Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: July 26, 2021
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Business Trends
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The tizzy that OPEC+ threw the world into in early July has been settled, with a confirmed pathway forward to restore production for the rest of 2021 and an extension of the deal further into 2022. The lone holdout from the early July meetings – the UAE – appears to have been satisfied with the concessions offered, paving the way for the crude oil producer group to begin increasing its crude oil production in monthly increments from August onwards. However, this deal comes at another difficult time; where the market had been fretting about a shortage of oil a month ago due to resurgent demand, a new blast of Covid-19 infections driven by the delta variant threatens to upend the equation once again. And so Brent crude futures settled below US$70/b for the first time since late May even as the argument at OPEC+ appeared to be settled.

How the argument settled? Well, on the surface, Riyadh and Moscow capitulated to Abu Dhabi’s demands that its baseline quota be adjusted in order to extend the deal. But since that demand would result in all other members asking for a similar adjustment, Saudi Arabia and Russia worked in a rise for all, and in the process, awarded themselves the largest increases.

The net result of this won’t be that apparent in the short- and mid-term. The original proposal at the early July meetings, backed by OPEC+’s technical committee was to raise crude production collectively by 400,000 b/d per month from August through December. The resulting 2 mmb/d increase in crude oil, it was predicted, would still lag behind expected gains in consumption, but would be sufficient to keep prices steady around the US$70/b range, especially when factoring in production increases from non-OPEC+ countries. The longer term view was that the supply deal needed to be extended from its initial expiration in April 2022, since global recovery was still ‘fragile’ and the bloc needed to exercise some control over supply to prevent ‘wild market fluctuations’. All members agreed to this, but the UAE had a caveat – that the extension must be accompanied by a review of its ‘unfair’ baseline quota.

The fix to this issue that was engineered by OPEC+’s twin giants Saudi Arabia and Russia was to raise quotas for all members from May 2022 through to the new expiration date for the supply deal in September 2022. So the UAE will see its baseline quota, the number by which its output compliance is calculated, rise by 330,000 b/d to 3.5 mmb/d. That’s a 10% increase, which will assuage Abu Dhabi’s itchiness to put the expensive crude output infrastructure it has invested billions in since 2016 to good use. But while the UAE’s hike was greater than some others, Saudi Arabia and Russia took the opportunity to award themselves (at least in terms of absolute numbers) by raising their own quotas by 500,000 b/d to 11.5 mmb/d each.

On the surface, that seems academic. Saudi Arabia has only pumped that much oil on a handful of occasions, while Russia’s true capacity is pegged at some 10.4 mmb/d. But the additional generous headroom offered by these larger numbers means that Riyadh and Moscow will have more leeway to react to market fluctuations in 2022, which at this point remains murky. Because while there is consensus that more crude oil will be needed in 2022, there is no consensus on what that number should be. The US EIA is predicting that OPEC+ should be pumping an additional 4 million barrels collectively from June 2021 levels in order to meet demand in the first half of 2022. However, OPEC itself is looking at a figure of some 3 mmb/d, forecasting a period of relative weakness that could possibly require a brief tightening of quotas if the new delta-driven Covid surge erupts into another series of crippling lockdowns. The IEA forecast is aligned with OPEC’s, with an even more cautious bent.

But at some point with the supply pathway from August to December set in stone, although OPEC+ has been careful to say that it may continue to make adjustments to this as the market develops, the issues of headline quota numbers fades away, while compliance rises to prominence. Because the success of the OPEC+ deal was not just based on its huge scale, but also the willingness of its 23 members to comply to their quotas. And that compliance, which has been the source of major frustrations in the past, has been surprisingly high throughout the pandemic. Even in May 2021, the average OPEC+ compliance was 85%. Only a handful of countries – Malaysia, Bahrain, Mexico and Equatorial Guinea – were estimated to have exceeded their quotas, and even then not by much. But compliance is easier to achieve in an environment where demand is weak. You can’t pump what you can’t sell after all. But as crude balances rapidly shift from glut to gluttony, the imperative to maintain compliance dissipates.

For now, OPEC+ has managed to placate the market with its ability to corral its members together to set some certainty for the immediate future of crude. Brent crude prices have now been restored above US$70/b, with WTI also climbing. The spat between Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have surprised and shocked market observers, but there is still unity in the club. However, that unity is set to be tested. By the end of 2021, the focus of the OPEC+ supply deal will have shifted from theoretical quotas to actual compliance. Abu Dhabi has managed to lift the tide for all OPEC+ members, offering them more room to manoeuvre in a recovering market, but discipline will not be uniform. And that’s when the fireworks will really begin.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$72-74/b, WTI – US$70-72/b
  • Worries about new Covid-19 infections worldwide dragging down demand just as OPEC+ announced that it would be raising production by 400,000 b/d a month from August onward triggered a slide in Brent and WTI crude prices below US$70/b
  • However, that slide was short lived as near-term demand indications showed the consumption remained relatively resilient, which lifted crude prices back to their previous range in the low US$70/b level, although the longer-term effects of the Covid-19 delta variants are still unknown at this moment
  • Clarity over supply and demand will continue to be lacking given the fragility of the situation, which suggests that crude prices will remain broadly rangebound for now

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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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