Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: November 21, 2019
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Business Trends
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2019 has been a fairly good year for big hydrocarbon discoveries. After several years of depressed activities, a slew of major upstream finds were announced this year as oil and gas companies recovered from the slump in oil prices to begin drilling once again. Despite the onshore shale revolution, the US Gulf of Mexico keeps giving, with Shell landing a huge oil discovery in the Perdido Corridor. In Russia, Gazprom hit payday with a 17 tcf gas find in the Dinkov and Nyarmeyskoye fields in the Yamal Peninsula. Beyond established upstream basins, large finds have also come in from new frontiers. In South Africa, Total made a huge discovery at Brulpadda that could transform the economy, while in Guyana, ExxonMobil and Tullow keep adding on to a long list of major oil finds dating back to 2015. Up to 8 tcf of gas was hit in Cyprus – though that lies in disputed waters claimed by Turkey – while Kosmos Energy announced the largest gas discovery of the year at the Orca-1 well in Mauritania.

And then there is Iran. Hammered by US sanctions that have severely curbed its oil exports – and scaring off international investors – Iran has continued to go alone in exploration work within its borders. Just last week, Iran announced that it had struck a new field in its southwest that contains up to 53 billion barrels of oil. This single field would increase Iran’s proven oil reserves by a third. In any other scenario, this would be a trigger for a swathe of investment. But in this geopolitical climate, the question instead is: can Iran even develop this field?

To be fair, the Khuzestan field isn’t actually new. Named Namavaran, the reservoir was first probed in 2016, when the relationship between Iran and the West had thawed with the nuclear agreement deal, with an initial 33 billion barrels proven. Since then, additional test wells recently revealed that Namavaran is far bigger than expected. Stretching over 2,400km from Bostan near the Iraqi border to the Omidiyeh province, an additional 20 billion barrels or so were identified, increasing the total figure to 53 billion barrels. Some of this would have been siphoned off from existing assets that were thought to be standalone – including the Ab Teymour, Mansouri, Soosangerd, Darkhovin, Jofeir and Sepehr fields – but even so, the estimated new exploitable reserves from Namavaran number in the 22-27 billion barrel range.

The problem is who will help Iran tap into this. Initially lured by the promise of the geopolitical cooldown, major players such as Total have since abandoned their assets in Iran in the wake of the new US sanctions. Even China is not immune; CNPC also exited the giant South Pars gas project this year while the imposition of sanctions on China Ocean Shipping threw the global tanker market into disarray in October. But it is apparently on China (and Russia) that Iran is depending on. News in the market suggests that Iran is in talks with Chinese companies to develop and commercialise Namavaran, as part of the latter’s Belt and Road global plan. The same news also suggests that a few international firms – hinted to include Shell and Total – are also interested in participating. But given the current tension between Iran and the US and its Middle East allies, foreign participation is a huge question mark at the moment.

A few months ago, it looked like war was imminent in the Middle East. Today, it seems as if the situation has thawed slightly. Some experts even believe that the US may begin easing sanctions – particularly with the exit of ultra-Iran-hawk John Bolton as National Security Advisor. If this happens (and it is a big if), there are many willing parties waiting at Iran’s doors to help exploit the giant Namavaran field. Even if the door is shut, Iran is ready to go ahead alone, not least because it needs a fair amount of oil for its own domestic use. And when this happen, it will spin a new problem: in a world where OPEC is trying desperately to control prices, how will it deal with an Iran whose oil reserves have just increased by a third?

The Namavaran field in Iran:

  • Initial discovery in 2016, expanded discovery in 2019
  • Iran’s second largest field, after Ahvaz
  • Some 53 billion barrel of proven oil in place
  • Increases Iran’s proven oil reserves from 155.6 billion barrels to 208.6 billion barrels

Read more:
Iran war oil price USA OPEC middle east Namavaran russia Khuzestan
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May, 20 2022
High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.  

A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.

Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.

Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.

And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.

That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.

Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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