It has been almost five years since the giant Khafji field shared between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was shut down. Ostensibly on environmental concerns, this precipitated a halt of all activities in the so-called Neutral Zone – a colonial-era border relic that holds a significant amount of oil and gas. After years of stop-start negotiations, reports are now suggesting that the OPEC allies are close to a breakthrough on the matter, which could return up to 500,000 b/d of oil to the market at a crucial time for the global oil supply/demand balance.
Left undefined by the Uqair Convention of 1922 that otherwise established concrete borders for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the dry piece of land that is 8 times the size of Singapore was mostly ignored until 1938, when the Burgan oil field was discovered within Kuwait’s borders. A race for exploration began, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait both awarding overlapping concessions to private companies and Getty Oil finally striking oil in 1948. The Wafra field was discovered in 1953, and in 1960, Japan’s Arabian Oil Company (which held an offshore concession awarded by Saudi Arabia in 1957 and another awarded by Kuwait in 1958) discovered the giant Khafji offshore field. Overlapping claims of sovereignty did not prevent exploitation of the resources, but opaque rights eventually led to a formal partition in 1970 where it was agreed that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would split production equally under a joint operating agreement. The unique status of the Neutral Zone is exemplified by its structure – its largest onshore oil field (Wafra) is operated by Chevron, the only remaining place in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where a major asset is held by an international firm.
And it was this arrangement that caused the current quandary. Chevron inherited the Neutral Zone assets through its merger with Texaco in 2001, which itself bought Getty Oil in 1984. In 2009, Saudi Arabia renewed Chevron’s concession for Wafra independently, angering Kuwait as the negotiations were performing without its consultation. Kuwait responded by attempting to evict Chevron from its offices in the Neutral Zone, claiming that the land was planned for the giant Ras al Zour refinery. More tit-for-tat moves escalated and eventually Saudi Arabia shut down Khafji in October 2014 and the entire Neutral Zone in May 2015, removing 500,000 b/d of crude oil from the market in one fell swoop.
That may be coming back now, with Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih stating that he hopes to reach a deal to resume production by the end of this year. It’ll be a boon not only to both countries, but also Chevron, which was in the midst of a full-field steam flood injection EOR project to boost production of heavy oil when the shutdown hit. Given that much time has elapsed, restoration of full production will take a while. If it does happen, however, those additional volumes could complicate mathematics as OPEC faces a scenario of managing global oil supply through its supply deal to account for lost volumes from Iran, Venezuela and Libya, but also surging American shale production. With total production capacity at a maximum of 600,000 b/d, Neutral Zone output is not small drop in the barrel.
But there is more than just restarting fields at stake. While Khafji and Wafra both have a long life left ahead of them (Wafra is estimated to have 4.9 billion recoverable barrels), the Neutral Zone also contains the offshore Dorra field – a politically-sensitive gas field shared with Iran. Plans to exploit Dorra have been shelved since 2013, but Dorra gas is badly needed to power domestic electricity demand in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. A restart will help in that matter, certainly in the long term. And it is the long term that is underpinning the renewed negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, even if the short-term impact might be negative on global oil fundamentals.
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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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