Fear about supply interruption isn’t the frantic force it used to be in the crude oil market. A deadly confrontation that might have pushed the U.S. and Iran to the verge of war raised the spot Brent crude oil price to above $70/bbl early in the week of January 6. Despite continuing regional concerns, the price quickly subsided. By January 13, Brent spot had fallen to $64.14/bbl, its lowest point since December 3. Before the Shale Era, a U.S.-Iranian face-off may well have launched Brent crude to well over $100/bbl as oil traders blew fuses over the heightened possibility of disruption to Persian Gulf oil production and transportation. There’s nothing like adequacy of supply, globally dispersed, to keep things calm — or at least calmer than they would have been if the U.S. and Iran had drawn so much sword a dozen years ago. In this blog, we’ll discuss where U.S. crude exports have been heading, how close the oil gets to strategically touchy areas, and whether the market still has reason to worry about disruption to oil supply.
When it comes to getting crude oil to market, bottlenecks have always existed. Back in 2013-15, producers and shippers in the Rockies faced a serious lack of takeaway options. Midstreamers saw the problem and the money to be made, and quickly built more crude-by-rail capacity — and, over time, pipeline capacity — to fix things. Recently, major takeaway constraints emerged in the Permian, much to the detriment of netbacks at the wellhead. There was real concern for a few months that some producers might need to shut in production as there wasn’t any way to get incremental barrels out of the basin. Again, traders and midstream operators got savvy, restarted some dormant crude-by-rail options, initiated long-haul trucking out of Midland, and added more pipe capacity. But what if the next big bottleneck isn’t between two land-based trading hubs? What if there’s not enough export capacity at terminals along the Gulf Coast, the gateway to international markets? In today’s blog, we examine recent export and production trends, and discuss what those could mean for export infrastructure and logistics over the next five years.
Record runs allowed U.S. refiners to continue a multiyear streak of strong margins in 2018 despite higher crude prices during the first three quarters and a weaker fourth quarter after product prices tanked along with crude in October. While rising crude prices threatened refinery margins, a high Brent premium over domestic benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) kept feedstock prices for U.S. refiners lower than their international rivals. The availability of discounted Canadian crude also helped produce stellar returns for Midwest, Rockies and Gulf Coast refiners that are configured to process heavy crude. Product prices only weakened in the fourth quarter when gasoline inventories began to rise. Today, we highlight major trends in the U.S. refining sector during 2018 and look forward to 2019.
Permian crude oil production continues to march steadily upward, headed toward 3.0 MMb/d sometime in the next few months. Most of the recent growth responsible for pushing total U.S. output past 10 MMb/d has come from increases in Permian volumes. Pipeline capacity out of the super-hot play is on the ragged edge of maxing out, and a myriad of new projects to relieve capacity constraints are in the works. Why then has the price differential between Midland, TX, and the Gulf Coast dropped over the past few weeks? Why did the Brent vs. WTI/Cushing spread crater? And what does this all mean for Midland-to-Gulf Coast transport deals getting struck for $2.00/bbl or less? Today, we look at these developments, try to make sense out of the Permian/Midland crude oil market, and consider what the future might hold for West Texas barrels moving to the Gulf Coast.
Two months ago, U.S. crude oil exports skyrocketed, and they have averaged 1.6 MMb/d since mid-September, driven by a Brent-WTI differential above $6/bbl — higher than it has been in over two years. At one point, the steep differential and surging exports were blamed on Hurricane Harvey, then on renewed OPEC discipline and a political risk premium associated with a shakeup in the Saudi hierarchy. But the reality is that these factors are only small pieces of the equation, with pipeline transportation bottlenecks from Cushing and the Permian down to the Gulf Coast being much more important factors in the widening Brent-WTI price spread. Today, we begin a blog series examining how these pipeline capacity constraints triggered the expanded price differential, and how the differential then enabled high crude oil export volumes.
In January 2016 the ICE futures Exchange changed the expiration calendar for its flagship Brent crude contract. The March 2016 contract expired on January 29, 2016 under new calendar rules that stipulate expiration one month and one day prior to delivery. This was done belatedly to reflect a change in the assessment of the physical Brent market that was implemented back in January 2012. On paper the change is just an overdue action by ICE to properly align the timing calendar for their popular futures contract with the underlying physical market. But in practice - as we suggest in today’s blog, the change has significant impacts on the calculation and analysis of the commonly utilized spread between ICE Brent (the international benchmark crude) and the U.S. equivalent West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures contract traded on the CME/NYMEX.
If East Coast refiners bought their crude at the wellhead in North Dakota during February 2016 they would have paid average prices of about $4.90/Bbl below U.S. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) at Cushing, OK – which works out at about $26.25/Bbl (price estimates from Genscape). If they shipped that crude by rail to refineries in Philadelphia, PA on the East Coast they would have paid about $14/Bbl rail freight - meaning the delivered cost of crude would be $26.25 + $14 or $40.25/Bbl. Alternatively they could have simply imported Bakken equivalent light sweet crude priced close to international benchmark Brent for an average $34/Bbl – saving a minimum of $6.25/Bbl. Today we describe how these economics have had a detrimental impact on crude-by-rail (CBR) shipments to the East Coast.
RBN estimates that midstream companies have built out about 950 Mb/d of crude-by-rail (CBR) loading terminal capacity in Western Canada. Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows actual CBR shipments from Canada to the U.S. topped out at 195 Mb/d in January 2015 and have fallen by 40% since then. Hard-pressed Canadian producers have been squeezed by lower prices and high transport costs with only limited relief as new pipelines came online. Today we review the fate of Canadian CBR transport capacity.
Demand for liquefied natural gas has been flat recently, but liquefaction/LNG export capacity is on the rise. The resulting supply/demand imbalance along with the crash in crude oil prices has sent LNG prices to unexpectedly low levels, and raises questions about the competitiveness of all the new Australian and U.S. projects coming online in 2016-20. Today, we continue our examination of the fast-changing international market for LNG with a look at the new capacity being added to an already saturated LNG market, and how U.S. LNG exporters might fare in a hyper-competitive world.
Crude prices are hovering around $30/Bbl making crude–by-rail (CBR) transport an expensive option for hard pressed producers looking to conserve cash – especially where pipeline alternatives are available. The crude price differentials that once justified shipping inland crude to coastal destinations by rail have all but disappeared. In November, 2015 pipeline shipments exceeded rail out of North Dakota for the first time since 2011 and by 2017 available pipeline capacity out of the region should exceed producer’s needs. In the circumstances, rail shipments would appear to be living on borrowed time but as we describe today - some North Dakota rail shipments are continuing in spite of the poor economics.
With crude prices below $30/Bbl and the price spread between U.S. domestic crude benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and international equivalent Brent trading in a very narrow range – the economics of moving Crude-by-Rail (CBR) rarely make sense any more. Rail shipments are down across all regions and railroads are reporting sharply lower revenues from CBR shipments. Today we start a new series revisiting the regions where CBR traffic boomed a couple of years back and contemplating its future value to shippers and refiners.
On Friday (January 22, 2016) West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude prices on the CME/NYMEX futures exchange closed up $2.66/Bbl – the second day of a recovery from their 28% plunge during the first 20 days of 2016. The jury is still out on whether the recovery will be sustained. There was a similar (though less pronounced) price decline a year ago in January 2015 that did not last very long at the time. But in comparison the price destruction during this month’s collapse was unusually severe - not just because we saw prices under $30/Bbl for the first time since 2003. Today we explain why the extent of the price destruction along the forward curve this time suggests that last week’s recovery may be short lived.
Crude prices have fallen 21% since the start of 2016 and may fall further with the end to Iranian sanctions threatening to release yet more supplies into a saturated market. The U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) closed at $29.42/Bbl Friday (January 15, 2016) and is now down 78% since the price rout began in June 2014. What has changed in the past two months to make crude prices fall so fast this year? Today we begin a two-part discussion of the fundamental factors underlying current weakness in the crude market.
Following the news that regulations restricting the export of U.S. crude had been lifted, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude rallied to a slight premium over its international counterpart Brent for 6 days at the end of December 2015 – apparently leveling the playing field between the two rival light sweet grades. Is this the green light for a surge in U.S. crude exports? Not hardly. In fact, it is the other way around. Prices for WTI need to be well below Brent for exports to make economic sense and – according to the futures market – that is not happening anytime soon. Today we conclude our analysis of the Brent/WTI price relationship with a look forward to 2016.
Next week (January 2016 - according to press reports) Enterprise Products Partners will load the first cargo of U.S. crude oil to be exported without regard to the regulations that restricted such movements to most countries except in certain circumstances for the past forty years. It looks like the lifting of crude oil export restrictions came too late to have much impact on U.S. production or prices in an era of free falling prices. Today we look at the impact of the change on the crude price spread between U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and international counterpart Brent.