As Saudi Arabia and Russia dig in their heels and prepare for extended trench warfare over oil prices, the important questions now are: how long will this last, and what (or who) can bring these friends-turned-foes back to the negotiation table? China is the major buyer of crude from both countries, but with little production of its own, should be relishing in lower oil prices, particularly as it plots a potential recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. That leaves the USA.
To say the US has a vested interest in where oil prices are is an understatement. The country, after all, has a major oil production industry and has recently become the largest producer in the world. Prices at US$50-60/b were perfect. Anything above that risked higher fuel prices causing demand disappearance; anything lower than that risked putting American drillers – particularly in the prolific shale patch – out of business. Which is why President Donald Trump embarked on a campaign of sanction threats and fiery rhetoric when crude rose above US$70/b last year. And also why the US oil industry is urging an intervention as WTI crashes to nearly US$20/b. At risk is not just the health of the US oil industry, but the very life of the shale patch.
There are various options available to Trump when he intervenes. Trump said that he would only get involved in the price war ‘at the appropriate time’, noting that low gasoline prices were good for US consumers. This suggests that he values the positive effects of low oil prices on the wider economy, perhaps noting that the oil industry will still remain a solid electorate base for him in November 2020 come what may. But with no sign that Russia or Saudi Arabia are open to new talks, Trump has to do something at some point.
Some new policies have been put in place. Instead of selling barrels from the US strategic petroleum reserves, adopted when the global supply/demand dynamics were much, much different – the White House now wants to fill those coffers to the brim, buying as much as US$3 billion from US independents to shore up the industry. But that’s only a temporary balm; if the price war rolls on for too long, those US independents will either go out of business or be forced to continue pumping to pay the bills. Either way, this won’t achieve much.
The next weapon is diplomacy. There is already happening, with the US Senate reaching out to the Saudi Ambassador to seek ‘clarity’. Diplomacy is likely to be taken with Saudi Arabia and its Middle Eastern allies, as a more combative approach could jeopardise geopolitical alliances. However, when cajoling, the US will also have to put something on the table. Saudi Arabia’s ultimate goal is to have steady oil prices at a level acceptable to all (or most); since Russia isn’t cooperating but the US may want to, then it must shoulder some burden as well. Imposing a national quota in the US, however, is pure anathema, although the Texas state oil regulator has already suggested introducing production curbs. President Donald Trump said on Thursday, 2nd of April that he expected Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to announce a deal to cut production by up to 15 million barrels, and that he had spoken to both countries’ leaders.
The much anticipated virtual meeting between OPEC and its allies scheduled for 6th of April has been postponed, as reported by CNBC, amid mounting tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The meeting will now “likely” be held on Thursday, 9th April, sources said. "The delay is likely to hit oil prices next week following a record-setting comeback week for crude. U.S. oil surged 25% on Thursday for its best day on record, and gained another 12% on Friday. It finished the week with a 32% surge, breaking a 5-week losing streak and posting its best weekly performance ever, back to the contract’s inception in 1983."
The other more potent weapon is sanctions. This has worked well, at least from the perspective of the policy’s goal, but certainly not in humanitarian terms in Iran and Venezuela, where the exports of these OPEC members have shrunk dramatically. The US has already imposed sanctions on certain parts of the Russian energy machinery, notably to stop the Nordstream-2 LNG pipeline and is now reportedly considering pursuing a dual-pronged strategy of diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and sanctions on Russia. But what could this do? What would this even achieve? Russia hardly sells much oil to the US; its markets are in Europe, India and China. Imposing sanctions, especially at a time of a global crisis, risks it being completely ignored. Worse, this would make Russia even more determined to get back at the US by destroying the shale patch. With its deep pockets, it could very well do so.
The US is caught in a dilemma. Participating in a coordinated production alliance is unthinkable existentially, although stranger things have happened which leaves Trump with few weapons to participate in this price war. It could go on the offensive, and risk worsening the situation. It could exert diplomatic pressure, and risk that going nowhere. Or it could do what it has always done: prop up the industry but leave survival to the free-market, with the knowledge that in the cyclical world of oil, this bust will one day become a boom again.
Infographic: Top Three Crude Producers
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Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.
Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.
Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.
Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.
But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.
Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.
Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)
|Region||Consumption (mmb/d)*||Refining Capacity (mmb/d)|
*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.
The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.
Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.
Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.
Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.
Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.
Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett