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Last Updated: January 25, 2019
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Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 21 January 2019 – Brent: US$62/b; WTI: US$53/b

  • Oil prices continue to edge up, as the market took cues from a large pullback in US drilling activity – a sign that US crude output growth might slow in the near term – although demand continues to be a concern, with the US-China trade talks at a stalemate
  • The truce between the US and China is now more than halfway through the 90-day period, and there has been no sign of concrete progress ahead of the March 1, 2019 deadline – when tariffs on US$200 billion on Chinese imports kick in
  • With the Chinese economy growing at its slowest pace in 28 years, a trade deal is likely, but fundamental differences with America could scupper a deal, leading to a further slowdown in the global economy, with recession a growing possibility
  • The OPEC+ supply cut continues to support the market, with Russia and Saudi Arabia signalling that they are on track with their production cut targets
  • While the US is now signalling that no new waivers will be granted to buyers of Iranian crude in May, market analysts believe that waivers will be renewed, but at a lower volume or to a lower number of countries
  • The US is also considering harsher sanctions on Venezuela, in response to what it is calling an illegitimate election by President Nicolas Maduro, which could further reduce Venezuela’s already declining crude exports
  • With Iran and Venezuela, oil supply on the OPEC+ side will see a downward trend in 2019, but the EIA expects US production to rise to a 12.9 mmb/d by 2020, with production for 2019 averaging at 12.07 mmb/d
  • However, American drillers may have been put off by the recent weakening of prices – exacerbated by insufficient inland pipeline infrastructure – with the active rig count losing 21 oil rigs and 4 gas rigs for a net loss of 25 rigs
  • Crude price outlook: Competing bullish/bearish factors will keep crude oil prices in their current range, as worries about the health of energy demand keep a lid on prices. Brent should range in US$61-63/b, and WTI trading at US$52-54/b


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • BP and Eni have signed a new Heads of Agreement with Oman, aimed at developing Block 77 in central Oman, a project that is considered ‘significant’
  • CNOOC has started production at the Huizhou 32-5/Huizhou 33-1 integrated development in the eastern South China Sea, with projected output of 19,200 b/d in 2020 aimed to arresting China’s upstream output decline
  • Petrobras announced that its total production of oil and gas in 2018 was 2.63 mmboe/d, including NGLs, with 96.2% of output located in Brazil
  • Pemex has received a fast-track approval from the Mexican government for the US$1 billion development of the shallow-water Esah field
  • Undeterred by previous lukewarm response, Indonesia is offering up five blocks – including two former production areas – in early 2019
  • Angola is launching its first licensing round in eight years this June, focusing on marginal fields that will open up new exploration areas
  • Shell has appointed a new Upstream Director, with Wael Sawan taking over from Andy Brown from July 1, 2019

Downstream

  • Russia has expanded its list of oil refineries eligible for a newly introduced excise tax relief, as a sweetener after nine of the sites agreed to invest US$4.5 billion to upgrade capacity and fuels quality by 2026
  • China has granted the country’s first crude oil import licence to a private trader, with Zhejiang Wuchan Zhongda Petroleum’s approval seen as a step in opening up its crude market and support the new Shanghai crude futures contract
  • Algeria’s Sonatrach expected to conclude the formation of its trading joint venture with ExxonMobil within the first half of 2019
  • BP and Korean petrochemical firm Lotte have agreed to a major expansion at the joint Lotte BP Chemical Company site in Ulsan, adding 100,000 tpa of acetic acid and 200,000 tpa of vinyal acetate monomer capacity by 2020
  • Europe’s largest refinery – the 404 kb/d Pernis site in Rotterdam – will close for two months for major maintenance work
  • Curacao’s search for a new operator for its 335 kb/d Isla refinery – rumoured to be handed to Motiva – has been suspended pending a corruption investigation
  • Sinopec has been given approval by the Chinese government to launch an IPO for its fuels retail unit, with listing set for Hong Kong this year
  • South Africa and Saudi Arabia have signed a cooperation agreement focusing on US$10 billion in oil and gas projects, including a new refinery and usage of oil storage facilities near Cape Town as a strategic location for trading

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Russia’s Novatek is looking to building two new LNG storage tanks at Saibu Gas’ storage facility in the Japanese island of Kyushu, which would allow it greater flexibility to deliver Arctic LNG to China and South Korea
  • Equinor, with Petoro, ExxonMobil and Total, have announced a new discovery in the Norwegian Sea, with the Ragnfrid North (6406/2-9 S) exploration well estimated to hold 6-25 mmboe of gas and condensate
  • Talks to build an underwater natural gas pipeline between Israel and Egypt are progressing, transferring gas from the Leviathan and Tamar fields to Egyptian LNG processing facilities to create a new energy export hub
  • Shell is looking at starting work on a new natural gas/condensate prospect in Australia’s Northern Browse Basin, eyeing a future tie-back to its Prelude FLNG unit that just began production in December

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Pricing-in The Covid 19 Vaccine

In a few days, the bi-annual OPEC meeting will take place on November 30, leading into a wider OPEC+ meeting on December 30. This is what all the political jostling and negotiations currently taking place is leading up to, as the coalition of major oil producers under the OPEC+ banner decide on the next step of its historic and ambitious supply control plan. Designed to prop up global oil prices by managing supply, a postponement of the next phase in the supply deal is widely expected. But there are many cracks appearing beneath the headline.

A quick recap. After Saudi Arabia and Russia triggered a price war in March 2020 that led to a collapse in oil prices (with US crude prices briefly falling into negative territory due to the technical quirk), OPEC and its non-OPEC allies (known collectively as OPEC+) agreed to a massive supply quota deal that would throttle their production for 2 years. The initial figure was 10 mmb/d, until Mexico’s reticence brought that down to 9.7 mmb/d. This was due to fall to 7.7 mmb/d by July 2020, but soft demand forced a delay, while Saudi Arabia led the charge to ensure full compliance from laggards, which included Iraq, Nigeria and (unusually) the UAE. The next tranche will bring the supply control ceiling down to 5.7 mmb/d. But given that Covid-19 is still raging globally (despite promising vaccine results), this might be too much too soon. Yes, prices have recovered, but at US$40/b crude, this is still not sufficient to cover the oil-dependent budgets of many OPEC+ nations. So a delay is very likely.

But for how long? The OPEC+ Joint Technical Committee panel has suggested that the next step of the plan (which will effectively boost global supply by 2 mmb/d) be postponed by 3-6 months. This move, if adopted, will have been presaged by several public statements by OPEC+ leaders, including a pointed comment from OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo that producers must be ready to respond to ‘shifts in market fundamentals’.

On the surface, this is a necessary move. Crude prices have rallied recently – to as high as US$45/b – on positive news of Covid-19 vaccines. Treatments from Pfizer, Moderna and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca have touted 90%+ effectiveness in various forms, with countries such as the US, Germany and the UK ordering billions of doses and setting the stage for mass vaccinations beginning December. Life returning to a semblance of normality would lift demand, particularly in key products such as gasoline (as driving rates increase) and jet fuel (allowing a crippled aviation sector to return to life). Underpinning the rally is the understanding that OPEC+ will always act in the market’s favour, carefully supporting the price recovery. But there are already grouses among OPEC members that they are doing ‘too much’. Led by Saudi Arabia, the draconian dictates of meeting full compliance to previous quotas have ruffled feathers, although most members have reluctantly attempt to abide by them. But there is a wider existential issue that OPEC+ is merely allowing its rivals to resuscitate and leapfrog them once again; the US active oil rig count by Baker Hughes has reversed a chronic decline trend, as WTI prices are at levels above breakeven for US shale.

Complaints from Iran, Iraq and Nigeria are to be expected, as is from Libya as it seeks continued exemption from quotas due to the legacy of civil war even though it has recently returned to almost full production following a truce. But grievance is also coming from an unexpected quarter: the UAE. A major supporter in the Saudi Arabia faction of OPEC, reports suggest that the UAE (led by the largest emirate, Abu Dhabi) are privately questioning the benefit of remaining in OPEC. Beset by shrivelling oil revenue, the Emiratis have been grumbling about the fairness of their allocated quota as they seek to rebuild their trade-dependent economy. There has been suggestion that the Emiratis could even leave OPEC if decisions led to a net negative outcome for them. Unlike the Qatar exit, this will not just be a blow to OPEC as a whole, questioning its market relevance but to Saudi Arabia’s lead position, as it loses one of its main allies, reducing its negotiation power. And if the UAE leaves, Kuwait could follow, which would leave the Saudis even more isolated.

This could be a tactic to increase the volume of the UAE’s voice in OPEC+, which has been dominated by Saudi Arabia and Russia. But it could also be a genuine policy shift. Either way, it throws even more conundrums onto a delicate situation that could undermine an already fragile market. Despite the positive market news led by Covid-19 vaccines and demand recovery in Asia, American crude oil inventories in Cushing are now approaching similar high levels last seen in April (just before the WTI crash) while OPEC itself has lowered its global demand forecast for 2020 by 300,000 b/d. That’s dangerous territory to be treading in, especially if members of the OPEC+ club are threatening to exit and undermine the pack. A postponement of the plan seems inevitable on December 1 at this point, but it is what lies beyond the immediate horizon that is the true threat to OPEC+.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$44-46/b, WTI – US$42-44/b
  • More positive news on Covid-19 vaccines have underpinned a crude price rally despite worrying signs of continued soft demand and inventory build-ups
  • Pfizer’s application for emergency approval of its vaccine is paving the way for mass vaccinations to begin soon, with some experts predicting that the global economy could return to normality in Q2 2021
  • Market observers are predicting a delay in the OPEC+ supply quota schedule, but the longer timeline for the club’s plan – which is set to last until April 2022 – may have to be brought forward to appease current dissent in the group

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November, 25 2020
EIA expects U.S. crude oil production to remain relatively flat through 2021

In the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) November Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts that U.S. crude oil production will remain near its current level through the end of 2021.

A record 12.9 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil was produced in the United States in November 2019 and was at 12.7 million b/d in March 2020, when the President declared a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak. Crude oil production then fell to 10.0 million b/d in May 2020, the lowest level since January 2018.

By August, the latest monthly data available in EIA’s series, production of crude oil had risen to 10.6 million b/d in the United States, and the U.S. benchmark price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil had increased from a monthly average of $17 per barrel (b) in April to $42/b in August. EIA forecasts that the WTI price will average $43/b in the first half of 2021, up from our forecast of $40/b during the second half of 2020.

The U.S. crude oil production forecast reflects EIA’s expectations that annual global petroleum demand will not recover to pre-pandemic levels (101.5 million b/d in 2019) through at least 2021. EIA forecasts that global consumption of petroleum will average 92.9 million b/d in 2020 and 98.8 million b/d in 2021.

The gradual recovery in global demand for petroleum contributes to EIA’s forecast of higher crude oil prices in 2021. EIA expects that the Brent crude oil price will increase from its 2020 average of $41/b to $47/b in 2021.

EIA’s crude oil price forecast depends on many factors, especially changes in global production of crude oil. As of early November, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) were considering plans to keep production at current levels, which could result in higher crude oil prices. OPEC+ had previously planned to ease production cuts in January 2021.

Other factors could result in lower-than-forecast prices, especially a slower recovery in global petroleum demand. As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, some parts of the United States are adding restrictions such as curfews and limitations on gatherings and some European countries are re-instituting lockdown measures.

EIA recently published a more detailed discussion of U.S. crude oil production in This Week in Petroleum.

November, 19 2020
OPEC members' net oil export revenue in 2020 expected to drop to lowest level since 2002

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will earn about $323 billion in net oil export revenues in 2020. If realized, this forecast revenue would be the lowest in 18 years. Lower crude oil prices and lower export volumes drive this expected decrease in export revenues.

Crude oil prices have fallen as a result of lower global demand for petroleum products because of responses to COVID-19. Export volumes have also decreased under OPEC agreements limiting crude oil output that were made in response to low crude oil prices and record-high production disruptions in Libya, Iran, and to a lesser extent, Venezuela.

OPEC earned an estimated $595 billion in net oil export revenues in 2019, less than half of the estimated record high of $1.2 trillion, which was earned in 2012. Continued declines in revenue in 2020 could be detrimental to member countries’ fiscal budgets, which rely heavily on revenues from oil sales to import goods, fund social programs, and support public services. EIA expects a decline in net oil export revenue for OPEC in 2020 because of continued voluntary curtailments and low crude oil prices.

The benchmark Brent crude oil spot price fell from an annual average of $71 per barrel (b) in 2018 to $64/b in 2019. EIA expects Brent to average $41/b in 2020, based on forecasts in EIA’s October 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO). OPEC petroleum production averaged 36.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018 and fell to 34.5 million b/d in 2019; EIA expects OPEC production to decline a further 3.9 million b/d to average 30.7 million b/d in 2020.

EIA based its OPEC revenues estimate on forecast petroleum liquids production—including crude oil, condensate, and natural gas plant liquids—and forecast values of OPEC petroleum consumption and crude oil prices.

EIA recently published a more detailed discussion of OPEC revenue in This Week in Petroleum.

November, 16 2020