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Last Updated: November 15, 2019
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 November 2019 – Brent: US$62/b; WTI: US$56/b

  • The trade war between the US and China – and its implications on the rest of the global economy – continue to weigh down on crude oil prices, as varying indications from American and Chinese authorities paint a sketchy picture of how, or when, the trade dispute could be resolved
  • Mild improvement in US and China manufacturing and job offered hope for a respite, but the broader picture is still negative, particularly in India where a worsening economy is tampering fuel demand growth and triggering a diesel glut
  • With OPEC and the OPEC+ club preparing to meet in Vienna in three weeks, words from within the group are that the largest and most influential producers are not pushing for deeper cuts but will instead emphasise greater adherence to the current supply deal that is set to expire in March 2020
  • This comes as OPEC predicts that US shale will continue to steal its market share through 2023, making the prospect of further cuts unpalatable to members who are loathed to further sacrifice volumes amid weak prices
  • In Venezuela – where tumbling output has thus far made the OPEC task of curbing output easier – production and exports seem to have steadied, with international shipments exceeding 800,000 b/d for the second month in a row in October; most volumes going to China and Rosneft under barter deals
  • In the Persian Gulf, where the Iran situation is another potential flashpoint, a US-led multinational coalition has begun patrolling the vital shipping lane to prevent attacks and threats in the critical seabourne oil distribution pathway
  • Signs that US crude output is heading for a period of tempered growth after explosive growth seem to be confirmed by the chronic deterioration in the active US rig count; 7 oil rigs stopped operation, bringing the total count to 817 – the lowest number in 31 months
  • Until there is more clarity on the US-China trade situation or the outcome of the December OPEC meeting in Vienna, crude oil prices are likely to stay rangebound at US$60-63/b for Brent and US$56-59/b for WTI – not high enough to please producers, but not low enough to prompt decisive action


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Adnoc is aiming to start trading of its new Murban crude futures contract on the Abu Dhabi exchange in Q2 or Q3 2020, aiming to create a new price benchmark for Middle Eastern crudes while lifting destination restrictions on the grade
  • Hungary’s MOL Group has bought out Chevron’s interests in Azerbaijan for US$1.57 billion, acquiring a 9.57% stake in the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli (ACG) field and an 8.9% stake in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline
  • Equinor – along with partners ExxonMobil, Idemitsu and Neptune – have announced a new oil find in the North Sea at the Echino South well in the Fram field, with recoverable resources estimated at 38-100 million boe
  • The Ivory Coast has launched a new licensing round, covering five offshore blocks located near existing discoveries and infrastructure
  • The Canadian province of Alberta is loosening its crude oil production limits once again after a severe lack of pipeline capacity strained production last year by exempting new conventional wells from current output caps; Alberta currently allows producers to exceed their limits if shipping the excess by rail
  • Kosmos Energy has announced a new offshore oil discovery in Equatorial Guinea at the S-5 well of the Santonian reservoir in the Rio Muni Basin
  • Equinor is exiting Eagle Ford, selling its 63% interest and operatorship of its onshore shale plays in the area to Spain’s Repsol for US$325 million
  • As Total’s offshore Brulpadda discovery in South Africa moves ahead, the challenging geography of the Paddavissie play may require a fixed platform

Midstream/Downstream

  • South Africa’s Central Energy Fund and Saudi Aramco are collaborating on a new 300 kb/d refinery at Richards Bay that is expected to come onstream by 2028 as the largest oil refinery in the southern Africa region
  • The Chevron-SPC Singapore Refining Co joint venture delivered its first cargo of very low sulfur fuel oil in October in Asia’s key bunkering hub, ahead of the IMO deadline for marine fuel oil sulfur content kicking in in January
  • The refurbishment of the idled St Croix refinery in the US Virgin Islands is on track for completion in early 2020, reducing capacity by a third to 210 kb/d but increasing capacity for cleaner fuels, particular for marine usage
  • Husky Energy has completed the sale of its 12 kb/d Prince George refinery in Canada’s British Columbia to Tidewater for US$215 million

Natural Gas/LNG

  • The Port Kembla LNG import terminal in Australia’s New South Wales is facing delays, as Australian Industrial Energy and Japan’s JERA struggle to lock in customers to make the project commercially viable
  • Having taken over Anadarko’s interest in the Mozambique LNG project, Total is now looking to expand the export terminal with two additional trains, which could double capacity from a current planned 12.9 million tpa
  • The OMV/ETAP Nawara gas field in Tunisia is on track to produce first natural gas by end-2019, with capacity of 2.7 mcm/d boosting the country’s gas output by 50% and slashing gas imports by some 30%
  • After years of delays, the site for Indonesia and Inpex’s 9.5 million tpa Abadi LNG project has been decided as Yamdena island in the Arafura Sea

Corporate

  • Total will be exiting a key American industrial lobby group, following in the footsteps of Shell as it claims a divergent outlook on climate change issues

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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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