In only three years, the international liquefied natural gas (LNG) market has undergone a major transformation. The old order, founded on long-term, bilateral contracts with LNG prices linked to crude oil prices, is being replaced by a more-fluid, more-competitive paradigm. That’s good news for LNG buyers, who are benefiting from a supply glut and lower LNG prices—the twin results of slower-than-expected demand growth in 2014-15 and the addition of several new liquefaction/LNG export facilities in Australia and the U.S. But the new paradigm poses a challenge for facility developers: How do they line up commitments for new liquefaction/LNG export capacity that will be needed a few years from now in a market characterized by LNG oversupply and rock-bottom prices? Today we begin a two-part series that considers the hurdles developers face and which types of projects may have the best prospects.
Daily energy Posts
The five refineries in the U.S. Pacific Northwest (PNW) performed better in 2016 than rivals on the East Coast for two main reasons. First, the changing pattern of North American crude supply has worked to their advantage. Faced with the threat of dwindling mainstay crude supplies from Alaska, refiners in Washington State replaced 22% of their slate with North Dakota Bakken crude moved in by rail. They have also enjoyed advantaged access to discounted crude supplies from Western Canada. Second, PNW refiners face less competition for refined product customers than rivals on the East and Gulf coasts, meaning they have a captive market that often translates to higher margins. Today we review performance and prospects for PNW refineries.
Shipping companies now know that within three years all vessels involved in international trade will be required to use fuel with a sulfur content of 0.5% or less—an aggressive standard, considering that in most of the world today, ships are currently allowed to use heavy fuel oil (HFO) bunker fuel with up to 3.5% sulfur. This is a big deal. Ships now consume about half of the world’s residual-based heavy fuel oil, but starting in January 2020 they can’t—at least in HFO’s current form. How will the global fuels market react to a change that would theoretically eliminate roughly half the demand for residual fuels? How will ship owners comply with the rule? What are their options? Today we discuss the much-lower cap on sulfur in bunker fuels approved by the International Marine Organization, and what it means for shippers and refineries.
After enduring 2015-16 it is about time for some good news, right? And that’s just what 2017 is shaping up to be—a relatively good news year for energy markets. But don’t go crazy with this. The key word in that sentence is “relatively’” —which means better than 2015-16, but if you are looking for that other “R” word (“recovery”) you won’t see it here. Crude prices will be up some, but nothing like the first few years of this decade. Natural gas and NGL prices will be stronger too. But both may have to wait still another year before seeing a real upswing in 2018. Nevertheless, 2017 is looking good for most of the energy market. Not for everyone, mind you. Many will struggle because their assets are in the wrong places, they are at the wrong end of the food chain, or they were simply unprepared for this new market reality. How will you know the difference between the winners and losers? Well of course, by looking deeply into the RBN crystal ball to see what 2017—Year of the Rooster—has in store for us. Cock-a-doodle-do!
A long-standing tradition at RBN is our annual Top 10 RBN Energy Prognostications blog, where we lay out the most important developments we see for the year ahead. Unlike so many forecasters, we also look back to see how we did with our forecasts the previous year. That’s right! We actually check our work. Usually we can get that all into a single blog. But a lot will be coming at us in 2017, so this time around we are splitting our Prognostications into two pieces. Tomorrow’s blog will look into the RBN crystal ball one more time to see what 2017 has in store for energy markets. But today we look back. Back to what we posted on January 3, 2016. Recall back in those days that crude production had not started to decline materially, West Texas Intermediate (WTI; the U.S. light-crude benchmark) was at $37/bbl, natural gas was $2.33/MMbtu in the middle of winter, Congress had just OK’ed crude exports, and weak exploration and production companies (E&Ps) were dropping like flies. Now let’s look at RBN’s Prognostications for 2016.
From the depths of despair in the first quarter when WTI crude collapsed to $26.21/bbl on February 11 and Henry Hub gas crashed to $1.64/MMbtu on March 3, we are back, sort of. Growth in the rig count has been nothing short of spectacular, up 249 or 62% from the low point in late May. Crude oil, natural gas and NGL prices have all more than doubled since the lows of Q1. Yes, 2016 has been quite a roller coaster ride for energy markets. Here in the RBN blogosphere, we’ve documented this saga every step of the way. Now at the end of the year, as we’ve done for the past five years, it is time to look back. Back over the past 12 months––to see which blogs have generated the most interest from you, our readers. We track the hit rate for each of our daily blogs, and the number of hits tells you a lot about what is going on in energy markets. So once again we look into the rearview mirror at the top blogs of 2016 based on numbers of website hits in “The 2016 Hydrocarbon Top 10 RBN Blogs”.
Each winter, New York spot prices for gasoline and diesel spike higher than spot prices in Chicago, opening a seasonal arbitrage opportunity for Midwest refineries and motor fuel marketers—if only they could move more product east from Petroleum Administration for Defense District (PADD) 2 to the East Coast’s PADD 1. Midstream companies have taken note, and have been adding eastbound refined product pipeline capacity in Ohio and Pennsylvania. So far the aim has been to move gasoline and diesel as far east as central Pennsylvania, but the longer-term goal seems to Philadelphia, which ironically is the center of East Coast refining. Today we look at the ongoing shift in market territories claimed and sought by gasoline and diesel refineries and marketers in PADDs 1 and 2.
Mexico’s consumption of motor fuels is rising, its production of gasoline and diesel continues to fall, and U.S. refineries and midstream companies are racing to fill the widening gap. The export volumes are impressive: deliveries of finished motor gasoline from the U.S. to Mexico averaged 328 Mb/d in the third quarter of 2016, up 41% from the same period last year, and exports of low-sulfur diesel were up 29% to 194 Mb/d. And there’s good reason to believe that U.S.-to-Mexico volumes will keep growing. Today we look at recent trends in gasoline and diesel production and consumption south of the border, and at ongoing efforts to enable more U.S.-sourced gasoline and diesel to reach key Mexican markets by rail and pipeline.
OPEC’s agreement at its November 30 meeting to cut crude oil output has sent prices soaring. Many U.S. producers already are anticipating brighter days, but before anyone pops the champagne it’s important to consider the deal’s potential vulnerabilities, and to factor in other market developments that reduce the agreement’s effect. Today we look at pre-deal maneuvering, the impact of those maneuvers on the level of supply, and the things that could still derail the move to market equilibrium.
On November 17, 2016, Tesoro Corp., the second-largest independent refiner in the Western U.S., announced an agreement to acquire Western Refining for an estimated $6.4 billion. This is the second acquisition that Tesoro has made this year, following the purchase of the MDU Resources/Calumet Specialty Products Partners’ joint venture refinery in North Dakota. And—ironically, considering the name of the company Tesoro is buying—the Western Refining deal will expand Tesoro’s footprint further east than ever. Today we evaluate the legacy assets of Tesoro and Western Refining and discuss how the two companies will likely fit together.
On the last day of October 2016, the first-ever shipment of Chinese motor gasoline to the U.S. was delivered to Buckeye’s Reading terminal in New York Harbor. The vessel took a circuitous route to New York, taking on cargo in the Hong Kong lightering zone, stopping in South Korea to take on another parcel of clean product, dropping off some benzene in Houston, and then finally heading to New York. That complicated journey suggests that the economics of a regular China-to-East Coast gasoline trade route are not there (at least for now), but the shipment highlights a trend: China is becoming more assertive as an exporter of petroleum products and the implications are global. In an international market defined by oversupply, inroads by China necessarily result in other producers losing market share. In today’s blog, we examine the impact of rising clean petroleum product exports—particularly from China, but also from India—and the corresponding ripple effects both on the world market and on U.S. refiners.
Over the past few weeks, publicly traded independent refining companies reported their latest quarterly results, and nearly all lamented on a common theme: the cost of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) is out of control. However, the financial burden is not felt equally across the industry, as companies with integrated marketing operations (refining, blending and retailing) don’t face the same RINs-cost albatross as merchant refiners who don’t have retail operations. Today we review the escalating RIN costs that obligated parties have endured this year and explain how the degree of financial pain depends on the level of refiners’ downstream integration.
Global demand for motor gasoline is on the rise, and U.S. refineries—as a group, still the most sophisticated in the world—are poised to play a critical role in providing much of the needed incremental gasoline supply to Asia, Latin America and other growing markets. This important topic was the focus of a recent talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) by our good friend, Dr. Fereidun Fesharaki, chairman of international energy consultant FGE, who also discussed the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) new (and controversial) decision to limit sulfur in bunker fuel to 0.5% by January 2020—a move that will test the capabilities of refineries worldwide. Today’s blog provides highlights from this presentation.
The shale boom breathed new life into East Coast refineries that were under threat of closure by their owners between 2009 and 2012. Now some of those same refineries are under threat again, this time due to poor margins as well as the high cost of compliance with environmental regulations. After enjoying three years of improved margins through access to advantaged domestic crude delivered by rail from North Dakota, five East Coast refineries are now paying international prices for imported crude again in 2016 after differentials between domestic benchmark WTI and international equivalent Brent narrowed to less than $1/bbl in the wake of the crude price crash and an end to the federal ban on most crude exports. Today we discuss PADD 1 refinery prospects.
New “Tier 3” requirements to limit sulfur content in gasoline are set to take effect in just over two months — on January 2017. In March 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to limit the sulfur content of gasoline produced or imported into the U.S. to no more than 10 parts per million (ppm) from the current “Tier 2” 30 ppm standard by January 1, 2017. With these upcoming “Tier 3” requirements, refiners have been developing their strategies to meet the regulations and in some cases have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their facilities. Today, we look at the various approaches refiners can take for compliance and their impacts on the industry.
For the past month, WTI crude oil prices have averaged $49/bbl, trading within a relatively narrow $7/bbl range. Two years ago, this price would have been devastating for producers, but not so in late 2016. The crude directed rig count is up by 127 since May, +11 just last week. U.S. crude production is down about 1.2 MMb/d since April 2015, but over the past three months has stabilized at 8.5 MMb/d. On the gas side, since the second quarter of 2016 a combination of lower natural gas production and higher demand (from the power, industrial and export sectors) has worked off a big inventory surplus. Consequently, U.S. natural gas prices are up more than 70% since March, even considering the big price drop over the past week. NGL prices are at the highest value relative to crude for any October since 2012. Is this it? Is this what a Shale Era recovery looks like? In today’s blog, we consider a possible road map for the next couple of years. Warning, we have also included a short infomercial for RBN’s School of Energy next week in Houston.