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Last Updated: November 21, 2019
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The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) revises the U.S. crude oil production forecast it publishes in each Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) based mainly on two factors: updates to EIA’s published historical data and EIA’s crude oil price forecast. In the November 2019 STEO, EIA increased its forecast of U.S. crude oil production in 2019 by 30,000 barrels per day (b/d) (0.2%) from the October STEO. EIA increased its 2020 crude oil production forecast by 119,000 b/d (0.9%) compared with the October STEO (Figure 1). The increases in crude oil production forecast in the November STEO were primarily driven by

  • EIA’s upward revision to historical production in the Lower 48 states of about 90,000 b/d for August, based on EIA’s most recent–October 31, 2019–914 monthly crude oil and natural gas production survey
  • Higher initial production for future wells that will be drilled in the Texas Permian region
  • Slightly higher crude oil price forecast for the November 2019–January 2020 time period than in the October STEO

Figure 1. U.S. crude oil production forecast

In the November STEO, EIA increased its U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil price forecast by $2 per barrel (b) in November to $56/b and by $1/b in both December and January to $55/b and $54/b, respectively. The slight increase in crude oil prices also contributed to EIA’s increased production forecast for the first half of 2020 because of EIA’s assumption of a six-month lag between a crude oil price change and a production response.

In the November STEO, EIA now forecasts U.S. crude oil production will increase to 12.3 million b/d in 2019 from 11.0 million b/d in 2018. Production in the Permian region is the primary driver of EIA’s forecast crude oil production growth, and EIA forecasts Permian production will grow by 915,000 b/d in 2019 and by 809,000 b/d in 2020 (Figure 2). Increases in Permian production are supported by the crude oil pipeline infrastructure expansion seen earlier this year, which helped alleviate the transportation bottleneck and supported prices for WTI in Midland, Texas (the price producers may expect to receive in the Permian region), relative to prices for WTI-Cushing. The higher relative prices in the Permian should continue to encourage production in the region. EIA forecasts that the Bakken region will have the next largest crude oil production growth in 2019, and it is forecast to grow by 152,000 b/d in 2019 and 96,000 b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that production in the Federal Offshore Gulf of Mexico will increase by 138,000 b/d in 2019 and 116,000 b/d in 2020.

Figure 2. Monthly U.S. crude oil production by region

Although EIA forecasts that overall U.S. crude oil production will increase, EIA expects the growth rate to decline from 11.8% in 2019 to 8.1% in 2020. One of the primary indicators of a slowdown in production growth is the decline in oil-directed rigs. According to Baker Hughes, active rig counts fell from 877 oil-directed rigs in the beginning of January 2019 to 674 rigs in mid-November. Rig counts in the Permian region also declined during this period, falling from 487 to 408 (Figure 3). Because EIA expects WTI-Cushing crude oil prices to stay below $55/b until August 2020, EIA anticipates that drilling rigs will continue to decline as producers cut back on their capital spending, resulting in notable slowing in the growth of domestic crude oil production over the next 14 months.

Figure 3. Total U.S. and Permian Basin region oil rigs

Although U.S. rig counts are declining, improvements in rig efficiency, which allows fewer rigs to drill the same number of wells, partially offset declining rig counts. In addition, higher initial production from wells (although not necessarily the total estimated ultimate recovery) is offsetting some of the slowdown in rigs.

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

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail fell more than 2 cents from the previous week to $2.59 per gallon on November 18, 2 cents lower than the same time last year. The West Coast price fell by more than 5 cents to $3.54 per gallon, the Gulf Coast price fell by more than 4 cents to $2.22 per gallon, the East Coast price fell by more than 2 cents to $2.45 per gallon, and the Midwest price fell less than 1 cent, remaining at $2.44 per gallon. The Rocky Mountain price increased by nearly 2 cents to $2.84 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price rose by less than 1 cent to remain at $3.07 per gallon on November 18, 21 cents lower than a year ago. The Rocky Mountain price increased by nearly 3 cents to 3.23 per gallon, and the East Coast price rose by less than 1 cent, remaining at $3.05 per gallon. The Gulf Coast price fell by less than 1 cent to $2.79 per gallon, and the West Coast and Midwest prices each decreased by less than 1 cent, remaining at $3.76 per gallon and $2.97 per gallon, respectively.

Propane/propylene inventories decline

U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 3.4 million barrels last week to 94.2 million barrels as of November 15, 2019, 5.8 million barrels (6.6%) greater than the five-year (2014-18) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast and Midwest inventories decreased by 2.5 million barrels and 1.5 million barrels, respectively. East Coast inventories increased by 0.5 million barrels, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories increased slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 5.4% of total propane/propylene inventories.

Residential heating fuel prices

As of November 18, 2019, residential heating oil prices averaged almost $2.99 per gallon, more than 1 cent per gallon above last week’s price but 33 cents per gallon below last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged nearly $2.06 per gallon, almost 3 cents per gallon more than last week’s price but nearly 13 cents per gallon less than a year ago.

Residential propane prices averaged more than $1.99 per gallon, 5 cents per gallon higher than last week’s price but more than 43 cents per gallon lower than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged nearly $0.85 per gallon, almost 9 cents per gallon higher than last week’s price but nearly 6 cents per gallon below last year’s price.

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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

End of Article

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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