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Last Updated: February 28, 2020
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 24 February 2020 – Brent: US$56/b; WTI: US$51/b

  • The Covid-19 outbreak continues to be the main headline – and the main driver – behind crude oil price trends, as the virus’ global spread continues
  • While the virus appears to be increasingly contained in its country of origin, the last week has seen major outbreaks in other parts of the world, including South Korea, Italy and Iran; this is approaching the level of a global pandemic – where the outbreak spreads in multiple locations independently
  • There is major concern that the virus outbreak in Iran could spread in the Middle East, impacting oil supply as Afghanistan, Bahrain and Kuwait all reported their first cases; the virus is now confirmed to be present in 55 countries (and suspected in at least 10 more), with over 83,000 cases globally
  • The new intensification of the outbreak might force OPEC+’s hand to act in March, after Russia scuppered a planned emergency meeting in mid-February meant to coordinate a response to the outbreak
  • With the economic meltdown in Venezuela continuing, President Nicolas Maduro has declared an ‘energy emergency’ and announced plans to revamp PDVSA in order to produce more crude; meanwhile the US sanctioned Russia’s Rosneft over maintaining ties with the Maduro regime and PDVSA
  • The US active rig count inched up last week with net gains coming from a single new oil rig, while gas rigs were flat for a new weekly total of 791
  • Fears the contagion widening its footprint outside of China has already sent global stock and commodity prices down sharply, with the Dow Jones reporting its single largest point drop in a day; unlike signs of global containment show, crude will remain in the red with Brent at US$51-54/b and WTI at US$46-49/b

Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Equinor has dropped plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight, abandoning a well in the offshore Ceduna basin after facing environmental protests; officially, Equinor’s reason is that the plans – already been abandoned several times by other players – did not ‘measure up commercially’
  • Eni announced a new discovery in Mexico, with the Saasken prospect in the offshore Sureste Basin estimated to contain up to 300 million barrels of oil
  • Africa Oil SA will take a 20% stake in South Africa’s Block 3B/4B in the Orange Basin from Namibian E&P player Azinam; Azinam has also taken a 50% stake (and operatorship) of Block 2B from Africa Energy Corp

Midstream/Downstream

  • Amid the ongoing Wuhan Covid-19 outbreak, China has slashed ceiling prices for gasoline and diesel for the second time in 2020, reducing gasoline prices by 5% and diesel by 5.7%, bringing the cumulative reduction to some 10%
  • A series of outages at key refineries on the US Gulf Coast and East Coast saw American retail prices rise by an average 5% y-o-y, triggering tight supplies
  • PetroChina has exported its first batch of Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) from its Liaohe refinery, after China waived consumption taxes and applied rebates of value-added taxes on clean marine fuels; more cargoes should follow
  • PetroChina has also resumed construction of its US$10 billion refinery project in Jieyang, Guangdong, after halting work following the Covid-19 outbreak
  • Malaysia is aiming to implement a B30 biodiesel mandate, up from the current B10 national level, following in the footsteps of Indonesia in an effort to reduce gasoil consumption and increase domestic demand for palm oil

Natural Gas/LNG

  • The USA, under Donald Trump, continues its campaign to prevent the completion of the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline, ratcheting up sanctions on key service providers like subsea pipeline provider Allseas Group
  • The government of Papua New Guinea and the natural gas/LNG joint venture led by ExxonMobil have informally resumed talks on the P’nyang Gas Agreement, with hopes to restart formal talks as soon as possible
  • Neptune Energy announced first gas from its new L5a-D4 well in the Dutch North Sea, tying the deepest field in the area back to the L5a-D platform
  • Hit by a mild winter and the Wuhan Covid-19 outbreak, China’s natural gas consumption declined for the first time in two years, with demand down by some 1 % y-o-y in January, mainly from industrial and power usage
  • Ramp-up at Eni’s Zohr field in Egypt continues, expected to rise to its peak plateau rate of 3 bcf/d in March 2020, confirming Egypt as a gas power
  • India’s AG&P has broken ground on the Karaikal Port LNG import facility in Puducherry, India, with operations expected to start by Q4 2021
  • Shell is ‘evaluating development options’ for its Manatee field in Trinidad & Tobago, after the government gave a go-ahead with first gas planned for 2025
  • ConocoPhillips has pushed its FID on the Barossa gas development in Northern Australia until Q2 2020, but first gas is still on track to hit the market in 2024
  • As the Abadi gas project in Indonesia takes off after a long period of gestation, operator Inpex has signed MoUs for takeoff with with PT PLN and PT Pupuk
  • The US FERC has given clearance for Cameron LNG Train 2 in Louisiana to go ahead, adding to a huge swathe of new US LNG capacity coming onstream

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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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