The last two months have been a tumultuous time for the oil industry. First stricken by the Covid-19 pandemic that destroyed a significant amount of demand, Saudi Arabia and Russia then went to war over oil production causing oil prices to collapse by half. As the combination of the two factors conspired to take US oil prices (briefly) into the negative, the oil industry upstream, midstream and downstream are still reeling from the blow. Quarterly results for the first three months of 2020 are rolling out, which will show the first signs of damage on publicly-traded oil companies. The verdict is expected to be dire. But the situation, though grim, will eventually improve. However, that is not the case for the other side of the industry that doesn’t attract as many headlines, but is no less crucial to everyone’s bottom line: oilfield services.
An entire phalanx of upstream service companies help build, operate and maintain the critical infrastructure necessary to extract oil in its natural form from deep below the ground and send it on its merry way to be turned into fuel for consumption. The life of these service companies depends on one thing: the level of activity in the upstream sector. The more drilling and operating there is, the more work there is, and therefore the more revenue. When contracted activity dries up, so does the work and the cash flow. With all companies slashing upstream capex and activities planned for at least the next two years on depressingly low oil prices, the pool of work has shrunk. And when the pool shrinks, the fish are threatened.
Take the two largest oilfield services companies in the world: Schlumberger and Halliburton. The industry gorilla, Schlumberger declared a net loss of US$7.38 billion for Q1 2020, down from a net profit of US$421 million in Q1 2019. Revenue from its US operations was down by 17%, offsetting a 2% growth in international revenue; but the main cause of the huge loss was a US$8.5 billion impairment charge on assets. Schlumberger’s CEO is calling the current situation ‘the most challenging environment for the industry in many decades’ and that the next quarter is ‘likely to be the most uncertain and disruptive quarter the industry has ever seen.’ Halliburton, Schlumberger’s main rival is also in a period of pain. Having wiped out US$1 billion in asset write downs, Halliburton reported a net loss of US$1.02 billion for the quarter and warned of revenue dropping by ‘at least’ 30% for the full year. Particularly because Halliburton is pulling out of the Venezuelan services sector, tired of tethering on a knife’s edge every 3 months on if the US White House would renew its waiver to operate there.
Elsewhere in the services sector, results were equally bleak. Petrofac (services arm) is slashing jobs, having been terminated from ADNOC’s US$1.65 billion Dalma Gas Development Project, while Baker Hughes reported a mammoth US$10.2 billion net loss on major write downs. The market had already anticipated the stark results, but the scale of Schlumberger’s and Baker Hughes’ net loss was still a surprise while Halliburton managed to exceed analyst expectations.
But these are the big guys, and they have enough cash reserves and favourable debt ratios to weather the storm. Further down the pecking order, however, the situation is far more existentially threatening. Particularly in the US, where a meadow of small- and medium-sized service operators bloomed in the wake of the shale revolution. Times were good for a while, but started turning sour in mid-2019. The problems of the US shale industry are well documented already, and that is also true for their service companies. Recently, Whiting Petroleum Corp became the first major post-Covid 19 victim in the shale patch, declaring bankruptcy. Its downfalls also took down Pioneer Energy Services, forced to abandon its final 6 rigs in the Bakken formation and filing for Chapter-11 bankruptcy protection as well.
Indications show that since the start of 2019, the US oilfield services sector lost almost 50,000 jobs or 13% of the entire workforce. A significant amount of this was in 2019 itself, when the shine went off the shale patch as unsustainable debt ratios rose. Bankruptcies in the US shale patch are now averaging 8 per quarter, compared to 2 in 2018. While the situation is still fluid, it is expected that at least half of the remaining work (and therefore, firms and workforce) will evaporate through the end of 2020, putting a quarter of a million jobs out.
Even if oil prices do recovery to, say, US$40/b by June 2020, this will not be enough to prop up the services sector. The industry has now retreated back to 2015 levels of caution and cost-cutting, focusing on austerity after a period of fattening up. That’s not good news for services companies, whose existence is tied to the level of industry activity. If the ExxonMobils and Saudi Aramacos of the world are hurting, then the Schlumbergers and Halliburtons are in a far worst position. Many won’t survive, to be absorbed into the few remaining that will hopefully become leaner and meaner in preparation for the next unexpected shock on the horizon.
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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
- 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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