Quote of the Week
“Those production gains came even as the rig count has continued to slide. Longer laterals and more intense fracking operations have led to years of soaring output. The problem for shale companies is that the profits have never really arrived. The downturn in oil prices since the fourth quarter of last year was the final straw for some investors. Access to financing has become increasingly closed off, and the mood among shale drillers has soured notably in recent months.”
Nick Cunningham, Oilprice.com
1. Oil and the Global Economy
Concerns about the weakening global economy and oil demand growth trumped Middle Eastern tensions and the OPEC+ rollover of the production cuts into 2020, sending oil prices lower for most of last week. Prices rebounded on Friday by a dollar or so with London futures closing out the week at $64.27, down about $2.50 from the week’s high on Tuesday, and New York closing at $57.61. Now that the OPEC+ efforts to force up oil prices are out of the way for another nine months, attention is focusing on US shale oil production, the slowing global economy, the US-China trade dispute, and the increasingly serious effects of climate change.
Despite the announcement last week that US-China trade talks will resume shortly, Beijing is warning that the two sides are still far apart, and the US must rescind its tariffs on Chinese goods before any settlement is reached. The global economic situation seems set for a downturn with leading economic indicators sounding warnings across the world.
Hardly a week goes by without news of some new climate-change induced disaster across the world. Much of the US corn-belt is too wet to plant this year; Chennai, a city of 7 million in India, is out of water while across the country Mumbai is being flooded; and new temperature records were set last week from France to Alaska as unprecedented heat waves settled in.
Major European oil companies are starting to talk publicly about the relationship between carbon emissions and global warming and are suggesting that their business models might have to change. These changes might involve shifting to an emphasis on renewable sources of energy and leaving at least some of their fossil fuel reserves in the ground. With current technologies, economic growth requires ever-increasing consumption of fossil fuels. Projections of energy consumption 20 or 30 years from now by government and private forecasters show increased carbon emissions.
In recent months the debate over global warming vs. economic growth has intensified and could become “a” if not “the” major political issue in many countries as the effects of climate change disrupt life and economies around the world. Twenty years ago, peak oil was thought of as primarily a geological phenomenon under which the world would run short of oil reserves which could be extracted at affordable prices. While this still may be the case, concerns about global warming are growing to the point that growth-limiting restrictions on carbon emissions may someday in the foreseeable future come to limit oil production.
The OPEC Production Cut: The cartel’s oil production dropped to below 30 million b/d in June, down by 170,000 b/d from May, the lowest monthly output since April 2014, as increased Saudi oil production was insufficient to compensate for declines due to US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela and Russia’s contaminated oil problem. After weeks of deliberations, infighting, global pressure, and media hype, OPEC and Russia confirmed that the oil market still needs support to avoid another steep fall in prices.
Despite lower supplies, of Brent crude has fallen from a six-month high above $75 a barrel in April to below $65 on Friday, pressured by concern about slowing economic growth. “The decision of OPEC+ at the beginning of the week to extend its production cuts has done nothing to change this,” Carsten Fritsch, an analyst at Commerzbank, said of this week’s price decline. “A series of disappointing economic data from the United States, China, and Europe has sparked new concerns about demand.”
The turmoil surrounding last week’s OPEC+ decision has started discussions as to whether the cartel which has ruled oil prices for nearly 60 years is on its way to extinction. The addition of Moscow, which produces some 11 million barrels of oil each day, as a key player in the recent agreement is evidence that OPEC plus Russia is a different beast. Many long-term OPEC members are struggling to export enough oil to keep their countries functioning and are in no position to cut production anymore. The only oil exporters with leeway to modify oil output are the Saudis and the Gulf Arab states, along with those former members of the Soviet Union that still produce oil.
Moscow shows no interest in formally joining OPEC but is talking about a formal agreement with the cartel to keep oil prices from falling too much. Such an arrangement is likely to cement the Riyadh-Moscow alliance as the only decision makers. This would leave the other members voiceless but bound to go along with whatever the “big two” exporters agree is in both their interests. The next step would be for minor exporters to drop out presaging the end of the cartel.
US Shale Oil Production: According to recent forecasts from four energy research firms and the US government, the annual increase in shale oil production is due to fall from 1.5 million b/d in 2018 to 1.3 million in 2019. This slowing in the rate of growth in US shale oil production raises the question of whether we will see peak shale oil production soon, or whether US shale oil production will continue to grow into the 2030s as the EIA forecasts.
Total US oil production hit 12.16 million b/d in April, according to the latest data. US output currently is forecast to be higher than 13 million b/d by the end of the year, and to surpass 14 million sometime in 2020. At least one forecaster is predicting that shale oil production will not peak until 2025 when output is forecast to be over 16 million b/d. Given that the financial and oil industry press has been rife with stories about troubles ahead for the shale oil industry, the question arises as to whether forecasts of a multimillion-barrel increase in production during the next five years are wishful thinking.
It is now conventional wisdom that of the seven large shale oil basins in the US, all but the Permian in West Texas and New Mexico are at, or close to, their all-time peak production. Whether these basins will stay close to their peaks for many years or go into decline in the next few years remains to be seen. For now, all the growth-in-production eggs seem to be in the Permian Basin, which brought 400 new horizontal wells per month online in 2018 and now has some 22,000 wells in production.
There is some room for optimism about growth in the Permian. New pipelines to move the Permian’s gas and oil to export terminals and other markets are due to open shortly and large, well-financed oil companies are taking over a larger share of the Permian’s production. As the financing dries up for the small and middle-sized shale oil drillers, the pace at which these properties fall into stronger hands that have revenue streams from other than selling shale oil may well determine the fate of the industry in the next few years.
2. The Middle East & North Africa
Iran: The new US sanctions have proved more punishing than Iran’s leaders expected, driving them to hit back militarily and breach limits it had agreed to put on its nuclear program. This increasingly confrontational approach aims to raise the costs to the US of its maximum-pressure campaign and to push Western European nations to offer economic relief. Tehran said on Sunday that it is fully prepared to enrich uranium at any level and in any amount, in further defiance of US efforts to squeeze the country with sanctions and force it to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Among the few remaining customers for Iran’s oil is Syria which no longer has access to its domestic oil fields. For several months, Tehran has been sending small tankers through the Suez Canal to the main Syrian oil refinery. This time the Iranians decided to use a supertanker which had to sail around Africa and through the Straits of Gibraltar. As the tanker passed through Gibraltarian waters, it was seized by British Marines on the grounds it was violating EU sanctions against Syria dating from 2011. In response, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander threatened to seize a British ship in retaliation. “If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities’ duty to capture a British oil tanker.” Britain should be “scared” about Tehran’s possible retaliation; the Fars semi-official news agency reported an Iranian cleric as saying.
Meanwhile, Germany is working hard to open a special trade channel being set up to enable trade between Iran and European exporters without violating the US sanctions, and the Trump administration is searching for a legal authority it might use to justify an attack on Iran.
These include tying Iran to al-Qaeda, and President Trump’s assertion that it would not involve American ground troops and “wouldn’t last very long.” Democrats and some Republicans have tried repeatedly to pin the administration down, including an unsuccessful attempt to muster 60 Senate votes for an amendment requiring Trump to ask Congress before launching any military engagement.
Iraq: Crude exports in June fell to 3.52 million b/d from 3.57 million in May, according to figures provided by the State Organization for Marketing of Oil. The statistics don’t include the Kurdish region. The June shipments included 3.39 million b/d from Gulf terminals, 105,000 b/d from Kirkuk through the Ceyhan terminal and 25,000 b/d Qayarah oil transported by truck to the southern port of Um Qasr. Halfway through the year, Iraq has sold less oil than anticipated in the federal budget, but higher global prices have helped the government meet its revenue expectations, with just over $40 billion in oil proceeds.
Until recently it was a mystery why ExxonMobil has not gone ahead so far with the Common Seawater Supply Project, as part of the broader $53 billion Southern Iraq Integrated Project. The seawater supply project involving taking water from the Persian Gulf and transporting it to oil production facilities across southern Iraq to boost pressure at key oil reservoirs. This project is critical if Iraq is to reach its next oil output targets of 6.2 million b/d by end-2020 and 9 million by the end of 2023.
Although Baghdad needs a large international oil company to carry out a project of this scale, it seems unwilling to offer sufficient monetary incentives. The risks are too large for the profits the Iraqis are offering. In addition, the problem of endemic corruption across Iraq’s oil industry is well-known by those with any experience in dealing in the country. Given that several companies have paid or are facing significant fines in the US and UK for bribing Iraqi officials, Exxon may be having second thoughts about the risk vs. the rewards of taking on a massive project with the Iraqis.
Libya: The battle for Tripoli took a catastrophic turn last week, plunging the country even deeper into crisis. An airstrike, apparently aimed at an arms depot, hit a nearby detention center for migrants on the outskirts of Tripoli, killing some 55 detainees. To make matters worse, guards at the detention center fired on people seeking to escape the facility. The UN-backed government blamed the United Arab Emirates for the airstrike using an American-made F-16 jet fighter. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt support Libyan militia leader Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey supports the UN-backed government in Tripoli. The US has backed the Tripoli government since its creation by a UN-brokered agreement in 2015, but President Trump called Mr. Haftar in April and expressed support for Haftar, creating ambiguity in the US position.
Water is becoming a far more important concern than oil for most Libyans. In western Libya, finding clean water has become difficult because both the power grid and water control systems have been damaged by forces loyal to General Haftar as part of his attack on Tripoli, a city of more than 1 million. A 2,500-mile pipeline system known as the Great Man-Made River was a world-leading civil engineering project when it was built in the 1980s. Some 80 percent of the population of six million live along or near the northern Mediterranean coast and depend on freshwater pumped via its pipelines from vast aquifers further south.
The United Nations has warned all sides that water should not become a weapon of war, but the water system is already severely damaged in western Libya where the capital is located, according to reports by the water authority and the United Nations Children’s Agency. If the damage does not get fixed, there could be a “sudden, unexpected, uncontrollable and unprepared for” shutdown of the water pipeline system, the water authority said in a March presentation to international organizations. “The consequences will be catastrophic, as there is no viable alternative water supply system.”
Libya must remain exempt from any OPEC production cuts, the country’s National Oil Corp quoted its chairman, Mustafa Sanalla, as saying. “Libya has the right to recover production lost through conflict, and the country has lost 25 million barrels of oil this year alone.”
Representatives of the US and China are organizing a resumption of talks this week to try to resolve a year-long trade war. The talks broke down in May after US officials accused China of pulling back from commitments it had made previously in the text of an agreement that negotiators said was nearly finished. The US accuses China of allowing intellectual property theft and forcing US companies to share their technology with Chinese counterparts to do business in China. It wants China to change its laws on those and other issues. China denies such practices and is reluctant to make sweeping legal changes.
China and the US will face a long road before they can reach a deal to end their bitter trade war, with more fights ahead likely, Chinese state media said after the two countries’ presidents held ice-breaking talks in Japan. Existing US tariffs will have to be removed if there is to be a trade deal between Beijing and Washington, China’s commerce ministry said on Thursday.
China will remove the joint venture requirement for foreign companies wanting to enter its oil and gas industry as it moves to open up a range of sectors per a pledge it made during its trade talks with the US. The Chinese National Development and Reform Commission announced it would remove the joint venture requirement for oil and gas projects along with a rule stating that only local firms can control gas networks in cities with populations of over half a million people. This change in policy opens up a lot of opportunities for foreign companies.
China is completing a 2,000-mile long transmission line that connects the coal-rich Xinjiang province in western China to Anhui province in the country’s east. Once completed, the transmission line is expected to reduce coal use inn Eastern China by about 30 million tons per year. About 66 billion kWh of electricity a year will be transmitted to east China with a voltage of 1,100 KV upon completion, Xinhua reported. “Demand for thermal coal from coal-fired power plants in east China will fall further,” a China-based trader said. Once operational in another six to 12 months, the line will not only affect the demand for imported thermal coal but also pressure domestic coal prices, the coal-analyst added.
This project is part of a government plan to move the combustion of coal far from the eastern cities where it has been making the air unbreathable. It will reduce the need for expensive imported coal along the coast but will do nothing to reduce China’s carbon emissions as there will be considerable line losses in moving so much electricity 2000 miles.
Oil production in June fell by more than the amount agreed in a global deal to cut output, the energy minister and industry sources said last week, as the sector still felt the impact of a contaminated crude crisis that crippled exports. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said that Russian oil output last month fell by 278,000 b/d from an October 2018 baseline of 11.41 million. Under a deal reached with OPEC and other oil producers, Russia had agreed to reduce output by 228,000 b/d from the October 2018 baseline. Production has been constrained by the crisis over contaminated oil, which led to the suspension of exports via its Druzhba pipeline that feeds oil to export routes that supply the Baltic port of Ust-Luga, central Europe, and Germany. Oil supplies that were halted in April have resumed since.
Russian pipeline monopoly Transneft said last Monday it had fully resumed oil supplies via the Druzhba pipeline. However, the problems resulting from the contaminated oil saga are not over. Just days after Russia said it had fully resumed oil flows to Europe, a Shell oil refinery in Germany halted imports via the pipeline again, saying that slightly higher concentrations of organic chlorine were found in the crude. Poland’s biggest oil refiner PKN Orlen is calculating losses related to tainted Russian oil supplies and will submit its claims within weeks, the chief executive said on Friday. Millions of barrels of contaminated oil are still at sea trying to find customers.
The country’s crude oil exports fell by 1.6 million barrels in May, representing a 6.8 percent decline from April, according to figures obtained from the Central Bank of Nigeria. Exports for the month were put at 1.37 million b/d or a total of 42.5 million barrels, as against 1.47 million b/d or 44.1 million recorded in April. Crude oil going for domestic consumption was 0.45 million b/d or 13.5 million barrels in the month.
The never-ending story of corruption resulting from oil wealth continued last week with the court-ordered seizure of $40 million of luxury items, mainly jewelry, belonging to former petroleum resources minister Diezani Alison-Madueke. Among the items seized was a golden iPhone, 419 bangles, 315 rings, and 189 wristwatches. Madueke already had her $37.5 million apartment confiscated in 2017. The new seizures are in connection to a money laundering and bribery case involving former Nigerian President Goodluck Johnathon in the high-profile Malabu oil deal case which has embroiled Shell, Eni, and JPMorgan in legal battles in several countries, as well as a case involving Duke Oil Company and Trafigura.
Caracas exported 1.1 million b/d of crude oil and refined oil products in June, up by 26 percent from May, thanks to higher shipments under long-standing oil-for-loan deals with China. According to the oil company’s documents, China accounted for 59 percent of Venezuela’s oil shipments last month, with India and Singapore a distant second and third, with 18 percent and 10 percent, respectively. In May, Venezuela’s oil exports had slumped by 17 percent on the month to 874,500 b/d as the country had shut down almost all of its upgraders. Venezuela had to seriously reshuffle its crude oil and oil products export destinations earlier this year after the US prohibited Venezuelan oil imports to America.
While Venezuela’s oil exports to China averaged 233,000 b/d in February immediately after the US sanctions cut off Venezuelan oil from the US market, those exports nearly tripled to 656,000 b/d in June. The US didn’t import any crude oil from Venezuela last month. Whether Caracas is earning any foreign exchange from these shipments is unknown. Beijing loaned Venezuela many billions of dollars during the last ten years, and this oil may only be paying back the loans in hopes for future assistance. Venezuela will stick to its plan of blending domestic and foreign crude to maintain and even increase oil production and exports in the face of the US sanctions, oil minister Quevedo said on Tuesday. In June, PDVSA began to focus exports on the crude grade preferred by some Asian markets, Merey Heavy, after shipments of other oils and refined products fell in May.
Pemex plans to pursue an ultra-deepwater project in the Gulf of Mexico despite limited resources and despite recent pledges to avoid riskier endeavors in which it lacks experience. Mexico’s energy regulator, the National Hydrocarbons Commission CNH, has recently approved a plan by Pemex to drill for oil in ultra-deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Reuters reported on Wednesday. The CNH filing came just two weeks after Pemex’s chief financial officer, Alberto Velazquez, said the firm would avoid investing in deepwater projects, instead of focusing on areas where it has the experience, including the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico and onshore oil fields. According to the drilling and exploration plan approved by CNH, Pemex plans to invest $106 million in four years exploring in the Perdido area, which is a prolific producing basin on the US side of the maritime border. Actual drilling is set for Q2 2021, according to the plan seen by Reuters.
Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador won his election in a landslide last year, thanks in large part to his promise to crack down on corruption throughout the Mexican political system and the country’s state-owned oil company Petróleos Mexicanos. López Obrador is proving to be a man of his word, first by cracking down on the rampant fuel theft that has plagued Pemex for years, and now with a sweeping probe of the oil company. This probe has already uncovered a corruption scandal resulting in the arrest of a business executive, the issuance of a warrant for Pemex’s former Chief Executive Officer Emilio Lozoya, and multiple bans from serving in government positions for others involved in corruption.