Crude Oil

Wednesday, 07/08/2020

A federal judge’s order that the 570-Mb/d Dakota Access Pipeline be taken out of service for a year or more starting August 5 has the potential to wreak more havoc for producers in the Bakken Shale at a time when they are still reeling from drastic, COVID-related production curtailments. While those production cuts have opened up at least some capacity on other takeaway pipelines out of western North Dakota and crude-by-rail terminals may be able to ramp up their operations, that may not be enough to make up for the loss of DAPL — still more well shut-ins may be required. Then there’s the matter of taking the 1,172-mile, 30-inch-diameter pipeline offline in only four weeks’ time — it involves much more than flipping a switch and may not even be possible within that time frame. Today, we consider the hurdles and implications of removing DAPL from service.

Tuesday, 07/07/2020

So far, 2020 has been another bad year for bitumen producers in Alberta’s oil sands. For the second year in a row, they have been forced to endure production curtailments, this time in response to COVID impacts on demand and the resulting record-low heavy oil prices. Still, there are at least glimmers of hope that the bitumen market will soon enter at least a modest recovery mode, and that further gains will be possible in 2021 and beyond. Moving all of that bitumen to market in pipelines and in rail cars is going to require even more diluent than the record amounts already consumed in late 2019 and early 2020. Today, we consider the outlook for bitumen production, what that outlook means for future diluent demand, and if that demand can — or cannot — be met by the various sources of diluent supply.

Tuesday, 06/30/2020

Producers in Alberta’s oil sands have been through good times and bad times the past few years. Sure, there’s been a lot of growth in output since 2010. But they’ve also seen wildfires that forced one-third of production offline. And pipeline takeaway constraints that sent prices tumbling and spurred government-imposed production cutbacks. And lately, they’ve been struggling through a global pandemic that slashed crude-oil demand and led to further curtailments. Despite it all, producers and the province of Alberta are hopeful about an oil sands rebound, and shippers are optimistic that they can source an increasing share of the diluent they would need to transport bitumen from Western Canada. There’s good news on that front: there appears to be plenty of diluent pipeline capacity already in place between Alberta’s diluent hubs and its oil sands production areas. Today, we continue our series by exploring the major pipeline systems that distribute diluent supply to the oil sands.

Tuesday, 06/23/2020

The folks who transport bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to faraway markets depend on light hydrocarbons collectively known as diluent to help make highly viscous bitumen flowable enough to be run through pipelines or loaded into rail tank cars. The catch is — or was, we should say — that Western Canada wasn’t producing nearly enough condensate and other diluent to keep pace with fast-rising demand, so a few years ago, two pipelines from Alberta to the U.S. Midwest were repurposed to allow diluent to be piped north. More recently, though, Western Canadian production of diluent has been soaring and new pipeline capacity has been built within Alberta to deliver it to the oil sands. That has the potential to reduce the need for imports from the U.S. and may soon lead to at least one of the import pipes being repurposed yet again. Today, we continue our series on diluent with a review of the pipeline systems that collect locally produced light hydrocarbons that are eventually employed in the oil sands.

Thursday, 06/18/2020

Enbridge’s proposal to have crude oil shippers on its now fully uncommitted Mainline sign long-term contracts for as much as 90% of the 2.9-MMb/d pipeline network’s capacity is a big deal — and controversial. Refiners and integrated producer/refiners generally support the plan, which is now up for consideration by the Canada Energy Regulator, while Western Canadian producers with no refining operations of their own — and, for many, no history of shipping on the Mainline — mostly oppose it. What’s driving their contrasting views? It’s complicated, of course, but what it really comes down to is that everyone wants to avoid what they see as a bad outcome. Refiners and “integrateds” fear that if the current month-to-month approach to pipeline space allocation remains in place, cost-of-service-based tariffs on Mainline will soar when new takeaway capacity is built on the Trans Mountain and Keystone systems and fewer barrels flow on Mainline. Producers, in turn, are wary of making multi-year, take-or-pay commitments to Enbridge if they’ll soon have other takeaway options, and are equally concerned that they’d be left in the lurch if they don’t commit to Mainline and the Trans Mountain Expansion and Keystone XL projects don’t get built. Today, we consider both sides of this important debate.

Wednesday, 06/17/2020

Since last summer, the Corpus Christi area has emerged as the U.S.’s leading crude export venue. In the first five and a half months of 2020, it accounted for an astounding 45% of the barrels being shipped abroad — astounding because in the same period last year, the Corpus area held less than a 20% share. What is sometimes forgotten, though, is that little Ingleside, TX, located across Corpus Christi Bay from Corpus proper, is the area’s crude-export leader, with the Moda Midstream and Flint Hills Resources terminals responsible for just over half of Greater Corpus’s total export volumes. And, with the new South Texas Gateway Terminal nearing completion, Ingleside’s role will only increase in the coming months. Today, we conclude a series on Gulf Coast export terminals with a look at what has been going on in Ingleside.

Monday, 06/15/2020

Brent is by far the most important crude oil benchmark in the world, with well over 70% of all global crudes tied either directly or indirectly to the North Sea crude’s price. But the original Brent crude oil production is almost played out, with all of the offshore Brent producing platforms soon to be decommissioned. This might seem to be a big problem, but in the world of crude oil trading, it is a total non-issue, because Brent is no longer simply a grade of crude oil. It is a multi-layered matrix of trading instruments, pricing benchmarks, and standard contracts linked together by price differentials traded across a number of mechanisms and platforms that form the foundation of a robust, vibrant, and extremely important marketplace. Today, we delve further into the mechanics of the Brent complex, the key components that make it work, and the transactional glue that binds them together.

Sunday, 06/14/2020

Crude oil supply news comes in from all angles these days, bombarding the market daily with fresh information on producers’ efforts to ramp their volumes back up now that the global economic recovery is cautiously under way. Crude demand is rising, storage hasn’t burst at the seams yet, and prices have come a long, long way in just a few weeks. Permian exploration and production companies, having avoided a fleeting, longshot chance that the state of Texas might regulate West Texas oil production, are responding to higher crude oil prices as free-market participants should. The taps are quickly being turned back on, unleashing pent-up crude and associated gas volumes that, you could say, were under a sort of quarantine of their own for a while. Today, we provide an update on the status of curtailments in the Permian Basin.

Wednesday, 06/10/2020

Bitumen, the heavy, viscous form of crude oil associated with Alberta’s oil sands, has been the workhorse behind Canada’s ascent to near the top of oil-producing nations. However, it is impossible to get raw, near-solid bitumen to refiners by pipeline without either upgrading it to a flowable crude oil or blending it with lighter hydrocarbon liquids, a.k.a. diluents, to form the more diluted version of the product, referred to as “dilbit.” As for moving bitumen by rail, there are two main options: using heated tank cars or blending it with diluent to form “railbit.” The rapid rise in bitumen production in the past decade — interrupted only by wildfires and the recent price crash — has generated a large parallel market for diluents, whose fortunes are closely tied to the oil sands. U.S.-sourced diluent currently meets a substantial portion of the demand. But with Alberta oil sands development poised for renewed growth and in-province condensate production rising, the Canadian diluent market could be in for some big shifts. Today, we start a blog series considering the unique role that this special form of hydrocarbon plays in the oil sands.

Tuesday, 06/09/2020

In the first eight months of last year, the Corpus Christi area ranked third among its Gulf Coast brethren in crude oil export volumes — Houston was consistently #1 then, and Beaumont was the regular runner-up. Since September 2019, though, Corpus has been out front, often by a wide margin, and there’s good reason to believe it will stay ahead of the pack, at least for a while. What’s driving the South Texas port’s export-volume growth? First, there are three big new pipelines now moving crude from the Permian to Corpus: Cactus II, EPIC Crude and Gray Oak. Second, Corpus Christi and nearby Ingleside, TX, have a lot of existing storage and marine-dock capacity, and more is being developed. Today, we continue our review of crude export facilities with a look at three terminals along Corpus’s Inner Harbor.

Thursday, 06/04/2020

Up in Canada, there is finally a regulatory timeline for reviewing Enbridge’s long-standing proposal to revamp how it allocates space — and charges for service — on the company’s 2.9-MMb/d Mainline. But the plan to convert the largest crude oil pipeline system out of Western Canada from one whose space is 100% uncommitted and allocated every month to one with 90% of its capacity locked in via long-term contracts remains controversial, especially among producers. Plus, the world has changed in the past few months. Oil sands and other production in Alberta and its provincial neighbors is off sharply in response to pandemic-related demand destruction and low oil prices, and the always-full Mainline has been running at well under 90% of its capacity lately. Further, the Trans Mountain Expansion and Keystone XL projects — competitors to the Mainline in a way — have progressed this year, making shippers wonder whether to lock in capacity on the Mainline if TMX and KXL’s completion may be imminent. Today, we begin a short series on the prospective shift to a contract-carriage approach on the primary conduit for heavy and light crudes from Western Canada to U.S. crude hubs and refineries.

Monday, 06/01/2020

Do not try and refine the Brent; that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth...there is no Brent. Then you will see it is not the Brent that gets refined; it is only yourself. For those who are not fans of The Matrix, that sentence may seem a little cryptic, but it makes a point that is little understood outside the rarified world of crude oil trading. The production of North Sea Brent crude oil is down to less than a couple of hundred barrels per day. Soon it will be gone altogether. But 70% of all crude oil in the world is tied either directly or indirectly to the price of Brent. How is that possible? Well, it’s because Brent is no longer simply a grade of crude oil. Over the past two decades, it has evolved into an intricate, multi-layered matrix of trading instruments, pricing benchmarks and standard contracts that is a world unto itself. A world with a huge impact across almost everything in today’s energy markets. Unfortunately, no one can be told what Brent is. You have to see it for yourself. So that’s where we’ll go in this blog series. Warning: To read on is like taking the red pill.

Thursday, 05/28/2020

Canada’s energy sector has been hit hard by the recent oil price collapse that was initially set off by the now-ended Saudi Arabia-Russia price war and made much worse by the demand-destroying effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. The impacts on Canada’s crude oil and natural gas sectors have been both dramatic and nuanced. For example, oil supply cutbacks have been rapid and substantial, while there has been virtually zero impact on natural gas supplies. Oil demand has been similarly affected, with refined product demand seeing a large swoon, while natural gas demand has suffered only a modest pullback. And for Canada’s energy exports, these have experienced some jolting swings in a matter of weeks, putting the whole sector under pressure to adapt where possible. Today, we highlight some of the recent market disruptions and their implications.

Wednesday, 05/27/2020

Through the second half of the 2010s, the Permian Basin’s crude oil supply trajectory was clear: up, up and up. From the start of 2015 to the end of last year, crude production in the world’s leading shale play increased by an amazing 3 MMb/d, from 1.7 MMb/d to 4.7 MMb/d. Three new pipelines with a combined capacity of more than 2 MMb/d were built to move a lot of those incremental barrels to Corpus Christi, which — thanks in part to newly developed storage and docks — has become the U.S.’s #1 port for crude exports in recent months. But Permian producers have trimmed their crude output by at least several hundred thousand barrels a day this spring in response to falling demand and low prices. Has the Permian been thrown off course, and if it has, what would that mean for marine terminals in Corpus? Today, we continue our series of Gulf Coast crude export facilities with a look at the three newest terminals along the Corpus Christi Ship Channel.

Monday, 05/25/2020

Crude oil markets have been anything but dull lately. After imploding to unimaginable, negative values last month, prices have been on a tear since and are now sitting in the low $30s/bbl range. That’s not great for producers, but kind of like social distancing flattens the curve, the current price level should keep production volumes in check and stave off the worst of the potential financial distress for most Permian producers, for now. So, what has been driving the price rise? Similar to the pauses in economic and social activity that many cities have taken lately, many Permian producers have recently decided to take a wait-and-see approach on crude prices and throttle back output. Today, we provide an update on the always-dynamic Permian Basin crude oil market and how producer curtailments have materialized in May.