be pushback from some members worried about ceding ground to American shale. Russia has already expressed some reticence, and Iran is unlikely to support another major cut. The power of OPEC – which has already lost Qatar as a member – will be questioned. A lot will depend on the question of American waivers of Iranian crude imports for eight major buyers, which expire in May. The waivers should continue – which should allow room for negotiation – but a shock could happen if they are allowed to expire.
Quarter 3 2019 – The first of a new wave of pipelines connecting the Permian Basin to the US Gulf Coast should begin commissioning and operation. With capacity of at least an additional 1.5 mmb/d of American shale oil making it to market, this could trigger another boom in Permian output and change the dynamics of the global oil market, just as American LNG has upended the global gas market. OPEC’s bi-annual Vienna meeting in June will address this. Will there be a place for light, sweet US crude in the world, particularly since there will continue to be a global oversupply of gasoline? Perhaps for petrochemical use, but refining demand will increasingly be geared toward medium and heavier grades to be cracked by upgraded refineries into gasoil ahead of the IMO’s new rules of fuel oil and sulfur levels rolling out in 2020
Quarter 4 2019 – Depending on market conditions, American crude production could be on the cusp of hitting 13 mmb/d – presenting yet another problem as OPEC meets in December. The inexorable rise of US oil is inevitable, and we could see OPEC switch tactics from accommodation to aggression. If the Iranian crude export waivers are extended in May, they will end in this quarter – throwing another finicky variable into a complicated year. The year might end the way it began, characterised by a frustrating stalemate between free market and controlled oil production.
Major predictions for 2019 oil prices (Brent)
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This winter, natural gas prices have been at their lowest levels in decades. On Monday, February 10, the near-month natural gas futures price at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) closed at $1.77 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). This price was the lowest February closing price for the near-month contract since at least 2001, in real terms, and the lowest near-month futures price in any month since March 8, 2016, according to Bloomberg, L.P. and FRED data.
In addition, according to Natural Gas Intelligence data, the daily spot price at the Henry Hub national benchmark was $1.81/MMBtu on February 10, 2020, the lowest price in real terms since March 9, 2016. Henry Hub spot prices have ranged between $1.81/MMBtu and $2.84/MMBtu this winter heating season (since November 1, 2019), generally because relatively warm winter weather has reduced demand for natural gas for heating. Natural gas production growth has outpaced demand growth, reducing the need to withdraw natural gas from underground storage.
Dry natural gas production in January 2020 averaged about 95.0 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), according to IHS Markit data. IHS Markit also estimates that in January 2020 the United States saw the third-highest monthly U.S. natural gas production on record, down slightly from the previous two months.
IHS Markit estimates that U.S. natural gas consumption by residential, commercial, industrial, and electric power sectors averaged 96 Bcf/d for January, which was about 4.4 Bcf/d less than the average for January 2019, largely because of decreases in residential and commercial consumption as a result of warmer temperatures.
However, IHS Markit estimates that overall consumption of natural gas (including feed gas to liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities, pipeline fuel losses, and net exports by pipeline to Mexico) averaged about 117.5 Bcf/d in January 2020, an increase of about 0.2 Bcf/d from last year. This overall increase is largely a result of an almost doubling of LNG feed gas to about 8.5 Bcf/d.
Because supply growth has outpaced demand growth, less natural gas has been withdrawn from storage withdrawals this winter. Despite starting the 2019–20 heating season with the third-lowest level of natural gas inventory since 2009, by January 17, 2020, working natural gas inventories reached relatively high levels for mid-winter. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) data on natural gas inventories for the Lower 48 states as of February 7, 2020, reflect a 215 Bcf surplus to the five-year average. In EIA’s latest short-term forecast, more natural gas remains in storage levels than the previous five-year average through the remainder of the winter.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), January 2020 was the fifth-warmest in its 126-year climate record. Heating degree days (HDDs), a temperature-based metric for heating demand, have been relatively low this winter, which is consistent with a warmer winter. During some weeks in late December and early January, the United States saw 25% to 30% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average. This winter, through February 8, residential natural gas customers in the United States have seen 11% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center data
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
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