At some point in 2019, crude production in Venezuela will dip below the 1 mmb/d level. It might already have occurred; estimated output was 1.15 mmb/d in November and the country’s downward trajectory for 2018 would put December numbers at about 1.06 mmb/d. Financial sanctions imposed on the country by the US, coupled with years of fiscal mismanagement have triggered an economic and humanitarian meltdown, where inflation has at times hit 1,400,000% and forced an abandonment of the ‘old’ bolivar for a ‘new bolivar’. PDVSA – once an oil industry crown jewel – has been hammered, from its cargoes being seized by ConocoPhillips for debts owed to the loss of the Curacao refinery and its prized Citgo refineries in the US.
The year 2019 will not see a repair of this chronic issue. Crude production in Venezuela will continue to slide. Once Latin America’s largest oil exporter – with peak production of 3.3 mmb/d and exports of 2.3 mmb/d in 1999 – it has now been eclipsed by Brazil and eventually tiny Guyana, where ExxonMobil has made massive discoveries. Even more pain is on the way, as the Trump administration prepares new sanctions as Nicolas Maduro begins his second term after a widely-derided election. But what is pain for Venezuela is gain for OPEC; the slack that its declining volumes provides makes it easier to maintain aggregate supply levels aimed at shoring up global oil prices.
It isn’t that Venezuela doesn’t want to increase – or at least maintain its production levels. It is that PDVSA isn’t capable of doing so alone, and has lost many deep-pocketed international ‘friends’ that were once instrumental to its success. The nationalisation of the oil industry in 2007 alienated supermajors like Chevron, Total and BP, and led to ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil suing the Venezuelan government. Arbitration in 2014 saw that amount reduced, but even that has not been paid; ConocoPhillips took the extraordinary step of seizing PDVSA cargoes at sea and its Caribbean assets in lieu of the US$2 billion arbitration award. Burnt by the legacies of Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro, these majors won’t be coming back – forcing Venezuela to turn to second-tier companies and foreign aid to extract more volumes. Last week, Venezuela signed an agreement with the newly-formed US-based Erepla Services to boost production at the Tia Juana, Rosa Mediano and Ayacucho 5 fields. In return, Erepla will receive half the oil produced – generous terms that still weren’t enough to entice service giants like Schlumberger and Halliburton.
Venezuela is also tapping into Russian, Chinese and Indian aid to boost output, essentially selling off key assets for necessary cash and expertise. This could be a temporary band-aid, but nothing more. Most of Venezuela’s oil reserves come from the extra-heavy reserves in the Orinoco Belt, where an estimated 1.2 trillion barrels lies. Extracting this will be extremely expensive and possibly commercially uneconomical – given the refining industry’s move away from heavy grades to middle distillates. There are also very few refineries in the world that can process such heavy crude, and Venezuela is in no position to make additional demands from them. In a world where PDVSA has fewer and fewer friends, recovery will be extremely tough and extremely far-off.
Infographic: Venezuelan crude production:
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
In its January 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that annual U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d in 2021, down 0.2 million b/d from 2020 as result of a decline in drilling activity related to low oil prices. A production decline in 2021 would mark the second consecutive year of production declines. Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic led to supply and demand disruptions. EIA expects crude oil production to increase in 2022 by 0.4 million b/d because of increased drilling as prices remain at or near $50 per barrel (b).
The United States set annual natural gas production records in 2018 and 2019, largely because of increased drilling in shale and tight oil formations. The increase in production led to higher volumes of natural gas in storage and a decrease in natural gas prices. In 2020, marketed natural gas production fell by 2% from 2019 levels amid responses to COVID-19. EIA estimates that annual U.S. marketed natural gas production will decline another 2% to average 95.9 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2021. The fall in production will reverse in 2022, when EIA estimates that natural gas production will rise by 2% to 97.6 Bcf/d.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
EIA’s forecast for crude oil production is separated into three regions: the Lower 48 states excluding the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) (81% of 2019 crude oil production), the GOM (15%), and Alaska (4%). EIA expects crude oil production in the U.S. Lower 48 states to decline through the first quarter of 2021 and then increase through the rest of the forecast period. As more new wells come online later in 2021, new well production will exceed the decline in legacy wells, driving the increase in overall crude oil production after the first quarter of 2021.
Associated natural gas production from oil-directed wells in the Permian Basin will fall because of lower West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices and reduced drilling activity in the first quarter of 2021. Natural gas production from dry regions such as Appalachia depends on the Henry Hub price. EIA forecasts the Henry Hub price will increase from $2.00 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2020 to $3.01/MMBtu in 2021 and to $3.27/MMBtu in 2022, which will likely prompt an increase in Appalachia's natural gas production. However, natural gas production in Appalachia may be limited by pipeline constraints in 2021 if the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is delayed. The MVP is scheduled to enter service in late 2021, delivering natural gas from producing regions in northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Natural gas takeaway capacity in the region is quickly filling up since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled in mid-2020.
Just when it seems that the drama of early December, when the nations of the OPEC+ club squabbled over how to implement and ease their collective supply quotas in 2021, would be repeated, a concession came from the most unlikely quarter of all. Saudi Arabia. OPEC’s swing producer and, especially in recent times, vocal judge, announced that it would voluntarily slash 1 million barrels per day of supply. The move took the oil markets by surprise, sending crude prices soaring but was also very unusual in that it was not even necessary at all.
After a day’s extension to the negotiations, the OPEC+ club had actually already agreed on the path forward for their supply deal through the remainder of Q1 2021. The nations of OPEC+ agreed to ease their overall supply quotas by 75,000 b/d in February and 120,000 b/d in March, bringing the total easing over three months to 695,000 b/d after the UAE spearheaded a revised increase of 500,000 b/d for January. The increases are actually very narrow ones; there were no adjustments for quotas for all OPEC+ members with the exception of Russia and Kazakshtan, who will be able to pump 195,000 additional barrels per day between them. That the increases for February and March were not higher or wider is a reflection of reality: despite Covid-19 vaccinations being rolled out globally, a new and more infectious variant of the coronavirus has started spreading across the world. In fact, there may even be at least of these mutations currently spreading, throwing into question the efficacy of vaccines and triggering new lockdowns. The original schedule of the April 2020 supply deal would have seen OPEC+ adding 2 million b/d of production from January 2021 onwards; the new tranches are far more measured and cognisant of the challenging market.
Then Saudi Arabia decides to shock the market by declaring that the Kingdom would slash an additional million barrels of crude supply above its current quota over February and March post-OPEC+ announcement. Which means that while countries such as Russia, the UAE and Nigeria are working to incrementally increase output, Saudi Arabia is actually subsidising those planned increases by making a massive additional voluntary cut. For a member that threw its weight around last year by unleashing taps to trigger a crude price war with Russia and has been emphasising the need for strict compliant by all members before allowing any collective increases to take place, this is uncharacteristic. Saudi Arabia may be OPEC’s swing producer, but it is certainly not that benevolent. Not least because it is expected to record a massive US$79 billion budget deficit for 2020 as low crude prices eat into the Kingdom’s finances.
So, why is Saudi Arabia doing this?
The last time the Saudis did this was in July 2020, when the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was at devastating levels and crude prices needed some additional propping up. It succeeded. In January 2021, however, global crude prices are already at the US$50/b level and the market had already cheered the resolution of OPEC+’s positions for the next two months. There was no real urgent need to make voluntary cuts, especially since no other OPEC member would suit especially not the UAE with whom there has been a falling out.
The likeliest reason is leadership. Having failed to convince the rest of the OPEC+ gang to avoid any easing of quotas, Saudi Arabia could be wanting to prove its position by providing a measure of supply security at a time of major price sensitivity due to the Covid-19 resurgence. It will also provide some political ammunition for future negotiations when the group meets in March to decide plans for Q2 2021, turning this magnanimous move into an implicit threat. It could also be the case that Saudi Arabia is planning to pair its voluntary cut with field maintenance works, which would be a nice parallel to the usual refinery maintenance season in Asia where crude demand typically falls by 10-20% as units shut for routine inspections.
It could also be a projection of soft power. After isolating Qatar physically and economically since 2017 over accusations of terrorism support and proximity to Iran, four Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – have agreed to restore and normalise ties with the peninsula. While acknowledging that a ‘trust deficit’ still remained, the accord avoids the awkward workarounds put in place to deal with the boycott and provides for road for cooperation ahead of a change on guard in the White House. Perhaps Qatar is even thinking of re-joining OPEC? As Saudi Arabia flexes its geopolitical muscle, it does need to pick its battles and re-assert its position. Showcasing political leadership as the world’s crude swing producer is as good a way of demonstrating that as any, even if it is planning to claim dues in the future.
It worked. It has successfully changed the market narrative from inter-OPEC+ squabbling to a more stabilised crude market. Saudi Arabia’s patience in prolonging this benevolent role is unknown, but for now, it has achieved what it wanted to achieve: return visibility to the Kingdom as the global oil leader, and having crude oil prices rise by nearly 10%.