Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: April 5, 2020
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Business Trends
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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

  • Saudi Arabia: 12 mmb/d, 1 producer (Saudi Aramco)
  • Russia: 12.5 mmb/d, 10+ producers (including Rosneft and Lukoil)
  • USA: 13 mmb/d, 100+ producers


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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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