Crude oil prices have fallen significantly since the beginning of 2020, largely driven by the economic contraction caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID19) and a sudden increase in crude oil supply following the suspension of agreed production cuts among the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries. With falling demand and increasing supply, the front-month price of the U.S. benchmark crude oil West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fell from a year-to-date high closing price of $63.27 per barrel (b) on January 6 to a year-to-date low of $20.37/b on March 18 (Figure 1), the lowest nominal crude oil price since February 2002.
WTI crude oil prices have also fallen significantly along the futures curve, which charts monthly price settlements for WTI crude oil delivery over the next several years. For example, the WTI price for December 2020 delivery declined from $56.90/b on January 2, 2020, to $32.21/b as of March 24. In addition to the sharp price decline, the shape of the futures curve has shifted from backwardation—when near-term futures prices are higher than longer-dated ones—to contango, when near-term futures prices are lower than longer-dated ones. The WTI 1st-13th spread (the difference between the WTI price in the nearest month and the price for WTI 13 months away) settled at -$10.34/b on March 18, the lowest since February 2016, exhibiting high contango. The shift from backwardation to contango reflects the significant increase in petroleum inventories. In its March 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on March 11, 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast that Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) commercial petroleum inventories will rise to 2.9 billion barrels in March, an increase of 20 million barrels over the previous month and 68 million barrels over March 2019 (Figure 2). Since the release of the March STEO, changes in various oil market and macroeconomic indicators suggest that inventory builds are likely to be even greater than EIA’s March forecast.
Significant price volatility has accompanied both price declines and price increases. Since 1999, 69% of the time, daily WTI crude oil prices increased or decreased by less than 2% relative to the previous trading day. Daily oil price changes during March 2020 have exceeded 2% 13 times (76% of the month’s traded days) as of March 24. For example, the 10.1% decline on March 6 after the OPEC meeting was larger than 99.8% of the daily percentage price decreases since 1999. The 24.6% decline on March 9 and the 24.4% decline on March 18 were the largest and second largest percent declines, respectively, since at least 1999 (Figure 3).
On March 10, a series of government announcements indicated that emergency fiscal and monetary policy were likely to be forthcoming in various countries, which contributed to a 10.4% increase in the WTI price, the 12th-largest daily increase since 1999. During other highly volatile time periods, such as the 2008 financial crisis, both large price increases and decreases occurred in quick succession. During the 2008 financial crisis, the largest single-day increase—a 17.8% rise on September 22, 2008—was followed the next day by the largest single-day decrease, a 12.0% fall on September 23, 2008.
Market price volatility during the first quarter of 2020 has not been limited to oil markets (Figure 4). The recent volatility in oil markets has also coincided with increased volatility in equity markets because the products refined from crude oil are used in many parts of the economy and because the COVID-19-related economic slowdown affects a broad array of economic activities. This can be measured through implied volatility—an estimate of a security’s expected range of near-term price changes—which can be calculated using price movements of financial options and measured by the VIX index for the Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 index and the OVX index for WTI prices. Implied volatility for both the S&P 500 index and WTI are higher than the levels seen during the 2008 financial crisis, which peaked on November 20, 2008, at 80.9 and on December 11, 2008, at 100.4, respectively, compared with 61.7 for the VIX and 170.9 for the OVX as of March 24.
Comparing implied volatility for the S&P 500 index with WTI’s suggests that although recent volatility is not limited to oil markets, oil markets are likely more volatile than equity markets at this point. The oil market’s relative volatility is not, however, in and of itself unusual. Oil markets are almost always more volatile than equity markets because crude oil demand is price inelastic—whereby price changes have relatively little effect on the quantity of crude oil demanded—and because of the relative diversity of the companies constituting the S&P 500 index. But recent oil market volatility is still historically high, even in comparison to the volatility of the larger equity market. As denoted by the red line in the bottom of Figure 4, the difference between the OVX and VIX reached an all-time high of 124.1 on March 23, compared with an average difference of 16.8 between May 2007 (the date the OVX was launched) and March 24, 2020.
Markets currently appear to expect continued and increasing market volatility, and, by extension, increasing uncertainty in the pricing of crude oil. Oil’s current level of implied volatility—a forward-looking measure for the next 30 days—is also high relative to its historical, or realized, volatility. Historical volatility can influence the market’s expectations for future price uncertainty, which contributes to higher implied volatility. Some of this difference is a structural part of the market, and implied volatility typically exceeds historical volatility as sellers of options demand a volatility risk premium to compensate them for the risk of holding a volatile security. But as the yellow line in Figure 4 shows, the current implied volatility of WTI prices is still higher than normal. The difference between implied and historical volatility reached an all-time high of 44.7 on March 20, compared with an average difference of 2.3 between 2007 and March 2020. This trend could suggest that options (prices for which increase with volatility) are relatively expensive and, by extension, that demand for financial instruments to limit oil price exposure are relatively elevated.
Increased price correlation among several asset classes also suggests that similar economic factors are driving prices in a variety of markets. For example, both the correlation between changes in the price of WTI and changes in the S&P 500 and the correlation between WTI and other non-energy commodities (as measured by the S&P Commodity Index (GSCI)) increased significantly in March. Typically, when correlations between WTI and other asset classes increase, it suggests that expectations of future economic growth—rather than issues specific to crude oil markets— tend to be the primary drivers of price formation. In this case, price declines for oil, equities, and non-energy commodities all indicate that concerns over global economic growth are likely the primary force driving price formation (Figure 5).
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices fall
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell nearly 13 cents from the previous week to $2.12 per gallon on March 23, 50 cents lower than a year ago. The Midwest price fell more than 16 cents to $1.87 per gallon, the West Coast price fell nearly 15 cents to $2.88 per gallon, the East Coast and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 11 cents to $2.08 per gallon and $1.86 per gallon, respectively, and the Rocky Mountain price declined more than 8 cents to $2.24 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell more than 7 cents from the previous week to $2.66 per gallon on March 23, 42 cents lower than a year ago. The Midwest price fell more than 9 cents to $2.50 per gallon, the West Coast price fell more than 7 cents to $3.25 per gallon, the East Coast and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 7 cents to $2.72 per gallon and $2.44 per gallon, respectively, and the Rocky Mountain price fell more than 6 cents to $2.68 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories decline
U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 1.8 million barrels last week to 64.9 million barrels as of March 20, 2020, 15.5 million barrels (31.3%) greater than the five-year (2015-19) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast inventories decreased by 1.3 million barrels, East Coast inventories decreased by 0.3 million barrels, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decrease by 0.2 million barrels. Midwest inventories increased by 0.1 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 8.5% of total propane/propylene inventories.
Residential heating fuel prices decrease
As of March 23, 2020, residential heating oil prices averaged $2.45 per gallon, almost 15 cents per gallon below last week’s price and nearly 77 cents per gallon lower than last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged more than $1.11 per gallon, almost 14 cents per gallon below last week’s price and 98 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.
Residential propane prices averaged more than $1.91 per gallon, nearly 2 cents per gallon below last week’s price and almost 49 cents per gallon below last year’s price. Wholesale propane prices averaged more than $0.42 per gallon, more than 7 cents per gallon lower than last week’s price and almost 36 cents per gallon below last year’s price.
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory
In both 2019 and 2020, project developers in the United States installed more wind power capacity than any other generating technology. According to data recently published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory, annual wind turbine capacity additions in the United States set a record in 2020, totaling 14.2 gigawatts (GW) and surpassing the previous record of 13.2 GW added in 2012. After this record year for wind turbine capacity additions, total wind turbine capacity in the United States is now 118 GW.
The impending phaseout of the full value of the U.S. production tax credit (PTC) at the end of 2020 primarily drove investments in wind turbine capacity that year, just as previous tax credit reductions led to significant wind capacity additions in 2012 and 2019. In December 2020, Congress extended the PTC for another year.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly
Texas has the most wind turbine capacity among states: 30.2 GW were installed as of December 2020. In 2020, Texas generated more electricity from wind than the next three highest states (Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas) combined. However, Texas generates and consumes more total electricity than any other state, and wind remains slightly less than 20% of the state’s electricity generation mix.
In two other states—Iowa and Kansas—wind is the most prevalent source of in-state electricity generation. In both states, wind surpassed coal as the state’s top electricity generation source in 2019.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly
Nationally, 8.4% of utility-scale electricity generation in 2020 came from wind turbines. Many of the turbines added in late 2020 will contribute to increases in wind-powered electricity generation in 2021. EIA expects wind’s share of electricity generation to increase to 10% in 2021, according to forecasts in EIA’s most recent Short-Term Energy Outlook.
It was a good run while it lasted. Almost exactly a decade ago, the military junta in Myanmar was dissolved, following civilian elections. The country’s figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest to lead, following in the footsteps of her father. Although her reputation has since been tarnished with the Rohingya crisis, she remains beloved by most of her countrymen, and her installation as Myanmar’s de facto leader lead to a golden economic age. Sanctions were eased, trade links were restored, and investment flowed in, not least in the energy sector. Yet the military still remained a powerful force, lurking in the background. In early February, they bared their fangs. Following an election in November 2020 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an outright majority in both houses of Parliament. A coup d’etat was instigated, with the Tatmadaw – the Burmese military – decrying fraud in the election. Key politicians were arrested, and rule returned to the military.
For many Burmese, this was a return to a dark past that many thought was firmly behind them. Widespread protests erupted, quickly turning violent. The Tatmadaw still has an iron grip, but it has created some bizarre situations – ordinary Burmese citizens calling on Facebook and foreign governments to impose sanctions on their country, while the Myanmar ambassador to the United Nations was fired for making an anti-army speech at the UN General Assembly.
The path forward for Myanmar from this point is unclear. The Tatmadaw has declared a state of emergency lasting up to a year, promising new elections by the end of 2021. There is little doubt that the NLD will win yet another supermajority in the election, IF they are fair and free. But that is a big if. Meanwhile, the coup threatens to return Myanmar to the pariah state that it was pre-2010. And threatens to abort all the grand economic progress made since.
In the decade since military rule was abolished, development in Myanmar has been rapid. In the capital city Yangon, glittering new malls have been developed. The Ministry of Energy in 2009 was housed in a crumbling former high school; today, it occupies a sprawling complex in the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw. While not exactly up to the level of the Department of Energy in Washington DC, it is certainly no longer than ministry that was once reputed to take up to three years to process exploration licences for offshore oil and gas blocks.
And it is that very future that is now at stake. Energy has been a great focus for investment in Myanmar, drawn by the rich offshore deposits in the Andaman Sea and the country’s location as a possible pipeline route between the Middle East and inland China. Estimates suggest that – based on pre-coup trends – Myanmar was likely to attract over US$1.1 billion in upstream investment in 2023, more than four times projected for 2021 and almost 20 times higher than 2011. The funds would not only be directed at maintaining production at the current Yadana, Yetagun, Zawtika and Shwe gas fields – where offshore production is mainly exported to Thailand, but also upcoming megaprojects such as Woodside and Total’s A-6 deepwater natural gas and PTTEP’s Aung Sinka Block M3 developments.
The coup now presents foreign investors in Myanmar’s upstream energy sector with a conundrum and reputational risk. Stay, and risk being seen as abetting an undemocratic government? Or leave, and risk being flushing away years of hard work? The home governments of foreign investors such as Total, Chevron, PTTEP, Woodside, Petronas, ONGC, Nippon Oil, Kogas, POSCO, Sumitomo, Mitsui and others have already condemned the coup. For now these companies are hoping that foreign pressure will resolve the situation in a short enough timeframe to allow business to resume. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum has already called the coup a ‘transitionary issue’ claiming that it will not affect its exploration plans, while other operators such as Total and Petronas have focused on the safety of their employees as they ‘monitor the evolving situation’.
But the longer the coup lasts without a resolution satisfactory to the international community and the longer the protests last (and the more deaths that result from that), the more untenable the position of the foreign upstream players will be. Asian investors, especially the Chinese, mainly through CNPC/PetroChina, and the Thais, through PTTEP - will be relatively insulated, but American and European majors face bigger risks. This could jeopardise key projects such as the Myanmar-to-China crude oil and natural gas pipeline project (a 771km connection to Yunnan), two LNG-to-power projects (Thaketa and Thilawa, meant to deal with the country’s chronic blackouts) and the massive Block A-6 gas development in the Shwe Yee Htun field by Woodside which just kicked off a fourth drilling campaign in December.
It is a big unknown. The Tatmadaw has proven to be impervious to foreign criticism in the past, ignoring even the most stringent sanctions thrown their way. In fact, it was a huge surprise that the army even relinquished power back in 2010. But the situation has changed. The Myanmar population is now more connected and more aware, while the army has profited off the opening of the economy. The economic consequences of returning to its darker days might be enough to trigger a resolution. But that’s not a guarantee. What is certain is that the coup will have a lasting effect on energy investment and plans in Myanmar. How long and how deep is a question that only the Tatmadaw can answer.
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The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.
But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.
Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.
Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes.
Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.
So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.
There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.
But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊