The constant domestic fighting in Libya – a civil war, to call a spade a spade, has taken a toll on the once-prolific oil production in the North African country. After nearly a decade of turmoil, it appears now that the violent clash between the UN-recognised government in Tripoli and the upstart insurgent Libyan National Army (LNA) forces could be ameliorating into something less destructive with the announcement of a pact between the two sides that would to some normalisation of oil production and exports.
A quick recap. Since the 2011 uprising that ended the rule of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been in a state of perpetual turmoil. Led by General Khalifa Haftar and the remnants of loyalists that fought under Gaddafi’s full-green flag, the Libyan National Army stands in direct opposition to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) that was formed in 2015. Caught between the two sides are the Libyan people and Libya’s oilfields. Access to key oilfields and key port facilities has changed hands constantly over the past few years, resulting in a start-stop rhythm that has sapped productivity and, more than once, forced Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) to issue force majeure on its exports. Libya’s largest producing field, El Sharara, has had to stop production because of Haftar’s militia aggression no fewer than four times in the past four years. At one point, all seven of Libya’s oil ports – including Zawiyah (350 kb/d), Es Sider (360 kb/d) and Ras Lanuf (230 kb/d) were blockaded as pipelines ran dry. For a country that used to produce an average of 1.2 mmb/d of crude oil, currently output stands at only 80,000 b/d and exports considerably less. Gaddafi might have been an abhorrent strongman, but political stability can have its pros.
This mutually-destructive impasse, economically, at least might be lifted, at least partially, if the GNA and LNA follow through with their agreement to let Libyan oil flow again. The deal, brokered in Moscow between the warlord Haftar and Vice President of the Libyan Presidential Council Ahmed Maiteeq calls for the ‘unrestrained’ resumption of crude oil production that has been at a near standstill since January 2020. The caveat because there always is one, is that Haftar demanded that oil revenues be ‘distributed fairly’ in order to lift the blockade he has initiated across most of the country’s upstream infrastructure.
Shortly after the announcement of the deal, the NOC announced that it would kick off restarting oil production and exports, lifting an 8-month force majeure situation, but only at ‘secure terminals and facilities’. ‘Secure’ in this cases means facilities and fields where NOC has full control, but will exclude areas and assets that the LNA rebels still have control. That’s a significant limitation, since the LNA, which includes support from local tribal groups and Russian mercenaries still controls key oilfields and terminals. But it is also a softening from the NOC, which had previously stated that it would only return to operations when all rebels had left all facilities, citing safety of its staff.
If the deal moves forward, it would certainly be an improvement to the major economic crisis faced by Libya, where cash flow has dried up and basic utilities face severe cutbacks. But it is still an ‘if’. Many within the GNA sphere are critical of the deal struck by Maiteeq, claiming that it did not involve the consultation or input of his allies. The current GNA leader, Prime Minister Fayyaz al Sarraj is also stepping down at the end of October, ushering in another political sea change that could affect the deal. Haftar is a mercurial beast, so predictions are difficult, but what is certain is that depriving a country of its chief moneymaker is a recipe for disaster on all sides. Which is why the deal will probably go ahead.
Which is bad news for the OPEC+ club. Because of its precarious situation, Libya has been exempt for the current OPEC+ supply deal. Even the best case scenarios within OPEC+ had factored out Libya, given the severe uncertainty of the situation there. But if the deal goes through and holds, it could potentially add a significant amount of restored crude supply to global markets at a time when OPEC+ itself is struggling to manage the quotas within its own, from recalcitrant members like Iraq to surprising flouters like the UAE.
Mathematically at least, the ceiling for restored Libyan production is likely in the 300-400,000 b/d range, given that Haftar is still in control of the main fields and ports. That does not seem like much, but it will give cause for dissent within OPEC on the exemption of Libya from the supply deal. Libya will resist being roped into the supply deal, and it has justification to do so. But freeing those Libyan volumes into a world market that is already suffering from oversupply and weak prices will be undermining in nature. The equation has changed, and the Libyan situation can no longer be taken for granted.
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
In its January 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that annual U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d in 2021, down 0.2 million b/d from 2020 as result of a decline in drilling activity related to low oil prices. A production decline in 2021 would mark the second consecutive year of production declines. Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic led to supply and demand disruptions. EIA expects crude oil production to increase in 2022 by 0.4 million b/d because of increased drilling as prices remain at or near $50 per barrel (b).
The United States set annual natural gas production records in 2018 and 2019, largely because of increased drilling in shale and tight oil formations. The increase in production led to higher volumes of natural gas in storage and a decrease in natural gas prices. In 2020, marketed natural gas production fell by 2% from 2019 levels amid responses to COVID-19. EIA estimates that annual U.S. marketed natural gas production will decline another 2% to average 95.9 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2021. The fall in production will reverse in 2022, when EIA estimates that natural gas production will rise by 2% to 97.6 Bcf/d.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
EIA’s forecast for crude oil production is separated into three regions: the Lower 48 states excluding the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) (81% of 2019 crude oil production), the GOM (15%), and Alaska (4%). EIA expects crude oil production in the U.S. Lower 48 states to decline through the first quarter of 2021 and then increase through the rest of the forecast period. As more new wells come online later in 2021, new well production will exceed the decline in legacy wells, driving the increase in overall crude oil production after the first quarter of 2021.
Associated natural gas production from oil-directed wells in the Permian Basin will fall because of lower West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices and reduced drilling activity in the first quarter of 2021. Natural gas production from dry regions such as Appalachia depends on the Henry Hub price. EIA forecasts the Henry Hub price will increase from $2.00 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2020 to $3.01/MMBtu in 2021 and to $3.27/MMBtu in 2022, which will likely prompt an increase in Appalachia's natural gas production. However, natural gas production in Appalachia may be limited by pipeline constraints in 2021 if the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is delayed. The MVP is scheduled to enter service in late 2021, delivering natural gas from producing regions in northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Natural gas takeaway capacity in the region is quickly filling up since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled in mid-2020.
Just when it seems that the drama of early December, when the nations of the OPEC+ club squabbled over how to implement and ease their collective supply quotas in 2021, would be repeated, a concession came from the most unlikely quarter of all. Saudi Arabia. OPEC’s swing producer and, especially in recent times, vocal judge, announced that it would voluntarily slash 1 million barrels per day of supply. The move took the oil markets by surprise, sending crude prices soaring but was also very unusual in that it was not even necessary at all.
After a day’s extension to the negotiations, the OPEC+ club had actually already agreed on the path forward for their supply deal through the remainder of Q1 2021. The nations of OPEC+ agreed to ease their overall supply quotas by 75,000 b/d in February and 120,000 b/d in March, bringing the total easing over three months to 695,000 b/d after the UAE spearheaded a revised increase of 500,000 b/d for January. The increases are actually very narrow ones; there were no adjustments for quotas for all OPEC+ members with the exception of Russia and Kazakshtan, who will be able to pump 195,000 additional barrels per day between them. That the increases for February and March were not higher or wider is a reflection of reality: despite Covid-19 vaccinations being rolled out globally, a new and more infectious variant of the coronavirus has started spreading across the world. In fact, there may even be at least of these mutations currently spreading, throwing into question the efficacy of vaccines and triggering new lockdowns. The original schedule of the April 2020 supply deal would have seen OPEC+ adding 2 million b/d of production from January 2021 onwards; the new tranches are far more measured and cognisant of the challenging market.
Then Saudi Arabia decides to shock the market by declaring that the Kingdom would slash an additional million barrels of crude supply above its current quota over February and March post-OPEC+ announcement. Which means that while countries such as Russia, the UAE and Nigeria are working to incrementally increase output, Saudi Arabia is actually subsidising those planned increases by making a massive additional voluntary cut. For a member that threw its weight around last year by unleashing taps to trigger a crude price war with Russia and has been emphasising the need for strict compliant by all members before allowing any collective increases to take place, this is uncharacteristic. Saudi Arabia may be OPEC’s swing producer, but it is certainly not that benevolent. Not least because it is expected to record a massive US$79 billion budget deficit for 2020 as low crude prices eat into the Kingdom’s finances.
So, why is Saudi Arabia doing this?
The last time the Saudis did this was in July 2020, when the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was at devastating levels and crude prices needed some additional propping up. It succeeded. In January 2021, however, global crude prices are already at the US$50/b level and the market had already cheered the resolution of OPEC+’s positions for the next two months. There was no real urgent need to make voluntary cuts, especially since no other OPEC member would suit especially not the UAE with whom there has been a falling out.
The likeliest reason is leadership. Having failed to convince the rest of the OPEC+ gang to avoid any easing of quotas, Saudi Arabia could be wanting to prove its position by providing a measure of supply security at a time of major price sensitivity due to the Covid-19 resurgence. It will also provide some political ammunition for future negotiations when the group meets in March to decide plans for Q2 2021, turning this magnanimous move into an implicit threat. It could also be the case that Saudi Arabia is planning to pair its voluntary cut with field maintenance works, which would be a nice parallel to the usual refinery maintenance season in Asia where crude demand typically falls by 10-20% as units shut for routine inspections.
It could also be a projection of soft power. After isolating Qatar physically and economically since 2017 over accusations of terrorism support and proximity to Iran, four Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – have agreed to restore and normalise ties with the peninsula. While acknowledging that a ‘trust deficit’ still remained, the accord avoids the awkward workarounds put in place to deal with the boycott and provides for road for cooperation ahead of a change on guard in the White House. Perhaps Qatar is even thinking of re-joining OPEC? As Saudi Arabia flexes its geopolitical muscle, it does need to pick its battles and re-assert its position. Showcasing political leadership as the world’s crude swing producer is as good a way of demonstrating that as any, even if it is planning to claim dues in the future.
It worked. It has successfully changed the market narrative from inter-OPEC+ squabbling to a more stabilised crude market. Saudi Arabia’s patience in prolonging this benevolent role is unknown, but for now, it has achieved what it wanted to achieve: return visibility to the Kingdom as the global oil leader, and having crude oil prices rise by nearly 10%.