Crude oil exports out of the U.S. are the topic du jour these days. At the heart of the discussion are the who, what, where and when of how the export capacity will be developed. Who is going to build the next crude oil export terminal, what type will it be (offshore or onshore), where are they going to put it (Corpus, Houston, Louisiana — the list goes on), and when will that new capacity be available? Everyone seems to have a different answer, and for good reason. Crude oil export terminals aren’t easy to develop, any way you look at them. Today, we examine the financial and logistical hurdles that export terminals must clear in order to reach a final investment decision, and what those obstacles mean for what kind of terminal gets built, where it gets built, who builds it and how soon.
Posts from John Zanner
Crude oil production in the U.S. continues to rise — it currently stands at 12.4 MMb/d, up more than 1.6 MMb/d from 12 months ago, according to the most recent data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). New pipeline projects from Cushing and West Texas to the Gulf Coast are being developed to ensure there is enough flow capacity to move all those barrels from the wellhead to refineries and export docks. Which leads to two critical questions — namely, how much actual crude oil export capacity is already in place at the Gulf Coast, and how much more needs to be developed? Today, we begin a series presenting our latest analysis of crude oil export capacity in the U.S., our forecast for total export demand, and our view of what it all means for the large slate of potential projects.
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.
Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance. So the saying goes, and it often holds true for midstream projects as well as people. Many times we’ve written that existing pipe in the ground beats new pipeline projects; it’s frequently easier and faster to expand the capacity of an older pipe than it is to build an entirely new pipeline. But eventually, contracts on these old pipelines expire, and as they do, shippers may have new, more attractive options — maybe proposed new pipes offer better connections to gathering systems, the ability to segregate batches of crude oil, and/or access to more desirable markets. Most importantly, they probably are willing to charge a lower tariff. In the Permian, we’ve seen a slew of new pipelines advance to construction by promising lower and lower shipping costs to move crude from West Texas to the Gulf Coast. Today, we look at how older pipelines’ re-contracting efforts will be affected by their competitors’ lower tariffs and operational advantages.
Only a few months after major crude oil takeaway constraints out of the Permian Basin caused price spreads to widen, the pipeline network serving the U.S.’s most prolific shale play may be on the brink of becoming overbuilt. We’ve already seen a number of new expansions and pipeline conversions completed in the past six months, and construction is underway on another 2 MMb/d of new pipeline capacity scheduled to come online between now and the first quarter of 2020. Beyond that, a few remaining projects have been proposed but have not yet reached final investment decisions. No midstream group wants to build a pipeline that will be half full, and no producer wants to make a 10-year commitment to a pipeline if there are going to be plenty of other options available. So who blinks first? In today’s blog, we review the Permian pipeline projects that are still on the fence and examine what factors will determine whether they end up being a “go” or a “no.”
Crude differentials in the Permian are getting squeezed. The spread between Midland and WTI at Cushing widened out to near $18/bbl at one point in 2018, when pipeline capacity was scarce. But that same spread averaged a discount of only $0.25/bbl in March 2019. Differentials between Midland and the more desired sales destination at the Gulf Coast are also in a vise. What gives? Production in the Permian continues to climb, but the rapid pace of growth we saw in 2018 has slowed down a bit lately, with fewer rigs in service and fewer new wells being brought on each month. More importantly, we’ve seen several new pipeline expansions and pipeline conversions come online in bits and bursts — in some cases, ahead of schedule — and this new chunk of pipeline space has compressed Midland pricing. In today’s blog, we begin a series on Permian crude takeaway capacity and differentials, with a look at the handful of new projects that have come online in the past few months and what has happened to Permian prices as a result.
Crude production is at all-time highs in the Bakken and the Niobrara, and the latest pipeline-capacity expansions out of both regions have been filling up fast. At the same time, producers in Western Canada are dealing with major takeaway constraints and are on the hunt for still more pipeline space. Midstream companies are trying to oblige, proposing solutions like a major Pony Express expansion or a new Bakken-to-Rockies-to-Gulf Coast fix — the Liberty and Red Oak pipelines — that could help address all of the above. The catch is that, with multiple producing areas funneling crude along the same general eastern-Rockies corridor and the outlook for continued production growth uncertain, how’s a shipper to know whether to sign a long-term deal for some of the incremental pipe capacity now being offered? Today, we consider the need for new takeaway capacity, the potential for an overbuild scenario, and what it all means for producers and shippers.
Crude-by-rail (CBR) has been a saving grace for many Canadian oil producers. With extremely limited pipeline takeaway capacity, rail options from Western Canada to multiple markets in the U.S. have acted as a relief valve for prices — there for producers when they need it, in the background when they don’t. In 2018, we saw a major resurgence in CBR activity from our neighbors to the north, with volumes reaching an all-time high of 330 Mb/d just this past November. But just as quickly as CBR seemed ready for takeoff, the rug got pulled out from underneath those midstream rail providers and traders who had lined up deals and railcars to take advantage of wide price spreads. When Alberta’s provincial government announced its 325-Mb/d production curtailment beginning at the start of 2019, many midstream/marketing and integrated oil companies bemoaned what it could potentially do to market opportunities. And they were spot-on. Wide price differentials for Canadian crudes to WTI disappeared quickly and eliminated most, if not all, of the economic incentive to move crude via rail, and even by pipeline. In today’s blog, we recap the recent move away from crude-by-rail by some of Canada’s largest CBR players, and discuss the risks of long-term CBR commitments in volatile times.
The market is used to crude oil spreads in the Permian Basin being volatile. Fast-paced production growth, the addition of new takeaway pipelines — and the rapid filling of those new pipes — have all impacted in-basin pricing, and we’ve seen differentials from the Permian to its downstream markets — Cushing, OK, and the Gulf Coast — widen and narrow as supply and demand fundamentals have changed. But recently, things have gotten a lot wilder. In September 2018, the Midland discount to WTI at Cushing blew out to almost $18/bbl, then narrowed to less than $6/bbl only three weeks later, thanks largely to the start-up of Plains All American’s much-ballyhooed, 350-Mb/d Sunrise Expansion. As Sunrise started to fill up, price differentials initially widened for a brief period of time. But, as we kicked off 2019, the Midland-Cushing spread quickly shrank further and then flipped, with Midland last Friday (January 25) trading at a $1/bbl premium to Cushing crude. You might wonder, how the heck did that happen? In today’s blog, we discuss how things play out when a supply glut evaporates and traders are suddenly caught in a tight market.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Crude oil inventories at Cushing have been in a free fall. After last peaking at more than 69 MMbbl in April 2017, stockpiles have decreased to less than 22 MMbbl recently, nearing all-time lows for tank utilization at the Oklahoma crude-trading hub. While we’ve seen volumes drop quickly in the past, inventories have now declined for 12 straight weeks at a staggering pace. Traders, refiners, and other market participants are starting to fret. Is this just another cyclical trend or are market factors exacerbating the impact? Today, we examine the influence of historical pricing trends on Cushing inventories and why it seems that demand factors are speeding up the drop.