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Last Updated: February 14, 2020
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b

  • The demand destruction caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – also known as the Wuhan coronavirus – has dragged crude prices to fresh lows, with OPEC+ struggling to present a united front to respond to the demand crisis
  • Earlier indications that OPEC+ was preparing to call for an emergency meeting mid-February to discuss the pandemic’s impact on the oil market were dashed, hinting at divisions within the oil club
  • Reportedly, OPEC’s technical committee was proposing to extend the club’s supply quota agreement through June 2020; Saudi Arabia – along with Iran and Bahrain – were the strongest supporters, but Russia remains reticent to commit
  • A group of key Russian oil producers are in support of extending the OPEC+ cuts, with Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosneft indicating that it ‘made sense’
  • In the face of the huge impact of Covid-19, the so-called Brent red spread sank into contango, indicating an intensely bear-ish market
  • Although the fatality rate of the new coronavirus is much lower than SARS, the spread has been far more severe and wider, with confirmed cases nearing 70,000 and deaths nearing 1,500
  • After being on lockdown for weeks, Chinese factories and businesses have gradually returned to work at a glacial pace, impacting gasoline, gasoil and - most significantly – jet fuel demand, causing Chinese refineries to slash output
  • News that China and the US would both implement tariff cuts on the pre-Phase 1 trade deal levies on February 14 failed to calm the market, supporting the floor for prices rather than raising the ceiling
  • Amid that chaos, the US active rig count dropped four rigs, falling down to 790 total and down 255 sites y-o-y; however, the relationship between this proxy and actual production has diminished over the past two years, as the US continues to produce more oil from less rigs
  • Hopes that the outbreak might have peaked has supported crude oil prices this year, although a major spike in confirmed cases from a wider diagnosis tool nipped that in the bud; expect crude oil prices to continue hovering around the US$50/b mark, at US$51-53/b for Brent and US$49-51/b for WTI


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Chevron and Petrobras will be selling their stakes in the heavy oil Papa-terra field in the Campos Basin, seeking new operatorship for the BC-20 concession asset that is currently split 62.5/37.5 between Petrobras and Chevron
  • Shell plans to boost its output in the Permian Basin to some 250,000 b/d by end-2020, up from a current production level of 100,000 b/d as it announced plans to invest up to US$3 billion per year in the prolific US shale area
  • Eni’s oil production in Libya has halved to 160,000 b/d, as the country continues to grapple with a blockade started by military strongman Khalifa Haftar
  • Disappointing results in Africa have forced Tullow Oil to reduce its headcount in Kenya by 40%, with operations in Kenya, Uganda and Ghana all yielding either poor results or in danger of significant delays
  • BP and Shell have brought the Alligin field in the UK West of Shetlands region online, with initial output at a better-than-expected 12,000 b/d
  • Guyana’s oil riches keep increasing; after ExxonMobil upped estimates at the Stabroek block last month, Eco Atlantic (together with Tullow Oil and Total) have upped reserves in the Orinduik block from 3.98 mmboe/d to 5.14 mmboe/d

Midstream/Downstream

  • Reports suggest that Chinese independent teapot refineries in Shandong have slashed their utilisation rates by 30-50%, scaling down in response to severely diminished fuel and petrochemicals demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Chinese state refiners are following suit with slashing output, with CNOOC, Sinopec and PetroChina all lowering their throughput rates by 10-15%
  • Shell has finalised the sale of its Martinez refinery in California, selling it to PBF Energy for some US$1.2 billion, including its supply/offtake agreements
  • Botswana is accelerating its US$4 billion coal-to-liquids refinery project, now expecting to complete the site by 2025, with the aim of tapping into the country’s major coal reserves that are some of the largest in Africa
  • The UK has extended its goal to end the sale of all gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles in the UK by 2035 to include hybrid vehicles, which would move transport fuel demand entirely to electric vehicles then

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Abu Dhabi and Dubai report that they have made a major natural gas find, with the Jebel Ali reservoir located between the two largest sheikhdoms in the UAE holding some 80 tcf of resources - the world’s largest gas find in 15 years
  • The government of Papua New Guinea has walked away from talks over the P’nyang gas field, impacting the planned expansion of ExxonMobil’s PNG LNG project; the government had previously tried a similar tactic with Total
  • The EU has imposed sanctions on Turkey, in retaliation for its continued exploration of gas resources in the disputed waters off Cyprus that Turkey claims is part of the breakaway Turkish province in the north of the island
  • CNOOC has declared force majeure on some LNG contracts due to the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 outbreak, but two of the world’s largest LNG traders – Shell and Total – have rejected the Chinese attempt to nullify contractual terms
  • Centrica will take a major write-down on its gas assets in Europe, continuing a trend of the global natural gas glut eroding the value of gas assets worldwide
  • GeoPark has made a new natural gas discovery in Chile, with the Jauke Oeste field in the Fell block of the Magallanese Basin yielding small-but-significant gas flows of some 4.4 mscf/d

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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