Showing posts with label Iraq. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Iraq. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

OPEC just about gets the basics right

On occasion, signs around Austrian bars and shops selling souvenirs humorously tell tourists to get one basic fact right – there are no kangaroos in Austria! In more ways than one, last week’s OPEC meeting in Vienna was also about getting its 12 member nations to recognise some basic truths – not so much about the absence of marsupials around but rather about  surplus oil in the market.

Assessing demand, which is tepid in any case at the moment, comes secondary when there is too much of the crude stuff around in the first place. Of late, OPEC has become just a part player, albeit one with a 30% share, in the oil market’s equivalent of supermarket pricing wars on the high street, as the Oilholic discussed on Tip TV. Faced with such a situation, cutting production at the risk of losing market share would have been counterproductive.

Not everyone agreed with the idea of maintaining production quota at 30 million barrels per day (bpd). Some members desperate for a higher oil price were dragged around to the viewpoint kicking and screaming. Ultimately, the Saudis made the correct call in refusing to budge from their position of not wanting a cut in production.

Though ably supported by Kuwait, UAE and Qatar in his stance, Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi effectively sealed the outcome of the meeting well ahead of the formal announcement. Had OPEC decided to cut production, its members would have lost out in a buyers’ market. Had it decided on a production cut and the Saudis flouted it, the whole situation would have been farcical.

In any case, what OPEC is producing has remained open to debate since the current level was set in December 2011. The so-called cartel sees members routinely flout set quotas. In the absence of publication of individual members’ quotas, who is producing what is never immediately ascertained.

Let’s not forget that Libya and Iraq don’t have set quotas owing to leeway provided in wake of internal strife. All indications are that OPEC is producing above 30 million bpd, in the region of 600,000 barrels upwards or more. Given the wider dynamic, it's best to take in short term pain, despite reservations expressed by Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria, in order to see what unfolds over the coming months.

After OPEC’s decision, the market response was pretty predictable but a tad exaggerated. In the hours following Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri’s quote that OPEC had maintained production in the interest of “market equilibrium and global wellbeing”, short sellers were all over both oil futures benchmark.

By 21:30 GMT on Friday (the following day), both Brent and WTI had shed in excess of $10 per barrel (see right, click to enlarge). That bearish sentiment prevailed after the decision makes sense, but the market also got a little ahead of itself.

The start of this week has been calmer in part recognition of the latter point. Predictions of $40 per barrel Brent price are slightly exaggerated in the Oilholic’s opinion.

Agreed, emerging markets economic activity remains lacklustre. Even India has of late started to disappoint again after an upshot in economic confidence noted in wake of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphatic election victory in May. Yet, demand is likely to pick-up gradually. Additionally, a price decline extending over a quarter inevitably triggers exploration and production (E&P) project delays if not cancellations, which in turn trigger forward supply forecast alterations. 

This could kick-in at $60 and provide support to prices. In fact, it could even be at $70 barring, of course, the exception of a severe downturn in which case all bets are off. Much has also been said about OPEC casually declaring it won’t convene again for six months. Part of it fed in to market sentiment last week, but this blogger feels saying anything other than that would have been interpreted as a further sign of panic thereby providing an additional pretext for those going short.

Let’s put it this way - should the oil price fall to $40 there will definitely be another OPEC meeting before June! So why announce one now and create a point of expectation? For the moment, OPEC isn’t suffering alone; many producers are feeling different levels of pain. US independent E&P companies (moderate), Canada (mild), Mexico (moderate) and Russia (severe) - would be this blogger's pain level call for the aforementioned.

The first quarter of 2015 would be critical and one still sees price stabilisation either side of the $70-level. One minor footnote before taking your leave - amidst the OPEC melee last week, a client note from Moody’s arrived into the Oilholic’s inbox saying the agency expects Chinese demand for refined oil products to increase by 3%-5% per annum through 2015. This compares to 5%-10% in 2010-2012.

It also doesn’t expect the benchmark Singapore complex refining margin to weaken substantially below the level of $6 per barrel because lower effective capacity additions and refinery delays will reduce supply, while “the recent easing in oil prices should support product demand.” That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: No Kangaroos in Austria plaque Graph: Weekly closing levels of oil benchmark prices since Oct 3, 2014 to date* © Gaurav Sharma.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Maintaining 2014 price predictions for Brent

Since the initial flare-up in Iraq little over a fortnight ago, many commentators have been revising or tweaking their Brent price predictions and guidance for the remainder of 2014. The Oilholic won't be doing so for the moment, having monitored the situation, thought hard, gathered intelligence and discussed the issue at length with various observers at the last OPEC summit and 21st World Petroleum Congress earlier this month.

Based on intel and instinct, yours truly has decided to maintain his 2014 benchmark price assumptions made in January, i.e. a Brent price in the range of US$90 to $105 and WTI price range of $85 to $105. Brent's premium to the WTI should in all likelihood come down and average around $5 barrel. Nonetheless, geopolitical premium might ensure an upper range price for Brent and somewhere in the modest middle for the WTI range come the end of the year.

Why? For starters, all the news coming from Iraq seems to indicate that fears about the structural integrity of the country have eased. While much needed inward investment into Iraq's oil & gas industry will take a hit, majority of the oil production sites are not under ISIS control.

In fact, Oil Minister Abdul Kareem al-Luaibi recently claimed that Iraq's crude exports will increase next month. You can treat that claim with much deserved scepticism, but if anything, production levels aren't materially lower either, according to anecdotal evidence gathered from shipping agents in Southern Iraq.

The situation is in a flux, and who has the upper hand might change on a daily basis, but that the Iraqi Army has finally responded is reducing market fears. Additionally, the need to keep calm is bolstered by some of the supply-side positivity. For instance, of the two major crude oil consumers – US and China – the former is importing less and less crude oil from the Middle East, thereby easing pressure by the tanker load. Had this not been the case, we'd be in $120-plus territory by now, according to more than one City trader.

Some of the market revisions to oil price assumptions, while classified as 'revisions' have been pragmatic enough to reflect this. Many commentators have merely gone to the upper end of their previous forecasts, something which is entirely understandable.

For instance, Moody's increased the Brent crude price assumptions it uses for rating purposes to $105 per barrel for the remainder of 2014 and $95 in 2015. In case of the WTI, the ratings agency increased its price assumptions to $100 per barrel for the rest of 2014, and to $90 in 2015. Both assumptions are within the Oilholic's range, although they represent $10 per barrel increases from Moody's previous assumptions for both WTI and Brent in 2014 and a $5 increase for 2015.

"The new set of price assumptions reflects the agency's sense of firm demand for crude, even as supplies increase as a response to historically high prices. New violence in Iraq coupled with political turmoil in that general region in mid-2014 have led to supply constraints in the Middle East and North Africa," Moody's said.

But while these constraints exist, Moody's echoed vibes the Oilholic caught on at OPEC that Saudi Arabia, which can affect world global prices by adjusting its own production levels, has appeared unwilling to let Brent prices rise much above $110 per barrel on a sustained basis.

Away from pricing matters to some ratings matters with a few noteworthy notes – first off, Moody's has upgraded Schlumberger's issuer rating and the senior unsecured ratings of its guaranteed subsidiaries to Aa3 from A1.

Pete Speer, Senior Vice-President at the agency, said, "Schlumberger's industry leading technologies and dominant market position coupled with its conservative financial policies support the higher Aa3 rating through oilfield services cycles. The company's growing asset base and free cash flow generation also compares well to Aa3-rated peers in other industries."

Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings says the Iraqi situation does not pose an immediate threat to the ratings of its rated Western investment-grade oil companies. However, the agency reckons if conflict spreads and the market begins to doubt whether Iraq can increase its output in line with forecasts there could be a sharp rise in world oil prices because Iraqi oil production expansion is a major contributor to the long-term growth in global oil output.

The conflict is closest to Iraqi Kurdistan, where many Western companies including Afren (rated B+/Stable by Fitch) have production. However, due to ongoing disagreements between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, legal hurdles to export of Iraqi crude remain, and therefore production is a fraction of the potential output.

Other companies, such as Lukoil (rated BBB/Negative by Fitch), operate in the southeast near Basra, which is far from the areas of conflict and considered less volatile.

Alex Griffiths, Head of Natural Resources and Commodities at Fitch Ratings, said, "Even if the conflict were to spread throughout Iraq and disrupt other regions, the direct loss of revenues would not affect major investment-grade rated oil companies because Iraqi output is a very small component of their global production."

"In comparison, disruption of gas production in Egypt and oil production in Libya during the "Arab Spring" were potential rating drivers for BG Energy Holdings (A-/Stable) and Eni (A+/Negative), respectively," he added.

On a closing note, here is the Oilholic's latest Forbes article discussing natural gas pricing disparities around the world, and why abundance won't necessarily mitigate this. That's all for the moment folks. Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: Oil drilling site © Shell photo archives

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Iraqi situation likely to unleash crude bull runs

Just as the OPEC conference dispersed here in Vienna, the speed with which the situation in Iraq has deteriorated has taken the market by surprise. Can't even blame Friday the 13th; the deterioration started a few days before.

There was not an Iraqi official commentator in sight when the trickle of news turned into a flood announcing the rapid advance of Sunni militants (or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda breakaway) across vast swathes of the country to within touching distance of Baghdad.

The market is keeping reasonably calm for now. However, both Brent spot and futures prices did spike above US$113 per barrel at one point or another over the last 72 hours. We're already at the highest levels this far into 2014. The Oilholic has always been critical when paper traders jump to attach instant risk premium to the crude price at the slightest ripple say in Nigeria or Libya. However, this alas is something else and it matters.

For starters, Iraqi production was on a slow and painful recovery run. The trickle of inward investment had started and Kurdish controlled areas weren’t the only ones seeing a revival. This is now under threat. Secondly, a visibly deteriorating situation could draw Iran into the tussle and there are some signs of it already. Thirdly, it has emboldened Kurdish security forces to take over Kirkuk, with unhidden glee. This could dent ethnic calm there in that part of the country.

Fourthly, Iraq despite its troubles remains a key member of OPEC. Finally, if you look at a map of Iraqi oilfields, the areas now held by the insurgents would trouble most geopolitical commentators as they cover quite a few hydrocarbon prospection zones. Add it all together and what's happening in Iraq, should it continue to deteriorate, has the potential of adding at least $10 per barrel to the current price levels, and that’s just a conservative estimate.

If Iraq gets ripped apart along ethnic lines, all projections would be right out of the window and you can near double that premium to $20 and an unpredictable bull run. That tensions were high was public knowledge, that Baghdad would lose its grip in such a dramatic fashion should spook most. There is one but vexing question on a quite a few analysts’ minds – is this the end of unified Iraq? The Oilholic fears that it might well be. 

Away from this depressing saga, a couple of notes from ratings agencies to flag up. Moody's says the outlook for global independent E&P sector remains positive. It expects growth to continue over the coming 12-18 months, with no "obvious catalyst" for a slowdown.

Analyst Stuart Miller reckons unless the price of crude drops below $80 per barrel, investment is unlikely to fall materially for oil and liquids-oriented companies such as Marathon Oil, Whiting Petroleum and Kodiak Oil & Gas.

"The positive outlook reflects our view that industry EBITDA will grow in the mid- to high-single digits year over the next one to two years. Stable oil and natural gas prices will enable E&P companies to continue to invest with confidence, driving production and cash flow higher," Miller added.

However, a lack of gathering, processing and transportation infrastructure will continue to plague the industry, though to a lesser extent than in the past couple of years. The completion of infrastructure improvements will unshackle production growth rates for companies such as Continental Resources and Oasis Petroleum in the Bakken Shale, and Range Resources and Antero Resources in the Marcellus Shale, according to Moody's.

Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings said fracking could help the European Union cut its reliance on Russian Gas. Germany's reported plan to lift a ban on fracking highlights one of several ways that European countries could reduce their reliance on Russian gas, it says.

Out of the major European oil and gas companies, Fitch reckons Total could have a head start over rivals if European shale gas production ramps up, because of the experience it has gained from investment in UK shale.

The group became the first Western oil major to invest in UK shale after agreeing to take a 40% stake in two licenses earlier this year. Total would also be well positioned if France followed Germany and decided to ease restrictions on shale gas production, as its home market is thought to have some of the largest shale gas reserves in Europe.

Jeffrey Woodruff, senior director at Fitch Ratings, said, “If European countries want to cut reliance on Russian gas, other potential routes include greater use of LNG. BG will be one of the first European companies to export LNG from the US, due to its participation in three of the six projects that have been approved by the US Department of Energy to export LNG.”

All of this is well and good, but as the Oilholic noted in a Forbes post earlier this month, Europeans need to be both patient and pragmatic. The US shale bonanza took 30 years to materialise meaningfully, Europe's is likely to take longer. Speaking of shale, here is one's take on why US shale would not hurt OPEC all that much, as legislative impediments prevent the US from exporting crude oil and by default do not give it the feel of a global bonanza. That's all from Vienna folks. Next stop Moscow, for the 21st World Petroleum Congress. Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: Exploration site in Kurdistan © Genel Energy

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Kurdish question & a ‘Dudley’ sin?

The autonomous region of Kurdistan within Iraq's borders is drawing 'crude' headlines yet again. It's that old row about who controls what and gives rights for E&P activity in the region – the Federal administration in Baghdad or the provincial administration in Erbil?
 
The historical context is provided by Gulf War I, when allied forces imposed a no-fly zone, and the Kurds subsequently pushed Saddam Hussein's forces back outside the provincial border. That was 1991, this is 2013 – a lot has changed for Iraq, but one thing hasn't – Iraqi Kurdistan is as autonomous today, as it was back then.
 
In fact, it is more prosperous and an oasis of calm compared to the rest of the Federal state. One simple measure is that the rest of Iraq ravaged by sectarian conflict and Gulf War II still only provides its citizens with about an average of 6 to 7 hours of electricity per day. The average resident of Erbil gets 22 hours and sees infrastructural spending all around, driven by targeted revenue from oil and gas licensing and exports.

Since 2006, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been granting rights for exploration within its borders to firms from Norway to the US, with much gusto and on better terms, many say, than the Federal administration in Baghdad. The Iraqi government in turn says KRG has no right to do so.
 
Mutual consternation came to a head in January when BP and Baghdad reached an agreement to revitalise the northern Kirkuk oilfield. Since jurisdictional mandate over the oilfield and the city is hotly contested by both sides, KRG declared the deal to be illegal on grounds that it was not consulted.
 
Firing a return salvo, Iraqi Oil Minister Abdul Kareem al-Luaibi called the production and export of oil from Kurdistan to be an act of "smuggling" and threatened to cut the region's [17%] spending allocation from the federal budget as well as take legal action against Western firms digging up Kurdistan, beginning with London-listed Genel Energy (the first such firm to export from the region).

Neither Genel Energy nor the administration paid heed to that threat. Baghdad and BP did likewise with KRG's moans over Kirkuk. Then the US State Department issued an advisory to all American oil firms operating in Kurdistan that they could be liable for legal damages from Baghdad. Doubtless, the rather handsomely rewarded legal eagles at their end advised them not to worry too much.

An "as-you-were" lull lasted for roughly 10 months, when last week in an extraordinary development, Bob Dudley, CEO of BP, joined al-Luaibi and officials from the Iraqi state-run North Oil Company to pay a controversial visit to the Kirkuk oilfield in a show of support. Why Dudley took the decision to go himself instead of sending a deputy is puzzling and paradoxically a bit obvious as well.
 
In making an appearance himself, Dudley wanted to show how important the Kirkuk deal is. Yet a deputy of his would have drawn a similar two-fingered gesture from KRG, as his visit did. Playing it cool, a source at BP said its only intention is to revive production at Kirkuk, an oilfield which at the turn of millennium saw an output of 900,000 barrels per day (bpd), but can barely manage less than a third of it today.
 
BP has the technical know-how to improve the field's output, but how it will extricate itself from the quagmire of the area's politics is anybody's guess. An Abu Dhabi based source says both sides are entrenched at Kirkuk. BP will have access to the Federally-administered side of the Kirkuk field, namely the Baba and Avana geological formations. But one formation – Khurmala – is inside the Kurdish provincial borders and being is developed by the KAR group.
 
Furthermore, there is another twist in the linear fight between Baghdad and Erbil – Kirkuk's governor Najimeldin Kareem, a man of Kurdish origin, has backed the Federal deal with BP. Dudley left the oilfield without saying anything concrete on record, leaving it to the Iraqis to do most of the talking.
 
The Iraqi Oil Ministry chose to describe Kareem's backing "as securing the complete support from the local government of Kirkuk" in order to commence developing Kirkuk. Hmm…but whose Kirkuk is it anyway? The primary beneficiary of Kurdish oil exports is Turkey; the closest market where the aforementioned Genel Energy delivers most of its output to.
 
Where the tussle will lead to is unpredictable – but it hasn't deterred either BP from signing up a deal with Baghdad or the likes of ExxonMobil, Chevron and Total with Erbil. This brings us back to why Dudley went himself – well, when his peers such as Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's boss, have showed-up in Erbil, there was perhaps little choice left. If the regional politics goes out of control, the bosses of oil firms would have only themselves to blame for getting so close to the Iraqi wrangles most say they are least interested in.
 
At the centre of it all is the thirst for black gold. KRG is providing generous production sharing and contract conditions within its autonomous borders, while Baghdad has quite possibly given equally generous terms to BP for Kirkuk. The oil major has already announced a US$100 million investment in the oilfield.
 
Giving KRG the last word in the verbal melee – in September 2012, even before the recent salvos had been fired in earnest and the CEOs had come calling, Ashti Hawrami, Minister for Natural Resources of KRG, said something rather blunt on BBC’s Hard Talk programme which explains it all: "To put it politely, if I have million barrels of oil to produce in two years time, the market needs it, Iraq needs it and at the end of the day we are going to win that battle."
 
There are 50 plus firms already helping him achieve that objective. With geological surveys projecting that Kurdistan potentially has 45 billion barrels of the crude stuff, many of these firms are working with the KRG contrary to advice given by their own governments.
 
And as if to rub it in further into his Federal counterpart, Hawrami quipped, "Kurdistan's investment and spending plans are more structured…Why is Baghdad buying F-16s when Iraqis have little more than 4 hours of electricity per day on average [much worse than the inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan]." OUCH!
 
Moving away from Iraqi politics, Brent's $106 per barrel floor has not only been breached, but was smashed big time last week. As noted, hedge funds are indeed feeling the pinch, for instance high-flier Andy Hall's $4 billion baby – Astenbeck Capital Management.
 
According to Reuters, Astenbeck is down 5% as of Oct-end, largely due to the slump in Brent prices. Even though Hall's team have diversified into palladium, platinum and soft commodities, it'd be remarkable if the fund is able to avoid its first annual loss in six years. However, one shouldn't be too hard on Astenbeck as the average energy fund on Chicago's Hedge Fund Research Index, is down 4.45%. That's all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!
 
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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo: Exploration site in Kurdistan © Genel Energy plc

Saturday, June 01, 2013

OPEC & the downward bias in Black Gold’s value

The OPEC ministers have packed-up and left with no real surprises as the cartel maintained its daily output at 30 million barrels per day (bpd). But in the absence of any real surprises from OPEC, the downward bias in the direction of leading oil futures benchmarks is getting stronger, given the perceived oversupply and a flat, if not dicey, macroeconomic climate. The Brent forward month futures contract plummeted to nearly US$100, seeing a near 2.5% dip from last week (click on graph to enlarge). Given that the trading community had already factored in the outcome of the 163rd OPEC meeting even before it concluded, most appear to be waiting to see whether the US Federal Reserve continues with its monetary stimulus programme. Even if it does so, given the macroeconomic permutations, it is not worth holding your breath for a ‘crude’ bounceback.
 
Far from cutting production, there seem to be murmurs and concern in the hawkish camps of Iran and Venezuela about constantly improving production levels in Iraq. Abdul Kareem al-Luaibi, Iraq’s oil minister, confirmed at a media scrum in Vienna that the country plans to start production at two of its largest oilfields within “a matter of weeks.”
 
Production commencement at Majnoon (which is imminent) and Gharraf (due in July), followed by a third facility at West Qurna-2 (due by December if not earlier) would lift Iraqi capacity by 400,000 bpd according to al-Luaibi. The country’s current output is about 3.125 million bpd. The additional capacity would bolster its second position, behind Saudi Arabia, in the OPEC output league table.
 
The Iraqis have a monetary incentive to produce more of the crude stuff. Sadly for OPEC, it will come at a time the cartel does not need it. Instead of adherence, there will be further flouting of the recently agreed upon quota by some members. Iraq is not yet even included in the quota (and may not be until late into 2014).
 
Non-OPEC supply is seeing the ranks of the usual suspects Russia and Norway, joined ever more meaningfully by Brazil, Kazakhstan, Canada and not to mention (and how can you not mention) – the US, courtesy of its shale supplies and more efficient extraction techniques at Texan conventional plays. So a downward bias will prevail – for now.
 
In fact, Morgan Stanley did not even wait for the OPEC meeting to end before downgrading oil services firms, mostly European ones, based on the conjecture that IOCs as well as NOCs (several of whom hail from OPEC jurisdictions) would allocate relatively lower capex towards E&P.
 
Robert Pulleyn, analyst at Morgan Stanley, wrote and the Oilholic quotes: “With oil prices the key determinant of industry operating cash flow, and given our expectation for an increasingly range bound price environment, we expect industry-operating-cash-flow growth to fall from 14% compound annual growth rate (since 2003) to about 3% in the future. We expect capex growth to fall to around 5% a year to 2020, compared to 18% compound annual growth rate since 2003.”
 
Of the five it downgraded on Thursday – viz. Vallourec, SBM Offshore, CGG Veritas, TGS-NOPEC and Subsea 7 – only the latter avoided a dip in share price following the news. However, Morgan Stanley upgraded John Wood Group, saying it is better positioned to withstand a lower growth outlook for industry spending.
 
As for the price of the crude stuff itself, many analysts didn’t wait for OPEC either with Commerzbank, Société Générale and Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BoAML) all sounding bearish on Brent. BoAML cut its Brent crude price forecasts to $103 per barrel from $111 for the second half of 2013, citing lower global oil demand, rising supplies and higher inventories. The bank expects the general weakness to persist next year and reduced its 2014 average Brent price outlook from $112 to $105 per barrel. So there you have it and that’s all from Vienna folks!
 
Since it’s time to say Auf Wiedersehen, the Oilholic leaves you with a view of the city’s Irrgarten and Labyrinth at the Schönbrunn Palace grounds (see right). Once intended for the amusement of Austro-Hungarian royalty and their guests, this amazing maze is now for the public’s amusement.
 
While visitors to this wonderful place are getting lost in a maze for fun, OPEC ministers going round in circles over a key appointment to the post of Secretary General is hardly entertaining. At such a challenging time for it, the 12-member oil exporters’ club could do with a bit of unity. Yet it cannot even unite behind a single candidate for the post – something which has been dragging on for a year – as rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to hold out for their chosen candidate for the post. Furthermore, it’s taken an ugly sectarian tone along Shia and Sunni lines.
 
Worryingly, this time around, neither the Saudis nor the Iraqis are in any mood for a compromise as the rest of the 10 members wander around in a maze feeling dazed about shale, internal rivalries, self interest and plain old fashioned market anxieties. The Oilholic maintains it’s premature to suggest that a rise in unconventional production is making OPEC irrelevant, but its members are unwittingly trying really hard to do just that! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!
 
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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Graph: World crude oil futures benchmarks to May 25, 2013 © Société Générale. Photo: Irrgarten & Labyrinth, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria © Gaurav Sharma 2013.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Saudi oil minister & the Oilholic’s natter

Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Ali Al-Naimi said the global oil market remains well supplied, in response to a question from the Oilholic. Speaking here in Vienna, ahead of the closed session of oil ministers at the 163rd OPEC meeting, the kingpin said, “The supply-demand situation is balanced and the world oil market remains well supplied.”

Asked by a fellow scribe how he interpreted the current scenario. “Satisfactory” was the short response. Al-Naimi also said, “Enough has been said on shale. North American shale production adds to supply adequacy. Is it a bad thing? No. Does it enter into the geopolitical equation and hegemony? Yes of course. Geopolitics has evolved for decades along with the oil industry and will continue to. What’s new here?!” And that, dear readers, was that.

Despite being pressed for an answer several times, Al-Naimi declined to discuss the subject of choosing a successor to OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri.
 
The Saudis are expected to battle it out with the Iranians for the largely symbolic role, but one that is nonetheless central to shaping OPEC policies and carries a lot of prestige. As in December, the Saudis are proposing Majid Munif, an economist and former representative to OPEC. Tehran wants its man Gholam-Hussein Nozari, a former Iranian oil minister, installed. Compromise candidate could be Iraq’s Thamir Ghadban.
 
The tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia about the appointment has been simmering for a while and led to a stalemate in December. As a consequence, El-Badri’s term was extended. Anecdotal evidence suggests the Iranians, as usual, are being difficult.
More so, Al-Naimi appeared to the Oilholic to be fairly relaxed about the Shale ruckus, but the Iranians are worried about perceived oversupply. (Only the Nigerians appear to be jumpier than them on the subject of shale). Iran's oil exports, it must be noted, are at their lowest since 2010 in wake sanction over its nuclear programme.

Away from the tussle, Abdel Bari Ali Al-Arousi, oil minister of Libya and alternate President of the OPEC Conference, said the world oil demand growth forecast for 2013 is expected to increase by 0.8 million barrels per day (bpd).

Total non-OPEC supply has seen a slight upward adjustment to 1.0 million bpd for the year. “This situation is likely to continue through the third and into the fourth quarters as we head into the driving season. Our focus will remain on doing all we can to provide stability in the market. This stability will benefit all stakeholders and contribute to growth in the world economy. However, as we have repeatedly said, this is not a job for OPEC alone. Every stakeholder has a part to play in achieving this,” he added.

Rounding off this post, on the subject of hegemony, it always makes the Oilholic smirk and has done so for years, that the moment the scribes are let in - the first minister they rush for (yours truly included) is the man from Saudi Arabia. That says something about hegemony within OPEC. That's all for the moment from Vienna folks, updates throughout the day and the weekend! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Ali Al-Naimi speaking at the 163rd OPEC meeting of ministers © Gaurav Sharma, May 31, 2013.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Brent’s ‘nine-month high’, Aubrey, BP & more

Oh boy, what one round of positive data, especially from China, does to the oil market! The Brent forward month futures contract for March is within touching distance of a US$120 per barrel price and the bulls are out in force. Last Friday’s intraday price of US$119.17 was a nine-month high; a Brent price level last seen in May 2012. The cause – and you have heard this combination before – was healthy economic data from China, coupled with Syrian turmoil and an Iranian nuclear stalemate.
 
The Oilholic has said so before, and will say it again – the last two factors touted by market commentators have been broadly neutral in terms of their impact for the last six months. It is the relatively good macroeconomic news from China which is principally behind the rally that nearly saw the Brent price breach the US$120 level.
 
The bull-chatter is already in full force. In a note to clients, Goldman Sachs advised them last week to maintain a net long position in the S&P GSCI Brent Crude Total Return Index. The investment bank believes this rally is "less driven by supply shocks and instead by improving demand."
 
"Global oil demand has surprised to the upside in recent months, consistent with the pick-up in economic activity," the bank adds in an investment note. Really? This soon – on one set of data? One thing is for sure, with many Asian markets shut for the Chinese New Year, at least trading volumes will be lighter this week.
 
Nonetheless, the ‘nine-month high’ also crept into the headline inflation debate in the UK where the CPI rate has been flat at 2.7% since October, but commentators reckon the oil spike may nudge it higher. Additionally, the Brent-WTI spread is seen widening yet again towards the US$25 per barrel mark. On a related note, Enterprise Product Partners said that capacity on its Seaway pipeline to the US Gulf of Mexico coast from Cushing, Oklahoma will remain limited until much later this year.
 
Moving away from pricing, news arrived end-January that the inimitable Aubrey McClendon will soon vacate the office of the CEO of Chesapeake Energy. It followed intense scrutiny over the last nine months about revelations, which surfaced in May, regarding his borrowings to finance personal stakes in company wells.
 
As McClendon announced his departure on January 29, the company’s board reiterated that it had found no evidence to date of improper conduct by the CEO. McClendon will continue in his post until a successor is found which should be before April 1st – the day he is set to retire. The announcement marks a sad and unspectacular exit for the great pioneer who co-founded and led Chesapeake Energy from its 1989 inception in Oklahoma City and has been a colourful character in the oil and gas business ever since.
 
Whatever the circumstances of his exit may be, let us not forget that before the so called ‘shale gale’ was blowing, it was McClendon and his ilk who first put their faith in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The rest, and US’ near self-sufficiency in gas supplies, is history.

Meanwhile, BP has been in the crude news for a number of reasons. First off, an additional US$34 billion in claims filed against BP by four US states earlier this month have provided yet another hurdle for the oil giant to overcome as it continues to address the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
 
However, Fitch Ratings not believe that the new round of claims is a game changer. In fact the agency does not think that any final settlement is likely to be enough to interfere with BP's positive medium term credit trajectory. The latest claims come on top of the US$58 billion maximum liability calculated by Fitch. If realised, the cost of the spill could rise up to as much as US$92 billion.
 
The agency said the new claims should be put in the context of an asset sale programme that has raised US$38 billion. “This excludes an additional US$12 billion in cash to come from the sale of TNK-BP this year – upside in our analysis because we gave BP no benefit for the TNK-BP stake. BP had US$19 billion of cash on its balance sheet at 31 December 2012. That is after it has already paid US$38 billion in settlements or into escrow,” it added.
 
Away from the spill, the company announced that it had started production from new facilities at its Valhall field in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea on January 26 with an aim of producing up to 65,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in the second half of 2013. Valhall's previous output averaged about 42,000 barrels per day (bpd), feeding crude into the Ekofisk oil stream.
 
Earlier this month, BP also said that both consortiums vying to link Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea, into Western European markets have an equal chance of success. BP operates the field which was developed in a consortium partnership with Statoil, Total, Azerbaijan’s Socar, LukAgip (an Eni, LUKoil joint venture) and others.
 
A decision, whether to pipe gas from the field into Austria via the proposed Nabucco (West) pipeline or into Italy through the rival Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project, is expected to be made by mid-2013. Speaking in Vienna, Al Cook, head of BP's Azeri operations, said, “I genuinely believe both pipelines at the moment have an equal chance. There's certainly no clear-cut answer at the moment.”
 
BP is aiming for the first gas from Shah Deniz II to be delivered to existing customer Turkey in 2018. Early 2019 is the more likely date for the first Azeri gas to reach Western Europe via this major development often touted as one which would reduce European dependence on Russia for its energy supplies.
 
The Shah Deniz consortium owns equity options in both the pipeline projects and Cook did not rule out that both Nabucco (West) and TAP could be built in the long term. Specifically, BP's own equity options, which are part of the Shah Deniz stakes, are pegged at 20% in TAP and 14% in Nabucco. Cook said BP was not “actively seeking” to increase its stake in either project – a wise choice indeed.
 
On February 4, BP said its Q4 2012 net profit, adjusted for non-operating items, currency and accounting effects, fell to US$3.98 billion from US$4.98 billion recorded over the corresponding quarter last year. Moving away from BP, Royal Dutch Shell posted a 6% dip in 2012 profits to US$27 billion on the back of weak oil and gas prices and lower exploration and production (E&P) margins.
 
The Anglo-Dutch oil major reported Q4 earnings of US$7.3 billion, a rise of 13%. However, on an adjusted current cost of supply basis and one-off asset sales, the profit came in at US$5.58 billion. In particular, Shell’s E&P business saw profits dip 14% to US$4.4 billion, notwithstanding an actual 3% increase in oil and gas production levels. However, the company did record stronger refining margins.
 
Ironically, while acknowledging stronger refining margins, Shell confirmed its decision to close most of its Harburg refinery units in Hamburg, Germany. The permanent shutdown of much of its 100,000 bpd refinery is expected next month in line with completing a deal made with Swedish refiner Nynas in 2011.
 
Finally, in a typical Italian muddle, several oil executives in the country are under investigation following a probe into alleged bribery offences related to the awarding of oil services contracts to Saipem in Algeria. Eni has a 43% stake in Saipem which is Europe’s biggest oil services provider. While the company itself denied wrongdoing, the probe was widened last Friday to include Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni.
 
The CEO’s home and office were searched as part of the probe. However, Eni is standing by their man and said it will cooperate fully with the prosecutor’s office in Milan. So far, Pietro Franco Tali (the CEO of Saipem) and Eni’s Chief Financial Officer Alessandro Bernini (who was Saipem’s CFO until 2008) have been the most high profile executives to step down in wake of the probe. Watch this crude space! That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!
 
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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo 1: Asian oil rig © Cairn Energy. Photo 2: Gas extraction site © Chesapeake Energy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Why Iran is miffed at (some in) OPEC?

The talking is over, the ministers have left the building and the OPEC quota ‘stays’ where it is. However, one OPEC member – Iran – left Vienna more miffed and more ponderous than ever. Why?

Well, if you subscribe to the school of thought that OPEC is a cartel, then it ought to come to the aid of a fellow member being clobbered from all directions by international sanctions over its nuclear ambitions. Sadly for Iran, OPEC no longer does, as the country has become a taboo subject in Vienna.

Even the Islamic Republic’s sympathisers such as Venezuela don’t offer overt vocal support in front of the world’s press. Compounding the Iranians’ sense of frustration about their crude exports being embargoed is a belief, not entirely without basis, that the Saudis have enthusiastically (or rather "gleefully" according to one delegate) stepped in to fill the void or perceived void in the global crude oil market.

Problems have been mounting for Iran and are quite obvious in some cases. For instance, India – a key importer – is currently demanding that Iran ship its crude oil itself. This is owing to the Indian government’s inability to secure insurance cover on tankers carrying Iranian crude. Since July, EU directives ban insurers in its 27 jurisdictions from providing cover for shipment of Iranian crude.

Under normal circumstances, Iranians could cede to the Indian demand. But these aren’t normal circumstances as the Iranian tanker fleet is being used as an oversized floating storage unit for the crude oil which has nowhere to go with the speed that it used to prior to the imposition of sanctions.

The Obama administration is due to decide this month on whether the USA will renew its 180-day sanction waiver for importers of Iranian oil. Most notable among these importers are China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. US Senators Robert Menendez (Democrat) and Mark Kirk, have urged President Obama to insist that importers of Iranian crude reduce their purchase contracts by 18% or more to get the exemption.

So far, Japan has already secured an exemption while decisions on India, South Korea and China will be made before the end of the month. If the US wanted to see buyers cut their purchases progressively then there is clear evidence of this happening. Two sources of the Oilholic’s, in the shipping industry in Singapore and India, suggested last week that Iranian crude oil exports are down 20% on an annualised basis using November 23 as a cut off date. However, a December 6 Reuters' report by their Tokyo correspondent Osamu Tsukimori suggested that the annualised drop rate in Iranian crude exports was actually much higher at 25%.

Of the countries named above, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have been the most aggressive in cutting Iranian imports. But the pleasant surprise (for some) is that India and China have responded too. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Chinese and Indian imports of Iranian crude were indeed dipping in line with US expectations.

When the Oilholic visited India earlier this year, the conjecture was that divorcing its oil industry from Iran’s would be tricky. Some of those yours truly met there then, now agree that Iranian imports are indeed down and what was stunting Iranian exports to India was not the American squeeze but rather the EU’s move on the marine insurance front.

If Iran was counting on wider support within OPEC, then the Islamic republic was kidding itself. That is because the Organisation is itself split. Apart from the Iraqis having their own agenda, the Saudis and Iranians never get along. This splits the 12 member block with most of Iran’s neighbours almost always siding with the Saudis. Iran’s most vocal supporter Venezuela, is currently grappling with what might (or might not) happen to President Hugo Chavez since he’s been diagnosed with cancer.

Others who support Iran keep a low profile for the fear of getting embroiled in diplomatic wrangling which does not concern them. So all Iran can do is moan about OPEC not taking ‘collective decisions’, hope that Chinese patronage continues even if in a diminished way and stir up disputes about things such as the appointment of the OPEC Secretary General.

The dependency of Asian importers on Iranian crude is not going to go overnight. However, they are learning to adapt in fits and starts as the last 6 months have demonstrated. This should worry Iran.

That’s all from Vienna folks! Since it’s time to say Auf Wiedersehen and check-in for the last British Airways flight out to London, the Oilholic leaves you with a view of his shadow on a sun soaked, snow-capped garden at Schönbrunn Palace. Christmas is fast approaching but even in the season of goodwill, OPEC won’t or for that matter can’t come to Iran’s aid while the US and EU embargo its exports. Even cartels, if you can currently call OPEC one, have limits. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo 1: Empty OPEC briefing room podium following the end of the 162nd meeting of ministers, Vienna, Austria. Photo 2: Schönbrunn Palace Christmas market © Gaurav Sharma 2012.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Initial soundbites before things kick-off at OPEC

The delegates and ministers have walked in, the press scrum (or should you choose the term g*ng b*ng) is over and the closed door meeting has begun – all ahead of a decision on production quotas and the possible appointment of a new secretary general.

Smart money is on OPEC maintaining output at its current level of 30 million barrels per day (bpd), with the Saudis curbing their breaches of set quotas and the cartel reporting a real terms cut in November. No one smart would put money on who the new OPEC Secretary General might be.

But before that, there are as usual some leaks here and some soundbites there to contend with. These generally nudge analysts and journalists alike in the general direction of what the decision might be. Arriving in Vienna ahead of the meeting, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Ali al-Naimi, the key man at the table, shunned the international media to begin with and chose to issue a statement via his country’s national press agency.

In his statement, Naimi said the main aim of the December 12 meeting is to keep the balance of the global crude markets in order to serve the interests of producers and consumers. He added that balancing the market will help the growth of the global economy. Since then, he has maintained the same line in exchanges with journalists.

As expected, the Iranians feel a cut in production was needed, saying their fellow members are producing 1 million bpd more than they ought to be. Iran said OPEC’s statement last month, that economic weakness in some major consuming countries could shave off 20% from its global demand growth outlook for 2013, lends credence to their claim. However, a delegate admitted there was "little need to change anything" and that the current US$100-plus OPEC basket price was "ok."

Walking in to OPEC HQ, UAE Energy Minister Mohammad bin Dhaen al-Hamli told the Oilholic that he "hopes to solve" the issue of who will be the next Secretary General. Libya's new oil minister Abdelbari al-Arusi, said he was "happy with OPEC production levels.”

Meanwhile, two key men are not in Vienna – namely Kuwait’s oil minister Hani Abdulaziz Hussein and Venezuela’s Rafael Ramirez. According to a Venezuelan scribe, the latter has sent Bernard Mommer, the OPEC representative for Venezuela’s oil ministry, in his place so he could support President Hugo Chavez, who is undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba. Ramirez added that Venezuela did not believe it was necessary for OPEC to increase production quotas and that the market was “sufficiently” supplied.

Finally, in his opening address, Iraqi oil minister and president of the conference Abdul-Kareem Luaibi Bahedh said OPEC faces a period of continuing uncertainty about the oil market outlook. "To a great extent, this reflects the lack of a clear vision on the economic front. The global economy has experienced a persistent deceleration since the beginning of the year...In the light of this, world oil demand growth forecasts for this year have been revised down frequently," he added.

Turning to the oil price, he said it had strengthened in the six months since June. "For its part, OPEC continues to do what it can to achieve and maintain a stable oil market...However, this is not the responsibility of OPEC alone. If we all wish to benefit from a more orderly oil market, then we should all be prepared to contribute to it. This includes consumers, non-OPEC producers, oil companies and investors, in the true spirit of dialogue and cooperation," said the Iraqi oil minister.

Meanwhile, as a footnote, the IEA raised its projections for non-OPEC supply in 2013 in its Monthly Oil Market Report published on December 12. The agency said global oil production increased by 730,000 bpd to 91.6 million bpd in November. With non-OPEC production rebounding "strongly" in November to 54.0 million bpd, the IEA revised up its forecasts for non-OPEC fourth quarter supply by 30,000 bpd to 53.8 million bpd. For next year, IEA expects non-OPEC production to rise to 54.2 million bpd; the fastest pace since 2010.

It also added that OPEC supply rose by "a marginal" 75,000 bpd to "31.22 million bpd". IEA said the OPEC crude supply increases were led by Saudi Arabia, Angola, Algeria and Libya but offset by recent production problems in Nigeria. Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo:  OPEC briefing room at 162nd meeting of OPEC, Vienna, Austria © Gaurav Sharma, December 2012.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A meeting, an appointment & Vienna’s icy chill!

The Oilholic finds himself back in Vienna for the 162nd meeting of OPEC ministers and his first snowfall of the festive season; the latter has eluded him back home in London. Here is a view of Vienna's snow-laced Auer Welsbach Park and it’s not the only place where things are a bit chilly. The OPEC HQ here could be one place for instance!

For this time around, accompanying the usual tussles between the Saudis and Iranians, the doves and the hawks, is the additional stress of appointing a successor to OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem el-Badri, a genial Libyan, who is nearing the end of his second term.

Finding a compromise candidate is usually the order of the day but not if 'compromise' is not a by-word for many of its members. Trouble has been brewing since OPEC members last met in June. As a long term observer of the goings-on at OPEC, the Oilholic can say for certain that all the anecdotal evidence he has gathered seems to suggest a clash is imminent. That’s hardly a surprise and it could not have come at a worse time.

OPEC has forecast a 5% drop in demand for its crude oil in wake of shale supply and other unconventional oil from non-OPEC jurisdictions hitting the market in a troubling global macroeconomic climate. It also acknowledged for the first time that shale oil was of concern and then got into a debate with the IEA whether (or not) US production could overtake Saudi Arabia’s by 2020. In light of all this, OPEC could seriously do with some strong leadership at this juncture.

Sources suggest three 'potential' candidates are in the running to succeed el-Badri. Two of these are Thamir Ghadhban of Iraq and Gholam-Hossein Nozari of Iran. Both have served as their country’s respective oil ministers. The third man is Majid Munif; an industry veteran and a former Saudi OPEC adviser. Now, the Oilholic uses the world ‘potential’ above for the three men only guardedly.

Historical and recent acrimony between the Iranians and Saudis needs no documentation. It has only been a year and half since an OPEC meeting broke-up in acrimony and er...highly colourful language! This puts the chances of either one of them settling for the other’s candidate as highly unlikely. Iran is also miffed about the lack of support it has received in wake of international sanctions on its oil industry by several importing jurisdictions.

Some here suggest that Ghadhban of Iraq would be the compromise candidate for the post. However, sources within four MENA OPEC member delegations have told the Oilholic that they are backing the Saudi candidate Munif. Yours truly cannot predict whether they’ll have a change of heart but as things stand, a compromise banking on the appointment of an Iraqi is just not working out.

Never say ‘never’ but the possibility of el-Badri continuing is remote as well. He is not allowed more than two terms under OPEC rules. In order to assuage both the Iranian and the Saudis, perhaps an Ecuadorian or an Angolan candidate might come forward. While such a candidate may well calm tempers in the room, he (or she, there is after all one lady at the table) is highly unlikely to wield the leverage, clout or respect that el-Badri has commanded over his tenure.

As Kuwait prepares to hold the rotating presidency of the cartel, a stalemate over the Secretary General’s appointment, according to most here, is detrimental to “market stability”. How about it being detrimental to OPEC itself at a time when a medium term, possibly long term, rewriting of the global oil trade is perhaps underway?

That's all for the moment folks. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo:  Snowfall at Auer-Welsbach Park, Vienna, Austria © Gaurav Sharma, December 2012.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

‘Oh Frack’ for OPEC, ‘Yeah Frack’ for IEA?

In a space of a fortnight this month, both the IEA and OPEC raised “fracks” and figures. Not only that, a newly elected President Barack Obama declared his intentions to rid the USA of “foreign oil” and the media was awash with stories about American energy security permutations in wake of the shale bonanza. Alas, the whole lot forgot to raise one important point; more on that later.
 
Starting with OPEC, its year-end calendar publication – The World Oil Outlook – saw the oil exporters’ bloc acknowledge for the first time on November 8 that fracking and shale oil & gas prospection on a global scale would significantly alter the energy landscape as we know it. OPEC also cut its medium and long term global oil demand estimates and assumed an average crude oil price of US$100 per barrel over the medium term.
 
“Given recent significant increases in North American shale oil and shale gas production, it is now clear that these resources might play an increasingly important role in non-OPEC medium and long term supply prospects,” its report said.
 
The report added that shale oil will contribute 2 million barrels per day (bpd) towards global oil supply by 2020 and 3 million bpd by 2035. If this materialises, then the projected rate of incremental supply is over the daily output of some OPEC members and compares to the ‘official’ daily output (i.e. minus the illegal siphoning / theft) of Nigeria.
 
OPEC’s first acknowledgement of the impact of shale came attached with a caveat that over the medium term, shale oil would continue to come from North America only with other regions making “modest” contributions over the longer term at best. For the record, the Oilholic agrees with the sentiment and has held this belief for a while now based on detailed investigations in a journalistic capacity (about financing shale projects).
 
OPEC admitted that the global economy, especially the US economy, is expected to be less reliant on its members, who at present pump over a third of the world's oil and have around 80% of planet’s conventional crude reserves. Pay particular attention to the ‘conventional’ bit, yours truly will come back to it.
 
According to the exporters’ bloc, global demand would reach 92.9 million bpd by 2016, down over 1 million from its 2011 report. By 2035, it expects consumption to rise to 107.3 million bpd, over 2 million less than previous estimates. To put things into perspective, global demand in 2011 was 87.8 million bpd.
 
Partly, but not only, down to shale oil, non-OPEC output is expected to rise to 56.6 million bpd by 2016, up 4.2 million bpd from 2011, the report added. So OPEC expects demand for its crude to average 29.70 million bpd in 2016; much less than its current output (ex-Iraq).
 
"This downward revision, together with updated estimates of OPEC production capacity over the medium term, implies that OPEC crude oil spare capacity is expected to rise beyond 5 million bpd as early as 2013-14," OPEC said.
 
"Long term oil demand prospects have not only been affected by the medium term downward revisions, but by higher oil prices too…oil demand growth has a notable downside risk, especially in the first half of 2013. Much of this risk is attributed to not only the OECD, but also China and India," it added.
 
So on top of a medium term crude oil price assumption of US$100 per barrel (by its internal measure and OPEC basket of crudes, which usually follows Brent not WTI), the bloc forecasts the price to rise with inflation to US$120 by 2025 and US$155 by 2035.
 
Barely a week later, IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol – who at this point in 2009 was discussing 'peak oil' – created ripples when he told a news conference in London that in his opinion the USA would overtake Russia as the biggest gas producer by a significant margin by 2015. Not only that, he told scribes here that by 2017, the USA would become the world's largest oil producer ahead of the Saudis and Russians. 
 
Realising the stirrings in the room, Birol added that he realised how “optimistic” the IEA forecasts were sounding given that the shale oil boom was a new phenomenon in relative terms.
 
"Light, tight oil resources are poorly known....If no new resources are discovered after 2020 and plus, if the prices are not as high as today, then we may see Saudi Arabia coming back and being the first producer again," he cautioned.
 
Earlier in the day, the IEA forecasted that US oil production would rise to 10 million bpd by 2015 and 11.1 million bpd in 2020 before slipping to 9.2 million bpd by 2035. It forecasted Saudi Arabia’s oil output to be 10.9 million bpd by 2015, 10.6 million bpd in 2020 but would rise to 12.3 million bpd by 2035.
 
That would see the world relying increasingly on OPEC after 2020 as, in addition to increases from Saudi Arabia, Iraq will account for 45% the growth in global oil production to 2035 and become the second-largest exporter, overtaking Russia.
 
The report also assumes a huge expansion in the Chinese economy, which the IEA said would overtake the USA in purchasing power parity soon after 2015 (and by 2020 using market exchange rates). It added that the share of coal in primary energy demand will fall only slightly by 2035. Fossil fuels in general will remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that, in 2011, rose by 30% to US$523 billion, due mainly to increases in the Middle East and North Africa.
 
Fresh from his re-election, President Obama promised to “rid America of foreign oil” in his victory speech prior to both the IEA and OPEC reports. An acknowledgement of the US shale bonanza by OPEC and a subsequent endorsement by IEA sent ‘crude’ cheers in US circles.
 
The US media, as expected, went into overdrive. One story – by ABC news – stood out in particular claiming to have stumbled on a shale oil find with more potential than all of OPEC. Not to mention, the environmentalists also took to the airwaves letting the great American public know about the dangers of fracking and how they shouldn’t lose sight of the environmental impact.
 
Rhetoric is fine, stats are fine and so are verbal jousts. However, one important question has bypassed several key commentators (bar some environmentalists). That being, just how many barrels are being used, to extract one fresh barrel? You bring that into the equation and unconventional prospection – including US and Canadian shale, Canadian oil sands and Brazil’s ultradeepwater exploration – all seem like expensive prepositions.
 
What’s more OPEC’s grip on conventional oil production, which is inherently cheaper than unconventional and is expected to remain so for sometime, suddenly sounds worthy of concern again.
 
Nonetheless “profound” changes are underway as both OPEC and IEA have acknowledged and those changes are very positive for US energy mix. Maybe, as The Economist noted in an editorial for its latest issue: “The biggest bonanza from all this new (US) energy would be if users paid the real cost of consuming oil and gas.”
 
What? Tax gasoline users more in the US of A? Keep dreaming sir! That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it crude!
 
© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Oil prospection site, North Dakota, USA © Phil Schermeister / National Geographic.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

An OPEC seminar & an Indian minister

Indian oil minister S. Jaipal Reddy is rather sought after these days. You would be, if you represented one of the biggest consumers of the crude stuff. So it is just about right that OPEC’s 5th international seminar here in Vienna had Reddy speak at a session titled: “Oil and the World Economy.”

In face of growing international pressure to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil and running out of capital market mechanisms to actually pay for the stuff in wake of US/EU sanctions, the Indian minister certainly had a few things to say and wanted to be heard.

India is the world's fourth-largest oil importer with all of its major suppliers being OPEC member nations, viz. - Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. Given what is afoot from a global macroeconomic standpoint, Reddy has called upon oil producing and consuming countries to work together to build trust and share market data to establish demand certainty in international oil markets.

Unsurprisingly, he admitted that in an oil-importing country like India, higher oil prices lead to domestic inflation, increased input costs, an increase in the budget deficit which invariably drives up interest rates and slows down the economic growth.

“There could not be a more direct cause and effect relation than high oil prices retarding economic growth of oil-importing countries,” Reddy said adding that a sustained US$10 per barrel increase in crude prices reduces growth in developing countries by 1.5%.

“We are meeting in difficult times. The Eurozone crisis, the continuing recession in the global economy, rising geopolitical tensions, a sustained phase of high and volatile international oil prices, extraneous factors continuing to influence the price formation of oil – all these pose serious challenges to the health of the global economy and stability of the world’s financial system. The current global financial crisis, which has lasted longer than we thought in 2008, is the greatest threat faced by the global economy since the Great Depression eight decades ago,” he said further.

Reddy revealed that between the Financial Year 2010-11 and 2011-12, India’s annual average cost of imported crude oil increased by US$27 per barrel, making India’s oil import bill rise from US$100 billion to a whopping US$140 billion.

“Furthermore, since we could not pass on the full impact of high international oil prices, we had to shell out subsidies to consumers amounting to US$25 billion dollars...India’s GDP grew at 6.9% during the last financial year down from the 8% plus growth rate experienced in the past few years,” he continued.

India and perhaps many others see themselves distinguishing two schools of thoughts here in Vienna. One school holds that the global economy has built up enough resilience to absorb oil price hikes due to (a) stronger demand from emerging economies and, (b) more enlightened Central Bank policies; the other school is categorical that high oil prices are one of the primary reasons for the weak conditions in the economies of the US and Europe.

“We subscribe to the latter view and hold that very high and volatile oil prices will continue to weaken global efforts for an expeditious recovery from the ongoing global economic recession and financial crisis,” Reddy concluded.

The viewpoint of an importers’ club member is always welcome at an exporting cartel’s event. For good measure, the representatives of Nigeria, Ecuador and Iran provided the exporters’ perspective and IFC’s spokesperson did the balancing act as a sideshow. As for the word “Iran” and the sanctions it faces; the Oilholic has been told in no uncertain terms by quite a few key people that it’s...er...ahem...a taboo subject at this meeting. That's all for the moment folks. Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo: Indian Gas Station © Indian Oil Corporation Ltd.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Examining a crude 2011 & talking Iran vs. 2012

As the Oilholic conjectured at the end of 2010, the year 2011 did indeed see Brent Crude at “around US$105 to US$110 a barrel”. However there was nothing ‘crudely’ predictable about 2011 itself – the oil markets faced stunted global economic growth, prospect of another few quarters of negative growth (which may still transpire) and a Greek crisis morphing into a full blown Eurozone crisis.

The Arab Spring also understandably had massive implications for the instability / risk premium in the price of crude over much of 2011. However, the impact of each country’s regional upheaval on the price was not uniform. The Oilholic summarised it as follows based on the perceived oil endowment (or the lack of it) for each country: Morocco (negligible), Algeria (marginal), Egypt (marginal), Tunisia (negligible), Bahrain (marginal), Iran and Libya (substantial).

Of the latter, when Libya imploded, Europe faced a serious threat of shortage of the country’s light sweet crude. But with Gaddafi gone and things limping back to normal, Libya has awarded crude oil supply contracts in 2012 to Glencore, Gunvor, Trafigura and Vitol. Of these Vitol helped in selling rebel-held crude during the civil war as the Oilholic noted in June.

Meanwhile Iran remains a troubling place and gives us the first debating point of 2012. It saw protests in 2011 but the regime held firm at the time of the Arab spring. However, in wake of its continued nuclear programme, recent sanctions have triggered a new wave of belligerence from the Iranian government including its intention to blockade the Straits of Hormuz. This raises the risk premium again and if, as expected a blanket ban by the EU on Iranian crude imports is announced, the trend for the crude price for Q1 2012 is decidedly bullish.

Société Générale's oil analyst Michael Wittner believes an EU embargo would possibly prompt an IEA strategic release. The price surge – directly related to the Saudi ability to mitigate the Iran effect – would dampen economic and oil demand growth. Market commentators believe an EU embargo is highly likely, especially after it reached an agreement in principle on an embargo on January 4th.

However, a more serious development would be if Iran carries out its threat to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, disrupting 15 million bpd of crude oil flows and we would expect Brent prices to spike into the US$150-200 range albeit for a limited time period according to Wittner.

“A credible threat from missiles, mines, or fast attack boats is all it would take for tanker insurers to stop coverage, which would halt tanker traffic. However, we believe that Iran would not be able to keep the Straits shut for longer than two weeks, due to a US-led military response. The disruption would definitely result in an IEA strategic release. The severe price spike would sharply hurt economic and oil demand growth, and from that standpoint, be self-correcting,” he adds.

Nonetheless, not many in the City see a “high” probability of such a step by Iran. Anyway, enough about Iran; lets resume our look back at 2011 and the release of strategic reserves would be a good joiner back to events of the past year.

Political pressure, which started building from April 2011, onwards saw the IEA ask its members to release an extra 60 million barrels of their oil stockpiles on to the world markets on June 23rd. The previous two occasions were the first gulf war (1991) and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005). That it happened given the political clamour for it is no surprise and whether or not one questions the wisdom behind the decision, it was a significant event.

For what it was worth, the market trend was already bearish at the time, Libya or no Libya. Concerns triggered by doubts about the US, EU and Chinese economies were aplenty as well as the end of QE2 liquidity injections coupled with high levels of non-commercial net length in the oil markets.

On the corporate front, refineries continued to struggle as expected with many major NOCs either divesting or planning to divest refining and marketing (R&M) assets. US major ConocoPhillips' announcement in July that it will be pursuing the separation of its exploration and production (E&P) and R&M businesses into two separate publicly traded corporations via a tax-free spin-off R&M co. to shareholders did not surprise the Oilholic – in fact it’s a sign of times.

Upstream remains inherently more attractive than the downstream business and the cliché of “high risk, high reward” resonates in the crude world. Continuing with the corporate theme, one has to hand it to ExxonMobil’s inimitable boss – Rex Tillerson – for successfully forging an Arctic tie-up with Rosneft so coveted by beleaguered rival BP.

On August 30th, 2011, beaming alongside Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Tillerson said the two firms will spend US$3.2 billion on deep sea exploration in the East Prinovozemelsky region of the Kara Sea. Russian portion of the Black Sea has also been thrown in the prospection pie for good measure as has the development of oil fields in Western Siberia.

The US oil giant described the said deal as among the most promising and least explored offshore areas globally “with high potential for liquids and gas.” If hearts at BP sank, so they should, as essentially the deal had components which it so coveted. However, a dispute with local partner TNK-BP first held up a BP-Rosneft tie-up and then finished it off.

One the pipelines front, the TransCanada Keystone XL project continues to be hit by delays and decision is not expected before the US presidential election; but the Oilholic feels the delay is not necessarily a bad thing. (Click here for thoughts)

The Oilholic saw M&A activity in the oil & gas sector over 2011 – especially corporate financed asset acquisitions – marginally exceeding pre-crisis deal valuation levels. Recent research for Infrastructure Journal – suggests the deal valuation figure for acquisition of oil & gas infrastructure assets, using September 30th as a cut-off date, is well above the total valuation for 2008, the year that the global credit squeeze meaningfully constricted capital flows.

Finally, on the subject of the good old oil benchmarks, since Q1 2009, Brent has been trading at premium to the WTI. This divergence has stood in recent weeks as both global benchmarks plummeted in wake of the recent economic malaise. WTI’s discount reached almost US$26 per barrel at one point in 2011.

Furthermore, waterborne crudes have also been following the general direction of Brent’s price. The Louisiana Light Sweet (LLS) increasingly takes its cue from Brent rather than the WTI, and has been for a while. Hence, Brent continues to reflect global conditions better.

Rounding things up, 2011 was a great year in terms of crude reading, travelling and speaking. Starting with the reading bit, 2011 saw the Oilholic read several books, but three particularly stood out; Daniel Yergin’s weighty volume - The Quest, Dan Dicker’s Oil’s Endless Bid and last but not the least Reuters’ in-house Oilholic Tom Bergin’s Spills & Spin.

Switching to crude travels away from London town, the Oilholic blogged from Calgary, Vancouver, Houston, San Francisco, Vienna, Dusseldorf, Bruges, Manama and Doha; the latter being the host city of the 20th World Petroleum Congress. The Congress itself and other signature events in the 2011 oil & gas calendar duly threw up several tangents for discussion.

Most notable among them were the two OPEC summits, the first in June which saw a complete disharmony among the cartel’s members followed by a calmer less acrimonious one in December where a unanimous decision to hold production at 30 million bpd was reached.

On the speaking circuit front, 2011 saw the Oilholic comment on CNBC, Indian and Chinese networks, OPEC webcasts and industry events, most notable among which was the Baker & McKenzie seminar at the World Petroleum Congress which was a memorable experience. That’s all for the moment folks. Here’s to 2012! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo: Oil rig © Cairn Energy.

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