The latest news in the declining oil price saga comes from Saudi Arabia. Last week softening prices of Brent crude oil, the global benchmark, appeared to be resulting from weaker growth prospects in Europe and Asia. This week, according to a Reuters exclusive, the Saudis suggested that market share is preferable to them over the higher prices that other OPEC members such as Venezuela prefer. However, senior Saudi officials would not comment on this market share agenda that was reported as a result of last weeks investor and analyst meetings in New York, where Reuters obtained their information. It is also hypothesized that the Saudi trial balloons could be a vehicle to help other OPEC members see the wisdom in all members sharing in production cuts to shore up prices, not just the Saudis, which is par for the course.
By the November 27th meeting, more clarity from OPEC is expected. Concerns about U.S. oil supply growth with the potential for glut have been on the radar of numerous analysts for over a year. The prices of Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) have fallen in tandem in the last few months. WTI dropped to $85 Friday October 10; January WTI futures fell $5.03 since Sept. 30 to $84.73 a barrel today on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) noted October 8:
The price of North Sea Brent crude oil,[the global benchmark], has fallen to around $91 per barrel, the lowest level in more than two years and about 21% lower than its year-to-date peak of $115 per barrel on June 19. Average monthly Brent spot prices had traded within a narrow $5 per barrel range, from $107 to $112 per barrel, for 13 consecutive months through July 2014.
Saudi Arabia, the OPEC producer with the most influence, has made adjustments to production and pricing. Saudi Arabia cut its crude production by about 400,000 barrels a day in August. This reduction was tied to lower exports to Asian markets. OPEC said it had reduced estimated demand for its crude by 200,000 barrels a day for 2015. The EIA curbed its forecasts for OPEC oil and other liquid fuels production to 35.51 million barrels a day in 2015, down 350,000 bpd from last month’s forecast. For crude oil output alone the EIA cut its forecast by 300,000 bpd to 29.24 million bpd. In September, OPEC pumped nearly 31 million bpd. The EIA projects that Brent crude oil prices will average $98 a barrel in the fourth-quarter of 2014. Brent traded around $88 as of early afternoon October 13th.
Gazprom, the Russian energy crown jewel, has seen its valuation drop considerably in the last few months in tandem with the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. Investors are having mixed reactions about Russia’s investment environment, though some are still playing roulette. Sanctions against Russian-linked investments must be carefully watched as they have significant valuation outcomes. Russia is now excluded from the June G-8 meeting, which has been moved from its original venue of Sochi.
Interestingly, markets reacted Tuesday, March 25th, by raising the stock price of Gazprom and Lukoil. In fact, Lukoil spiked 6% before coming back down. Markets have settled into the current state of the Russia-West standoff. Shorting Russia, so to speak, potentially shorts many other firms like British Petroleum (BP), Exxon (XOM), Chevron (CVX) and Shell (RDS.B) (RDS.A). Washington could extend sanctions in key industries, which includes Russian energy, if any further challenges are initiated by Russia.
Many in Washington are wishing they had unlocked U.S. natural gas exports earlier. But the issue is receiving center stage with testimony happening today about accelerating liquified natural gas (LNG) exports. As a way to strengthen energy positions, the North American energy trifecta of the U.S., Canada and Mexico need steadfast, well-conceived policies, keeping recent events in mind, but long-term goals front and center. U.S. exports of LNG will not start officially flowing until the end of 2015 through Cheniere’s Sabine Pass facility located on the Louisiana side of the Gulf of Mexico. Another new LNG facility was approved on March 24th in Oregon.
Risks, Rewards, and Soft Power
In oil markets, the year 2014 already looks to repeat 2013 with some important differences. Unpredictability in the commodities’ extraction and delivery, political risk, and policy risk may play a bigger role in 2014. The potential lifting of the crude oil export ban, which the industry and some lawmakers desire, may also stir up the market.
On the policy front, safety and methods of transporting oil and water disposal issues arose in 2013, and will likely again in 2014. The second rail disaster from transporting oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec incident with loss of life and the December 30th Casselton derailment, renewed the debate between pipelines versus rail transportation. The director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources “predicted that as much as 90 percent of crude produced in the Bakken this year will move by rail” a recent article noted. In Parker County, Texas, the Texas Railroad Commission listened to residents’ complaints about earthquakes, which they attribute to disposal wells. The US Geological Survey sees a link between the earthquakes and wastewater disposal; a similar renewal in earthquake activity is reported in Oklahoma as well. CONTINUE»
More Supply, Competition and Friction Possible
News of Iran’s potential slow ramp up of oil supply resounded with a downward small ping in prices in late November, later to bounce back based on supply realities and economic growth. Iraqi oil supply keeps increasing, averaging about 3 million barrels per day, a new high in the last 20 years. Iraq plans to keep pumping — growing production 500,000 – 750,000 barrels more per day in 2014. Iraq’s output relative to OPEC production hovers near 10%, from around 7.5% in 2008. Iran’s contribution to OPEC production was around 12% in 2008, dropping in 2013 to 8.6%, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.
“Al Arab Yantafiq lam yantafique,” said Mr. Charles Kestenbaum, a top Middle East expert and former U.S. Trade Specialist, in a November 25th interview, immediately following the news of Iran’s nuclear deal. This Arabic expression is translated as: ”Arabs can only agree to disagree.” In late November, the Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations hosted Charles Kestenbaum, a veteran of Middle East affairs since the mid-1970s. In his quote, a common expression, lies the challenges ahead in the Middle East.
Geopolitics in Region Could be Impacted
Recent natural gas discoveries off Israel’s eastern Mediterranean Sea are reversing its role of importer to that of exporter. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the larger finds — the Tamar and Leviathan fields — hold estimated reserves of 10 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) and 18 Tcf respectively. These fields are part of the Levant Basin, with probable oil reserves of 1.7 billion barrels and probable natural gas resources of 122 Tcf.
In the past, Israel imported most of its natural gas supply from Egypt. “Until early in 2012, the country received 40% of the gas it needed — 90% for electricity generation — from Egypt via a marine pipeline between El Arish and Ashkelon,” notes Oil & Gas Journal. Egypt, facing gas shortfalls, is planning to import gas via LNG, though pipeline deliveries from Israel are likely cheaper. Spot LNG in the east Mediterranean region is currently priced around $12.00 per million British thermal units.
Resources, Routes, and Boundaries
The Arctic is considered the last frontier in energy exploration and development. The region catches headlines from time to time — an international maritime boundary dispute between Russia and Norway, the 2007 planting of a Russian flag under the North Pole, and lately, the effect of melting sea ice. The latest Intergovernmental Panel (IPCC) report on climate change will expose how the oceans are literally taking the heat, compared to the atmosphere. This bodes ill for the Arctic, as warming oceans melt sea ice. The U.S.’s Arctic policy, articulated earlier this year by President Obama, is to advance national security, pursue responsible Arctic stewardship and strengthen international cooperation.
Arctic States, and members of the Arctic Council, with land masses contiguous to the Arctic Ocean, are Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S. These countries have the right, up to 200 nautical miles, to claim an exclusive economic zone which allows them exclusive jurisdiction over the natural resources, both in the water column and in the seabed. And, these States will be able to claim additional continental shelf jurisdiction beyond 200 miles. The current international legal framework for which these claims are made, resides under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Iceland, Finland and Sweden have land above the Arctic Circle, and are part of the Arctic Council. Recently twelve countries were given observer status, including China, India, the U.K., Germany, and other large EU states.
A Rational Middle in Energy Futures
I recently spoke with director Gregory Kallenberg of the energy documentary film series, the “Rational Middle.” In their second round of energy education and outreach, Kallenberg and team address the topics of renewables, shale gas, conservation and transportation, and many others. From the short films, roughly ten to fifteen minutes each, I viewed the renewables, shale gas, and drilling features. They were well done and I intend to view more time permitted, particularly the “days in the life of” and Canada films.
What is useful —whatever part of the energy spectrum one falls into—is the exercise of being open and willing to listen to the arguments. The mere act of spending the time listening to the multiple perspectives offered was an exercise in finding one’s own middle. Hats off to the gesture, both simple and yet complicated, of finding and presenting the middle. The films feature some good academic and think tank-type commentary, of the ones I viewed.
Favorable Economics, the Permian, and Choices
In July, I wrote about the ramped up activity in the Permian Basin. The point of that story was to merely observe and document that period of time in the Basin. In the data offered over the course of several articles, the conclusion was clear: the U.S. is in the early period of another boom from U.S. production of oil, and Texas is largely the zone for the majority of the production capacity. While the Bakken Shale and the Eagle Ford receive numerous well-deserved headlines, exploration and production (E&P) firms were busy making new history in the Permian Basin.
The largest producer in the Permian Basin is Occidental Petroleum, also known as Oxy. This also makes the firm the largest producer in Texas. Pioneer Natural Resources, Apache and Kinder Morgan Production follow behind Oxy in Permian Basin production for 2012. According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2012 the U.S. imported approximately 10.6 million barrels of crude oil per day. The ratings agency Moody’s recently made an announcement about the impact of the “Permian revival” on exploration and production (E&P) firms. In their communication, they mention producers speculate that the full development of the Wolfcamp Shale could result in 2 million barrels a day — more than the 1970s peak for the entire basin. That is nearly 20% of U.S. daily imports. When might that happen? Hard to say.
Impacting Economics, Geopolitics and Markets
The U.S. is expected to spend about 8.5% of its GDP on energy in 2013. In 2008, when oil prices peaked, it was closing in on 10%. U.S. oil production provides a buffer to supply shocks — which happens frequently in the Middle East and North Africa, two key crude supply regions. In July 2013, disruptions to crude oil and liquids production were nearly 2.7 million barrels per day. Of the supply disruptions, 800,000 barrels were from non-OPEC nations and the other 1.9 million from OPEC, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). August is estimated at a 2.8 million shortfall.
The OPEC-related outages, which include Iran, Iraq, Libya and Nigeria, are considered to be the highest since early 2009. This has contributed to rising prices, from the year’s low of $97 in April to a high nearing $117 August 27th, after Syrian chemical weapons attacks followed on the heels of Egypt’s political turmoil. The causes of the outages in Libya were from labor disputes, while Iraq’s shortfalls originated from pipeline disruptions from violence; Iran’s woes stem partly from sanctions, and Nigerian oil challenges related generally to oil theft and infrastructure sabotage and degradation.
Geopolitical Risk Continues, Part Two
Turmoil in Egypt continues to roil oil markets and confound Middle East regional stability. Goldman Sachs said Monday, August 19th, five days after the violence escalated, it expected tighter oil markets to propel Brent to $115 “in the very near term.” More interesting though are the shifts occurring in the geopolitical landscape of the broader Middle East.
Saudi King Abdullah publicly gave his approval and support for the military-backed government of Egypt. He pledged a $12 billion aid package along with the UAE and Kuwait, four times as much as the military and economic grants from the U.S. and the European Union combined ($1.5bn and $1.3bn respectively). The threat of political Islam vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as potentially up-ending stability in the Kingdom. This high-stakes game of regional poker has just gotten more complicated. The outcome, which may occur in waves of violence and instability, could take many years to be realized.