U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) have been growing steadily and reached a new peak of 4.7 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in May 2019, according to the latest data published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy. This year, the United States became the world’s third-largest LNG exporter, averaging 4.2 Bcf/d in the first five months of the year, exceeding Malaysia’s LNG exports of 3.6 Bcf/d during the same period. The United States is expected to remain the third-largest LNG exporter in the world, behind Australia and Qatar, in 2019–20.
U.S. LNG exports have increased as four new liquefaction units (trains) with a combined capacity of 2.4 Bcf/d—Sabine Pass Train 5, Corpus Christi Trains 1 and 2, and Cameron Train 1—came online since November 2018. Although Asian countries have continued to account for a large share of U.S. LNG exports, shipments to Europe have increased significantly since October 2018 and accounted for almost 40% of U.S. LNG exports in the first five months of 2019. LNG exports to Europe surpassed exports to Asia for the first time in January 2019.
A warm winter in Asia and declining price differentials between European and Asian spot natural gas prices led to increased volumes of U.S. LNG exports delivered to Europe. Europe’s total LNG imports in the winter of 2018–19 averaged 10.2 Bcf/d, 60% higher than in the previous two winters and the highest winter average since at least 2013, according to CEDIGAZ LNG data. LNG imports to Europe have been relatively low in recent years, but they are expected to grow as new LNG supply comes online and European countries continue to increase natural gas consumption as part of their decarbonization initiatives.
Total LNG imports in the three largest global LNG markets—Japan, China, and South Korea—started to decrease in February 2019 amid a milder-than-normal winter and, in Japan, the restart of nuclear power plants. China, which became the world’s second-largest LNG importer in 2017 (surpassing South Korea) and the world’s largest importer of total natural gas in 2018 (surpassing Japan and Germany), continued to increase LNG imports. Its LNG imports were 20% (1.3 Bcf/d) higher in the first five months of 2019 compared with the same period last year as the country continued to expand LNG import capacity and implement coal-to-gas switching policies.
LNG from the United States accounted for 7% of China’s total LNG imports in the first six months of 2018. In September 2018, China imposed a 10% tariff on LNG imports from the United States, and in the months since then (October 2018 through May 2019), U.S. LNG has accounted for 1% of China’s LNG imports. Because no long-term contracts between suppliers of U.S. LNG and Chinese buyers exist, LNG from the United States is supplied to China on a spot basis. Spot LNG shipments are dispatched based on the prevailing global spot LNG and natural gas prices, and the tariff made LNG imports from the United States to China less competitive.
Recent declines in price differentials between European pricing benchmarks (including National Balancing Point (NBP) in the United Kingdom and Title Transfer Facility (TTF) in the Netherlands) and Asian spot LNG prices (including Japan LNG spot prices) have affected the flow of flexible (i.e., without a fixed destination specified in an offtake LNG contract) U.S. LNG exports.
Because the round-trip transportation costs from the U.S. Gulf Coast to Europe are about $1.50 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) lower than those to Asian markets, a sufficiently narrow price spread between European and Asian spot natural gas/LNG prices will make Europe the preferred destination for exporters of U.S. LNG. The spread between Japan spot LNG and NBP/TTF prices was about $1.00/MMBtu in December 2018 and January 2019, and it reached a low of $0.60/MMBtu in April, which supported continued high U.S. LNG exports to Europe.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects U.S. LNG exports will continue to increase in 2019 as the first trains at the two new liquefaction facilities (Freeport LNG in Texas and Elba Island LNG in Georgia) come online in the next few months. In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, EIA forecasts U.S. LNG exports will average 4.8 Bcf/d in 2019 and 6.9 Bcf/d in 2020 as new liquefaction trains at Cameron, Freeport, and Elba Island are commissioned in the next 18 months.
By 2021, six U.S. liquefaction projects are expected to be fully operational. Another two new U.S. liquefaction projects (Golden Pass in Texas and Calcasieu Pass in Louisiana) that started construction this year are expected to come online by 2025. By that time, EIA projects that the United States will have the world’s largest LNG export capacity, surpassing both Qatar and Australia.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Bloomberg L.P., and Japan METI
Note: Japan LNG spot price is the average price of spot LNG imported into Japan in the months shown. Singapore LNG is a Singapore-based spot LNG price index. National Balancing Point is the U.K.-based spot natural gas price index.
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Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.
Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.
Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.
Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.
But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.
Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.
Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)
|Region||Consumption (mmb/d)*||Refining Capacity (mmb/d)|
*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.
The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.
Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.
Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.
Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.
Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.
Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett