The threat of military action in the Middle East has gotten more intense this week. After several attacks on tankers that could be plausibly denied, Iran has made its first direct attack on a US asset, shooting down an unmanned US drone. The Americans say the drone was in international waters, while Iran claims that it had entered Iranian air space. Reports emerging out of the White House state the US President Donald Trump had authorised a military strike in response, but pulled back at the last minute. The simmering tensions between the two countries are now reaching boiling point, with Iran declaring that it is ‘ready for war’.
Predictably, crude oil prices spiked on the news. Brent and WTI prices rose by almost US$4/b over worries that a full-blown war will threaten global supplies. That this is happening just ahead of the OPEC meeting in Vienna – which was delayed by a week over internal squabbling over dates – places a lot of volatile cards on the table. Far more than more than surging US production, this stand-off will colour the direction of the crude market for the rest of 2019.
It started with an economic war, as the Trump administration placed increasingly tight sanctions on Iran. Financial sanctions came first, then sanctions on crude oil exports from Iran. But the situation was diffused when the US introduced waivers for 8 major importers of Iranian crude in November 2018, calming the markets. Even when the waivers were not renewed in April, the oil markets were still relatively calm, banking on the fact that Iran’s fellow OPEC countries would step in to the fill the gap. Most of Iran’s main clients – like South Korea, Japan and China – had already begun winding down their purchases in March, reportedly causing Iran’s crude exports to fall from 2 mmb/d to 400 kb/d. And just recently, the US also begun targeting Iranian petrochemical exports. Between a rock and a hard place, Iran looks seems forced to make good on its threats to go to war in the strategic Straits of Hormuz.
As the waivers ended, four tankers were attacked off the coast of Fujairah in the UAE in May. The immediate assumption was that these attacks were backed by Iran. Then, just a week ago, another two tankers were attacked, with the Americans showing video evidence reportedly show Iranian agents removing mines. But still, there was no direct connection to Iran for the attacks, even as the US and Iran traded diplomatic barbs. But the downing of the drone is unequivocally the work of the Iranian military. With President Donald Trump reportedly ‘bored’ of attempting regime change in Venezuela and his ultra-hawkish staff Mike Pompeo and John Bolton in the driver’s seat, military confrontation now seems inevitable.
This, predictably, has the oil world very nervous. Not just because the extension of the current OPEC+ deal could be scuppered, but because war will impact more than just Iranian oil. The safety of the Straits of Hormuz is in jeopardy, a key node in global oil supply through which almost 20 mmb/d of oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE flows along with LNG exports from the current world’s largest producer, Qatar. At its narrowest, the chokepoint in the Straits is just 50km from Iranian land. Crude exports could be routed south to Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but there is risk there too; the mouth of the Red Sea is where Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels are active, who have already started attacking Saudi land facilities.
This will add a considerable war risk premium to global crude prices, just as it did during the 1990 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But more than just prices, the destabilising effects of a war could consume more than just the price of a barrel. If things are heading the way the current war-like signs are heading, then the oil world is in for a very major change very soon.
Historical crude price responses to wars in the Middle East
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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
- 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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