Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: June 21, 2019
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Business Trends
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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

  • 1973: Yim Kippur War – oil prices quadrupled from US$3/b to US$12/b
  • 1990: Iraq invasion of Kuwait/Gulf War – oil prices doubled from US$17/b to US$36/b
  • 2003: US invasion of Iraq – oil prices rose from US$30/b to US$40/b

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Your Weekly Update: 17 - 21 February 2020

Market Watch   

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 17 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b

  • As the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be coming increasingly under control, crude oil prices are recovering some ground as the market moves into speculative mode given the availability of cheap crude cargoes
  • Case in point, while the fear was of widespread demand destruction in China, a sudden buying spree by Chinese independent teapot refineries – attracted by cheap spot cargoes – surprised the market, being a sign that Chinese private refiners are anticipating a rebound in demand sooner rather than later
  • Despite this, the pandemic is still recalibrating Chinese energy demand in a dramatic way, with reports of four LNG tanker bound for northern China from Oman and Qatar diverted as CNOOC invoked force majeure on its contracts
  • China’s pain is also India’s gain, with so-called ‘distressed cargoes’ originally intended for China now offered to India at attractive terms from all over the world, including grades from the Caspian Sea to Latin America and West Africa
  • Based on the situation in China, the IEA is forecasting the first annual decline in quarterly global oil demand for the first time in over a decade, and dragging overall 2020 growth down by 30% to 825,000 b/d; the EIA followed suit as well, cutting its Brent price forecast for 2020 from US$64.83 to US$61.25
  • China and key Asian hubs impacted by the virus like Hong Kong and Singapore have pledged to provide extra fiscal stimulus to counteract the impact of the pandemic, possibly setting the stage for a rebound in Q2 2020
  • Saudi Arabia’s attempt to cajole the OPEC+ club into extending its supply cuts until June 2020 through an emergency February meeting has faded, with Russia being the main holdout
  • Amid the turmoil in the markets, the US active rig count remained unchanged for the week, adding two oil sites but losing gas and miscellaneous sites for a total of 790
  • Oil prices gained over the week as the Covid-19 pandemic looks to be contained; Brent should trade in a higher US$57-59/b range and WTI at US$43-55/b


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have officially restarted production from their shared Wafra field in the Neutral after five years of halted output
  • Despite being hampered by quarterly waivers that are subject to renewals by the US government, Chevron has ramped up production at its Petropiar crude upgrader plant in Venezuela to 130,000 b/d after being closed for most of 2019
  • Canada’s Alberta province’s plan to ease its crude glut through rail shipments has hit a snag, as protestors blocked train lines and the provincial government ordered trains to reduce speeds after a major derailment and fire
  • Tullow Oil reports that it has received approval from Ghana to flare gas ‘when necessary’ from its offshore fields, which should help the beleaguered company support production levels after a set of disappointing results for 2019
  • Somalia has passed a new petroleum bill into law, with the aim of setting up a regulatory framework to attract foreign upstream investment; Somalia currently does not produce any oil but estimates suggest significant reserves
  • As Uganda prepares to start producing oil for the first time, distribution and transport infrastructure remain an issue, with the state recently tapping a Chinese lender to build three roads to connect to its western oilfields
  • After a challenging few years of scandals and a subsequent refocusing on upstream, Petrobras has now hit a new upstream production record, with the ramp-up in pre-salt basins contributing to 3.025 mmboe/d in Q4 2019
  • CNOOC has commenced production at the offshore Bozhong 34-9 field in the Bohai Sea, with peak output expected at 22,500 b/d of crude by 2022

Midstream/Downstream

  • The Covid-19 Wuhan outbreak has claimed a few more refinery scalps, with ChemChina shutting down its 100 kb/d Zhenghe refinery in Shandong and reducing processing at its Changyi and Huaxing refineries by 10%; Hengli Petrochemical has cut utilisation rates at its new 400 kb/d Dalian refinery by some 17% as well, as petchem demand dries up
  • The 120,000 b/d Azzawiya Oil Refining Company refinery in Libya has been forced to halt all operations, as a prolonged conflict in the country has dried up the availability of crude for export or local refining
  • Egypt has given the go-ahead for a US$2.5 billion, 65 kb/d oil refinery in the Upper Egypt region, focusing on hydrocracking mazut – heavy, low quality fuel oil typically used for power generation – into high-value fuels
  • The Bangladesh Petroleum Corp has awarded a tender to supply some 1.06 million tons of gasoil, jet fuel, fuel oil and gasoline to Unipec and Vitol
  • Vietnam’s Nghi Son refining has offered a cargo of gasoil for export for the first time – an indication of slowing domestic demand from the Covid-19 outbreak that is hitting most major East and Southeast Asian economies

Natural Gas/LNG

  • NextDecade Corp’s US$15 billion, 26 million tons per annum Rio Grande LNG facility in Texas has been cleared for LNG exports by the US DoE
  • Portugal’s Sines port is being eyed by US energy companies as a strategic landing point for US LNG exports to Europe, as American LNG exporters race to lock down customers amid a supply glut that could last for years
  • Shell has acquired a 50% stake in Ecopetrol’s Fuerte Sur, Purple Angel and COL-5 gas blocks located in Colombia’s Caribbean deepwater region
February, 21 2020
This Week in Petroleum

Forecast growth in demand for U.S. petroleum and other liquids is not driven by transportation and not supplied by refineries

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) forecasts that in 2021, U.S. consumption (as measured by product supplied) of total petroleum and other liquid fuels will average 20.71 million barrels per day (b/d), surpassing the 2007 pre-recession level of 20.68 million b/d. However, the drivers of this consumption growth have changed. Since the 2007–09 recession, U.S. consumption growth has shifted toward liquid fuels that are used primarily outside the transportation sector and are supplied mostly from non-refinery sources. Despite this shift away from domestic demand for refinery-produced fuels, U.S. refinery runs have increased, and the excess products have been exported, greatly contributing to the United States becoming a net exporter of petroleum in September 2019. EIA expects these trends to continue for at least the next 10 years.

Hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL) have been the main driver of U.S. petroleum and other liquids demand growth since 2007 (Figure 1). U.S. production and consumption of HGLs—a group of products that include ethane, propane, normal butane and isobutane, natural gasoline, and refinery olefins—have risen with increased natural gas production and demand from an expanding petrochemical sector. As a result, EIA forecasts U.S. HGL consumption will be 1.27 million b/d more in 2021 than in 2007, and will average 3.45 million b/d.

Figure 1. Forecast change in U.S. consumption from 2007 to 2021

With the exception of jet fuel, EIA expects less U.S. consumption of refinery-produced products in 2021 than in 2007. Since 2007, increases in U.S. vehicle miles traveled, which normally increases total motor gasoline consumption, have been countered to some extent by increases in vehicle fuel efficiency. In addition, although U.S. total motor gasoline consumption exceeded 2007 levels for the first time in 2016, increased blending of ethanol into finished motor gasoline has displaced some of the petroleum-based, or refinery-produced, portion of gasoline consumption. Therefore, EIA forecasts 570,000 b/d less consumption of refinery-produced gasoline in the United States in 2021 than in 2007, while ethanol will be 0.5 million b/d higher. Ethanol is almost exclusively produced at non-petroleum refinery sites.

Some HGLs can be produced by both refineries and natural gas processing plants. Natural gas plant liquids (NGPLs)—a subset of HGLs that includes ethane, propane, normal butanes and isobutanes, and natural gasoline—can be extracted from natural gas production streams or produced at refineries that process crude oil. However, as U.S. natural gas production increased from 55.3 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2007 to 98.9 Bcf/d in 2019, the amount of HGLs extracted from natural gas production increased from 1.78 million b/d in 2007 to 4.83 million b/d in 2019. EIA expects HGL production from natural gas processing plants to continue to increase to 5.47 million b/d in 2021. Meanwhile, refinery HGL production has been flat at about 600,000 b/d (Figure 2).

Figure 2. U.S. hydrocarbon gas liquids production by source

Although HGLs have several different end uses, such as propane for space heating and normal butane for blending with motor gasoline, most of the growth in consumption stems from the use of HGLs as feedstock for petrochemical processes. The large increase in U.S. production of HGLs, and the resulting low prices, led to large investments in U.S. infrastructure to extract and transport HGLs to market, as well as investments in petrochemical facilities to consume it. Many of these facilities consume ethane, and to a lesser degree propane and normal butane, as feedstocks to produce intermediate building blocks for plastics, resins, and other materials with nonenergy uses. EIA forecasts that U.S. ethane consumption will reach 1.96 million b/d in 2021, up from 743,000 b/d in 2007, which represents 96% of the increase in U.S. HGL consumption between 2007 and 2021.

Removing HGL and ethanol consumption from the total demand for U.S. petroleum and other liquids indicates that EIA’s 2021 forecast U.S. demand for principally refinery-produced products is about 16.31 million b/d, on par with the 1997 level (Figure 3).

Figure 3. U.S. total petroleum and other liquids demand

Despite domestic demand shifting away from traditionally refinery-produced products, U.S. refinery capacity has increased 1.7 million b/d between 2007 and 2019. U.S. refineries have adapted to falling domestic demand for certain products, such as residual fuel, by investing in downstream coking capacity to upgrade it into more valuable products. More importantly, international demand for refinery-produced products has increased since 2007, allowing U.S. refineries to increase runs and utilization beyond what the domestic market demanded to supply products to export markets. As a result, the United States became a net exporter on an annual basis of distillate and residual fuel in 2008, of jet fuel in 2011, and of motor gasoline in 2016.

Similarly, demand for HGLs outside of the United States has increased and caused U.S exports of HGLs to increase from 70,000 b/d in 2007 to 2.07 million b/d in November 2019. Between 2013 and 2016, exports of HGLs were the largest contributor to the increase in U.S. exports of petroleum products. U.S. exports of HGLs are mostly of propane and ethane to markets in Asia and Europe, where they are also displacing refinery-produced naphtha as a petrochemical feedstock.

EIA projects that these trends of increasing U.S. production of HGLs, increasing domestic consumption of HGLs, and increasing exports of HGLs will continue beyond 2021. EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2020 (AEO2020), released in January, shows projections for further growth in HGL production at natural gas processing plants from 4.91 million b/d in 2019 to a peak of 6.58 million b/d in 2029 and then slowly decline to 6.17 million b/d by 2050. Domestic consumption of HGLs will also increase, driven by continued petrochemical demand for feedstock, which rises from about 3.14 million b/d in 2019 to more than 4.0 million b/d in 2029. Meanwhile, in the AEO2020 Reference case, U.S. consumption of motor gasoline declines until 2042, distillate consumption declines until 2040, and residual fuel consumption continues declining out to 2050.

U.S. average regular gasoline prices rise, diesel prices decline

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price increased nearly 1 cent from the previous week to $2.43 per gallon on February 17, 11 cents higher than the same time last year. The Midwest price rose nearly 5 cents to $2.31 per gallon. The Rocky Mountain price fell more than 3 cents to $2.47 per gallon, the West Coast price fell 1 cent to $3.14 per gallon, the East Coast price fell nearly 1 cent to $2.36 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price declined by less than 1 cent to $2.08 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell 2 cents from the previous week to $2.89 per gallon on February 17, 12 cents lower than a year ago. The Rocky Mountain price fell nearly 4 cents to $2.86 per gallon, the East Coast price fell more than 2 cents to $2.94 per gallon, the Midwest and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 2 cents to $2.76 per gallon and $2.66 per gallon, respectively, and the West Coast price fell more than 1 cent to $3.47 per gallon.

Residential heating oil prices increase, propane prices decrease

As of February 17, 2020, residential heating oil prices averaged more than $2.91 per gallon, almost 1 cent per gallon above last week’s price but more than 31 cents per gallon lower than last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged $1.80 per gallon, more than 5 cents per gallon above last week’s price but 34 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.

Residential propane prices averaged more than $1.98 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon below last week’s price and nearly 45 cents per gallon less than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged more than $0.56 per gallon, more than 1 cent per gallon higher than last week’s price but almost 27 cents per gallon below last year’s price.

Propane/propylene inventories decline

U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 3.0 million barrels last week to 74.3 million barrels as of February 14, 2020, 18.4 million barrels (32.9%) greater than the five-year (2015-19) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Midwest, Gulf Coast, East Coast, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased by 1.1 million barrels, 1.0 million barrels, 0.6 million barrels, and 0.4 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 7.5% of total propane/propylene inventories.

February, 21 2020
EIA expects natural gas production and exports to continue increasing in most scenarios

According to projections published in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2020 (AEO2020), total dry natural gas production in the United States will continue to increase until 2050 in most of the AEO2020 cases, primarily to support growing U.S. exports of natural gas to global markets. The United States began exporting more natural gas than it imports on an annual basis in 2017, driven by increased liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, increased pipeline exports to Mexico, and reduced imports from Canada. In most of the AEO2020 cases, net natural gas exports continue to increase through 2050, and most of the increase is in the near term.

The AEO2020 Reference case represents EIA’s best assessment of how U.S. and world energy markets will operate through 2050, assuming no significant changes in energy policy occur. Side cases show the effects of changing model assumptions: the High and Low Oil Price cases simulate international conditions that could drive crude oil prices higher or lower, and the High and Low Oil and Gas Supply cases vary production costs and resource recoverability within the United States.

U.S. dry natural gas production, AEO2020 reference case

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2020

EIA expects dry natural gas production to total 34 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 2019 once the final data is in. In the AEO2020 Reference case, EIA projects that U.S. dry natural gas production will reach 45 Tcf by 2050. Production growth results largely from continued development of tight and shale resources in the East, Gulf Coast, and Southwest regions, which more than offsets production declines in other regions. Dry natural gas production from these three regions accounted for 68% of total U.S. dry natural gas production in 2019 and, in the Reference case, 78% of dry natural gas production in 2050.

Most of the increase in dry natural gas production is coming from natural gas formations such as the Marcellus and Utica in the East region and the Haynesville in the Gulf Coast region. A smaller but still significant portion of the growth is from natural gas production in oil formations (also known as associated gas), especially in the Permian Basin in the Southwest region.

U.S. natural gas trade, aeo2020 reference case

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2020

In the Reference case, both U.S. natural gas exports by pipeline and U.S. LNG exports continue to grow through 2030. LNG exports account for most of the export growth because more LNG export facilities are becoming operational and more projects are under construction. In the Reference case, EIA projects that LNG exports will almost triple, from 1.7 Tcf in 2019 to 5.8 Tcf in 2030, the equivalent of nearly 16 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d). LNG exports remain at this level through 2050 as U.S.-sourced LNG becomes less competitive in world markets and as more countries become global LNG suppliers.

U.S. LNG exports are more competitive when oil prices are high (as in the High Oil Price case) and U.S. natural gas prices are low (as in the High Oil and Gas Supply case) because of pricing structures that link Brent crude oil prices to LNG prices in many world markets. In the High Oil Price case, U.S. natural gas net exports reach nearly 13 Tcf by the late 2030s, most of which is LNG. Conversely, in the Low Oil Price case and Low Oil and Gas Supply case, U.S. LNG is less competitive globally and remains lower than 5 Tcf per year through 2050.

By comparison, pipeline trade of U.S. natural gas is less sensitive to changes in assumptions about domestic natural gas supply and world oil prices. Pipeline trade of natural gas is highest in the High Oil and Gas Supply case because low domestic natural gas prices reduce U.S. natural gas imports from Canada.

U.S. natural gas net trade

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2020

February, 20 2020