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Last Updated: July 12, 2019
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Market Watch 

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 July 2019 – Brent: US$64/b; WTI: US$57/b

  • Bolstered by the renewed OPEC+ supply pact but rattled by increasing tensions between Iran and the US, oil prices started the week steady after gaining over the previous week
  • With the OPEC+ supply deal extended to March 2020, focus will now shift to adherence and in particular, Russian commitments to the agreement that previously wavered over 1H19
  • More critical to the market is the escalating standoff between the US and Iran around the Straits of Hormuz and even beyond; British forces seized an oil tanker off Gibraltar that was suspected to carrying Iranian crude to Syria, drawing share criticism from Iran
  • Iran itself confirmed that it was raising its level of nuclear enrichment above levels agreed to in the 2015 deal that ended sanctions, and accused European signatories to the deal of ‘not doing enough’
  • Iranian forces also confronted a British tanker escorted by a warship in the Persian Gulf, with the narrow channel now a flashpoint for action
  • As a recipient of Middle Eastern crude, China has also raised security levels for its vessel passing through the Straits of Malacca after doing the same for the Straits of Hormuz, raising some eyebrows
  • While the confrontation – or lack of – between the US and Iran will be the main driver behind oil prices movement in the second half of 2019, the trade policies of the Trump administration that may now hit secondary Asian manufacturing nations such as Vietnam is also leaving the global economy increasingly fragile
  • Against this backdrop, the US active oil and gas rig count fell again, dropping five oil sites and gaining one gas site for a net loss of four rigs
  • As the Iranian situation deteriorates, the market will be pricing more risk premiums into traded prices, which should inch up towards the US$65-67/b range for Brent and US$59-61/b for WTI

Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Marathon Oil has completed the sale of its UK businesses to RockRose Energy, handing over the Brae and Foinaven area fields for US$345 million
  • Despite pulling out from the UK North Sea, ConocoPhillips is still active in Norway, recently submitting a new plan to re-develop the Tor field in Great Ekofisk, which was shut down in 2015 despite only 20% of resources extracted
  • In a bit to boost national production, Nigerian independent Aiteo Eastern E&P has announced plans to spend up to US$15 billion over the next five years to drill new wells and re-visit existing assets
  • Eni and Vitol have been awarded rights to Block WB03 in the offshore Tano basin in Ghana, with Eni holding 70% and expanding its presence in the country
  • Total has approved Phase 3 development at the onshore Dunga field in Kazakhstan that will increase capacity by 10% to some 20,000 b/d by 2022
  • Eni has launched production from the Mizton field in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche Area 1 – the first new offshore new field development by an international firm since reforms in 2008
  • Halliburton and Kuwait Oil have signed an agreement to explore for oil offshore Kuwait which makes Kuwait’s first foray in offshore upstream services
  • Energean Oil & Gas has purchased Electricite de France’s Italian unit for US$850 million, gaining assets in Egypt, Italy, Algeria, Croatia and the North Sea to complement its existing fields in Israel and Greece

Midstream/Downstream

  • China will be launching a new low-sulfur bunker fuel oil contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange by the end of 2019, just as new IMO regulations on marine fuel oil sulfur content caps kick into effect in 2020
  • Just as American crude production hits new highs, American refining capacity has also reached a new record high of 18.8 million b/d
  • China has issued a new round of crude oil import quotas for private oil refiners, allowing them to bring in an additional 56.85 million tonnes (~1 mmb/d) over the remainder of 2019
  • In the fallout over the contaminated crude scandal at the Druzhba pipeline, Russian pipeline operator Transneft has capped volumes of Rosneft crude that can be transported to Germany and Poland on the pipeline
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed an increased biodiesel mandate to 20.04 billion gallons in 2020 up from 19.92 billion gallons in 2019, but may not extend the hardship waiver program which drew criticism
  • Iraq and Oman have signed a new MoU to cooperate in the oil and gas sector which includes plans for a shared Omani refinery processing Iraqi crude

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Kosmos Energy has struck new gas at the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim-1 well in the Albian reservoir offshore Mauritania and Senegal, which will support the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim LNG project that is on track for a 2022 start
  • Kenya and Tanzania have entered into talks to explore cross-border natural gas trading, aimed at delivering Tanzanian natural gas to Kenya to bypass requiring and building facilities for LNG imports
  • Energean Oil & Gas is reportedly looking to sell its stake in the major Glengorn gas discovery in the UK once its acquisition of Edison E&P is completed
  • Saudi Aramco has started work on the Jafurah gas terminal that will take unconventional gas from the Ghawar oil field to the coast for processing

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May, 20 2022
High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.  

A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.

Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.

Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.

And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.

That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.

Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.

End of Article

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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