Last Updated: February 10, 2020
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The final set of financial numbers for 2019, and for an interesting decade in terms of oil prices, came to an end as a tale of two parts. With the quarter characterised by stubborn crude prices despite OPEC+’s efforts and slumping gas prices amid a global glut, it was always going to be a challenging quarter. Most numbers from supermajors and majors came in as disappointing, but there were several bright spots where even the most optimistic expectations were exceed.

Shell, the first to report, set the tone for the cycle, showing a 48% fall in net profits from a 19% y-o-y drop in revenue. Citing weaker refining and chemical margins from slowing global growth with China and the US still locked in a trade war, the weaker results led Shell to scale back the pace of its US$25 billion share buyback programme. With only US$1 billion of shares to be bought back in Q12020 – down from the regular US$2.75 billion per quarter. Shell warned that the programme’s schedule was still at risk due to the softening global economy. It is likely that Shell will miss its deadline of completing the buyback by end-2020; investors were not impressed, and sent Shell’s share prices down to a two-year low in response.

The US supermajors came next, with both ExxonMobil and Chevron failing to meet market expectations. For ExxonMobil, revenue and net profits were both down by 5%, with the company blaming the ‘tough environment’ and depressed margins for its oil, gas, refining and chemicals businesses that will spill into 2020. Its financials, however, were boosted by the sale of its non-strategic assets in Norway, and noted that its oil extraction in Guyana was going ahead of schedule and could have a positive impact on Q1 financials. Unlike ExxonMobil, Chevron did not have strategic asset sales to fall back on. In fact, it went the opposite way. Having warned investors that it was preparing to take a major write-down on a collection of assets, including shale gas production in Appalachia and deepwater projects in the Gulf of Mexico, the final charge came in at US$10.4 billion. That wiped Chevron’s profits out, reporting a net loss of US$6.6 billion for Q419. Segment performance was stable, beating analyst expectations in some cases. But the pressure of low oil and gas prices will persist.

Things then got better. In the final results for retiring CEO Bob Dudley, who will be replaced by Bernard Looney, BP reported net profits of US$2.57 billion, exceeding even then highest analyst estimate. With a solid upstream performance and boosted by its in-house trading arm, BP bucked the negative trend, allowing it to raise its dividend level, a notion that it had rejected in the last quarter, while also completing a US$1.5 billion share buyback programme. Rounding off the quintet, Total also exceed the expectations of the market. Although the French company was also affected by slumping natural gas prices, along with strikes at its French refineries, record production boosted net profits to US$3.17 billion, almost unchanged y-o-y. The ramp-up of key natural gas projects, Yamal in Russia and Ichthys in Australia, along with the start of the Egina and Kaombo crude oil projects in West Africa, raised upstream output by 9% over a quarter where all other rivals saw their production decline.

When the decade started in 2010, crude oil prices were riding high at US$80/b. It would soon peak at nearly US$120/b in 2011, stay elevated for 3 years, halving by end-2014, slumping down to US$30/b in 2016 before beginning a gradual recovery. This 10-year see-saw ride has been mirrored in the financial performance of the energy supermajors. With a new decade starting with plenty of uncertainty, the fiscal discipline adopted since 2015 by the supermajors will be key to supporting their business activities going forward in troubled times.

Supermajor Financials Q4 2019:

  • ExxonMobil – Revenue (US$67.2 billion, down 5% y-o-y), Net profit (US$5.69, down 5% y-o-y)
  • Shell - Revenue (US$85.1 billion, down 19% y-o-y), Net profit (US$2.93 billion, down 48% y-o-y)
  • Chevron – Revenue (US$36.4 billion, down 14% y-o-y), Net profit (-US$6.6 billion, down 300% y-o-y)
  • BP - Revenue (US$72.2 billion, down 6% y-o-y), Net profit (US$2.57 billion, down 26% y-o-y)
  • Total - Revenue (US$43.4 billion, down 6% y-o-y), Net profit (US$3.17 billion, unchanged y-o-y)

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EIA forecasts less power generation from natural gas as a result of rising fuel costs

In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on January 12, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that generation from natural gas-fired power plants in the U.S. electric power sector will decline by about 8% in 2021. This decline would be the first annual decline in natural gas-fired generation since 2017. Forecast generation from coal-fired power plants will increase by 14% in 2021, after declining by 20% in 2020. EIA forecasts that generation from nonhydropower renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, will grow by 18% in 2021—the fastest annual growth rate since 2010.

The shift from coal to natural gas marked a significant change in the energy sources used to generate electricity in the United States in the past decade. This shift was driven primarily by the sustained low natural gas price. In 2020, natural gas prices were the lowest in decades: the nominal price of natural gas delivered to electric generators averaged $2.37 per million British thermal units (Btu). For 2021, EIA forecasts the average nominal price of natural gas for power generation will rise by 41% to an average of $3.35 per million Btu, about where it was in 2017. In contrast, EIA expects nominal coal prices will rise just 6% in 2021.

The large expected rise in natural gas prices is the primary driver in EIA’s forecast that less electricity will be generated from natural gas and more electricity will come from coal-fired power plants in 2021 than in recent years. EIA expects about 36% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2021 will be fueled by natural gas, down from 39% in 2020. The forecast coal-fired generation share in 2021 rises to 22% from 20% last year. However, these forecast generation shares are still different from 2017, when natural gas and coal each fueled 31% of total U.S. electricity generation.

Significant growth in electricity-generating capacity from renewable energy sources in 2021 is also likely to affect the mix of fuels used for power generation. Power developers are scheduled to add 15.4 gigawatts (GW) of new utility-scale solar capacity this year, which would be a record high. An additional 12.2 GW of wind capacity is scheduled to come online in 2021, following 21 GW of wind capacity that was added last year. Much of this new renewable generating capacity will be located in areas that have relied on natural gas as a primary fuel for power generation in recent years, such as in Texas.

January, 20 2021
U.S. oil and natural gas production to fall in 2021, then rise in 2022

U.S. monthly crude oil and natural gas production

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)

In its January 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that annual U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d in 2021, down 0.2 million b/d from 2020 as result of a decline in drilling activity related to low oil prices. A production decline in 2021 would mark the second consecutive year of production declines. Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic led to supply and demand disruptions. EIA expects crude oil production to increase in 2022 by 0.4 million b/d because of increased drilling as prices remain at or near $50 per barrel (b).

The United States set annual natural gas production records in 2018 and 2019, largely because of increased drilling in shale and tight oil formations. The increase in production led to higher volumes of natural gas in storage and a decrease in natural gas prices. In 2020, marketed natural gas production fell by 2% from 2019 levels amid responses to COVID-19. EIA estimates that annual U.S. marketed natural gas production will decline another 2% to average 95.9 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2021. The fall in production will reverse in 2022, when EIA estimates that natural gas production will rise by 2% to 97.6 Bcf/d.

U.S. monthly crude oil production

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)

EIA’s forecast for crude oil production is separated into three regions: the Lower 48 states excluding the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) (81% of 2019 crude oil production), the GOM (15%), and Alaska (4%). EIA expects crude oil production in the U.S. Lower 48 states to decline through the first quarter of 2021 and then increase through the rest of the forecast period. As more new wells come online later in 2021, new well production will exceed the decline in legacy wells, driving the increase in overall crude oil production after the first quarter of 2021.

Associated natural gas production from oil-directed wells in the Permian Basin will fall because of lower West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices and reduced drilling activity in the first quarter of 2021. Natural gas production from dry regions such as Appalachia depends on the Henry Hub price. EIA forecasts the Henry Hub price will increase from $2.00 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2020 to $3.01/MMBtu in 2021 and to $3.27/MMBtu in 2022, which will likely prompt an increase in Appalachia's natural gas production. However, natural gas production in Appalachia may be limited by pipeline constraints in 2021 if the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is delayed. The MVP is scheduled to enter service in late 2021, delivering natural gas from producing regions in northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Natural gas takeaway capacity in the region is quickly filling up since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled in mid-2020.

January, 15 2021
So, Why Is Saudi Arabia Doing This?

Just when it seems that the drama of early December, when the nations of the OPEC+ club squabbled over how to implement and ease their collective supply quotas in 2021, would be repeated, a concession came from the most unlikely quarter of all. Saudi Arabia. OPEC’s swing producer and, especially in recent times, vocal judge, announced that it would voluntarily slash 1 million barrels per day of supply. The move took the oil markets by surprise, sending crude prices soaring but was also very unusual in that it was not even necessary at all.

After a day’s extension to the negotiations, the OPEC+ club had actually already agreed on the path forward for their supply deal through the remainder of Q1 2021. The nations of OPEC+ agreed to ease their overall supply quotas by 75,000 b/d in February and 120,000 b/d in March, bringing the total easing over three months to 695,000 b/d after the UAE spearheaded a revised increase of 500,000 b/d for January. The increases are actually very narrow ones; there were no adjustments for quotas for all OPEC+ members with the exception of Russia and Kazakshtan, who will be able to pump 195,000 additional barrels per day between them. That the increases for February and March were not higher or wider is a reflection of reality: despite Covid-19 vaccinations being rolled out globally, a new and more infectious variant of the coronavirus has started spreading across the world. In fact, there may even be at least of these mutations currently spreading, throwing into question the efficacy of vaccines and triggering new lockdowns. The original schedule of the April 2020 supply deal would have seen OPEC+ adding 2 million b/d of production from January 2021 onwards; the new tranches are far more measured and cognisant of the challenging market.

Then Saudi Arabia decides to shock the market by declaring that the Kingdom would slash an additional million barrels of crude supply above its current quota over February and March post-OPEC+ announcement. Which means that while countries such as Russia, the UAE and Nigeria are working to incrementally increase output, Saudi Arabia is actually subsidising those planned increases by making a massive additional voluntary cut. For a member that threw its weight around last year by unleashing taps to trigger a crude price war with Russia and has been emphasising the need for strict compliant by all members before allowing any collective increases to take place, this is uncharacteristic. Saudi Arabia may be OPEC’s swing producer, but it is certainly not that benevolent. Not least because it is expected to record a massive US$79 billion budget deficit for 2020 as low crude prices eat into the Kingdom’s finances.

So, why is Saudi Arabia doing this?

The last time the Saudis did this was in July 2020, when the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was at devastating levels and crude prices needed some additional propping up. It succeeded. In January 2021, however, global crude prices are already at the US$50/b level and the market had already cheered the resolution of OPEC+’s positions for the next two months. There was no real urgent need to make voluntary cuts, especially since no other OPEC member would suit especially not the UAE with whom there has been a falling out.

The likeliest reason is leadership. Having failed to convince the rest of the OPEC+ gang to avoid any easing of quotas, Saudi Arabia could be wanting to prove its position by providing a measure of supply security at a time of major price sensitivity due to the Covid-19 resurgence. It will also provide some political ammunition for future negotiations when the group meets in March to decide plans for Q2 2021, turning this magnanimous move into an implicit threat. It could also be the case that Saudi Arabia is planning to pair its voluntary cut with field maintenance works, which would be a nice parallel to the usual refinery maintenance season in Asia where crude demand typically falls by 10-20% as units shut for routine inspections.

It could also be a projection of soft power. After isolating Qatar physically and economically since 2017 over accusations of terrorism support and proximity to Iran, four Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – have agreed to restore and normalise ties with the peninsula. While acknowledging that a ‘trust deficit’ still remained, the accord avoids the awkward workarounds put in place to deal with the boycott and provides for road for cooperation ahead of a change on guard in the White House. Perhaps Qatar is even thinking of re-joining OPEC? As Saudi Arabia flexes its geopolitical muscle, it does need to pick its battles and re-assert its position. Showcasing political leadership as the world’s crude swing producer is as good a way of demonstrating that as any, even if it is planning to claim dues in the future.

It worked. It has successfully changed the market narrative from inter-OPEC+ squabbling to a more stabilised crude market. Saudi Arabia’s patience in prolonging this benevolent role is unknown, but for now, it has achieved what it wanted to achieve: return visibility to the Kingdom as the global oil leader, and having crude oil prices rise by nearly 10%.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$55-57/b, WTI – US$51-53/b
  • Global crude oil benchmarks jumped several levels to a new higher range, as Saudi Arabia supplemented OPEC+’s decision to allow a minor increase in supply quotas for February and March with a massive 1 mmb/d voluntary cut over the same period
  • There are signs that the elevated level of crude pricing is tempting American drillers back to work, with Baker Hughes reporting a massive 67-site gain in active rigs over the first week of 2021; this will present another headache for OPEC+ when it comes time to debate the supply deal path forward for April and beyond
January, 14 2021