Crude oil prices have been on a rollercoaster ride as tensions heat up in the Middle East. Drone strikes on the heart of the Saudi Arabian production complex – the Abqaiq processing plant (called the most important crude site in the world) and the 1.5 mmb/d Khurais oil field – took out 5.7 mmb/d of crude output. That’s the single largest outage of crude output ever – more than 1973 Middle East oil embargo, more than the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, more than the 1978 Iranian Revolution. The fires it caused affected more than half of Saudi Arabia’s current crude production output and essentially wipes a large part of the country’s spare capacity. Fortunately, I have not read of any casualty reports from this massive incident.
Yemeni Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the attacks. There is some logic to this, given that the Houthi rebel have waged an extended campaign on Saudi oil facilities over the past few years, including a recent attack on the East-West Pipeline – part of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran backing different factions in Yemen’s civil war. But this incident is different. The Abqaiq crude facilities are near Bahrain, over 700km from closest Yemeni border, and over 400km further than the farthest attack into Saudi territory by the Houthis. For the Houthis to suddenly gain a tremendous amount of range in their attacks – especially given that the suspected drones involved in the attack only have a range of up to about 200km – seems implausible. Which is why the US has publicly blamed Iran for the attacks, releasing data and photos that claim the attacks came from a north-westerly direction. Iran, predictably, has claimed that it is not responsible. Other countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UK, have struck a more cautious approach, promising ‘investigations’.
Because the attacks occurred over the weekend, there was no immediate effect on traded prices. But when markets opened in Asia on Monday, crude oil prices soared by up to 20% at the highest point – with Brent jumping past the US$70/b mark – before settling back to a daily gain of 15%. Because the attacks were on such an important processing plant, market players worried about global supply disruptions that could last for months. President Donald Trump’s move to release US strategic petroleum reserves calmed the market slightly, while subsequent reports from Saudi Aramco that up to 70% of the affected 5.7 mmb/d capacity at Abqaiq had been brought back online provided even more reassurance. Initial fears that the attack would take months to fully restore Saudi Arabian output were downgraded to weeks; still a severe shock, but nowhere near the catastrophe that was suspected.
What is chilling, though, is where this will lead us next. This is the single largest attack in the simmering tensions of the Persian Gulf. With the US so eager to blame Iran, claiming that it was ‘locked and loaded’ for any possible conflict, the risk of military conflict in the region has risen to new heights. Iran has replied that it is also ‘always been ready for a full-fledged war’. We live in chilling times because of this. The supply disruption caused by the drone attack may have already be mitigated by quick action by Saudi Aramco, but the long-term implications are dangerous. War is always triggered by a series of escalating actions, and fears are that the attack on Abqaiq might be the straw that broke the camel’s back. And if that happens, the supply disruptions that will be spinning out of this war will be considerably more severe.
Recent attacks on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure:
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In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on January 14, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts year-over-year decreases in energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through 2021. After decreasing by 2.1% in 2019, energy-related CO2 emissions will decrease by 2.0% in 2020 and again by 1.5% in 2021 for a third consecutive year of declines.
These declines come after an increase in 2018 when weather-related factors caused energy-related CO2 emissions to rise by 2.9%. If this forecast holds, energy-related CO2 emissions will have declined in 7 of the 10 years from 2012 to 2021. With the forecast declines, the 2021 level of fewer than 5 billion metric tons would be the first time emissions have been at that level since 1991.
After a slight decline in 2019, EIA expects petroleum-related CO2 emissions to be flat in 2020 and decline slightly in 2021. The transportation sector uses more than two-thirds of total U.S. petroleum consumption. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) grow nearly 1% annually during the forecast period. In the short term, increases in VMT are largely offset by increases in vehicle efficiency.
Winter temperatures in New England, which were colder than normal in 2019, led to increased petroleum consumption for heating. New England uses more petroleum as a heating fuel than other parts of the United States. EIA expects winter temperatures will revert to normal, contributing to a flattening in overall petroleum demand.
Natural gas-related CO2 increased by 4.2% in 2019, and EIA expects that it will rise by 1.4% in 2020. However, EIA expects a 1.7% decline in natural gas-related CO2 in 2021 because of warmer winter weather and less demand for natural gas for heating.
Changes in the relative prices of coal and natural gas can cause fuel switching in the electric power sector. Small price changes can yield relatively large shifts in generation shares between coal and natural gas. EIA expects coal-related CO2 will decline by 10.8% in 2020 after declining by 12.7% in 2019 because of low natural gas prices. EIA expects the rate of coal-related CO2 to decline to be less in 2021 at 2.7%.
The declines in CO2 emissions are driven by two factors that continue from recent historical trends. EIA expects that less carbon-intensive and more efficient natural gas-fired generation will replace coal-fired generation and that generation from renewable energy—especially wind and solar—will increase.
As total generation declines during the forecast period, increases in renewable generation decrease the share of fossil-fueled generation. EIA estimates that coal and natural gas electric generation combined, which had a 63% share of generation in 2018, fell to 62% in 2019 and will drop to 59% in 2020 and 58% in 2021.
Coal-fired generation alone has fallen from 28% in 2018 to 24% in 2019 and will fall further to 21% in 2020 and 2021. The natural gas-fired generation share rises from 37% in 2019 to 38% in 2020, but it declines to 37% in 2021. In general, when the share of natural gas increases relative to coal, the carbon intensity of the electricity supply decreases. Increasing the share of renewable generation further decreases the carbon intensity.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, January 2020
Note: CO2 is carbon dioxide.
GEO ExPro Vol. 16, No. 6 was published on 9th December 2019 bringing light to the latest science and technology activity in the global geoscience community within the oil, gas and energy sector.
This issue focusses on oil and gas exploration in frontier regions within Europe, with stories and articles discussing new modelling and mapping technologies available to the industry. This issue also presents several articles discussing the discipline of geochemistry and how it can be used to further enhance hydrocarbon exploration.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 13 January 2020 – Brent: US$64/b; WTI: US$59/b
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