Crude Oil

Over the past three-plus years, Corpus Christi has dominated the U.S. crude oil export market, largely because of the availability of straight-shot pipeline access from the Permian to two Corpus-area terminals at Ingleside — Enbridge Ingleside Energy Center (EIEC) and South Texas Gateway (STG) — that can partially load the huge 2-MMbbl VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers). But capacity on the pipes to Corpus is now nearly maxed out and, with Permian production rising and exports strong, an increasing share of West Texas crude output is instead being sent to Houston on pipelines with capacity to spare. The catch for Permian shippers with capacity on Permian-to-Houston pipes is that the Midland-to-MEH (Magellan East Houston) price differential for WTI has been depressingly low —$0.22/bbl on average this year, compared to almost $20/bbl for a few months in 2018 and averaging $5.50/bbl as recently as 2019. However, the Midland-to-MEH WTI price spread looks to be on the verge of a rebound of sorts, as we discuss in today’s RBN blog.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? The answer to that age-old question usually indicates whether a particular situation is a cause for optimism or pessimism. That question is particularly appropriate when trying to place in perspective the cyclical movement of the earnings and cash flows of U.S. exploration and production (E&P) companies, including returns that have steadily declined with commodity prices over the last year. In today’s RBN blog, we analyze Q2 2023 E&P earnings and cash flows and provide some perspective on the past and future profitability of U.S. oil and gas producers.

A draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) tied to a key water crossing along the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has finally been completed and made public, thereby ending another chapter in the long-running drama about the ultimate fate of DAPL, which is by far the largest crude oil pipeline out of the Bakken. While the DEIS doesn’t finish the story, the document provides hints about possible outcomes — and an opportunity to review just how important the 750-Mb/d pipeline really is to Bakken producers and shippers. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the latest developments regarding DAPL and Bakken production.

While the weather-related headlines might still scream “summer” in some places — from stifling heat to powerful hurricanes to downpour-induced mud bogs at Burning Man in the Nevada desert — we’ve actually turned the corner into meteorological fall. Oil and gas prices have moved up from their Q2 2023 lows and supply issues, particularly for oil, are the chief concerns as the heating season approaches. Long-term production by the Diversified E&P peer group, whose production streams are weighted 40%-60% for gas and oil, respectively, are a major factor in U.S. supply. In today’s RBN blog, we analyze the crucial issue of reserve replacement by the major diversified U.S. producers.

What a difference a year makes! The summer of 2022 was a golden age for U.S. E&Ps that embraced a dramatic shift in their business model from prioritizing growth to a focus on maximizing cash flows and emphasizing shareholder returns. Oil prices over $90/bbl and gas prices hovering about $7/MMBtu filled their coffers and funded lavish increases in share repurchases and dividends. But those golden days quickly faded as oil prices retreated and gas prices plunged 66% to just above $2/MMBtu. In today’s RBN blog, we explain how E&Ps are scrambling to sustain shareholder return programs in the face of shrinking cash flow.

For many years now, the U.S. has been buying — and piping or railing in — virtually all of the crude oil Canada has been exporting, in part because Canadian producers have only very limited access to coastal ports. More recently, greater pipeline access from the Alberta oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast (USGC) has created an attractive pathway — a “Carefree Highway,” if you will — for Canadian crude oil to be “re-exported” to overseas customers. This year, much stronger international demand has sent re-export volumes to record highs — and provided Alberta producers very attractive price differentials for their oil sands crude. That overseas demand appears to be sustainable, but with the looming startup of the 590-Mb/d Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX), which will increase the capacity of the Trans Mountain Pipeline system to 890 Mb/d and enable much more Alberta crude to be exported from docks in British Columbia, the re-export surge from the USGC may be in for a pullback, as we discuss in today’s RBN blog.

The level of activity at crude oil export terminals from Corpus Christi to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) is nothing short of extraordinary — a record 4.8 MMb/d was loaded the week ended August 25, according to RBN’s Crude Voyager report, and Houston-area terminals loaded an all-time high of 1.4 MMb/d. But there’s a lot more to the crude exports story. When you live this stuff day-in, day-out, you see subtle changes that often extend into trends and, if you’re lucky, you sometimes get signals that things you’d been predicting are actually happening. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss highlights from the latest Crude Voyager and what the weekly report’s data and analysis reveal about the global oil market.

As this brutally hot summer meanders towards Labor Day, we’re all facing rising gasoline prices as we head to the beach, to barbecues, or to the mall for back-to-school shopping. The main culprit is crude oil production cutbacks by the Russians and Saudis and the situation would likely be much more precarious were it not for strong U.S. shale output keeping gasoline prices from climbing to $5 a gallon or more — except in California, of course. Crucial to sustaining that production long-term is not just replenishing U.S. oil reserves but growing them. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our look at crude oil and natural gas reserves with an analysis of the critical issue of reserve replacement by major oil-focused U.S. producers.

There’s a lot going on in North American crude oil markets these days. Exports are running strong. Midland WTI is now deliverable into Brent (but only if it meets specs). Pipelines from the Permian to Corpus Christi are maxed out, pushing incremental production to Houston. The price differential between WTI at Midland and Houston is nearing zero. And the value of heavy Western Canadian Select (WCS) delivered to the U.S. continues to bounce all over the place. Are these unrelated, random events in the quirky U.S. physical crude market, or are they logical developments linked by the economics of refinery preferences, quality shifts, export demand, and logistics? As you might expect, we think it’s the latter. Believe it or not, crude markets sometimes do behave rationally — and, from time to time, even predictably. That’s what we explore in today’s RBN blog.

The world consumes about 100 MMb/d of liquid fuels, which are critically important to every segment of the global economy and to nearly every aspect of our daily lives. The size and scope of this market means it’s impacted by all kinds of short-term forces — economic ups and downs, geopolitics, domestic developments and major weather events, just to name a few — some of which are difficult, if not impossible, to foresee. But while these events can sometimes come out of nowhere, there are some long-term forces on the horizon that will shape markets in the decades to come, even if the magnitude of these changes might be up for debate. One is a move to prioritize alternative fuel sources rather than crude oil, but a meaningful shift won’t happen as quickly as many forecasts would indicate — and that has big implications for liquid fuel demand and the outlook for U.S. refiners. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss these issues and other highlights from the recent webcast by RBN’s Refined Fuels Analytics (RFA) practice on their newly released update to the Future of Fuels report.

Over the past four years, Energy Transfer (ET) has completed several major acquisitions, all aimed at giving the company the additional size and reach it will need to compete in an increasingly consolidated midstream sector. On Wednesday, ET announced one of its biggest purchases yet: a $7.1 billion deal to acquire Crestwood Equity Partners, which has extensive gathering and processing assets in the Permian, Powder River and Williston basins, as well as NGL terminal and storage facilities east of the Mississippi. In today’s RBN blog, we look at how the addition of Crestwood’s holdings will extend ET’s value chain and complement its fractionation assets at Mont Belvieu and its export capabilities at both its Nederland and Marcus Hook terminals.

Just a couple of years ago, TC Energy finally threw in the towel on its long-planned, long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline project, which would have substantially increased the flow of Western Canadian heavy crude to Gulf Coast refineries and export docks. It was a bitter loss. Since then, however, two other companies headquartered north of the 49th parallel have assumed leading roles in the U.S. crude oil market or, more specifically, crude exports. First, Enbridge acquired the U.S.’s #1 oil export terminal — now called the Enbridge Ingleside Energy Center (EIEC) — and related assets for US$3 billion and then, on August 1, Gibson Energy announced that it had closed on the US$1.1 billion purchase of the nearby South Texas Gateway (STG), which is #2 in crude export volumes. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the increasing role of Canada-based midstream companies along the South Texas coast.

One of the major shocks of the pandemic was walking into supermarkets to see vast stretches of bare shelves where, for decades, stacks of toilet paper, diapers, infant formula, cooking oil, and even white flour used to magically repopulate overnight. The fix turned out to be relatively easy: Get people back to work and work out the kinks in delivery networks. (Now our only concern is how expensive everything is!) Rebuilding inventories in the oil and gas industry, in contrast, is an ever-present concern, longer-term in nature and more complicated, involving a wide range of variables and uncertainties. In today’s RBN blog, we examine the challenges that exploration and production (E&P) companies face in their efforts to more efficiently and cost effectively replace their oil and gas reserves — and we highlight some early warnings signs of potential future inventory issues.

The 590-Mb/d Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project, which is inching closer to its planned early 2024 completion, has been one of the most eagerly anticipated energy infrastructure projects in recent Canadian memory. Preliminary tolls for shipping crude on the expanded pipeline system, submitted to the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) in June, are multiples higher than the tolls currently charged on the original 300-Mb/d Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMP), possibly undermining oil producers’ economics for shipping and exporting crude on the combined 890-Mb/d system. However, the higher tolls are not the only concern. Serious logistical challenges remain in the form of restricted tanker sizes, a circuitous route for ships traveling from the open ocean to the Westridge export terminal near Burnaby, BC, and even a very tight passage under two bridges, all of which will add costs and time for each exported barrel. In today’s RBN blog, we provide more details on the complexities surrounding crude oil exports via the Trans Mountain pipeline system.

CME’s NYMEX light sweet crude oil contract in Cushing, OK, is not West Texas Intermediate — WTI. Instead, it is Domestic Sweet — commonly referred to as DSW — with quality specifications that are broader and generally inferior to Midland-sourced WTI. In fact, pristine Midland WTI delivered to Cushing sells at a reasonably healthy premium to DSW. That difference in specs, and the fact that the quality of DSW is considerably more variable than straight-as-an-arrow Midland WTI, makes most purchasers of exported U.S. crude (and many domestic refiners too) strongly prefer the more quality-consistent Midland WTI grade. For that reason, when Platts set out to allow U.S. light crude to be delivered as Brent, it said that only Midland WTI will qualify. Consequently, a marketer cannot take delivery of a NYMEX-quality barrel at Cushing, pipe it down to the Gulf Coast, and deliver it to a dock for export if the ultimate destination of that barrel is to be reflected in the Brent price assessment. The implication? There are now effectively two U.S. crude oil benchmark grades, each of which is valued differently, priced differently and used by different markets. Is this a big deal for the valuation mechanisms for U.S. crude oils, or just a minor quirk in oil-market nomenclature? We’ll explore that question in today’s RBN blog.