Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly Petroleum Status Report
For the week ending July 6, 2018, the four-week average of U.S. gross refinery inputs surpassed 18 million barrels per day (b/d) for the first time on record. U.S. refineries are running at record levels in response to robust domestic and international demand for motor gasoline and distillate fuel oil.
Before the most recent increases in refinery runs, the last time the four-week average of U.S. gross refinery inputs approached 18 million b/d was the week of August 25, 2017. Hurricane Harvey made landfall the following week, resulting in widespread refinery closures and shutdowns along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Despite record-high inputs, refinery utilization as a percentage of capacity has not surpassed the record set in 1998. Rather than higher utilization, refinery runs have increased with increased refinery capacity. U.S. refinery capacity increased by 862,000 barrels per calendar day (b/cd) between January 1, 2011, and January 1, 2018.
The record-high U.S. input levels are driven in large part by refinery operations in the Gulf Coast and Midwest regions, the Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts (PADDs) with the most refinery capacity in the country. The Gulf Coast (PADD 3) has more than half of all U.S. refinery capacity and reached a new record input level the same week as the record-high overall U.S. capacity, with four-week average gross refinery inputs of 9.5 million b/d for the week ending July 6. The Midwest (PADD 2) has the second-highest refinery capacity, and the four-week average gross refinery inputs reached a record-high 4.1 million b/d for the week ending June 1.
U.S. refineries are responding currently to high demand for petroleum products, specifically motor gasoline and distillate. The four-week average of finished motor gasoline product supplied—EIA’s proxy measure of U.S. consumption—typically hits the highest level of the year in August. Weekly data for this summer to date suggest that this year’s peak in finished motor gasoline product supplied is likely to match that of 2016 and 2017, the two highest years on record, at 9.8 million b/d. The four-week average of finished motor gasoline product supplied for the week ending August 3, 2018, was at 9.7 million b/d.
U.S. distillate consumption, again measured as product supplied, is also relatively high, averaging 4.0 million b/d for the past four weeks, 64,000 b/d lower than the five-year average level for this time of year. In addition to relatively strong domestic distillate consumption, U.S. exports of distillate have continued to increase, reaching a four-week average of 1.2 million b/d as of August 3, 2018. For the week ending August 3, 2018, the four-week average of U.S. distillate product supplied plus exports reached 5.2 million b/d.
In its August Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts that U.S. refinery runs will average 16.9 million b/d and 17.0 million b/d in 2018 and 2019, respectively. If achieved, both would be new record highs, surpassing the 2017 annual average of 16.6 million b/d.
Natural gas production in Egypt has been in decline, falling from a 2009 peak of 5.8 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) to 3.9 Bcf/d in 2016, based on estimates in BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy. The startup of a number of natural gas development projects located offshore in the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Egypt’s northern coast has significantly altered the outlook for the region’s natural gas markets. Production from these projects could offset the growing need for natural gas imports to meet domestic demand, according to the Egyptian government.
The West Nile Delta, Nooros, Atoll, and Zohr fields were fast-tracked for development by the Egyptian government and have begun production, providing a substantial increase to Egypt’s natural gas supply. The Zohr field’s estimated recoverable natural gas reserves of up to 22 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) would make it the largest natural gas field in the Mediterranean, based on company reports gathered by IHS Markit. The Zohr field is currently producing 1.1 billion cubic feet (Bcf) per day and is expected to increase to 2.7 Bcf per day by the end of 2019.
Natural gas production in Egypt has declined largely as a result of relatively low investment, according to Business Monitor International research. Meanwhile, domestic demand for energy has grown, driven by economic growth, increased natural gas use for power generation, and energy subsidies. With the exception of small declines in 2013 and 2014, natural gas consumption has increased every year since at least 1990, and it is up 19% from 2009, when domestic production peaked.
Faced with growing demand and declining supply, Egypt had to close its liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals to divert supply to domestic consumption. Egypt became a net natural gas importer in 2015, and although LNG exports resumed in 2016, Egypt’s net imports of natural gas continued to increase.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy
The Middle East Economic Survey (MEES) indicated that Egypt will still need to import small volumes of natural gas in the coming years, particularly for the power sector. MEES reported that the state-owned Egyptian Electricity Holding Company (EEHC) awarded contracts that would add 25 gigawatts (GW) to total generation capacity, 70% of which would come from natural gas-fired projects. Three combined-cycle natural gas turbine power plants with a total capacity of 14.4 GW will collectively require as much as 2.0 Bcf/d of natural gas when they become fully operational in 2020.
A threat. And then a backing off. As the trade war between the US and China escalates, both countries are moving into politically sensitive areas as they ratchet up the scale of the standoff. When the US first introduced tariffs earlier this year, they were limited to washing machines and solar panels. Then as President Trump moved into a broader range of goods, China responded with tariffs that were designed to maximise impact on Trump’s voter base. That meant the agriculture heartlands of the US in the Midwest where soybeans are grown and shipped in record numbers to China last year to feed its massive demand for animal feed and edible oils. Last week, the US imposed tariffs on an additional US$16 billion worth of Chinese imports, targeting technological sectors, and of course, China replied. The list included for the first time US crude exports, demonstrating China’s willingness to hit one of America’s most vibrant industries. And then, a few days later, it backed down, removing crude oil from the list.
Chatter among the industry suggests that Sinopec had lobbied for the removal. Even though growth has slowed down nominally, China’s fuel demand is still growing massively on an absolute level. In a year where Iranian crude exports are being squeezed by new American sanctions, China needs oil. It may have defied a request by the US to completely halt Iranian exports, but it has also promised not to ramp up orders as well. China imported some 650,000 b/d of crude from Iran last year. To replace even some of that will be challenging without tapping into growing American production, particularly since Sinopec and Petrochina are in a tiff with Saudi Aramco over prices, and the government wants to diversify its crude sources away from overreliance on Russia.
So crude was removed from the tariff list. Leaving only refined fuels and petrochemical feedstocks – tiny in demand except for propane, which has become a key feedstock for China’s petrochemicals producers through PDH plants. But since President Trump has mooted more tariffs, this time on US$200 billion worth of imports, China may have backpedalled for strategic reasons this time – Sinopec’s trading arm had suspended all US purchases until the ‘uncertainty passed’- but can still wield its potent weapon in the future. And not just on crude, but tariffs on LNG as well. The latter is more sensitive, given that many of the LNG projects springing up along the Gulf Coast are depending on projected Chinese demand. Cheniere just signed a 25-year LNG deal with CNPC and is hoping for more to come. That hope burns bright for now, but if the trade war continues escalating at its current pace, the forecast could get a lot cloudier. For now, US energy exports have been spared from the wrath of the Middle Kingdom. Enjoy it while it lasts.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 6 August 2018 – Brent: US$73/b; WTI: US$69/b
Headlines of the week
The US-China trade war took a turn for the worse this week and could fester for months, potentially denting Chinese economic growth and oil demand well into 2019. That spectre controlled oil market sentiment almost to the exclusion of all other influences this week and had forced Brent to re-test recent support levels around $71/barrel on Friday.
Decisions by Washington and Beijing on August 7 and 8, to proceed with a second round of bilateral tariffs on $16 billion worth of annual imports starting from August 23, squashed any hopes of a return to negotiations. The Trump administration wants to narrow the $375-billion trade gap the US had with China as of 2017 and has threatened to impose duties on all $500 billion worth of its imports from the Asian giant. China is expected to run out of ammunition in its reciprocal retaliation much before that finish line, and yet, it is hard to see it backing off.
Chinese oil consumption is still centered around manufacturing despite the economy’s ongoing pivot to a services-led growth model, and there have been other signs of a demand slowdown, especially after the independent refiners or “teapots”, were hit hard by tightened tax regulations in March that had nothing to do with the tariffs dispute.
Crude imports by China, the largest in the world and a closely monitored proxy for its appetite, slipped two months in a row over May and June. Though there was a slight uptick in July imports to around 8.52 million b/d from a six-month nadir of 8.39 million b/d in June, market confidence in the country’s growth has been shaken.
Consensus expectations on US economic growth remain sanguine but it may be worth paying closer attention to its oil consumption data. Refined products supplied across the US, a proxy for consumption, averaged around 20.93 million b/d in the week to August 3, a slump of 1 million b/d from the corresponding week of 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration. Gasoline use, which accounts for nearly 45% of US oil demand, slid by 540,000 b/d from a week ago to around 9.35 million b/d, in the midst of the country’s peak summer driving demand season. However, four-week average figures, which smooths out volatility that may be more noise than signal, do not indicate any major downtrends.
In a curious last-minute twist in the trade war, China dropped US crude from its list of items that will attract 25% import duty from August 23 and included diesel, jet fuel, naphtha and propane, alongside a host of petrochemical products. The about-turn on crude could be aimed at alleviating pressure on Chinese refiners and holding it as a trump card for later use when Beijing’s leverage in terms of the value of remaining goods to tax withers.
China was the largest overseas buyer of US crude in May, averaging 427,000 b/d of imports, according to the latest monthly data from the EIA. Imports spiked to a record 553,000 b/d in June, according to Reuters. However, Chinese refiners began shunning US crude from July and may not risk resuming imports despite the commodity having been left off the latest tariff list, for fear that it may be reinstated any time. US LNG, which China had left alone but decided to threaten with a 25% import tariff on August 3, is a case in point.
The broader global economic fallout of a bitter fight between the world’s two largest economies defies prediction, but appears to have invited a general sense of gloom as far as oil demand is concerned. That may have been helped by bearishness closing in from the supply side as well. Growing flows from some of the OPEC/non-OPEC producers who have been ramping up in line with the ministerial agreement in Vienna on June 23 to boost collective output by up 1 million b/d have hit progressively the market since June (the Saudis had likely started ramping up that month, even before the Vienna deal).
A moderate-sized contango has entrenched itself at the front end of the Brent forward curve since mid-July, a market state that typically signals supply overshadowing demand. However, WTI, Dubai and Oman time spreads are in backwardation.
What's next for oil? We see no escape from the vortex of bearishness for the next few weeks, though we expect the OPEC/non-OPEC leadership to regroup to shore up prices if Brent breaches the key psychological level of $70/barrel. Looking beyond the next few weeks, the combination of Iran sanctions, moderating US oil production growth, and an exhausted OPEC/non-OPEC spare production capacity could hit the market with a perfect storm in Q4.
In the August 2018 update of its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts Brent crude oil prices to average $73 per barrel (b) in the second half of 2018 and decline to an average of $71/b in 2019 (Figure 1). Competing upside and downside price risks are expected to play a large role in price formation during the forecast period. Upside price risks stem largely from the possibility of supply outages when both petroleum inventories and spare crude oil production capacity for members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are lower than average. Downside price risks stem largely from potentially reduced demand because economic growth and resulting crude oil demand could be lower than forecast.
Daily and monthly average crude oil prices could vary significantly from annual average forecasts because global economic developments and geopolitical events in the coming months have the potential to push oil prices higher or lower than the current STEO price forecast.
EIA forecasts total global liquid fuels inventories to decrease by 0.3 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018, followed by an increase of 0.3 million b/d in 2019 (Figure 2). Inventory changes of this magnitude should be considered mostly balanced, contributing to forecast Brent crude oil prices remaining between $70/b and $73/b from August 2018 through the end of 2019. However, the forecast for slight inventory increases in 2019 contributes to expectations of modest downward price pressure in 2019.
On the supply side, the combination of relatively low inventory and OPEC spare capacity levels elevates the risk of upward price movements if a supply disruption occurs or if forecast production growth does not materialize.
Changes in global petroleum inventories data are not collected directly, but are estimated based on forecasts for global production and consumption. However, inventory data for the United States and other countries within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are available and may provide insight into global supply. In terms of days of supply, OECD inventories are expected to remain less than the monthly average for the previous five years, so any outages could have a significant effect on crude oil prices (Figure 3).
In 2018 and in 2019, EIA expects OPEC spare crude oil production capacity to decrease from 2017 levels (Figure 4). Although spare capacity in 2016 was lower than that forecast for 2018 and 2019, OECD inventories were higher in 2016, as seen in Figure 3. OPEC spare production capacity is forecast to average 1.6 million b/d in 2018 and to fall to 1.3 million b/d in 2019, down from 2.1 million b/d in 2017 and lower than the 10-year (2008–17) average of 2.3 million b/d. With little spare capacity, risks on the supply side (including greater-than-forecast disruptions in Iran, Venezuela, or Libya) may have significant price impacts.
EIA forecasts OPEC’s petroleum and other liquids production to decrease from the 2017 level of 39.5 million b/d to 39.1 million b/d in 2018 and to 39.0 million b/d in 2019. The small decline in 2019 reflects crude oil production increases from some producers that nearly offset anticipated declines from other OPEC members.
Brent spot prices averaged more than $74/b in June 2018, up $10/b from December 2017. Price increases in 2018 have been largely driven by unplanned supply disruptions and the expected loss of some Iranian crude oil production by the end of the year because of renewed sanctions. The August 2018 STEO reflects the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the plan to reinstate sanctions on companies doing business with Iran. Sanctions will likely affect the Iranian oil sector, which would limit the country’s crude oil production and exports by the end of 2018. Uncertainty remains regarding the degree to which the U.S. sanctions will take Iranian crude oil off the market.
Future crude oil production in Venezuela and Libya and the magnitude of the production response from other OPEC members and Russia are also highly uncertain. Developments regarding these and other variables could influence prices in either direction.
Concerns about the pace of future economic and oil consumption growth have likely contributed to demand side uncertainty. The August STEO forecasts global demand growth for petroleum and other liquids to average 1.66 million b/d in 2018 and 1.57 million b/d in 2019, down from the July STEO forecast of 1.72 million b/d and 1.71 million b/d for 2018 and 2019, respectively.
U.S. average regular gasoline price increases, diesel price decreases
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price increased less than one cent from last week to remain at $2.85 per gallon on August 6, 2018, up 47 cents from the same time last year. Rocky Mountain and East Coast prices each rose over a penny to $2.92 per gallon and $2.80 per gallon, respectively, and Midwest prices increased less than one cent to $2.77 per gallon. West Coast and Gulf Coast prices each decreased less than one cent to $3.34 per gallon and $2.59 per gallon, respectively.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price decreased less than one cent from last week to $3.22 per gallon on August 6, 2018, 64 cents higher than year ago. Midwest prices fell nearly one cent to $3.15 per gallon, and West Coast, East Coast, and Gulf Coast prices each decreased less than a penny, remaining virtually unchanged at $3.72 per gallon, $3.22 per gallon, and $3.00 per gallon, respectively. Rocky Mountain prices were unchanged at $3.36 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories rise slightly
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 0.1 million barrels last week to 66.4 million barrels as of August 3, 2018, 9.3 million barrels (12.2%) lower than the five-year (2013-2017) average inventory level for this same time of year. Gulf Coast inventories increased by 0.3 million barrels and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories rose slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Midwest and East Coast inventories decreased by 0.2 million barrels and 0.1 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 4.3% of total propane/propylene inventories.
For questions about This Week in Petroleum, contact the Petroleum Markets Team at 202-586-4522.