Crude Oil

Monday, 12/10/2018

There’s a reason why more than half a dozen midstream companies and joint ventures are clamoring to build deepwater loading terminals on the Gulf of Mexico: because it’s a major pain to load Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) any other way. These days, the standard operating procedure for loading the vast majority of VLCCs along the Gulf Coast involves a complex, time-consuming and costly process of ship-to-ship transfers called reverse-lightering, in which smaller tankers ferry out and transfer crude to VLCCs in specified lightering areas off the coast. Today, we ponder the current dynamics for U.S. crude exports via VLCC. 

Thursday, 12/06/2018

For months, the crude oil market had Canada figured out. Production was growing, bit by bit. Pipelines were maxed out. Railcars were hard to come by but were providing some incremental takeaway capacity. Midwest refineries, a big destination for Canadian crude, went in and out of turnaround season, moving prices as they ramped up runs. Overall, the supply and demand math was straightforward also, tilted towards excess production. Canadian crude prices were going to continue to be heavily discounted for the next year or two, until one of the new pipeline systems being planned was approved and completed. Western Canadian Select (WCS) a heavy crude blend and regional benchmark was averaging at a discount to West Texas Intermediate (WTI) near $40/bbl in November, dragging down Syncrude prices with it. As the market was settling in for a long, cold winter in Canada, a bombshell dropped: Alberta’s premier announced on December 2 (2018) that regulators would institute a mandatory production cut, taking 325 Mb/d of production offline, and that the government would invest in new crude-by-rail tankcars. That announcement has had a massive impact on prices, with WCS’s differential narrowing to $18.50/bbl most recently. In today’s blog, we look at several catalysts for the recent swing in Canadian prices, and how the recent governmental intervention will impact differentials.

Wednesday, 11/28/2018

This summer and fall, more than a half dozen companies and midstream joint ventures have announced plans for new deepwater export terminals along the Gulf Coast that — if all built — would have the capacity to load and send out more than 10 MMb/d, which is notable because the U.S. Lower 48 currently produces 11.2 MMb/d. Most of these projects won’t get built, of course — export volumes may well continue rising, and the economics of fully loading VLCCs at deepwater ports are compelling, but even the most optimistic forecasts suggest that only one or two of these new terminals will be needed through the early 2020s. So, there’s a fierce competition on among developers to advance their VLCC-ready export projects to Final Investment Decisions (FIDs) first. Today, we discuss highlights from our new Drill Down Report on deepwater crude export terminals as well as the export growth and tanker-loading economics that are driving the project-development frenzy.

Monday, 11/19/2018

During the summer of 2018, crude oil inventories at the trading hub in Cushing, OK, dropped to extreme lows. With estimated tank bottoms around 14.6 MMbbl, Cushing stockpiles hit 21.8 MMbbl for the week of August 3. Traders’ alarm bells were ringing, and upstream and downstream observers were wondering if low storage levels were going to cause significant operational issues. But just when it seemed tanks were nearing catastrophic lows, inventories reversed course and started to climb. Since August, crude stocks have increased by 13.6 MMbbl, or nearly 60%, and there is now talk of potentially too much crude en route to Cushing, maxing out capacity there. There are many contributing factors to this most recent inventory swing, with increased domestic production and the tail end of refinery turnaround season being two of the bigger fundamental drivers. But the main catalyst has been the shift from a backwardated forward curve to a contango forward curve in the WTI futures market. Today, we continue our Cushing series with a snapshot of recent contango markets and the impact those prices have had on stockpiles at the central Oklahoma hub.

Sunday, 11/18/2018

The race is on and here comes WTI up the backstretch. On November 5, CME Group launched a Houston WTI futures contract, challenging a similar trading vehicle from Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) that started up in mid-October. Ever since crude flows to the Gulf Coast took off five years ago, the crude market has been clamoring for a trading vehicle that would accurately reflect pricing in the region that dominates U.S. demand from refineries, imports and exports. Now there are two. But their features are quite distinct. ICE’s contract reflects barrels delivered to Magellan East Houston, while CME’s contract is based on deliveries into Enterprise’s Houston system. The specs are different, as are the physical attributes of the two delivery points. Will both survive? Probably not. Futures markets tend to concentrate liquidity — trading activity — into a single vehicle that best meets the needs of the market. So, which of these will come out on top?  That’s what the crude oil market wants to know. In today’s blog, we delve into the differences between the two new futures contracts for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude delivered to Houston and ponder the market implications of these new hedging and trading tools.

Thursday, 11/15/2018

Between new sanctions on Iran and the potential for more escalation in the trade war with China, oil exports from the U.S. have been changing their flows dramatically in the past few months. China from October 2017 through July 2018 rivaled Canada as the largest buyer of U.S. crude; in June, when total U.S. exports hit a record 2.2 MMb/d, nearly one-quarter of those volumes flowed to China. But since trade tensions between the two nations intensified, not a single barrel of U.S. crude has arrived in China since July. Thankfully, the U.S. has found ways to fill the Chinese void by increasing the volumes sold to South Korea and India, two historically prominent buyers of Iranian oil. Today, we lay out the reasons why U.S. sanctions on Iran are helping the U.S. continue to sell crude to Asia, even as relations with China have chilled.

Wednesday, 11/14/2018

It’s been well-reported that crude oil pipeline capacity is getting maxed out in many basins across the U.S. and Canada. From Alberta, through the heart of the Bakken, all the way down to the Permian, pipeline projects are struggling to keep up with the rapid growth in some of North America’s largest oil-producing regions. Crude by rail (CBR) has frequently been the swing capacity provider when production in a basin overwhelms long-haul pipelines. While it is more expensive, more logistically challenging, and more time-intensive, CBR capacity is typically able to step in and provide a release valve for stranded volumes. But recently, CBR capacity has been tougher to come by and has taken longer than expected to ramp up. A key aspect of this issue is a new requirement for up-to-date rail cars. Today, we look at how new rail demands and uncertainty in domestic oil markets are combining to create a major hurdle for new CBR capacity.

Wednesday, 11/07/2018

Crude oil production has been increasing in virtually all of the shale and tight oil plays that send their output to the storage and distribution hub in Cushing, OK. A number of pipeline projects are being built and planned to accommodate that growth, and — despite the fact that two-thirds of Cushing’s existing storage capacity is currently unused — several million barrels of new tankage is being installed at the hub, again in anticipation of incremental needs in 2019, 2020 and beyond. So it should come as no surprise that midstream companies also are planning a good bit of new pipeline capacity out of Cushing, some to refinery customers in the Midwest and Midcontinent areas but some to refineries and export docks along the Gulf Coast. Today, we continue our series on the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World” with a review of rock-solid and potential plans to enable more crude to flow out of the central Oklahoma hub.

Monday, 11/05/2018

There’s been a lot of talk lately that the crude oil hub in Cushing, OK, is losing its luster — that it may not be as important as it once was. Folks point to the precipitous, months-long decline in crude inventories that started last fall, or to the fact that just about all of the planned oil pipelines out of the red-hot Permian are pointed toward Gulf Coast refineries and export docks, not central Oklahoma. Then you’ve got ICE and CME’s new WTI futures contracts, both deliverable in Houston — another challenge to Cushing. While Cushing’s role as the epicenter of crude storage and trading may be in flux, rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, as evidenced by the long list of midstream projects under development to transport more crude to — and out of — the Oklahoma hub, and to add storage tanks there. Just yesterday (November 5), in fact, Magellan Midstream Partners and Navigator Energy Services announced plans for what would be the first new Cushing-to-Houston pipeline since 2014. Today, we continue our comprehensive review of the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World” with a look at the many capacity-expansion efforts now under way.

Sunday, 11/04/2018

Right now, pipeline capacity out of the Permian is constrained, and consequently some producers have cut back on well completions, more gas is getting flared, and ethane recovery is being driven more by bottlenecks than by gas plant economics.  But even with these issues, there are still 487 rigs drilling for oil in the basin (according to Baker Hughes), and all will come along with sizable quantities of natural gas.    Not only does this production need to be moved out of the Permian, the volumes need to find a home — either in the domestic market or overseas. These were all issues that were considered by our speakers, panelists and RBN analysts last month at PermiCon, our industry conference designed to bridge the gap between fundamentals analysis and boots-on-the-ground market intelligence.  In today’s blog, we continue our review of some of the key points discussed during the conference proceedings.

Thursday, 11/01/2018

Refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast (USGC), which account for half of the country’s total refining capacity, are generally among the most sophisticated and complex anywhere, with configurations that enable them to break down heavy, sour crude oil into high-value, low-sulfur refined products. However, over the past eight years, the USGC has been flooded with increasing volumes of light, sweet crudes produced in the Eagle Ford, the Permian and other U.S. shale plays as new pipelines were constructed or reversed to the coast for domestic refining or export. Still more pipelines will be coming online over the next year. Today, we evaluate how much domestic crude oil has been absorbed into the USGC refining system, the implications to the overall crude slate qualities, and options for increasing domestic crude oil processing in the near term.

Wednesday, 10/31/2018

Pipeline capacity constraints are nothing new to producers in the Bakken. Prior to the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in mid-2017, market participants had been pushing area pipeline takeaway to the max. When DAPL finally came online following a lengthy political and legal battle, producers and traders were able to breathe a sigh of relief. But with Bakken production steadily increasing over the past 18 months and primed for future growth new constraints are on the horizon. Over the next year or so, Bakken output could overwhelm takeaway capacity and push producers to find new market outlets. The questions now are, which midstream companies can add incremental capacity, how much crude-by-rail will be necessary, and is there a chance a major new pipeline gets built? Today, we forecast Bakken supply and demand, discuss some upcoming projects and lay out the possible headaches for Bakken producers heading into 2019.

Monday, 10/29/2018

Phillips 66 loaded its first Panamax tanker for export to Mexico over the weekend. Late on Sunday night, the SCF Prime signaled that it was headed for Pajaritos, Mexico, after loading at Phillips' terminal in Beaumont, TX.  Mexico is making history with this pivotal first purchase of Bakken crude from Phillips 66 at the U.S. Gulf Coast (USGC). Up until now, the crude oil trade between the U.S. and Mexico had been a one-way street, with oil moving from Mexico to the U.S. and not the other way around. But now, as Mexico’s state-run oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) faces dwindling oil production and refinery outputs, importing light, sweet crude from the U.S. is a new avenue to revive Mexico’s refinery utilization. Today, we examine the new shift in the traditional flows of crude oil across the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunday, 10/28/2018

Crude oil production in the Niobrara region in northeastern Colorado and eastern Wyoming has quadrupled since the start of the 2010s, and now tops 600 Mb/d. Fortunately for producers in the Niobrara’s Denver-Julesburg (D-J) Basin and Powder River Basin (PRB), midstream companies not only developed enough new pipeline takeaway capacity to transport all those incremental barrels, they overbuilt. As a result, the region — unlike the Permian and Western Canada — currently has no crude-oil pipeline constraints, something that makes the Niobrara even more attractive to producers. But part of a pipeline system now moving crude out of the D-J is being repurposed to carry NGLs instead, and with D-J and PRB crude production still rising, you’ve got to wonder, is a takeaway shortfall on the horizon? Today, we continue our series on the Rockies’ premier hydrocarbon production area and the infrastructure needed to serve it, this time focusing on crude oil.

Tuesday, 10/23/2018

The discount for Bakken crude prices at Clearbrook to WTI at Cushing has been on a rollercoaster in recent weeks, widening from $1.30/bbl at the beginning of September 2018 to over $10/bbl in mid-October and narrowing again most recently. There are several factors at play here. Canadian production has overwhelmed area pipelines and prices are being heavily discounted. These cheap Canadian barrels are creating oversupply issues at markets that Bakken barrels also trade into. On the demand side, Midwestern refiners are in the middle of seasonal turnarounds, reducing the demand for both Bakken and Canadian grades. Meanwhile, Bakken production growth continues to steadily chug along, increasing by over 150 Mb/d since the beginning of the year. And while this recent Bakken price angst is cause for concern, there is a looming bottleneck for pipeline space that could really shake things up sometime next year. Today, we examine the recent price phenomenon, the relationship between Canadian crude differentials and Bakken prices, and why producers should be concerned about future pipeline shortages.