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Last Updated: July 19, 2019
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Market Watch 

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 15 July 2019 – Brent: US$66/b; WTI: US$59/b

  • Global oil prices gained as US crude inventories shrank more than expected and a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico threatened American offshore production
  • Tropical Storm Barry – which became a hurricane on landfall in Louisiana – was in the path of up to a third of Gulf of Mexico crude output, prompting producers to shut down most of their operations; resumption of normal service has begun
  • At the same time, US crude oil stockpiles fell by almost 10 million barrels, far more than expected, with US refineries ramping up production ahead of summer demand to add some bullishness to the market
  • The ongoing tensions between the US and Iran have not escalated further yet, but Iran has vowed to continue retaliating against the British seizure of its crude tanker in the Mediterranean off Gibraltar
  • These factors have been enough to keep current crude prices trending higher, but oil producing club OPEC warns that the market will swing back into surplus next year, estimating that it is currently producing 560,000 b/d more than will be needed without even factoring in rising US shale production
  • In Venezuela, where oil production has been crippled by sanctions, Chevron is reportedly seeking a waiver to continue operating in the country after the current waiver expires in July 27
  • The US active oil and gas rig count fell once again, shedding a net five rigs (including 4 oil rigs) as merely stable prices reduced the appetite for investment; the total active rig count is now 958, 96 sites lower than this period last year
  • As the threat of Tropical Storm Barry abated, crude prices fell back in line. Without any further disruptions on the horizon, Brent should trend in the US$62-64/b range and WTI in the US$55-57 range


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Norway’s Equinor has bought a 16% stake in Swedish upstream firm Lundin Petroleum for US$650 million, which gains it an additional 2.6% interest in the giant Johan Sverdrup oil field bringing Equinor’s total stake up to 42.6%
  • Inpex has picked up the exploration permit for Block AC/P66 in Australia’s Northwest Shelf, which lies in the vicinity of existing promising oil fields
  • US independent Callon Petroleum Company has acquired Carrizo Oil & Gas for US$3.2 billion, deepening its holdings in the Permian and Eagle Ford shale basins, including 90,000 net acres in the prolific Delaware Basin
  • Total has agreed to divest several of its non-core assets in the UK – covering the Balloch, Dumbarton, Lochranza, Drumtochty, Flyndre, Affleck, Cawdow, GoldenEagle, Scott and Telford fields – to Petrogas NEO for US$635 million
  • CNOOC and Sinopec has signed a new agreement to collaborate on exploration activities in the Bohai Basin, Beibu Gulf, North Jiangsu and South Yellow Sea
  • Murphy Oil has completed the sale of its Malaysian upstream assets to a unit of Thailand’s PTTEP for US$2.035 billion for five offshore projects in Sabah
  • Seven upstream discoveries were made in Colombia in 2Q19, making it the market with the most discoveries during the period, leading India, Russia and Pakistan which each made three new oil and gas finds
  • Turkey has vowed to continue drilling offshore Cyprus unless a cooperation proposal between Turkish and Greek Cypriots is accepted
  • Encana is reportedly selling off its assets in eastern Oklahoma’s Arkoma Basin for US$165 million in cash to an undisclosed buyer
  • Sinopec is hunting for partners or buyers for its Buck Lake assets in Alberta’s Duvernay shale basin in Canada, to reduce its current full ownership

Midstream/Downstream

  • The Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf has ruled out using state funds to save the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery after it was shuttered following a massive fire that took out the entire site last month
  • Blackouts hit Venezuela’s Amuay and Cardon refineries, bringing the 955,000 b/d Paraguana refining Center to a complete halt on total lack of power
  • Chevron Phillips Chemical (CP Chem) and Qatar Petroleum have agreed to develop a new 2 mtpa petrochemical complex on the US Gulf Coast, with the US Gulf Coast II Petrochemical Project drawing on NGLs from the Permian
  • Marathon Petroleum will shut down the gasoline FCCU unit at its 585,000 b/d Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas for up to 8 weeks for repairs

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Total has agreed to buy NG from Tellurian’s Driftwood LNG facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana in two separate deals – 1 million tons per annum for Total Gas & Power North America and 1.5 mtpa for Total Gas & Power – as well as invest US$500 million in Driftwood Holdings LP
  • Mozambique has put on hold plans to raise funds for its stake in the Anadarko-led Mozambique LNG project, citing current bad market conditions
  • ExxonMobil and Lucid Energy Group have agreed to collaborate on a long-term natural gas gathering and processing project, bringing natural gas from New Mexico’s Delaware Basin to the South Carlsbad gas processing system before being delivered to ExxonMobil’s downstream facilities in the US Gulf Coast

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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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