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Last Updated: March 20, 2020
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 16 March 2020 – Brent: US$30/b; WTI: US$28/b

  • The dark days continue, with global crude oil prices at their weakest point since 2015 as the Covid-19 pandemic deepens worldwide and the Saudi Arabia-Russia oil war heats up
  • With infections and deaths piling up in Europe and the US – and a second wave of infections threatening Asia – the number of global cases has topped 240,000 and 10,000 respectively
  • Travel lockdown are taking place worldwide; Europe has largely shut its borders, as well as the US and other major countries, resulting in airlines slashing international travel and cratering jet fuel demand
  • But of more concern for oil prices, is the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Russia, as both countries dig in their heels to engage in a protracted price war
  • Saudi Arabia is on the hunt for more supertankers, with the intention of flooding the market with oil; Saudi Aramco will supply a record 12.3 million barrels in April and is looking to raise capacity by another 1 mmb/d after
  • Russian producers are also ready to raise production, with Rosneft announcing it would lift production as soon as the current supply deal ends on March 31
  • Abu Dhabi, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, is fanning the flames as well; ADNOC is discounting its flagship Murban crude and pledging a rise of output to 4 mmb/d in April, and possibly 5 mmb/d in May, to join the race for market share
  • There is a glimmer of hope that a joint resolution could halt the price war, with OPEC+ still holding meetings – albeit virtually – to assess the situation
  • In light of the meltdown in oil prices, the US has suspended its planned sale of inventories from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but instead will add to it by purchasing large volumes in an attempt to prop up US shale oil producers
  • With weak oil prices, the active US rig count according to Baker Hughes is holding steady so far, down by a net one site with the loss of two gas rigs offset by a single gain in the oil rig count; however, do expect sharp drops in the near future if there is no resolution to the oil price imbroglio
  • With sentiment over the global macroeconomic situation and oil prices at near worst-case scenario levels, crude oil prices will remain depressed – Brent in the US$29-33/b range and WTI in the US$25-28/b range

 

Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Beset by a blockade of its oilfields and ports by strongman Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s oil production fell to a new low of 97,508 b/d in early March
  • Petronas and ExxonMobil are looking to sell their stakes in the Chad-Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project – connecting three fields in Chad to a floating facility offshore Cameroon; Petronas holds a 35% stake in the project, with ExxonMobil holding a 40% stake
  • Petronas has halted production at the Garraf area in Iraq’s Thi Qar province, evacuating all its employees as Iraq grapples with a major Covid-19 outbreak
  • Murphy Oil has announced some delays to its projects in the Gulf of Mexico as the global oil industry is hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and the price war, reducing its 2020 budget by US$500 million to US$950 million
  • As the Covid-19 pandemic rolls across the globe, licensing rounds are either being suspended or postponed: South Sudan deferring its debut round, Liberia taking its offshore round online and Bangladesh postponing indefinitely
  • Equinor has halted all work on the Martin Linge field offshore Norway, adding to the project’s delay woes as uncertainty over Covid-19 boils over
  • WPX Energy has acquired Felix Energy, expanding its footprint in the eastern part of the Permian Delaware Basin, adding 60 mboe/d of production and bringing WPX Energy’s total output to some 150,000 b/d of shale oil

Midstream/Downstream

  • Asian refiners are looking to cash in on cheap crude being offered as a result of the price war – with Chinese teapots planning to ramp out output – but are planning to curb jet fuel output by redirecting processing to gasoil, as a result of travel bans worldwide that will severely distress international travel
  • Marathon Petroleum – the largest American independent refinery – is looking to sell off its pipeline subsidiary MPLX LP for some US$15 billion
  • ExxonMobil has restarted the fourth and final CDU at its 502,500 b/d Baton Rouge refinery, after the entire plant was taken out by a fire in February 2020
  • Calumet is planning to sell its 30 kb/d refinery in Great Falls, Montana, retaining a bank to begin sales proceedings; Great Falls is the second refinery in Montana to go under the block, after ExxonMobil’s 61.5 kb/d Billings site
  • Production of very low sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO) in China is ramping up, with Jinxi Petrochemical being the latest refiner to begin exports of the marine fuel
  • Austria’s OMV will be purchasing an additional 39% in petrochemicals processor Borealis from Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala for some US$4.7 billion
  • The GTI Statia crude and refined storage terminal in the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius will undergo a US$100 million upgrade to meet growing demand

Natural Gas/LNG

  • The Alaska LNG project – which is designed to produced 3.5 bcf/d of gas in Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula, sourced from a 1,300km pipeline from the North Slope – has been granted EIS (Environment Impact Statement) by the US FERC, the first step towards authorisation of project to go ahead
  • BP and Azerbaijan’s SOCAR are in discussion over a new Caspian Sea project that goes beyond the current deep gas scheme, called Future Gas
  • Norway’s Golar Power has announced plans to develop an LNG import terminal with the Brazilian northeastern state of Pernambuco
  • Lithuania’s Kaipedos Nafta is moving to fully acquire the Hoegh floating storage and regasification unit that is it currently leasing

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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.

End of Article

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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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