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Last Updated: January 9, 2020
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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.

Figure 1.

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.

Figure 2.

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.

Figure 3.

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.

consumption demand crude oil exports imports oil petroleum prices STEO EIA
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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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