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Last Updated: July 30, 2019
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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.

monthly crude oil, natural gas, and LNG spot prices

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.

prices consumption/demand spot prices China exports/imports United States Europe Japan LNG EIA
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Pricing-in The Covid 19 Vaccine

In a few days, the bi-annual OPEC meeting will take place on November 30, leading into a wider OPEC+ meeting on December 30. This is what all the political jostling and negotiations currently taking place is leading up to, as the coalition of major oil producers under the OPEC+ banner decide on the next step of its historic and ambitious supply control plan. Designed to prop up global oil prices by managing supply, a postponement of the next phase in the supply deal is widely expected. But there are many cracks appearing beneath the headline.

A quick recap. After Saudi Arabia and Russia triggered a price war in March 2020 that led to a collapse in oil prices (with US crude prices briefly falling into negative territory due to the technical quirk), OPEC and its non-OPEC allies (known collectively as OPEC+) agreed to a massive supply quota deal that would throttle their production for 2 years. The initial figure was 10 mmb/d, until Mexico’s reticence brought that down to 9.7 mmb/d. This was due to fall to 7.7 mmb/d by July 2020, but soft demand forced a delay, while Saudi Arabia led the charge to ensure full compliance from laggards, which included Iraq, Nigeria and (unusually) the UAE. The next tranche will bring the supply control ceiling down to 5.7 mmb/d. But given that Covid-19 is still raging globally (despite promising vaccine results), this might be too much too soon. Yes, prices have recovered, but at US$40/b crude, this is still not sufficient to cover the oil-dependent budgets of many OPEC+ nations. So a delay is very likely.

But for how long? The OPEC+ Joint Technical Committee panel has suggested that the next step of the plan (which will effectively boost global supply by 2 mmb/d) be postponed by 3-6 months. This move, if adopted, will have been presaged by several public statements by OPEC+ leaders, including a pointed comment from OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo that producers must be ready to respond to ‘shifts in market fundamentals’.

On the surface, this is a necessary move. Crude prices have rallied recently – to as high as US$45/b – on positive news of Covid-19 vaccines. Treatments from Pfizer, Moderna and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca have touted 90%+ effectiveness in various forms, with countries such as the US, Germany and the UK ordering billions of doses and setting the stage for mass vaccinations beginning December. Life returning to a semblance of normality would lift demand, particularly in key products such as gasoline (as driving rates increase) and jet fuel (allowing a crippled aviation sector to return to life). Underpinning the rally is the understanding that OPEC+ will always act in the market’s favour, carefully supporting the price recovery. But there are already grouses among OPEC members that they are doing ‘too much’. Led by Saudi Arabia, the draconian dictates of meeting full compliance to previous quotas have ruffled feathers, although most members have reluctantly attempt to abide by them. But there is a wider existential issue that OPEC+ is merely allowing its rivals to resuscitate and leapfrog them once again; the US active oil rig count by Baker Hughes has reversed a chronic decline trend, as WTI prices are at levels above breakeven for US shale.

Complaints from Iran, Iraq and Nigeria are to be expected, as is from Libya as it seeks continued exemption from quotas due to the legacy of civil war even though it has recently returned to almost full production following a truce. But grievance is also coming from an unexpected quarter: the UAE. A major supporter in the Saudi Arabia faction of OPEC, reports suggest that the UAE (led by the largest emirate, Abu Dhabi) are privately questioning the benefit of remaining in OPEC. Beset by shrivelling oil revenue, the Emiratis have been grumbling about the fairness of their allocated quota as they seek to rebuild their trade-dependent economy. There has been suggestion that the Emiratis could even leave OPEC if decisions led to a net negative outcome for them. Unlike the Qatar exit, this will not just be a blow to OPEC as a whole, questioning its market relevance but to Saudi Arabia’s lead position, as it loses one of its main allies, reducing its negotiation power. And if the UAE leaves, Kuwait could follow, which would leave the Saudis even more isolated.

This could be a tactic to increase the volume of the UAE’s voice in OPEC+, which has been dominated by Saudi Arabia and Russia. But it could also be a genuine policy shift. Either way, it throws even more conundrums onto a delicate situation that could undermine an already fragile market. Despite the positive market news led by Covid-19 vaccines and demand recovery in Asia, American crude oil inventories in Cushing are now approaching similar high levels last seen in April (just before the WTI crash) while OPEC itself has lowered its global demand forecast for 2020 by 300,000 b/d. That’s dangerous territory to be treading in, especially if members of the OPEC+ club are threatening to exit and undermine the pack. A postponement of the plan seems inevitable on December 1 at this point, but it is what lies beyond the immediate horizon that is the true threat to OPEC+.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$44-46/b, WTI – US$42-44/b
  • More positive news on Covid-19 vaccines have underpinned a crude price rally despite worrying signs of continued soft demand and inventory build-ups
  • Pfizer’s application for emergency approval of its vaccine is paving the way for mass vaccinations to begin soon, with some experts predicting that the global economy could return to normality in Q2 2021
  • Market observers are predicting a delay in the OPEC+ supply quota schedule, but the longer timeline for the club’s plan – which is set to last until April 2022 – may have to be brought forward to appease current dissent in the group

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November, 25 2020
EIA expects U.S. crude oil production to remain relatively flat through 2021

In the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) November Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts that U.S. crude oil production will remain near its current level through the end of 2021.

A record 12.9 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil was produced in the United States in November 2019 and was at 12.7 million b/d in March 2020, when the President declared a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak. Crude oil production then fell to 10.0 million b/d in May 2020, the lowest level since January 2018.

By August, the latest monthly data available in EIA’s series, production of crude oil had risen to 10.6 million b/d in the United States, and the U.S. benchmark price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil had increased from a monthly average of $17 per barrel (b) in April to $42/b in August. EIA forecasts that the WTI price will average $43/b in the first half of 2021, up from our forecast of $40/b during the second half of 2020.

The U.S. crude oil production forecast reflects EIA’s expectations that annual global petroleum demand will not recover to pre-pandemic levels (101.5 million b/d in 2019) through at least 2021. EIA forecasts that global consumption of petroleum will average 92.9 million b/d in 2020 and 98.8 million b/d in 2021.

The gradual recovery in global demand for petroleum contributes to EIA’s forecast of higher crude oil prices in 2021. EIA expects that the Brent crude oil price will increase from its 2020 average of $41/b to $47/b in 2021.

EIA’s crude oil price forecast depends on many factors, especially changes in global production of crude oil. As of early November, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) were considering plans to keep production at current levels, which could result in higher crude oil prices. OPEC+ had previously planned to ease production cuts in January 2021.

Other factors could result in lower-than-forecast prices, especially a slower recovery in global petroleum demand. As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, some parts of the United States are adding restrictions such as curfews and limitations on gatherings and some European countries are re-instituting lockdown measures.

EIA recently published a more detailed discussion of U.S. crude oil production in This Week in Petroleum.

November, 19 2020
OPEC members' net oil export revenue in 2020 expected to drop to lowest level since 2002

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will earn about $323 billion in net oil export revenues in 2020. If realized, this forecast revenue would be the lowest in 18 years. Lower crude oil prices and lower export volumes drive this expected decrease in export revenues.

Crude oil prices have fallen as a result of lower global demand for petroleum products because of responses to COVID-19. Export volumes have also decreased under OPEC agreements limiting crude oil output that were made in response to low crude oil prices and record-high production disruptions in Libya, Iran, and to a lesser extent, Venezuela.

OPEC earned an estimated $595 billion in net oil export revenues in 2019, less than half of the estimated record high of $1.2 trillion, which was earned in 2012. Continued declines in revenue in 2020 could be detrimental to member countries’ fiscal budgets, which rely heavily on revenues from oil sales to import goods, fund social programs, and support public services. EIA expects a decline in net oil export revenue for OPEC in 2020 because of continued voluntary curtailments and low crude oil prices.

The benchmark Brent crude oil spot price fell from an annual average of $71 per barrel (b) in 2018 to $64/b in 2019. EIA expects Brent to average $41/b in 2020, based on forecasts in EIA’s October 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO). OPEC petroleum production averaged 36.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018 and fell to 34.5 million b/d in 2019; EIA expects OPEC production to decline a further 3.9 million b/d to average 30.7 million b/d in 2020.

EIA based its OPEC revenues estimate on forecast petroleum liquids production—including crude oil, condensate, and natural gas plant liquids—and forecast values of OPEC petroleum consumption and crude oil prices.

EIA recently published a more detailed discussion of OPEC revenue in This Week in Petroleum.

November, 16 2020