In the last week, global crude oil price benchmarks have leapt up by some US$5/b. Brent is now in the US$66/b range, while WTI maintains its preferred US$10/b discount at US$56/b. On the surface, it would seem that the new OPEC+ supply deal – scheduled to last until April – is working. But the drivers pushing on the current rally are a bit more complicated.
Pledges by OPEC members are the main force behind the rise. After displaying some reticence over the timeline of cuts, Russia has now promised to ‘speed up cuts’ to its oil production in line with other key members of OPEC. Saudi Arabia, along with main allies the UAE and Kuwait, have been at the forefront of this – having made deeper-than-promised cuts in January with plans to go a bit further in February. After looking a bit shaky – a joint Saudi Arabia-Russia meeting was called off at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos in January – the bromance of world’s two oil superpowers looks to have resumed. And with it, confidence in the OPEC+ club’s abilities.
Russia and Saudi Arabia both making new pledges on supply cuts comes despite supply issues elsewhere in OPEC, which could have provided some cushion for smaller cuts. Iranian production remains constrained by new American sanctions; targeted waivers have provided some relief – and indeed Iranian crude exports have grown slightly over January and February – but the waivers expire in May and there is uncertainty over their extension. Meanwhile, the implosion in Venezuela continues, with the USA slapping new sanctions on the Venezuelan crude complex in hopes of spurring regime change. The situation in Libya – with the Sharara field swinging between closure and operation due to ongoing militant action – is dicey. And in Saudi Arabia, a damaged power repair cable has curbed output at the giant 1.2 mmb/d Safaniuyah field.
So the supply situation is supportive of a rally, from both planned and unplanned actions. But crude prices are also reacting to developments in the wider geopolitical world. The USA and China are still locked in an impasse over trade, with a March 1 deadline looming, after which doubled US tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports would kick in. Continued escalation in the trade war could lead to a global recession, or at least a severe slowdown. But the market is taking relief that an agreement could be made. First, US President Donald Trump alluded to the possibility of pushing the deadline by 2 months to allow for more talks. And now, chatter suggests that despite reservations, American and Chinese negotiators are now ‘approaching a consensus’. The threat of the R-word – recession – could be avoided and this is pumping some confidence back in the market. But there are more risks on the horizon. The UK is set to exit the European Union at the end of March, and there is still no deal in sight. A measured Brexit would be messy, but a no-deal Brexit would be chaotic – and that chaos would have a knock-on effect on global economies and markets.
But for now, the market assumes that there must be progress in US-China trade talks and the UK must fall in line with an orderly Brexit. If that holds – and if OPEC’s supply commitments stand – the rally in crude prices will continue. And it must. Because the alternative is frightening for all.
Factors driving the current crude rally:
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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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