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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This winter, natural gas prices have been at their lowest levels in decades. On Monday, February 10, the near-month natural gas futures price at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) closed at $1.77 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). This price was the lowest February closing price for the near-month contract since at least 2001, in real terms, and the lowest near-month futures price in any month since March 8, 2016, according to Bloomberg, L.P. and FRED data.
In addition, according to Natural Gas Intelligence data, the daily spot price at the Henry Hub national benchmark was $1.81/MMBtu on February 10, 2020, the lowest price in real terms since March 9, 2016. Henry Hub spot prices have ranged between $1.81/MMBtu and $2.84/MMBtu this winter heating season (since November 1, 2019), generally because relatively warm winter weather has reduced demand for natural gas for heating. Natural gas production growth has outpaced demand growth, reducing the need to withdraw natural gas from underground storage.
Dry natural gas production in January 2020 averaged about 95.0 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), according to IHS Markit data. IHS Markit also estimates that in January 2020 the United States saw the third-highest monthly U.S. natural gas production on record, down slightly from the previous two months.
IHS Markit estimates that U.S. natural gas consumption by residential, commercial, industrial, and electric power sectors averaged 96 Bcf/d for January, which was about 4.4 Bcf/d less than the average for January 2019, largely because of decreases in residential and commercial consumption as a result of warmer temperatures.
However, IHS Markit estimates that overall consumption of natural gas (including feed gas to liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities, pipeline fuel losses, and net exports by pipeline to Mexico) averaged about 117.5 Bcf/d in January 2020, an increase of about 0.2 Bcf/d from last year. This overall increase is largely a result of an almost doubling of LNG feed gas to about 8.5 Bcf/d.
Because supply growth has outpaced demand growth, less natural gas has been withdrawn from storage withdrawals this winter. Despite starting the 2019–20 heating season with the third-lowest level of natural gas inventory since 2009, by January 17, 2020, working natural gas inventories reached relatively high levels for mid-winter. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) data on natural gas inventories for the Lower 48 states as of February 7, 2020, reflect a 215 Bcf surplus to the five-year average. In EIA’s latest short-term forecast, more natural gas remains in storage levels than the previous five-year average through the remainder of the winter.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), January 2020 was the fifth-warmest in its 126-year climate record. Heating degree days (HDDs), a temperature-based metric for heating demand, have been relatively low this winter, which is consistent with a warmer winter. During some weeks in late December and early January, the United States saw 25% to 30% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average. This winter, through February 8, residential natural gas customers in the United States have seen 11% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center data
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
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