The international benchmark Brent crude oil futures price averaged $64 per barrel (b) in 2019, $7/b lower than its 2018 average. The U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures price averaged $57/b in 2019, also $7/b lower than its 2018 average. Compared with recent years, both crude oil prices traded within relatively narrow price ranges in 2019. Brent prices reached a 2019 annual daily low of $55/b in early January and a daily high of $75/b in late April, resulting in a range of $20/b, the narrowest Brent price range since 2003. WTI prices ranged $19/b between $47/b and $66/b, the narrowest WTI price range since 2003. These narrow trading ranges occurred as a result of offsetting upward and downward price pressures, despite the largest single-day price increase since 2008, which followed the September attacks on Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production and processing infrastructure. More recently, crude oil prices have increased following the January 3, 2020, U.S. military operation in Iraq, likely reflecting an increase in geopolitical risk.
On September 14, 2019, an attack damaged the Saudi Aramco Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia. With a capacity of 7 million barrels per day (b/d), or about 7% of global crude oil production capacity, the Abqaiq oil processing facility is the world’s largest crude oil processing and stabilization plant. On Monday, September 16, 2019, the first full day of trading after the attack, Brent and WTI crude oil prices increased by $9/b and $8/b, respectively. However, the price increase did not affect the annual range because prices following the attacks did not rise higher than prices in April. The price increase was also relatively short-lived, and prices for both Brent and WTI fell below pre-attack levels by October 1.
Saudi crude oil production fell to 8.5 million b/d in September but returned to pre-attack levels in October, averaging 9.9 million b/d for the month. From January through November 2019, Saudi crude oil production averaged 9.8 million b/d, 590,000 b/d less than the average during the same period in 2018. The year-to-date production decline is largely the result of a production cut agreement between members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and ten additional non-member countries including Russia, Mexico, and Kazakhstan (OPEC+).
In its December Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast that OPEC crude oil production would average 29.8 million b/d in 2019, down from 32.0 million b/d in 2018. In addition to production declines in Saudi Arabia, the decrease in total OPEC output was largely driven by falling production in Venezuela and Iran due, in part, to U.S. sanctions. Crude oil production in Venezuela averaged 820,000 b/d through November 2019, a decline of 620,000 b/d from the same period in 2018. Iranian crude oil production fell by 1.3 million b/d through November 2019 compared with the same period in 2018.
In 2019, several factors, including U.S. production and exports, global inventory levels, and demand-side concerns, provided downward pressure on crude oil prices, offsetting some of the upward pressure from the attacks on Saudi Arabia, OPEC+ production cuts, and U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran.
In the December STEO, EIA expected U.S. crude oil production to average 12.3 million b/d in 2019, the highest level on record. EIA crude oil production data are available beginning in 1990. If the December STEO forecast is realized, the year-over-year growth of U.S. crude oil production in 2019 would be 1.3 million b/d, down slightly from the growth of 1.6 million b/d in 2018. Final monthly 2019 crude oil production data will be available at the end of February 2020 when the Petroleum Supply Monthly is released.
Based on monthly data for January through October, U.S. crude oil exports averaged 2.9 million b/d during that period in 2019, 920,000 b/d more than exported during the same period in 2018. Through October, crude oil was the largest U.S. petroleum export in 2019 followed by distillate (1.3 million b/d), propane (1.1 million b/d), and gasoline (0.9 million b/d) (Figure 2). September and October were the first two months on record that the United States exported more petroleum, including both crude oil and petroleum products, than it imported.
High U.S. crude oil production and exports helped supply the global petroleum market and contributed to higher-than-average inventory levels. Although EIA does not directly collect data on changes in global petroleum inventories, inventory data for countries within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provide some insight into the global balance. In the December STEO, EIA forecasts that OECD inventories in 2019 will average 2.9 billion barrels, 2% more than the previous five-year (2014–18) average.
During 2019, market concerns regarding global demand also provided downward pressure on crude oil prices. As a result of declining economic indicators and downward revisions to global gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast (EIA bases its oil-weighted GDP forecast on work by Oxford Economics), EIA lowered its global liquid fuels consumption forecast (Figure 3). In the December STEO, EIA forecast that global petroleum consumption in 2019 would average 100.7 million b/d, which, if realized, would be the first time annual growth averaged less than 1.0 million b/d since 2011.
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices increase
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price rose nearly 1 cent from the previous week to $2.58 per gallon on January 6, 34 cents higher than the same time last year. The East Coast price rose nearly 4 cents to $2.54 per gallon. The Rocky Mountain price fell more than 2 cents to $2.64 per gallon, the Midwest price fell nearly 2 cents to $2.43 per gallon, the West Coast price fell more than 1 cent to $3.21 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price fell nearly 1 cent, remaining virtually unchanged at $2.28 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price rose 1 cent from the previous week to $3.08 per gallon on January 6, 7 cents higher than a year ago. The East Coast price rose more than 2 cents to $3.12 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price increased 2 cents to $2.83 per gallon. The Rocky Mountain price declined more than 1 cent to $3.10 per gallon, the West Coast price fell nearly 1 cent to $3.62 per gallon, and the Midwest price fell less than 1 cent, remaining virtually unchanged at $2.98 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories rise
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 0.7 million barrels last week to 88.9 million barrels as of January 3, 2020, 12.5 million barrels (16.3%) greater than the five-year (2015-19) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast and East Coast inventories increased by 1.2 million barrels and 0.4 million barrels, respectively. Midwest and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased by 0.6 million barrels and 0.3 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 6.9% of total propane/propylene inventories.
Residential heating oil prices increase, propane prices decrease
As of January 6, 2020, residential heating oil prices averaged more than $3.12 per gallon, almost 5 cents per gallon above last week’s price and more than 3 cents per gallon higher than last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged almost $2.17 per gallon, nearly 1 cent per gallon higher than last week’s price and almost 28 cents per gallon higher than a year ago.
Residential propane prices averaged almost $2.01 per gallon, nearly 1 cent per gallon below last week’s price and almost 43 cents per gallon less than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged $0.66 per gallon, more than 5 cents per gallon lower than last week’s price and nearly 11 cents per gallon below last year’s price.
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Two acquisitions in the energy sector were announced in the last week that illustrate the growing divergence in approaching the future of oil and gas between Europe and the USA. In France, Total announced that it had bought Fonroche Biogaz, the market leader in the production of renewable gas in France. In North America, ConocoPhillips completed its acquisition of Concho Resources, deepening the upstream major’s foothold into the lucrative Permian Basin and its shale riches. One is heading towards renewables, and the other is doubling down on conventional oil and gas.
What does this say about the direction of the energy industry?
Total’s move is unsurprising. Like almost all of its European peers operating in the oil and gas sector, Total has announced ambitious targets to become carbon-neutral by 2050. It is an ambition supported by the European population and pushed for by European governments, so in that sense, Total is following the wishes of its investors and stakeholders – just like BP, Shell, Repsol, Eni and others are doing. Fonroche Biogaz is therefore a canny acquisition. The company designs, builds and operates anaerobic digestion units that convert organic waste such as farming manure into biomethane to serve a gas feedstock for power generation. Fonroche Biogaz already has close to 500 GWh of installed capacity through seven power generation units with four in the pipeline. This feeds into Total’s recent moves to expand its renewable power generation capacity, with the stated intention of increasing the group’s biomethane capacity to 1.5 terawatts per hour (TWh) by 2025. Through this, Total vaults into a leading position within the renewable gas market in Europe, which is already active through affiliates such as Méthanergy, PitPoint and Clean Energy.
In parallel to this move, Total also announced that it has decided not to renew its membership in the American Petroleum Institute for 2021. Citing that it is only ‘partially aligned’ with the API on climate change issues in the past, Total has now decided that those positions have now ‘diverged’ particularly on rolling back methane emission regulations, carbon pricing and decarbonising transport. The French supermajor is not alone in its stance. BP, which has ditched the supermajor moniker in favour of turning itself into a clean energy giant, has also expressed reservations over the API’s stance over climate issues, and may very well choose to resign from the trade group as well. Other European upstream players might follow suit.
However, the core of the API will remain American energy firms. And the stance among these companies remains pro-oil and gas, despite shareholder pressure to bring climate issues and clean energy to the forefront. While the likes of ExxonMobil and Chevron have balanced significant investments into prolific shale patches in North America with public overtures to embrace renewables, no major US firm has made a public commitment to a carbon-neutral future as their European counterparts have. And so ConocoPhillips acquisition of Concho Resources, which boosts its value to some US$60 billion is not an outlier, but a preview of the ongoing consolidation happening in US shale as the free-for-all days give way to big boy acquisitions following the price-upheaval there since 2019.
That could change. In fact, it will change. The incoming Biden administration marks a significant break from the Trump administration’s embrace of oil and gas. Instead of opening of protected federal lands to exploration, especially in Alaska and sensitive coastal areas and loosening environmental regulations, the US will now pivot to putting climate change at the top of the agenda. Although political realities may water it down, the progressive faction of the Democrats are pushing for a Green New Deal embracing sustainability as the future for the US. Biden has already hinted that he may cancel the controversial and long-running Keystone XL pipeline via executive order on his first day in the office. His nominees for key positions including the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and Council on Environmental Quality suggest that there will be a major push on low-carbon and renewable initiatives, at least for the next 4 years. A pledge to reach net zero fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035 has been mooted. More will come.
The landscape is changing. But the two approaches still apply, the aggressive acceleration adopted by European majors, and the slower movement favoured by US firms. Political changes in the USA might hasten the change, but it is unlikely that convergence will happen anytime soon. There is room in the world for both approaches for now, but the future seems inevitable. It just depends on how energy companies want to get there.
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In its January Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects global demand for petroleum liquids will be greater than global supply in 2021, especially during the first quarter, leading to inventory draws. As a result, EIA expects the price of Brent crude oil to increase from its December 2020 average of $50 per barrel (b) to an average of $56/b in the first quarter of 2021. The Brent price is then expected to average between $51/b and $54/b on a quarterly basis through 2022.
EIA expects that growth in crude oil production from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) will be limited because of a multilateral agreement to limit production. Saudi Arabia announced that it would voluntarily cut production by an additional 1.0 million b/d during February and March. Even with this cut, EIA expects OPEC to produce more oil than it did last year, forecasting that crude oil production from OPEC will average 27.2 million b/d in 2021, up from an estimated 25.6 million b/d in 2020.
EIA forecasts that U.S. crude oil production in the Lower 48 states—excluding the Gulf of Mexico—will decline in the first quarter of 2021 before increasing through the end of 2022. In 2021, EIA expects crude oil production in this region will average 8.9 million b/d and total U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d, which is less than 2020 production.
EIA expects that responses to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases will continue to limit global oil demand in the first half of 2021. Based on global macroeconomic forecasts from Oxford Economics, however, EIA forecasts that global gross domestic product will grow by 5.4% in 2021 and by 4.3% in 2022, leading to energy consumption growth. EIA forecasts that global consumption of liquid fuels will average 97.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2021 and 101.1 million b/d in 2022, only slightly less than the 2019 average of 101.2 million b/d.
EIA expects global inventory draws will contribute to forecast rising crude oil prices in the first quarter of 2021. Despite rising forecast crude oil prices in early 2021, EIA expects upward price pressure will be limited through the forecast period because of high global oil inventory, surplus crude oil production capacity, and stock draws decreasing after the first quarter of 2021. EIA forecasts Brent crude oil prices will average $53/b in both 2021 and 2022.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
You can find more information on EIA’s expectations for changes in global petroleum liquids production, consumption, and crude oil prices in EIA’s latest This Week in Petroleum article and its January STEO.