Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: May 3, 2019
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Business Trends
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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

  • Double global refining capacity, from 5 mmb/d to 8-10 mmb/d
  • Double global petrochemicals production by 2020
  • Be a ‘global leader’ in petrochemicals by 2040

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The Impact of COVID 19 In The Downstream Oil & Gas Sector

Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.

Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.

Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and  power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.

Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.

But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.

Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.

Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)

Region
Consumption (mmb/d)*
Refining Capacity (mmb/d)
North America

22.71

22.33

Latin America

6.5

5.98

Europe

14.27

15.68

CIS

4.0

8.16

Middle East

9.0

9.7

Africa

3.96

3.4

Asia-Pacific

35

34.75

Total

95.44

100.05

*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$33-37/b, WTI – US$30-33/b
  • Crude oil prices hold their recent gains, staying rangebound with demand gradually improving as lockdown slowly ease
  • Worries that global oil supply would increase after June - when the OPEC+ supply deal eases and higher prices bring back some free-market production - kept prices in check
  • Russia has signalled that it intends to ease back immediately in line with the supply deal, but Saudi Arabia and its allies are pushing for the 9.7 mmb/d cut to be extended to end-2020, putting the two oil producers on another collision course that previously resulted in a price war
  • Morgan Stanley expects Brent prices to rise to US$40/b by 4Q 2020, but cautioned that a full recovery was only likely to materialise in 2021

End of Article

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May, 31 2020
North American crude oil prices are closely, but not perfectly, connected

selected North American crude oil prices

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.

The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.

Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.

pricing locations of selected North American crudes

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.

Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.

Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.

Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.

Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett

May, 28 2020
Financial Review: 2019

Key findings

  • Brent crude oil daily average prices were $64.16 per barrel in 2019—11% lower than 2018 levels
  • The 102 companies analyzed in this study increased their combined liquids and natural gas production 2% from 2018 to 2019
  • Proved reserves additions in 2019 were about the same as the 2010–18 annual average
  • Finding plus lifting costs increased 13% from 2018 to 2019
  • Occidental Petroleum’s acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum contributed to the largest reserve acquisition costs incurred for the group of companies since 2016
  • Refiners’ earnings per barrel declined slightly from 2018 to 2019

See entire annual review

May, 26 2020