In March 2019, Venezuela's crude oil production (excluding condensate) averaged 840,000 barrels per day (b/d), down from 1.1 million b/d in February, according to estimates in the U.S. Energy Information Administration's (EIA) April 2019 Short-Term Energy Outlook(STEO, Figure 1). This average is the lowest level since January 2003, when a nationwide strike and civil unrest largely brought Venezuela's state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.'s (PdVSA), operations to a halt. Widespread power outages, mismanagement of the country's oil industry, and U.S. sanctions directed at Venezuela's energy sector and PdVSA have all contributed to the recent declines. Venezuela's production decreased by an average of 33,000 b/d each month in 2018, and the rate of decline accelerated to an average of over 135,000 b/d per month in the first quarter of 2019. The number of active oil rigs—an indicator of future oil production—also fell from nearly 70 rigs in the first quarter of 2016 to 24 rigs in the first quarter of 2019. The declines in Venezuelan production will have limited effects on the United States, as U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude oil have decreased over the last several years, with average 2018 imports the lowest since 1989. However, there may be upward pressure on the prices of other crude oils imported into the United States.
Venezuela's production is expected to continue decreasing in 2019 and declines may accelerate as sanctions-related deadlines approach. These deadlines include provisions that third-party entities that use the U.S. financial system must cease transactions with PdVSA by April 28 and that U.S. companies, including oil service companies, involved in the oil sector must cease operations in Venezuela by July 27. Venezuela's chronic shortage of workers across the industry and the departure of U.S. oilfield service companies will likely contribute to a further step-level decrease in production.
Additionally, U.S. sanctions, as outlined in the January 25, 2019, Executive Order 13857, immediately banned exporting petroleum products—including unfinished oils that are blended with Venezuela's heavy crude oil for processing—from the United States to Venezuela and required payments for PdVSA-owned petroleum and petroleum products to be placed into an escrow account inaccessible by the company. The imposition of these sanctions has already affected oil trade between the United States and Venezuela in both directions. Preliminary weekly estimates indicate a significant decline in U.S. crude oil imports from Venezuela in February and March, as without direct access to cash payments, PdVSA had little reason to export crude oil to the United States. India, China, and some European countries continued to take Venezuela's crude oil, according to data published by ClipperData Inc., while the destinations of some vessels carrying Venezuelan crude oil remain unknown (Figure 2). Venezuela is likely keeping some crude oil cargoes intended for exports in floating storage until it finds buyers for the cargoes.
A series of ongoing nationwide power outages in Venezuela that began on March 7 cut electricity to the country's oil-producing areas, likely damaging the reservoirs and associated infrastructure. In the Orinoco Oil Belt area, Venezuela produces extra-heavy crude oil that requires dilution with condensate or other light oils produced using complex processing units, or upgraders, to upgrade the crude oil before it is sent via pipeline to domestic refineries or export terminals. These upgraders were shut down in March during the power outages. If the crude or upgraded oil cannot flow as a result of a lack of power to the pumping infrastructure, the heavier molecules sink and form a tar-like layer in the pipelines that can hinder the flow from resuming even after the power outages are resolved. However, according to tanker tracking data, Venezuela's main export terminal at Puerto José was apparently able to load crude oil onto vessels between power outages, possibly indicating that the loaded crude oil was taken from onshore storage. For this reason, EIA estimates that Venezuela's production fell at a faster rate than its exports.
In 2019, Venezuela's crude oil production decline has resulted from a combination of disruptions and lost capacity. EIA differentiates among voluntary production reductions; unplanned production outages, or disruptions; and expected declines in production. For the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), voluntary cutbacks count toward spare capacity. EIA defines spare crude oil production capacity as potential oil production that could be brought online within 30 days and sustained for at least 90 days, consistent with sound business practices.
For all countries, involuntary disruptions do not count as spare capacity. Events that could cause a disruption include, but are not limited to, sanctions, armed conflict, labor actions, natural disasters, or unplanned maintenance. In contrast, EIA considers production capacity declines that result from irreparable damage to be lost capacity and not a disruption. EIA no longer counts the lost production because it is very unlikely that it could return within one year and add to global supplies.
Because the power outages in Venezuela resulted from a lack of maintenance of the electricity grid, associated crude oil production declines are considered lost production capacity resulting from mismanagement. As of the April 2019 STEO, EIA includes the portion of Venezuela's production decline that resulted from U.S. sanctions—approximately 100,000 b/d beginning in February—as a disruption (Figure 3). If sanctions persist, the country will likely be unable to restart the disrupted portion of production and the 100,000 b/d will become lost capacity. Although EIA does not forecast unplanned production outages, its forecast for OPEC production totals will reflect declines in Venezuelan production.
As Venezuelan crude oil has come off the global market and as other countries—including the United States—have produced more light, sweet crude oil, the price discount of heavy, sour crudes has narrowed. U.S. refineries are among the most complex in the world, making them well-suited for the physical properties of Venezuelan crude oil (with high sulfur content and heavier API gravity). Heavier, more sour crude oil is typically priced lower than other crude oils because of differences in crude oil quality. Mars—a medium, sour crude oil produced in the U.S. Federal Offshore Gulf of Mexico—traded at a five-year (2014–18) average discount to Light Louisiana Sweet (LLS) of $3.94 per barrel (b). The Mars-LLS discount has narrowed in 2019, averaging $0.62/b in March, and even reached parity on March 27 (Figure 4).
Venezuela's crude oil production is forecasted to continue to fall through at least the end of 2020, reflecting an expectation of further declines in crude oil production capacity. Although EIA does not publish forecasts for individual OPEC countries, it does publish total OPEC crude oil and other liquids production. Further disruptions to Venezuela's production beyond what is currently included would change this forecast.
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel fuel prices increase
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price increased more than 1 cent from a week ago to $2.84 per gallon on April 22, more than 4 cents higher than the same time last year. The Rocky Mountain price increased nearly 12 cents to $2.76 per gallon, the West Coast price rose 5 cents to $3.63 per gallon, and the East Coast price increased nearly 2 cents to $2.73 per gallon. The Midwest price decreased more than 1 cent to $2.72 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price fell slightly, remaining virtually unchanged at $2.54 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price increased nearly 3 cents to $3.15 per gallon on April 22, more than 1 cent higher than the same time last year. The Rocky Mountain price increased 6 cents to $3.14 per gallon, the West Coast price increased nearly 5 cents to $3.70 per gallon, the Midwest price increased more than 3 cents to $3.04 per gallon, and the East Coast and Gulf Coast prices increased 2 cents to $3.17 per gallon and $2.92 per gallon, respectively.
Propane/propylene inventories rise
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 1.0 million barrels last week to 57.8 million barrels as of April 19, 2019, 10.6 million barrels (22.5%) greater than the five-year (2014-2018) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Midwest inventories increased by 0.6 million barrels, while East Coast and Gulf Coast inventories each increased by 0.3 million barrels. Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased by 0.2 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 10.4% of total propane/propylene inventories.
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The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.
But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.
Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.
Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes.
Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.
So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.
There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.
But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊
Throughout much of its history, the United States has imported more petroleum (which includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other liquids) than it has exported. That status changed in 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) estimates that 2020 marked the first year that the United States exported more petroleum than it imported on an annual basis. However, largely because of declines in domestic crude oil production and corresponding increases in crude oil imports, EIA expects the United States to return to being a net petroleum importer on an annual basis in both 2021 and 2022.
EIA expects that increasing crude oil imports will drive the growth in net petroleum imports in 2021 and 2022 and more than offset changes in refined product net trade. EIA forecasts that net imports of crude oil will increase from its 2020 average of 2.7 million barrels per day (b/d) to 3.7 million b/d in 2021 and 4.4 million b/d in 2022.
Compared with crude oil trade, net exports of refined petroleum products did not change as much during 2020. On an annual average basis, U.S. net petroleum product exports—distillate fuel oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and motor gasoline, among others—averaged 3.2 million b/d in 2019 and 3.4 million b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that net petroleum product exports will average 3.5 million b/d in 2021 and 3.9 million b/d in 2022 as global demand for petroleum products continues to increase from its recent low point in the first half of 2020.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), February 2021
EIA expects that the United States will import more crude oil to fill the widening gap between refinery inputs of crude oil and domestic crude oil production in 2021 and 2022. U.S. crude oil production declined by an estimated 0.9 million b/d (8%) to 11.3 million b/d in 2020 because of well curtailment and a drop in drilling activity related to low crude oil prices.
EIA expects the rising price of crude oil, which started in the fourth quarter of 2020, will contribute to more U.S. crude oil production later this year. EIA forecasts monthly domestic crude oil production will reach 11.3 million b/d by the end of 2021 and 11.9 million b/d by the end of 2022. These values are increases from the most recent monthly average of 11.1 million b/d in November 2020 (based on data in EIA’s Petroleum Supply Monthly) but still lower than the previous peak of 12.9 million b/d in November 2019.
In the past week, crude oil prices have surged to levels last seen over a year ago. The global Brent benchmark hit US$63/b, while its American counterpart WTI crested over the US$60/b mark. The more optimistic in the market see these gains as a start of a commodity supercycle stemming from market forces pent-up over the long Covid-19 pandemic. The more cynical see it as a short-term spike from a perfect winter storm and constrained supply. So, which is it?
To get to that point, let’s examine how crude oil prices have evolved since the start of the year. On the consumption side, the market is vacillating between hopeful recovery and jittery reactions as Covid-19 outbreaks and vaccinations lent a start-stop rhythm to consumption trends. Yes, vaccination programmes were developed at lightning speed; and even plenty of bureaucratic hiccoughs have not hampered a steady rollout across the globe. In the UK, more than 20% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccines, with the USA not too far behind. Israel has vaccinated more than 75% of its population, and most countries should be well into their own programmes by the end of March. That acceleration of vaccinations has underpinned expectations of higher oil demand, with hopes that people will begin to drive again, fly again and buy again. But those hopes have been occasionally interrupted by new Covid-19 clusters detected and, more worryingly, new mutations of the virus.
Against this hopeful demand picture, supply has been managed. Squabbling among the OPEC+ club has prevented a more aggressive approach to managing supply than kingpin Saudi Arabia would like, but OPEC+ has still managed to hold itself together to placate the market that crude spigots will remain restrained. And while the UAE has successfully shifted OPEC+ quota plan for 2021 from quarterly adjustments to monthly, Saudi Arabia stepped into the vacuum to stamp its authority with a voluntary 1 million barrels per day cut. The market was impressed.
That combination of events over January was enough to move Brent prices from the low US$50/b level to the upper US$50/b range. However, US$60/b remained seemingly out of reach. It took a heavy dusting of snow across Texas to achieve that.
Winter weather across the northern hemisphere seemed harsher than usual this year. Europe was hit by two large continent-wide storms, while the American Northeast and Pacific Northwest were buffeted with quite a few snowstorms. Temperatures in East Asia were fairly cold too, which led to strong prices for natural gas and LNG to keep the population warm. But it was a major snowstorm that swept through the southern United States – including Texas – that had the largest effect on prices. Some areas of Texas saw temperatures as low as -18 degrees Celsius, while electricity demand surged to the point where grids failed, leaving 4.3 million people without power. A national emergency was declared, with over 150 million Americans under winter storm warning conditions.
For the global oil complex, the effects of the storm were also direct. Some of the largest oil refineries in the world were forced to shut down due to the Arctic conditions, further disrupting power and fuel supplies. All in all, over 3 mmb/d of oil processing capacity had to be idled in the wake of the storm, including Motiva’s Port Arthur, ExxonMobil’s Baytown and Marathon’s Galveston Bay refineries. And even if the sites were still running, they would have to contend to upstream disruptions: estimates suggest that crude oil production in the prolific Permian Basin dropped by over a million barrels per day due to power outages, while several key pipelines connecting Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast were also forced to shutter.
That perfect storm was enough to send crude prices above the US$60/b level. But will it last? The damage from the Texan snowstorm has already begun to abate, and even then crude prices did not seem to have the appetite to push higher than US$63/b for Brent and US$60/b for WTI.
Instead, the key development that should determine the future range for crude prices going into the second quarter of 2021 will be in early March, when the OPEC+ club meets once again to decide the level of its supply quotas for April and perhaps beyond. The conundrum facing the various factions within the club is this: at US$60/b, crude oil prices are not low enough to scare all members in voting for unanimous stricter quotas and also not high enough to rescind controlled supply. Instead, prices are at a fragile level where arguments can be made both ways. Russia is already claiming that global oil markets are ‘balanced’, while Saudi Arabia is emphasising the need for caution in public messaging ahead of the meeting. Saudi Arabia’s voluntary supply cut will also expire in March, setting up the stage for yet another fractious meeting. If a snow overrun Texans was a perfect storm to push crude prices to a 13-month high, then the upcoming OPEC+ meeting faces another perfect storm that could negate confidence. Which will it be? The answer lies on the other side of the storm.