Much has been made of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the attempt to create a modern Silk Road through an interconnected series of overland and maritime trade and infrastructure routes. Fuelled by China of course. But something similar is happening in the oil world, specifically in the downstream segment. A major country has created and continues to expand a network of interconnected oil refining and petrochemical hubs in key strategic geographically locations, all in the name of establishing a dominant supply chain for its oil.
That country is Saudi Arabia.
Through its state oil firm Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s ambitions to push further downstream is not a secret. This goes way back to 2011, when the Arab Spring swept through most of the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, this was quashed by offering economic sweeteners to its citizens, afforded by oil prices well above US$100/b. The oft-quoted figure is that Saudi Arabia’s attempts to placate its population required US$90/b crude prices to work. That worked fine until oil prices crashed in late 2014, which then exposed another weakness: the major dependence on crude oil for the Kingdom’s fortunes and continued existence.
So a plan was hatched to diversify the economy, which itself has roots in the Arab Spring policies. Saudi Aramco would need to reduce its exposure to upstream and diversify into refining and petrochemicals, with an eye to an eventual (and now confirmed to be delayed) IPO. A series of deals were struck. Saudi Aramco invested to become equal partners in Malaysia’s massive 300 kb/d RAPID refinery. It bought out partner Shell to become the sole owner of American refining subsidiary Motiva and its 600 kb/d Port Arthur facility, the largest in the US. Tie-ups with several Chinese refineries were made, a key move in a market where Saudi Arabia was rapidly losing out to Russia for market share. And Aramco is also part of the giant new 1.2 mmb/d oil refinery planned in India’s Maharashtra state.
All this has been done in the name of securing fixed demand for its oil. In a fast-evolving world where the tide of US light sweet crude is inexorably rising, the battle for market share is heating up. What better way to secure demand than by buying it? Sure, there have been a few instances where Saudi Aramco walked away from potentially large deals – like in Indonesia’s messy refining sector – but over the past month, it has announced even more deals that hint that its expansion is unlikely to stop. Aramco is now officially in ‘talks’ to acquire an up to 25% stake in the Reliance 1.24 mmb/d Jamnagar refinery – one of the most complex refineries in the world - for up to US$10-15 billion. It wants to help build a new refinery for Pakistan by 2024, and has acquired a 17% stake in South Korean refiner Hyundai Oilbank to complement its existing investments in China and Japan. After buying out Shell from Motiva, Aramco is now also looking into taking over Shell’s 50% stake in the 305 kb/d SASREF refinery in the Kingdom’s Jubail City. It is taking over fellow Saudi chemical giant SABIC. It has even started trading LNG…. even though Aramco doesn’t produce a single drop of LNG yet.
Taken together, that’s a portrait of a company aggressively expanding. Aramco’s global refining network was already strong at the end of 2018; by 2023, with these and perhaps even more investment to come, this could be the largest, strongest refining network in the world. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that if all these investments pan out, Aramco will have access to over 8 mmb/d of global refining capacity. That’s enough to account for half of the Kingdom’s current crude output levels, and a good hedge against the threat of US shale.
Saudi Aramco’s Downstream Plans
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The UK has just designated the Persian Gulf as a level 3 risk for its ships – the highest level possible threat for British vessel traffic – as the confrontation between Iran with the US and its allies escalated. The strategically-important bit of water - and in particular the narrow Strait of Hormuz – is boiling over, and it seems as if full-blown military confrontation is inevitable.
The risk assessment comes as the British warship HMS Montrose had to escort the BP oil tanker British Heritage out of the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean from being blocked by Iranian vessels. The risk is particularly acute as Iran is spoiling for a fight after the Royal Marines seized the Iranian crude supertanker Grace-1 in Gibraltar on suspicions that it was violating sanctions by sending crude to war-torn Syria. Tensions over the Gibraltar seizure kept the British Heritage tanker in ‘safe’ Saudi Arabian waters for almost a week after making a U-turn from the Basrah oil terminal in Iraq on fears of Iranian reprisals, until the HMW Montrose came to its rescue. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have warned of further ‘reciprocation’ even as it denied the British Heritage incident ever occurred.
This is just the latest in a series of events around Iran that is rattling the oil world. Since the waivers on exports of Iranian crude by the USA expired in early May, there were four sabotage attacks on oil tankers in the region and two additional attacks in June, all near the major bunkering hub of Fujairah. Increased US military presence resulted in Iran downing an American drone, which almost led to a full-blown conflict were it not for a last-minute U-turn by President Donald Trump. Reports suggest that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have moved military equipment to its southern coast surrounding the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is 39km at its narrowest. Up to a third of all seaborne petroleum trade passes through this chokepoint and while Iran would most likely overrun by US-led forces eventually if war breaks out, it could cause a major amount of damage in a little amount of time.
The risk has already driven up oil prices. While a risk premium has already been applied to current oil prices, some analysts are suggesting that further major spikes in crude oil prices could be incoming if Iran manages to close the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time. While international crude oil stocks will buffer any short-term impediment, if the Strait is closed for more than two weeks, crude oil prices could jump above US$100/b. If the Strait is closed for an extended period of time – and if the world has run down on its spare crude capacity – then prices could jump as high as US$325/b, according to a study conducted by the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre in Riyadh. This hasn’t happened yet, but the impact is already being felt beyond crude prices: insurance premiums for ships sailing to and fro the Persian Gulf rose tenfold in June, while the insurance-advice group Joint War Committee has designated the waters as a ‘Listed Area’, the highest risk classification on the scale. VLCC rates for trips in the Persian Gulf have also slipped, with traders cagey about sending ships into the potential conflict zone.
This will continue, as there is no end-game in sight for the Iranian issue. With the USA vague on what its eventual goals are and Iran in an aggressive mood at perceived injustice, the situation could explode in war or stay on steady heat for a longer while. Either way, this will have a major impact on the global crude markets. The boiling point has not been reached yet, but the waters of the Strait of Hormuz are certainly simmering.
The Strait of Hormuz:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 July 2019 – Brent: US$64/b; WTI: US$57/b
Headlines of the week
Utility-scale battery storage units (units of one megawatt (MW) or greater power capacity) are a newer electric power resource, and their use has been growing in recent years. Operating utility-scale battery storage power capacity has more than quadrupled from the end of 2014 (214 MW) through March 2019 (899 MW). Assuming currently planned additions are completed and no current operating capacity is retired, utility-scale battery storage power capacity could exceed 2,500 MW by 2023.
EIA's Annual Electric Generator Report (Form EIA-860) collects data on the status of existing utility-scale battery storage units in the United States, along with proposed utility-scale battery storage projects scheduled for initial commercial operation within the next five years. The monthly version of this survey, the Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory (Form EIA-860M), collects the updated status of any projects scheduled to come online within the next 12 months.
Growth in utility-scale battery installations is the result of supportive state-level energy storage policies and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Order 841 that directs power system operators to allow utility-scale battery systems to engage in their wholesale energy, capacity, and ancillary services markets. In addition, pairing utility-scale battery storage with intermittent renewable resources, such as wind and solar, has become increasingly competitive compared with traditional generation options.
The two largest operating utility-scale battery storage sites in the United States as of March 2019 provide 40 MW of power capacity each: the Golden Valley Electric Association’s battery energy storage system in Alaska and the Vista Energy storage system in California. In the United States, 16 operating battery storage sites have an installed power capacity of 20 MW or greater. Of the 899 MW of installed operating battery storage reported by states as of March 2019, California, Illinois, and Texas account for a little less than half of that storage capacity.
In the first quarter of 2019, 60 MW of utility-scale battery storage power capacity came online, and an additional 108 MW of installed capacity will likely become operational by the end of the year. Of these planned 2019 installations, the largest is the Top Gun Energy Storage facility in California with 30 MW of installed capacity.
As of March 2019, the total utility-scale battery storage power capacity planned to come online through 2023 is 1,623 MW. If these planned facilities come online as scheduled, total U.S. utility-scale battery storage power capacity would nearly triple by the end of 2023. Additional capacity beyond what has already been reported may also be added as future operational dates approach.
Of all planned battery storage projects reported on Form EIA-860M, the largest two sites account for 725 MW and are planned to start commercial operation in 2021. The largest of these planned sites is the Manatee Solar Energy Center in Parrish, Florida. With a capacity of 409 MW, this project will be the largest solar-powered battery system in the world and will store energy from a nearby Florida Power and Light solar plant in Manatee County.
The second-largest planned utility-scale battery storage facility is the Helix Ravenswood facility located in Queens, New York. The site is planned to be developed in three stages and will have a total capacity of 316 MW.