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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U.S. crude oil production in the U.S. Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) averaged 1.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018, setting a new annual record. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects oil production in the GOM to set new production records in 2019 and in 2020, even after accounting for shut-ins related to Hurricane Barry in July 2019 and including forecasted adjustments for hurricane-related shut-ins for the remainder of 2019 and for 2020.
Based on EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook’s (STEO) expected production levels at new and existing fields, annual crude oil production in the GOM will increase to an average of 1.9 million b/d in 2019 and 2.0 million b/d in 2020. However, even with this level of growth, projected GOM crude oil production will account for a smaller share of the U.S. total. EIA expects the GOM to account for 15% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2019 and in 2020, compared with 23% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2011, as onshore production growth continues to outpace offshore production growth.
In 2019, crude oil production in the GOM fell from 1.9 million b/d in June to 1.6 million b/d in July because some production platforms were evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Barry. This disruption was resolved relatively quickly, and no disruptions caused by Hurricane Barry remain. Although final data are not yet available, EIA estimates GOM crude oil production reached 2.0 million b/d in August 2019.
Producers expect eight new projects to come online in 2019 and four more in 2020. EIA expects these projects to contribute about 44,000 b/d in 2019 and about 190,000 b/d in 2020 as projects ramp up production. Uncertainties in oil markets affect long-term planning and operations in the GOM, and the timelines of future projects may change accordingly.
Source: Rystad Energy
Because of the amount of time needed to discover and develop large offshore projects, oil production in the GOM is less sensitive to short-term oil price movements than onshore production in the Lower 48 states. In 2015 and early 2016, decreasing profit margins and reduced expectations for a quick oil price recovery prompted many GOM operators to reconsider future exploration spending and to restructure or delay drilling rig contracts, causing average monthly rig counts to decline through 2018.
Crude oil price increases in 2017 and 2018 relative to lows in 2015 and 2016 have not yet had a significant effect on operations in the GOM, but they have the potential to contribute to increasing rig counts and field discoveries in the coming years. Unlike onshore operations, falling rig counts do not affect current production levels, but instead they affect the discovery of future fields and the start-up of new projects.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Refinery Report
The API gravity of crude oil input to U.S. refineries has generally increased, or gotten lighter, since 2011 because of changes in domestic production and imports. Regionally, refinery crude slates—or the mix of crude oil grades that a refinery is processing—have become lighter in the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and West Coast regions, and they have become slightly heavier in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions.
API gravity is measured as the inverse of the density of a petroleum liquid relative to water. The higher the API gravity, the lower the density of the petroleum liquid, so light oils have high API gravities. Crude oil with an API gravity greater than 38 degrees is generally considered light crude oil; crude oil with an API gravity of 22 degrees or below is considered heavy crude oil.
The crude slate processed in refineries situated along the Gulf Coast—the region with the most refining capacity in the United States—has had the largest increase in API gravity, increasing from an average of 30.0 degrees in 2011 to an average of 32.6 degrees in 2018. The West Coast had the heaviest crude slate in 2018 at 28.2 degrees, and the East Coast had the lightest of the three regions at 34.8 degrees.
Production of increasingly lighter crude oil in the United States has contributed to the overall lightening of the crude oil slate for U.S. refiners. The fastest-growing category of domestic production has been crude oil with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees, according to data in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report.
Since 2015, when EIA began collecting crude oil production data by API gravity, light crude oil production in the Lower 48 states has grown from an annual average of 4.6 million barrels per day (b/d) to 6.4 million b/d in the first seven months of 2019.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report
When setting crude oil slates, refiners consider logistical constraints and the cost of transportation, as well as their unique refinery configuration. For example, nearly all (more than 99% in 2018) crude oil imports to the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain regions come from Canada because of geographic proximity and existing pipeline and rail infrastructure between these regions.
Crude oil imports from Canada, which consist of mostly heavy crude oil, have increased by 67% since 2011 because of increased Canadian production. Crude oil imports from Canada have accounted for a greater share of refinery inputs in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, leading to heavier refinery crude slates in these regions.
By comparison, crude oil production in Texas tends to be lighter: Texas accounted for half of crude oil production above 40 degrees API in the United States in 2018. The share of domestic crude oil in the Gulf Coast refinery crude oil slate increased from 36% in 2011 to 70% in 2018. As a result, the change in the average API gravity of crude oil processed in refineries in the Gulf Coast region was the largest increase among all regions in the United States during that period.
East Coast refineries have three ways to receive crude oil shipments, depending on which are more economical: by rail from the Midwest, by coastwise-compliant (Jones Act) tankers from the Gulf Coast, or by importing. From 2011 to 2018, the share of imported crude oil in the East Coast region decreased from 95% to 81% as the share of domestic crude oil inputs increased. Conversely, the share of imported crude oil at West Coast refineries increased from 46% in 2011 to 51% in 2018.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 7 October 2019 – Brent: US$58/b; WTI: US$52/b
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