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Last Updated: September 24, 2019
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highest daily price changes in Brent and WTI crude oil

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on data from Refinitiv

On Saturday, September 14, 2019, an attack damaged the Saudi Aramco Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Abqaiq oil processing facility is the world’s largest crude oil processing and stabilization plant, with a capacity of 7 million barrels per day (b/d) or about 7% of global crude oil production capacity. On Monday, September 16, the first full day of trading after the attack, Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices experienced the largest single-day price increase in the past decade.

On Tuesday, September 17, Saudi Aramco reported that Abqaiq was producing 2 million b/d, and they expected its entire output capacity to be fully restored by the end of September. In addition, Saudi Aramco stated that crude oil exports to customers will continue by drawing on existing inventories and offering additional crude oil production from other fields. Tanker loading estimates from third-party data sources indicate that loadings at two Saudi Arabian export facilities were restored to the pre-attack levels. Likely driven by news of the expected return of the lost production capacity, both Brent and WTI crude oil prices fell on Tuesday, September 17.

Crude oil prices are the biggest factor for the retail price of gasoline, the most widely consumed transportation fuel in the United States. Each dollar per barrel of sustained price change in crude oil translates to an average change of about 2.4 cents per gallon in petroleum product prices. On Monday, September 16, U.S. average regular retail gasoline prices averaged $2.55 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Update.

EIA estimates that Saudi Arabia was producing 9.9 million b/d of crude oil in August. Estimates from the Joint Organizations Data Initiative (JODI) indicate the country exported 6.9 million b/d during July, the latest month for which data are available. Estimates from a third-party tanker tracking data service, ClipperData, indicate Saudi Arabian crude oil exports in August remained at 6.7 million b/d. Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production and export levels are each 0.5 million b/d lower than their respective 2018 annual averages.

Although U.S. imports of crude oil from Saudi Arabia have declined during the past three years—and recently hit a four-week average record low of 380,000 b/d in the week ending September 6—the United States still imports about 7 million b/d of crude oil. As a result, a tighter global crude oil market and increased global crude oil prices will ultimately increase the price of crude oil and transportation fuels in the United States.

Saudi Arabia monthly crude oil production and exports

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, September 2019 and Weekly Petroleum Status Report; Joint Organizations Data Initiative (JODI)

Global inventories of crude oil are the most readily available alternative source of supply during a supply outage. JODI data indicate that Saudi Arabia held nearly 180 million barrels of crude oil in inventory at the end of July 2019. Saudi Arabia can use these inventories to maintain a similar level of crude oil exports as before the attack, assuming the production outage doesn’t last long, which Saudi Aramco indicated in its update on September 17.

As of September 1, commercial inventories of crude oil and other liquids for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members were estimated at 2.9 billion barrels, enough to cover 61 days of its members’ liquid fuels consumption. On a days-of-supply basis, OECD commercial inventories are 2% lower than the previous five-year (2014–18) average.

OECD commercial crude oil and other liquids inventories

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, September 2019

The United States has two types of crude oil inventories: those that private firms hold for commercial purposes, and those the federal government holds in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) for use during periods of major supply interruption. Weekly EIA data for September 13 indicate total U.S. commercial inventories were equivalent to 24 days of current U.S. refinery crude oil inputs. The SPR holds additional volumes equivalent to slightly more than 37 additional days of current refinery inputs for a total of about 62 days.

The supply coverage provided by oil inventories can also be measured by days of net crude oil imports (imports minus exports). By this metric, as of June 2019, the United States could meet its net import needs by drawing down the SPR for 162 days. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act states the President may make the decision to withdraw crude oil from the SPR should they find that there is a severe petroleum supply disruption. The United States has used the SPR in this capacity three times since its creation: in 1991, at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm; in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina; and in 2011, to help offset crude oil supply disruptions in Libya.

More analysis—particularly of spare capacity available to produce more crude oil—is available in the latest This Week in Petroleum. EIA is closely monitoring the developments related to the oil supply disruption in Saudi Arabia and the effects that they have on oil markets. EIA’s findings will be reflected in the October Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), scheduled for release on October 8.

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Royal Dutch Shell Poised To Become Just Shell

On 10 December 2021, if all goes to plan Royal Dutch Shell will become just Shell. The energy supermajor will move its headquarters from The Hague in The Netherlands to London, UK. At least three-quarters of the company’s shareholders must vote in favour of the change at the upcoming general meeting, which has been sold by Shell as a means of simplifying its corporate structure and better return value to shareholders, as well as be ‘better positioned to seize opportunities and play a leading role in the energy transition’. In doing so, it will no longer meet Dutch conditions for ‘royal’ designation, dropping a moniker that has defined the company through decades of evolution since 1907.

But why this and why now?

There is a complex web of reasons why, some internal and some external but the ultimate reason boils down to improving growth sustainability. Royal Dutch Shell was born through the merger of Shell Transport and Trading Company (based in the UK) and Royal Dutch (based in The Netherlands) in 1907, with both companies engaging in exploration activities ranging from seashells to crude oil. Unified across international borders, Royal Dutch Shell emerged as Europe’s answer to John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire, as the race to exploit oil (and later natural gas) reserves spilled out over the world. Along the way, Royal Dutch Shell chalked up a number of achievements including establishing the iconic Brent field in the North Sea to striking the first commercial oil in Nigeria. Unlike Standard Oil which was dissolved into 34 smaller companies in 1911, Royal Dutch Shell remained intact, operating as two entities until 2005, when they were finally combined in a dual-nationality structure: incorporated in the UK, but residing in the Netherlands. This managed to satisfy the national claims both countries make on the supermajor, second only to ExxonMobil in revenue and profits but proved to be costly to maintain. In 2020, fellow Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever also ditched its dual structure, opting to be based fully out of the City of London. In that sense, Shell is following the direction of the wind, as forces in its (soon to be former) home country turn sour.

There is a specific grievance that Royal Dutch Shell has with the Dutch government, the 15% dividend tax collected for Dutch-domiciled companies. It is the reason why Unilever abandoned Rotterdam and is now the reason why Shell is abandoning The Hague. And this point is particularly existentialist for Shell, since its share prices has been battered in recent years following the industry downturn since 2015, the global pandemic and being in the crosshairs of climate change activists as an emblem of why the world’s average temperatures are going haywire. The latter has already caused the largest Dutch state pension fund ABP to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby divesting itself of Royal Dutch Shell. This was largely a symbolic move, but as religious figures will know, symbols themselves carry much power. To combat this, Shell has done two things. First, it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of energy transition, announcing ambitious emissions reductions plans in line with its European counterparts to become carbon neutral by 2050. Second, it is looking to bump up its dividend payouts after slashing them through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating share buybacks to remain the bluest of blue-chip stocks. But then, earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s emissions targets were ‘not ambitious enough’, ordering a stricter aim within a tighter timeframe. And the 15% dividend tax remains – even though Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government has been attempting to scrap it, with (it is presumed) some lobbying from Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever.

As simplistic it is to think that Shell is leaving for London believes the citizens of the Netherlands has turned its back on the company, the ultimate reason was the dividend tax. Reportedly, CEO Ben van Buerden called up Mark Rutte on Sunday informing him of the planned move. Rutte’s reaction, it is said was of dismay. And he embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade Royal Dutch Shell to change its mind, by immediately lobbying his government’s coalition partners to back an abolition of the dividend tax. The reaction was perhaps not what he expected, with left-wing and green parties calling Shell’s threat ‘blackmail’. With democracy drawing a line, Shell decided to walk; or at least present an exit plan endorsed by its Board to be voted by shareholders. Many in the Netherlands see Shell’s exit and the loss of the moniker Royal Dutch – as a blow to national pride, especially since the country has been basking in the glow of expanded reputation as a result of post-Brexit migration of financial activities to Amsterdam from London. The UK, on the other hand, sees Shell’s decision and Unilever’s – as an endorsement of the country’s post-Brexit potential.

The move, if passed and in its initial stages, will be mainly structural, transferring the tax residence of Shell to London. Just ten top executives including van Buerden and CFO Jessica Uhl will be making the move to London. Three major arms – Projects and Technology, Global Upstream and Integrated Gas and Renewable Energies – will remain in The Hague. As will Shell’s massive physical reach on Dutch soil: the huge integrated refinery in Pernis, the biofuels hub in Rotterdam, the country’s first offshore wind farm and the mammoth Porthos carbon capture project that will funnel emissions from Rotterdam to be stored in empty North Sea gas fields. And Shell’s troubles with activists will still continue. British climate change activists are as, if not more aggressive as their Dutch counterpart, this being the country where Extinction Rebellion was born. Perhaps more of a threat is activist investor Third Point, which recently acquired a chunk of Shell shares and has been advocating splitting the company into two – a legacy business for fossil fuels and a futures-focused business for renewables.

So Shell’s business remains, even though its address has changed. In the grand scheme of things, never mind the small matter of Dutch national pride – Royal Dutch Shell’s roadmap to remain an investment icon and a major driver of energy transition will continue in its current form. This is a quibble about money or rather, tax – that will have little to no impact on Shell’s operations or on its ambitions. Royal Dutch Shell is poised to become just Shell. Different name and a different house, but the same contents. Unless, of course, Queen Elizabeth II decides to provide royal assent, in which case, Shell might one day become Royal British Shell.

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