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Last Updated: January 10, 2020
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In 2019, natural gas spot prices at the national benchmark Henry Hub in Louisiana averaged $2.57 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), about 60 cents per MMBtu lower than in 2018 and the lowest annual average price since 2016. Lower natural gas prices in 2019 supported higher consumption—particularly in the electric generation sector—and higher natural gas exports. Continued growth in domestic production of natural gas also supported lower natural gas prices throughout the year.

Monthly average natural gas prices at most key regional trading hubs in 2019 reached their highest levels in February, and they were relatively low and stable from April through December. In the Northeast, additional imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) into New England limited price spikes during the winter of 2018–19. Despite a cold snap in the Midwest in February 2019, natural gas prices at Chicago Citygate were lower than during previous extreme weather events.

However, in the Pacific Northwest, unseasonably cold weather at the end of winter coupled with regional supply constraints and decreased storage inventories led to significant price spikes at the Northwest Sumas hub in March. Additional pipeline takeaway capacity in the Permian region eased some infrastructure constraints and increased regional prices at the Waha hub in western Texas after six consecutive months of prices lower than $1/MMBtu (March through August).

monthly average natural gas spot prices at key trading hubs

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Natural Gas Intelligence

Natural gas consumption in the residential and commercial sectors increased by 2% in 2019 compared with 2018, based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) monthly data through October and estimates for November and December. Natural gas use in the electric generation sector also increased in 2019, particularly in July and August when a heat wave in the Midwest and the Northeast led to record-high generation by natural gas-fired power plants.

Lower summer natural gas prices, which averaged $2.33/MMBtu in June through August (the lowest summer average Henry Hub natural gas price since 1998), have supported higher natural gas-fired generation in the summer months.

Dry natural gas production has grown every year since 2016. Production increased by 7.5 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) (9%) through the first 10 months of the year after record growth in 2018. Sustained growth in natural gas production put downward pressure on prices, which continued to decline for most of 2019.

Natural gas storage inventories ended the withdrawal season at the end of March at their lowest levels since 2014. However, record natural gas production growth supported near-record injection activity during the injection season through October. The injection season ended with the second-highest net injection volume since 2014.

Most new pipelines placed in service in 2019 were located in the South Central and Northeast regions. These pipelines provide additional takeaway capacity out of the Permian and Appalachian supply basins and will serve growing demand for LNG exports, pipeline exports to Mexico, and U.S. natural gas-fired power generation.

In 2019, natural gas exports—both by pipeline to Mexico and as LNG—continued to grow. U.S. natural gas exports to Mexico by pipeline averaged 5.1 Bcf/d in the first 10 months of 2019, 0.4 Bcf/d more than the 2018 average. Following an expansion in U.S. cross-border pipeline capacity, several new pipelines in Mexico continued to experience delays, limiting growth in exports.

U.S. LNG exports set a new record in 2019, averaging an estimated 5.0 Bcf/d (69% higher than in 2018) as the United States became the third-largest global LNG exporter. Several new LNG facilities were placed in service in 2019. Louisiana’s Cameron LNG placed its first liquefaction unit (referred to as a train) in service in May. Texas’s Freeport LNG exported its first cargo from the newly commissioned Train 1 in September, followed by its first export cargo from Train 2 in December. Corpus Christi LNG (also in Texas) commissioned its second train in July. In December, Georgia’s Elba Island placed in service the first three of its moveable modular liquefaction system (MMLS) units and exported its first LNG cargo.

monthly natural gas trade

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Natural Gas Monthly and Short-Term Energy Outlook

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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.

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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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