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Last Updated: May 17, 2019
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Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 13 May 2019 – Brent: US$70/b; WTI: US$61/b

  • Crude oil prices are holding their ground, despite the markets showing nervousness over the escalating trade dispute between the USA and China, as well as brewing tensions in the Middle East over the Iranian situation
  • China retaliated against President Trump’s decision to raise tariffs from 10% to 25% on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports by raising its own tariffs; crucially, China has also slapped taxes on US LNG imports at a time when American export LNG projects banking on Chinese demand are coming online
  • In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia reported that two of its oil tankers were attacked in the Persian Gulf, with the ‘sabotage attack’ near the UAE speculated to be related to Iran; with the US increasing its military presence in the area, the risk of military action has escalated
  • The non-extension of US waiver on Iranian crude is biting hard on Iran, with its leaders calling it ‘unprecedented pressure’, setting the stage for a contentious OPEC meeting in Vienna
  • In a move that is sure to be opposed by Iran, Saudi Arabia has said it is willing to meet ‘all orders’ from former Iranian buyers through June at least; Saudi Aramco is also responding to requests by Asian buyers to provide extra oil
  • The see-saw trend in US drilling activity continues; after a huge gain two weeks ago, the active US rig count declined for a second consecutive rig, with the loss of two oil rigs bringing the total site count to 988, below the equivalent number of 1,045 last year
  • There is considerably more upside to crude prices at the moment, with jitters over the health of the global economy and a delicate situation in the Middle East likely to keep Brent higher at US$71-73/b and WTI at US$62-64/b


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Occidental Petroleum and Warren Buffet have triumphed, as Chevron bowed out of a bidding war for Anadarko Petroleum; Occidental will now acquire Anadarko for US$57 billion, up significantly from Chevron’s US$33 billion bid
  • The deal means that Occidental’s agreement to sell Anadarko’s African assets to Total for US$8.8 billion will also go through, covering the Hassi Berkine, Ourhoud and El Merk fields in Algeria, the Jubilee and TEN fields in Ghana, the Area 1 LNG project in Mozambiuqe and E&P licences in South Africa
  • BP has sanctioned the Thunder Horse South Expansion Phase 2 deepwater project in the US Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to add 50,000 boe/d of production at the Thunder Horse platform beginning 2021
  • Africa is proving to be very fruitful for Eni, as it announced a new gas and condensate discovery offshore Ghana; the CTP-Block 4 in the Akoma prospect is estimated to hold some 550-650 bcf of gas and 18-20 mmbl of condensate
  • In an atypical development, South Africa has signed a deal for the B2 oil block in South Sudan, as part of efforts to boost output there to 350,000 b/d
  • Shell expects to drill its first deepwater well in Mexico by December 2019 after walking away with nine Mexican deepwater blocks last year

Midstream & Downstream

  • China’s domestic crude imports surged to a record 10.64 mmb/d in April, as refiners stocked up on an Iranian crude bonanza due to uncertainty over US policy, which has been confirmed as crude waivers were not renewed
  • Having had to close the Druzhba pipeline and Ust-Luga port for contaminated crude, Russia says it will fully restore compliant crude by end May shipments, including cargoes to Poland and the Czech Republic
  • Mexico’s attempt to open up its refining sector has seemingly failed, with Pemex taking over the new 340 kb/d refinery as private players balked at the US$8 billion price tag and 3-year construction deadline
  • Ahead of India’s move to Euro VI fuels in April 2020, CPCL is partially shutting down its 210 kb/d Manali refinery for a desulfurisation revamp
  • China’s Hengli Petrochemical is reportedly now stocking up on Saudi Arabian crude imports as it prepares to ramp up production at its new 400 kb/d Dalian refinery alongside its 175 kb/d site in Brunei
  • South Korea’s Lotte Chemical Corp expects its ethane cracker in Louisiana to start up by end May, adding 1 mtpa of ethylene capacity to its portfolio
  • Due to water shortage, India’s MRPL will be operating its 300 kb/d refinery in Katipalla at 50% as drought causes a severe water shortage in the area

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Partners in the US$30 billion Rovuma LNG project in Mozambique now expect to sanction FID by July, even after a recent devastating cyclone
  • Also in Mozambioque, Anadarko is set to announce FID on its Mozambique LNG project on June 18, calling it a ‘historic day’
  • After talks of a joint LNG export complex to develop gas resources in Tanzania, Shell and Equinor now appear to be planning separate projects
  • Gazprom has abandoned plans to build an LNG plant in West Siberia to compete with Novatek, focusing instead on an LNG complex is Ust-Luga
  • First LNG has begun to flow at Sempra Energy’s 13.5 mtpa Cameron LNG project in Louisiana, with exports expected to begin by Q319

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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.

End of Article

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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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