Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: July 18, 2021
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Business Trends
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In the perennial struggle between resources owners and resource exploiters, Mexico’s latest move surrounding its largest private oil discovery ever has echoes of many past battles. There are only a few countries in the world that have both the physical energy assets and the technological know-how to exploit it, such as the US, UK and Norway. Even other major producers such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and Venezuela had plenty of outside help before nationalisation took over; to say nothing of the new players to hydrocarbons such as Guyana or Ghana. So Mexico’s decision to designate its state oil firm Pemex as the sole operator of the Zama field over the private consortium (led by Houston-based Talos Energy) that made the discovery has plenty of precedent. And is also a chilling reminder that the battle between national pride and international experience will always play out.

The Zama field, located in Block 7 of the Sureste Basin in the Gulf of Mexico, was discovered in July 2017 from the first exploration well to be drilled by the private sector in the country. The Zama-1 well struck oil at a depth of nearly 170m, and subsequent appraisal wells estimate the total recoverable reserves at nearly a billion barrels. Talos Energy, which holds a 35% stake in the block, is the current operator, sharing it with consortium partners Sierra Oil and Gas (40%) and Premier Oil (25%). First oil is expected by 2022 and peak production should stand at around 100,000 b/d. In many ways, Zama was a game changer for the Mexican upstream industry. At the point of discovery, Mexican oil production had been waning and discoveries lacking; Zama was proof that there was still significant amounts of oil left to be found.

The fact that Zama was the result of the first private sector exploration ever (well, at least for in over 80 years) was key. The fact that it was a huge resource was icing on the cake. Because in 2013, the Energy Reform allowed private and foreign investor across the entire energy value chain in Mexico for the first time since 1938, breaking Pemex’s monopoly in an effort to combat what was seen then as a chronic decline in Mexican energy. On the downstream side, international fuel brands penetrated the market for the first time, setting up what are now lucrative fuel station networks. But the biggest impact was on the upstream side. In the years following the 2013 Energy Reform, the Mexican National Hydrocarbons Commission awarded 107 oil and gas exploration and production contracts to over 73 companies from 20 countries.

The Zama discovery was born out of this de-monopolisation drive, and the companies currently drilling wells and making discoveries across Mexico include those from as far as Thailand and Malaysia. The string of new discoveries that have followed Zama’s are the fruits of this labour. Pemex still plays a vital role in the country – including running one of the world’s largest crude hedging programmes – but its loss of relevance has rankled some nationalists. Which is why in 2018, when new President Andrés Manual López Obrador (AMLO) took office on a nationalist platform, issuance of new E&P contracts have slowed down to a near trickle and new crude auctions have been suspended, as AMLO’s administration tries to assert domestic interests. His stated goal is to return Pemex to glory, which will mean rolling back the energy reforms that (briefly) made Mexico an upstream investment darling between 2014 and 2018.

Zama – as the most high-profile of all the private-led discoveries so far – has been at the centre of this tug-of-war. There is some basis to the government’s decision to hand over Zama to Pemex; this is not just some flimsy asset-grab attempt. Since the Zama field shares the same reservoir as one belonging to Pemex, the dispute has raged over whether Talos or Pemex has operational rights. A unification process to establish a joint area has been underway since 2018, with a study commissioned by both parties concluding that Pemex has a slight majority share with 50.4% of the shared reservoir. That ordinarily should have led to a new joint venture recognising the shared resource, but instead Mexico has decided to name Pemex as sole operator. It is a decision that should send chills down the spine of other international firms.

Because if it could happen to Talos, then it could happen to Lukoil, which just agreed to acquire a 50% interest in the Area 4 Ichalkil and Pokoch fields in the Bay of Campeche from Fieldwood Energy. It could happen to Petronas, which has made a string of offshore discoveries including from the Polok-1 and Chinwol-1 wells in 2020. It could happen to Eni, which holds rights in six E&P blocks (six as the operator) in the Sureste Basin. It could happen to anyone, because the AMLO administration has indicated with this approach that it is ready to confront the frustration and concern of foreign investors in order to polish Pemex. This could bring Mexico in the crosshairs of the Biden administration, since Talos is an American firm and this could fly in the face of some terms in the new North American trade deal. And more concerning is whether Pemex even has the resources and skills to operate Zama. The energy reform in 2013 happened precisely because Pemex couldn’t deliver operationally. Six years on and not much has changed at Pemex, so will there be any difference beyond nationalistic pride? Talos has made the full investment at Zama so far, while Pemex has yet to drill a single well after cancelling plans in June at the reservoir. Indonesia attempted something similar; and despite grand ambitions, Pertamina is no Petronas and the Indonesian upstream sector has languished.

Time will tell if this is a one-off or a trend in Mexico. But odds are that it will be the latter, given the nationalist bent pursued by AMLO and his relatively high popularity. But this shouldn’t be a surprise to any international firm operating in the sector. It happens everywhere. It is currently happening in Guyana, which is currently debating new petroleum laws to give the state a greater share of oil revenue after ExxonMobil was attracted there on favourable terms to make blockbuster oil discoveries. It is at the heart of the crisis in Papua New Guinea where the new government is attempting to extricate better terms from ExxonMobil and Total after their LNG projects took off. It resulted in Eni being ordered by a Ghanian court to place 30% of the Sankofa field’s revenue in an escrow account after the Italian major defied Ghana’s request to combine its field with the neighbouring Afina field owned by Springfield. Competing national interests and commercial rights are reality in the upstream world. And if those signs coming out of Mexico are correct, then current private firms sitting on Mexican assets should be wary. At least until this attempt fails and a new politician initiates a U-turn.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$72-74/b, WTI – US$70-72/b
  • News that OPEC+ was on the verge of a new deal – after some concessions were offered to the UAE to entice it to support the extension of the club’s supply deal – provided some relief to the global crude markets, but the resulting incremental gains in supply over 2021 have seen benchmarks retreat down to the US$70/b level
  • Markets are also increasingly concerned about the global resurgence in Covid-19 infections that spiking cases even in vaccine success stories such as the US and the UK, both of which have seen daily cases return to high double-digits; although this is mainly among the unvaccinated and death rates are low, the chances are the renewed outbreak causing further mutation is dampening forecasts for mid and long-term crude demand

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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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