Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: April 4, 2019
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Business Trends
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Founded in 1944 in El Dorado, Arkansas, Murphy Oil isn’t quite an international major but the American oil company managed to boost itself up the ranks of the world’s independent oil companies to become a successful player. Part of this has comes from Murphy Oil’s decision to branch out overseas in the 1990s, venturing east to strike oil and gas in the states of Sarawak and Sabah in 1999.

Last week, Murphy Oil announced that it would be selling its stakes in both its Malaysian subsidiaries – covering five upstream projects including Sabah K, SK309 & SK311, Sabah H, SK314A and SK405B – to Thailand’s PTTEP for US$2.13 billion. Effectively ending the era for Murphy Oil in Malaysia. It is the largest M&A deal in Southeast Asian upstream in over five years, and could be an indication of an upcoming trend for the region’s players in general.

For Murphy Oil, the sale is a philosophical change. Of the company’s proven reserves of 816 million boe in 2018, some 16% - or 129 million boe – are in Malaysia. Murphy Oil’s Malaysian fields produced over 48,000 boe/d over the same period, which is a large volume to lose particularly for one that is publicly-traded in the NYSE. But it makes sense. Malaysia was Murphy’s only bright spot internationally. Its forays into other developing markets like Australia, Brunei, Vietnam, Namibia, Equatorial Guinea and Spain have not been as successful. On its home turf, the shale revolution is re-invigorating and re-inventing American upstream. High-yielding and low-cost, it has presented Murphy Oil with a question – why spend money on riskier overseas projects when there is so much potential available at home? This PTTEP deal is Murphy’s answer; and the money raised will be used to pay down debt, buy back shares and (crucially) fund new deals and acquisitions in the US. This won’t just be focused on shale – although Eagle Ford has been named as a focus area – but also more traditional assets in the Gulf of Mexico.

Market chatter suggests that Murphy Oil will be selling off most of its non-Western Hemisphere assets. So while Murphy Oil prepares to go back home, the sale kicks off what could be a major year of M&A in Southeast Asia. When rumours of the sale emerged last year, it was Repsol that was thought to be the preferred buyer – fresh from its massive gas find in Indonesia. Together with Eni, Repsol has been one of the more aggressive European players expanding in Asia – galvanised by declining assets elsewhere. Meanwhile, players who have the capability to swing into the shale oil patch – Chevron, for example – are slowly refocusing there, possibly to the risk of putting eggs into a single basket. And regional players – like PTTEP – are looking to make inroads. That PTTEP won the sale is interesting. Like many Asian state-linked oil firms, PTTEP suffers from a maturing portfolio and needs to find new fields to plumb. Its Thai fields are declining and new discoveries aren’t keeping pace to keep the numbers up. Having ventured into Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar and even Africa, PTTEP’s relevance as an upstream player depends on making strategic acquisitions like this. And Murphy Oil’s Malaysian assets are valuable. Murphy Oil will receive up to US$100 million as a bonus payout if certain exploration projects are completed and sold results before October 2020. Also, Murphy Oil had a close relationship with Petronas; with PTTEP, there may be more opportunities for both state firms to collaborate on other regional assets.

This recalibration will continue. As players capable to focusing on shale divest out of Southeast Asia, there will be plenty other eager players to take their place. Attractive assets always draw interest, whether it is in the Permian Basin or in the South China Sea.

Murphy Oil Malaysian Assets and Projects: 

  • The Kikeh field, the first deepwater development in Malaysia, has been in production since 2007.
  • The Kakap field is unitized with the Gumusut field. The field has been in production since 2012 via interim tie-back to the Kikeh production facility. The main field production facility was completed and started up in October 2014.
  • The Siakap North field is unitized with the Petai field and first production was in the first quarter of 2014.
  • The West Patricia field was Murphy’s first development in Malaysia and first production was in 2003.
  • The Sarawak Gas Project is multi-phase development for several natural gas discoveries in blocks SK309 and SK311, and started producing in 2009. Murphy provides gas to the Malaysia LNG complex via our gas sales contract with PETRONAS, the Malaysian state-owned oil company, for gross sales volumes up to 250 mmcfd.
  • The Sarawak Oil Project comprises several oil discoveries in SK309 and SK311, and production came on-stream in the second half of 2013 through a series of new offshore platforms and pipelines tying back to West Patricia infrastructure.
  • The Block H Floating LNG project has been sanctioned by both Murphy and PETRONAS with first production targeted in 2020.
  • Murphy was awarded this Block SK 314A in May 2013. The first two exploration wells were drilled in 2015 and a third was drilled in 2016.

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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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