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Last Updated: October 14, 2019
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In the October 2019 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts lower crude oil prices in the fourth quarter of 2019 and in 2020 despite tighter global balances. The tighter balances are largely the result of unprecedented short-lived loss of global supply following the September 14 attacks on crude oil production and processing infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. The production declines contribute to overall stock draws in the second half of 2019 with a relatively large stock draw in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, however, EIA forecasts global supply growth will outpace global demand growth, resulting in an inventory build, offsetting some of the third quarter draws (Figure 1). EIA lowered its crude oil price forecast for the fourth quarter of 2019 by $1 per barrel (b) to $59/b, reflecting current price trends, and lowered its crude oil price forecast for 2020 by $2/b to average $60/b because of expected supply growth.

Figure 1. World liquid fuels production and consumption balance

In the October STEO, EIA forecasts total global petroleum stocks in the second half of 2019 will decrease by an average of 290,000 barrels per day (b/d), compared with the September STEO forecast stock build of 250,000 b/d for the same period. EIA forecasts total world crude oil and other liquids production for the second half of 2019 to average 101.3 million b/d, down by 550,000 b/d from the September STEO. Most of the production decline is the result of lower output from Saudi Arabia, reducing the collective output of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to 34.8 million b/d for the second half of 2019.

In the October STEO, EIA assumed the Abqaiq facility and Khurais oil field would produce at their pre-attack levels by the end of October. Compared with the September STEO, EIA revised OPEC spare capacity, most of which is located in Saudi Arabia, lower by an average of 200,000 b/d in the second half of 2019. Saudi Arabia's total capacity (including spare capacity) declined following the Abqaiq attack, and EIA expects Saudi Arabia will use some of its remaining spare capacity to backfill inventories and lost production through the end of 2019. Beginning in January 2020, EIA forecasts that OPEC spare capacity will return above 2.0 million b/d.

Crude oil prices increased sharply following the attacks; Brent front-month futures prices rose by nearly 15% on Monday, September 16, the first day of post-attack trading. This increase was the largest one-day percentage increase on record for Brent front-month futures prices. The increase was larger in the front months of the futures strip than in the later months, indicating the market expected the outage to be relatively short lived, and prices fell quickly after the attack (Figure 2). Saudi Arabia continued to export crude oil by drawing from inventories, increasing production in other fields, and reducing domestic refinery inputs. Abqaiq's relatively quick return to operations likely lessened the extent and duration of the price increases. Brent front-month futures prices fell to lower than pre-attack levels on October 1, settling at $59/b for the December contract and have fallen slightly since then.

Figure 2. Brent crude oil futures curves

The relatively quick return to pre-attack price levels likely reflects demand-side concerns and increased down-side price risk. Despite tighter forecast global petroleum markets in the second half of 2019, EIA expects that the Brent crude oil price will average $60.63/b in the second half of 2019, nearly unchanged from the $60.68/b forecast in the September STEO. EIA forecasts that global petroleum inventories will increase by nearly 550,000 b/d in the first half of 2020, which is expected to put downward pressure on crude oil prices. EIA forecasts the price of Brent crude oil to average $57.34/b during the first half of 2020. However, EIA expects the price of Brent crude oil to increase to $62.48/b in the second half of 2020 as global petroleum stock builds slow and petroleum balances are relatively tighter than during the first half of the year.

The price forecast is highly uncertain and supply or demand factors may emerge that could move prices higher or lower than EIA's current STEO forecast. Driven by revisions to global economic outlook, EIA has revised its 2019 liquid fuels demand growth outlook lower in the STEO for the last nine consecutive months and 2020 consumption has been revised down eight of the last nine months. EIA's price forecast also accounts for a higher level of petroleum supply risk in the aftermath of the attacks in Saudi Arabia.

U.S. average regular gasoline prices increase slightly, diesel prices fall

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price rose less than 1 cent from the previous week to $2.65 per gallon on October 7, 26 cents lower than the same time last year. The West Coast price rose by nearly 10 cents to $3.64 per gallon, and gasoline prices in California continued to rise, increasing by 14 cents to $4.09 per gallon, 55% higher than the national average and 39 cents higher than the same time last year. The Midwest price increased by more than 1 cent to $2.50 per gallon, and the Rocky Mountain price increased by less than 1 cent, remaining at $2.71 per gallon. The Gulf Coast price fell by more than 4 cents to $2.28 per gallon, and the East Coast price fell by 2 cents to $2.49 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell nearly 2 cents to $3.05 per gallon on October 7, 34 cents lower than a year ago. The East Coast and Gulf Coast prices each fell by more than 2 cents to $3.04 per gallon and $2.80 per gallon, respectively, the Midwest price fell by 2 cents $2.97 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain price decreased 1 cent to $3.02 per gallon, and the West Coast price decreased by less than 1 cent to $3.64 per gallon.

Propane/propylene inventories increase

U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 0.1 million barrels last week to 100.8 million barrels as of October 4, 2019, 11.9 million barrels (13.4%) greater than the five-year (2014-18) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast inventories increased by 1.0 million barrels, and Midwest inventories rose slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. East Coast inventories decreased by 0.9 million barrels, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast fell slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 4.4% of total propane/propylene inventories.

Residential Heating Fuel Price Survey Begins This Week

Beginning this week and continuing through the end of March 2020, prices for wholesale and residential heating oil and propane will be included in This Week in Petroleum and on EIA's Heating Oil and Propane Update webpage.

As of October 7, 2019, residential heating oil prices averaged nearly $2.95 per gallon, 41 cents per gallon lower than at the same time last year. The average wholesale heating oil price for the start of the 2019–20 heating season is $1.99 per gallon, over 48 cents per gallon below the October 8, 2018, price.

Residential propane prices entered the 2019–20 heating season averaging nearly $1.86 per gallon, 53 cents per gallon less than the October 8, 2018, price. Wholesale propane prices averaged more than $0.58 per gallon, 43 cents per gallon lower than the same time last year.

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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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