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.
Posts from John Zanner
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.
Since early this year, the Midland crude differential has continued to widen, trading one day last week at a discount of $15.75/bbl to West Texas Intermediate (WTI) at Cushing, the widest spread since August 2014 before settling back to $11.25/bbl on Monday. The wide price differential is a result of fast-growing production in the Permian and bottlenecked takeaway pipelines. But the trajectory of this increasing price spread has been anything but smooth. Lately, we have seen a blip in the price differentials right around the 19th or 20th of the month. In each of the last three months, for a short-lived 24 to 48 hours, the Midland-Cushing price differential has narrowed by $2/bbl or more as Permian shippers have gone on feeding frenzies. Today, we look at these brief upticks in pricing and the pipeline and trader mechanics behind them.
Crude oil pipelines out of Cushing are filling up. With U.S. crude production approaching the 11 MMb/d mark, more and more production from the Rockies, Midcontinent and Permian is funneling into the Cushing, OK, trading hub. It’s getting increasingly difficult to get all of that volume to the major demand center at the Gulf Coast. The two major pipelines out of Cushing — Seaway and Marketlink — are near full capacity and differentials are responding as West Texas Intermediate (WTI) at Cushing is now trading at a $7.60/bbl discount to Magellan East Houston (MEH) at the Gulf. Today, we look at some of the major factors affecting the WTI-MEH spread, space on major pipelines between the two points, and potential implications going forward.
Even with crude oil prices down $1.67/bbl yesterday, the wide differential between Permian prices and those in destination markets held up, with WTI Midland trading at $15.60/bbl below the same quality of oil on the Gulf Coast. This has become a red-hot topic for all Permian-watchers. For example, in first quarter earnings calls, a number of producers not only reported their Permian well productivity and drilling plans, they also reviewed how much firm pipeline space they have signed up for in the Permian and how they plan (or hope) to avoid negative financial consequences from the differential blowout. With so much demand for new pipeline space, shouldn’t it be easy to get a bunch of shippers signed up for long-term commitments to fund a new project? Today, we’ll look at what it takes for commitments to pay off massive pipeline projects, the hurdles midstream companies go through to achieve it, and the possibility of new pipeline projects getting added to the development schedule.
Large-scale and well-funded producers in the Permian have built dedicated gathering systems and signed up for pipeline-takeaway options to keep their barrels moving to markets at the Gulf Coast and Cushing. For the most part, smaller producers don’t have the same options, for a variety of reasons. More and more, barrels from outside the core areas of the Permian are competing for the last bits of pipeline space and producers are being forced to rely more heavily on Permian trucking companies to help keep their crude flowing. Truckers are being asked to make less desirable, less economical and longer hauls, and are passing those costs back to the producer. With pipeline takeaway capacity maxed out, trucking capacity is being pushed to the limit too, with several potential upstream impacts. Today, we look at trucking options for smaller producers in second-tier production areas, the impact of boom-bust cycles on trucking companies and what tight trucking capacity means for the basin as a whole.
If you’ve been watching market prices over the last week, you’ll have noticed that Permian differentials have tightened a bit. With the capacity of the new Midland-to-Sealy pipeline ratcheting up and the 146-Mb/d Borger refinery near Amarillo coming back online, there has been a brief respite for crude oil prices in West Texas. But soon, continued growth in crude production will again max out pipeline capacity out of the Permian until one of the major new pipes starts operating in 2019. In the interim, producers and traders without firm pipeline space will be taking deep price discounts, all the while attempting to maintain their revenue streams by sticking to their development plans or, at the very least, avoiding the specter of well shut-ins. Today, we dive into the current state of affairs regarding Permian pipeline allocations, the impact on producer logistics, and what it all means for price differentials.
As Permian crude differentials continue to widen, trading at a $8.45/bbl discount to Magellan East Houston this week, a lot of people are pointing fingers at midstream companies for not completing new takeaway pipeline projects quickly enough. But even in the oil patch, it takes two to tango and producers can also share some of the blame. Historically, the focus in the Permian has been on larger producers, with their sprawling acreage positions and their focus on creating long-term competitive advantages through efficient drilling programs. Many of the smaller, private equity-backed producers adopted more short-term strategies. Their game has been to prove undervalued acreage and then flip those assets to more substantial players. But these strategies are beginning to change. Today, we continue our series on Permian differentials with a look at how the recent ramp-up in the development of second- and third-tier production areas is affecting the region’s crude oil output, pipeline takeaway constraints and price differentials.
Price differentials in the Permian Basin are widening at a rapid pace. The discount for Midland crude to West Texas Intermediate (WTI) at Cushing has widened by over $4/bbl since the beginning of March and the discount to Magellan East Houston (MEH) crude was over $7/bbl yesterday. Permian production is increasing at a breakneck pace as new players are entering the scene. Private equity-backed exploration and production companies (E&Ps) are no longer just acquiring and flipping acreage, as they are being forced to prove their assets are profitable and can generate a return on investment. The combination of large drilling plans from the majors and new production from these smaller operators — with no new pipeline takeaway capacity in sight — has sent Permian crude pricing into a tailspin. Today, we begin a new series on the recent slide in Permian prices, how new producer strategies are contributing to it, and what it means for pipeline space, trucking and midstream infrastructure.