Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: June 26, 2020
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Business Trends
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The sale of a mere 5% stake in the oil world’s crown jewel, Saudi Aramco had captured the attention of the entire investment community last year. Pushing through after years of debate and delays, the sale on the Tadawul stock exchange valued Aramco at a whopping initial US$1.6 trillion. Investors were mainly connected Saudi individuals and wealthy families, with international buy-in limited as a planned parallel listing on the London or New York Stock Exchange fell through. Still, the deal was enough to unleash several thousand pages of speculation and opinion over potential liberalisation of the oil and gas complex in the Middle East, especially the upcoming post-oil and carbon-neutral environment.

Aramco may have captured all the main headlines, especially with its huge acquisition of fellow Saudi jewel SABIC but the true entity pushing the boundaries of privatisation and deregulation in the Middle East is elsewhere. Specifically, just east of Saudi Arabia, in Abu Dhabi – the largest and most influential of the seven emirates that make up the UAE.

The latest headline involving ADNOC, Abu Dhabi’s state oil firm, hasn’t really made the rounds beyond the industry’s eyes but it is crucial to understanding how the Middle East oil sector could adapt to the changing industry over the next few decades. Partnering with a consortium of six investors, ADNOC has sold a 49% stake in its ADNOC Gas Pipeline Assets subsidiary, retaining a 51% majority stake and control. The sale had been bandied around for over a year, seen as a sign of a gradual opening of a tightly controlled oil and gas region, and follows three other significant sales involving ADNOC. The first was in 2017, when ADNOC raised nearly a billion US dollars through an IPO of its fuels distribution unit on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange, offering up 10% of its shares. Then late 2019, ADNOC partnered with Italy’s Eni and Austria’s OMV to nearly double oil refining capacity in Abu Dhabi to 1.5 mmb/d – the largest foreign participation in the Middle East downstream industry since the Shell Pearl GTL project in Qatar and Total’s Jubail refining and petrochemicals push over a decade ago. Around the same time, ADNOC also pocketed US$4 billion from US investment giants BlackRock and KKR through the sale of a 40% stake in its ADNOC Oil Pipelines subsidiary. And now it is the turn of ADNOC’s gas pipelines.

The chronology and regional aspect of ADNOC’s moves is interesting. While Aramco looks local, Abu Dhabi went abroad. The refining expansion involved established oil market players, Eni and OMV – and parallels a gradual unbundling of Abu Dhabi’s upstream concessions, where stakes have been offered to Total, PetroChina, Eni, Cepsa and India’s ONGC over the past five years. But the choice of new investors are now not from the industry. After the deep-pocketed BlackRock and KKR, ADNOC has once against turned to institutional investors for its latest, and largest, sale, with the US$20.7 billion gas pipeline and infrastructure deal going to a consortium consisting of Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), Brookfield Asset Management, Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan Board, Singapore’s GIC sovereign wealth fund, NH Investment and Securities and Italy’s infrastructure operator SNAM. ADNOC called the deal a ‘landmark investment (that) signals continued strong interest in ADNOC’s low-risk, income-generating assets’. But it also illustrates two other points: institutional interest in strategic Middle East assets and the challenging environment within the industry because of Covid-19 that has led investment interest expanding to new capital that is currently reluctant to make risky bets in an unstable economic environment. So the choice of ADNOC’s safe assets and a captive domestic market is rather attractive.

ADNOC’s strategy differs from Aramco’s fundamentally. Where Aramco sold a stake of itself, ADNOC has parcelled out different parts of itself while keeping control of the main body intact. This is what Malaysia’s Petronas has done to a great degree of success, listing subsidiaries through IPOs and partnering with foreign investors on upstream/downstream projects, using the proceeds to finance a global expansion that now stretches across all continents. Replicating this strategy, as ADNOC looks to be doing, could pay dividends, particularly since ADNOC has a wider domestic base, as well as stronger export markets, than Petronas. Between Saudi Aramco and ADNOC, the OPEC duo seems to have kickstarted a liberalisation drive within the Middle East energy complex. Kuwait Petroleum and Bahrain’s BAPCO are already reported to be considering similar moves. Which model could this second wave follow: Aramco’s or ADNOC’s? Aramco’s is a shock-and-awe move, a potential wow factor at the size of any possible deal. But ADNOC’s more piecemeal approach could actually be far more stable and sustainable over time.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$39-42/b, WTI – US$37-40/b
  • Signs that the oil demand recovery has been better-than-expected as economies re-open have been tempered by fears that a resurgence of Covid-19 infections is on the horizon
  • The US recorded its highest single-day case number this week, while Europe recorded its first increase in a month and cases in Latin America and India are accelerating, prompting fears that a second round of lockdowns was necessary
  • Economies will have more time to prepare for a second round of lockdowns, but the disruption will still snuff out any current nascent improvement in demand
  • This will weigh heavily on OPEC, as it now has to consider another extension beyond the end of July, although compliance has improved among the OPEC+ club as Iraq, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and Brunei all submitted new output schedules

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Pricing-in The Covid 19 Vaccine

In a few days, the bi-annual OPEC meeting will take place on November 30, leading into a wider OPEC+ meeting on December 30. This is what all the political jostling and negotiations currently taking place is leading up to, as the coalition of major oil producers under the OPEC+ banner decide on the next step of its historic and ambitious supply control plan. Designed to prop up global oil prices by managing supply, a postponement of the next phase in the supply deal is widely expected. But there are many cracks appearing beneath the headline.

A quick recap. After Saudi Arabia and Russia triggered a price war in March 2020 that led to a collapse in oil prices (with US crude prices briefly falling into negative territory due to the technical quirk), OPEC and its non-OPEC allies (known collectively as OPEC+) agreed to a massive supply quota deal that would throttle their production for 2 years. The initial figure was 10 mmb/d, until Mexico’s reticence brought that down to 9.7 mmb/d. This was due to fall to 7.7 mmb/d by July 2020, but soft demand forced a delay, while Saudi Arabia led the charge to ensure full compliance from laggards, which included Iraq, Nigeria and (unusually) the UAE. The next tranche will bring the supply control ceiling down to 5.7 mmb/d. But given that Covid-19 is still raging globally (despite promising vaccine results), this might be too much too soon. Yes, prices have recovered, but at US$40/b crude, this is still not sufficient to cover the oil-dependent budgets of many OPEC+ nations. So a delay is very likely.

But for how long? The OPEC+ Joint Technical Committee panel has suggested that the next step of the plan (which will effectively boost global supply by 2 mmb/d) be postponed by 3-6 months. This move, if adopted, will have been presaged by several public statements by OPEC+ leaders, including a pointed comment from OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo that producers must be ready to respond to ‘shifts in market fundamentals’.

On the surface, this is a necessary move. Crude prices have rallied recently – to as high as US$45/b – on positive news of Covid-19 vaccines. Treatments from Pfizer, Moderna and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca have touted 90%+ effectiveness in various forms, with countries such as the US, Germany and the UK ordering billions of doses and setting the stage for mass vaccinations beginning December. Life returning to a semblance of normality would lift demand, particularly in key products such as gasoline (as driving rates increase) and jet fuel (allowing a crippled aviation sector to return to life). Underpinning the rally is the understanding that OPEC+ will always act in the market’s favour, carefully supporting the price recovery. But there are already grouses among OPEC members that they are doing ‘too much’. Led by Saudi Arabia, the draconian dictates of meeting full compliance to previous quotas have ruffled feathers, although most members have reluctantly attempt to abide by them. But there is a wider existential issue that OPEC+ is merely allowing its rivals to resuscitate and leapfrog them once again; the US active oil rig count by Baker Hughes has reversed a chronic decline trend, as WTI prices are at levels above breakeven for US shale.

Complaints from Iran, Iraq and Nigeria are to be expected, as is from Libya as it seeks continued exemption from quotas due to the legacy of civil war even though it has recently returned to almost full production following a truce. But grievance is also coming from an unexpected quarter: the UAE. A major supporter in the Saudi Arabia faction of OPEC, reports suggest that the UAE (led by the largest emirate, Abu Dhabi) are privately questioning the benefit of remaining in OPEC. Beset by shrivelling oil revenue, the Emiratis have been grumbling about the fairness of their allocated quota as they seek to rebuild their trade-dependent economy. There has been suggestion that the Emiratis could even leave OPEC if decisions led to a net negative outcome for them. Unlike the Qatar exit, this will not just be a blow to OPEC as a whole, questioning its market relevance but to Saudi Arabia’s lead position, as it loses one of its main allies, reducing its negotiation power. And if the UAE leaves, Kuwait could follow, which would leave the Saudis even more isolated.

This could be a tactic to increase the volume of the UAE’s voice in OPEC+, which has been dominated by Saudi Arabia and Russia. But it could also be a genuine policy shift. Either way, it throws even more conundrums onto a delicate situation that could undermine an already fragile market. Despite the positive market news led by Covid-19 vaccines and demand recovery in Asia, American crude oil inventories in Cushing are now approaching similar high levels last seen in April (just before the WTI crash) while OPEC itself has lowered its global demand forecast for 2020 by 300,000 b/d. That’s dangerous territory to be treading in, especially if members of the OPEC+ club are threatening to exit and undermine the pack. A postponement of the plan seems inevitable on December 1 at this point, but it is what lies beyond the immediate horizon that is the true threat to OPEC+.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$44-46/b, WTI – US$42-44/b
  • More positive news on Covid-19 vaccines have underpinned a crude price rally despite worrying signs of continued soft demand and inventory build-ups
  • Pfizer’s application for emergency approval of its vaccine is paving the way for mass vaccinations to begin soon, with some experts predicting that the global economy could return to normality in Q2 2021
  • Market observers are predicting a delay in the OPEC+ supply quota schedule, but the longer timeline for the club’s plan – which is set to last until April 2022 – may have to be brought forward to appease current dissent in the group

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November, 25 2020
EIA expects U.S. crude oil production to remain relatively flat through 2021

In the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) November Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts that U.S. crude oil production will remain near its current level through the end of 2021.

A record 12.9 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil was produced in the United States in November 2019 and was at 12.7 million b/d in March 2020, when the President declared a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak. Crude oil production then fell to 10.0 million b/d in May 2020, the lowest level since January 2018.

By August, the latest monthly data available in EIA’s series, production of crude oil had risen to 10.6 million b/d in the United States, and the U.S. benchmark price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil had increased from a monthly average of $17 per barrel (b) in April to $42/b in August. EIA forecasts that the WTI price will average $43/b in the first half of 2021, up from our forecast of $40/b during the second half of 2020.

The U.S. crude oil production forecast reflects EIA’s expectations that annual global petroleum demand will not recover to pre-pandemic levels (101.5 million b/d in 2019) through at least 2021. EIA forecasts that global consumption of petroleum will average 92.9 million b/d in 2020 and 98.8 million b/d in 2021.

The gradual recovery in global demand for petroleum contributes to EIA’s forecast of higher crude oil prices in 2021. EIA expects that the Brent crude oil price will increase from its 2020 average of $41/b to $47/b in 2021.

EIA’s crude oil price forecast depends on many factors, especially changes in global production of crude oil. As of early November, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) were considering plans to keep production at current levels, which could result in higher crude oil prices. OPEC+ had previously planned to ease production cuts in January 2021.

Other factors could result in lower-than-forecast prices, especially a slower recovery in global petroleum demand. As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, some parts of the United States are adding restrictions such as curfews and limitations on gatherings and some European countries are re-instituting lockdown measures.

EIA recently published a more detailed discussion of U.S. crude oil production in This Week in Petroleum.

November, 19 2020
OPEC members' net oil export revenue in 2020 expected to drop to lowest level since 2002

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will earn about $323 billion in net oil export revenues in 2020. If realized, this forecast revenue would be the lowest in 18 years. Lower crude oil prices and lower export volumes drive this expected decrease in export revenues.

Crude oil prices have fallen as a result of lower global demand for petroleum products because of responses to COVID-19. Export volumes have also decreased under OPEC agreements limiting crude oil output that were made in response to low crude oil prices and record-high production disruptions in Libya, Iran, and to a lesser extent, Venezuela.

OPEC earned an estimated $595 billion in net oil export revenues in 2019, less than half of the estimated record high of $1.2 trillion, which was earned in 2012. Continued declines in revenue in 2020 could be detrimental to member countries’ fiscal budgets, which rely heavily on revenues from oil sales to import goods, fund social programs, and support public services. EIA expects a decline in net oil export revenue for OPEC in 2020 because of continued voluntary curtailments and low crude oil prices.

The benchmark Brent crude oil spot price fell from an annual average of $71 per barrel (b) in 2018 to $64/b in 2019. EIA expects Brent to average $41/b in 2020, based on forecasts in EIA’s October 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO). OPEC petroleum production averaged 36.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018 and fell to 34.5 million b/d in 2019; EIA expects OPEC production to decline a further 3.9 million b/d to average 30.7 million b/d in 2020.

EIA based its OPEC revenues estimate on forecast petroleum liquids production—including crude oil, condensate, and natural gas plant liquids—and forecast values of OPEC petroleum consumption and crude oil prices.

EIA recently published a more detailed discussion of OPEC revenue in This Week in Petroleum.

November, 16 2020