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Last Updated: July 25, 2019
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Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production approached a four-year low in May 2019, averaging an estimated 9.9 million barrels per day (b/d), more than 1 million b/d lower than its all-time high in November 2018. Production in Saudi Arabia dropped following a December 2018 agreement by members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut crude oil production. Saudi Arabia’s crude oil exports, especially to the United States, have also fallen. However, some countries—in particular, China—have increased their imports of crude oil from Saudi Arabia.

Four Asia-Pacific countries that publish crude oil imports by country of origin—China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—collectively imported an average of 3.5 million b/d of crude oil from Saudi Arabia in 2018. China’s, Japan’s, and Taiwan’s 2019 year-to-date crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia are larger than their 2018 annual averages, but South Korea’s have declined slightly, based on data through May 2019.

In contrast, U.S. crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia have declined year-to-date through April 2019 compared with the 2018 average by more than 0.2 million b/d, averaging 0.6 million b/d for the first four months of 2019. Weekly estimates through July 12 show continued declines, indicating that U.S. crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia averaged about 0.5 million b/d in May and in June.

Saudi Arabia crude oil exports to selected countries

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Petroleum Supply Monthly, and Weekly Petroleum Status Report; China’s General Administration of Customs; Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry; Korea National Oil Corporation; Taiwan’s Bureau of Energy; and Bloomberg L.P.

These recent changes in crude oil trade patterns are partially a result of long-term structural trends within China and the United States and partially a result of recent oil market dynamics. From 2010 through 2018, EIA estimates that total Chinese petroleum consumption increased from 9.3 million b/d to 13.9 million b/d and that Chinese domestic production increased from 4.6 million b/d to 4.8 million b/d. As a result, China’s need to meet incremental oil consumption has been met primarily by imports.

China’s crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia have gradually increased in recent years, and in March 2019, reached 1.7 million b/d, the highest level for any month since at least 2004. Other countries, including Russia and Brazil, have been exporting more crude oil to China, however, and Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia as China’s largest source of crude oil on an annual average basis in 2016.

U.S. crude oil imports, on the other hand, have steadily decreased as domestic crude oil production has increased. In addition, U.S. crude oil imports from OPEC members have declined following increases from other countries, especially Canada. Canadian crude oil can be a substitute for certain OPEC grades and can have lower transportation costs when shipped by available pipeline capacity.

Saudi Arabian crude oil exports to China increased recently, in part, because of the start-up of a new 0.4 million b/d refinery in Dalian, Liaoning Province, which has a supply agreement with Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company. Saudi Aramco also has a supply agreement with a 0.4 million b/d refining and petrochemical complex in Zhejiang Province, which started trial operations this year.

Recent global oil supply issues could keep Saudi Arabian crude oil exports to China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan relatively high in the coming months. These four jurisdictions were all initially granted significant reduction exceptions (SREs) for Iranian crude oil imports through May 2019. However, because SREs were not renewed, each country will likely need an alternative to Iranian crude oil.

As a partial substitute for Iranian barrels, crude oil imports to these countries from Saudi Arabia could stay near first-quarter 2019 levels for the coming months. Saudi Arabia’s support of maintaining current OPEC production cuts through March 2020, however, will likely reduce the Saudi Arabian crude oil available for export.

In addition, Saudi Arabia’s seasonal increase in domestic crude oil consumption for power generation could reduce available crude oil export volumes this summer. The increase is dependent on the weather, but higher domestic consumption could be a more significant factor in determining the level of Saudi Arabian crude oil exports in the coming months.

international China Saudi Arabia exports imports United States liquid fuels crude oil oil petroleum
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The Growing Divergence In Energy

Two acquisitions in the energy sector were announced in the last week that illustrate the growing divergence in approaching the future of oil and gas between Europe and the USA. In France, Total announced that it had bought Fonroche Biogaz, the market leader in the production of renewable gas in France. In North America, ConocoPhillips completed its acquisition of Concho Resources, deepening the upstream major’s foothold into the lucrative Permian Basin and its shale riches. One is heading towards renewables, and the other is doubling down on conventional oil and gas.

What does this say about the direction of the energy industry?

Total’s move is unsurprising. Like almost all of its European peers operating in the oil and gas sector, Total has announced ambitious targets to become carbon-neutral by 2050. It is an ambition supported by the European population and pushed for by European governments, so in that sense, Total is following the wishes of its investors and stakeholders – just like BP, Shell, Repsol, Eni and others are doing. Fonroche Biogaz is therefore a canny acquisition. The company designs, builds and operates anaerobic digestion units that convert organic waste such as farming manure into biomethane to serve a gas feedstock for power generation. Fonroche Biogaz already has close to 500 GWh of installed capacity through seven power generation units with four in the pipeline. This feeds into Total’s recent moves to expand its renewable power generation capacity, with the stated intention of increasing the group’s biomethane capacity to 1.5 terawatts per hour (TWh) by 2025. Through this, Total vaults into a leading position within the renewable gas market in Europe, which is already active through affiliates such as Méthanergy, PitPoint and Clean Energy.

In parallel to this move, Total also announced that it has decided not to renew its membership in the American Petroleum Institute for 2021. Citing that it is only ‘partially aligned’ with the API on climate change issues in the past, Total has now decided that those positions have now ‘diverged’ particularly on rolling back methane emission regulations, carbon pricing and decarbonising transport. The French supermajor is not alone in its stance. BP, which has ditched the supermajor moniker in favour of turning itself into a clean energy giant, has also expressed reservations over the API’s stance over climate issues, and may very well choose to resign from the trade group as well. Other European upstream players might follow suit.

However, the core of the API will remain American energy firms. And the stance among these companies remains pro-oil and gas, despite shareholder pressure to bring climate issues and clean energy to the forefront. While the likes of ExxonMobil and Chevron have balanced significant investments into prolific shale patches in North America with public overtures to embrace renewables, no major US firm has made a public commitment to a carbon-neutral future as their European counterparts have. And so ConocoPhillips acquisition of Concho Resources, which boosts its value to some US$60 billion is not an outlier, but a preview of the ongoing consolidation happening in US shale as the free-for-all days give way to big boy acquisitions following the price-upheaval there since 2019.

That could change. In fact, it will change. The incoming Biden administration marks a significant break from the Trump administration’s embrace of oil and gas. Instead of opening of protected federal lands to exploration, especially in Alaska and sensitive coastal areas and loosening environmental regulations, the US will now pivot to putting climate change at the top of the agenda. Although political realities may water it down, the progressive faction of the Democrats are pushing for a Green New Deal embracing sustainability as the future for the US. Biden has already hinted that he may cancel the controversial and long-running Keystone XL pipeline via executive order on his first day in the office. His nominees for key positions including the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and Council on Environmental Quality suggest that there will be a major push on low-carbon and renewable initiatives, at least for the next 4 years. A pledge to reach net zero fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035 has been mooted. More will come.

The landscape is changing. But the two approaches still apply, the aggressive acceleration adopted by European majors, and the slower movement favoured by US firms. Political changes in the USA might hasten the change, but it is unlikely that convergence will happen anytime soon. There is room in the world for both approaches for now, but the future seems inevitable. It just depends on how energy companies want to get there.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$54-56/b, WTI – US$51-53/b
  • Global crude oil benchmarks retreated slightly, as concerns of rising supplies and coronavirus spread impact consumption anticipations; in particular, new Covid-19 outbreaks in key countries such as Japan and China are menacing demand
  • Mapped against the new OPEC+ supply quotas, there is a risk that demand will retreat more than anticipated, weakening prices; however, a leaking pipeline in Libya has reduced oil output there by about 200,000 b/d, which could provide some price support
  • However, the longer-term prognosis remains healthier for oil prices factoring out these short-term concerns; the US EIA has raised its predicted average prices for Brent and WTI to US$52.70 and US$49.70 for the whole of 2021

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January, 22 2021
EIA expects crude oil prices to average near $50 per barrel through 2022

In its January Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects global demand for petroleum liquids will be greater than global supply in 2021, especially during the first quarter, leading to inventory draws. As a result, EIA expects the price of Brent crude oil to increase from its December 2020 average of $50 per barrel (b) to an average of $56/b in the first quarter of 2021. The Brent price is then expected to average between $51/b and $54/b on a quarterly basis through 2022.

EIA expects that growth in crude oil production from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) will be limited because of a multilateral agreement to limit production. Saudi Arabia announced that it would voluntarily cut production by an additional 1.0 million b/d during February and March. Even with this cut, EIA expects OPEC to produce more oil than it did last year, forecasting that crude oil production from OPEC will average 27.2 million b/d in 2021, up from an estimated 25.6 million b/d in 2020.

EIA forecasts that U.S. crude oil production in the Lower 48 states—excluding the Gulf of Mexico—will decline in the first quarter of 2021 before increasing through the end of 2022. In 2021, EIA expects crude oil production in this region will average 8.9 million b/d and total U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d, which is less than 2020 production.

EIA expects that responses to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases will continue to limit global oil demand in the first half of 2021. Based on global macroeconomic forecasts from Oxford Economics, however, EIA forecasts that global gross domestic product will grow by 5.4% in 2021 and by 4.3% in 2022, leading to energy consumption growth. EIA forecasts that global consumption of liquid fuels will average 97.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2021 and 101.1 million b/d in 2022, only slightly less than the 2019 average of 101.2 million b/d.

EIA expects global inventory draws will contribute to forecast rising crude oil prices in the first quarter of 2021. Despite rising forecast crude oil prices in early 2021, EIA expects upward price pressure will be limited through the forecast period because of high global oil inventory, surplus crude oil production capacity, and stock draws decreasing after the first quarter of 2021. EIA forecasts Brent crude oil prices will average $53/b in both 2021 and 2022.

quarterly global liquid fuels production and consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)

You can find more information on EIA’s expectations for changes in global petroleum liquids production, consumption, and crude oil prices in EIA’s latest This Week in Petroleum article and its January STEO.

January, 22 2021
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January, 21 2021