It’s been a wild and woolly December in the U.S. propane market. The Mont Belvieu propane price is up by almost 40%, blasting past 70 c/gal on Friday — a level not seen since February 2019, when WTI at Cushing was trading at $57/bbl, $8/bbl above where that price sits today. Is it simply cold weather goosing demand? Sure, that’s one factor. But it’s really all about exports. Just as 2020 cold weather finally arrived in U.S. propane country, exports hit the highest levels ever recorded. December Gulf Coast export volumes — 92% of the U.S. total — are up 21% over last month, and 39% above December 2019. So both international and domestic demand are pulling hard on supplies at the same time. No wonder propane prices are soaring. We started this series on winter 2020-21 supply/demand in late November by suggesting that there could be a few gotchas still out there that were not being reflected in the forward propane market. Well, we’ve now seen one of those gotchas. But there’s a lot of winter left to go — in fact, the official start of winter is this morning! Today, we review what’s happened so far in propane markets, and what could be coming next.
Posts from David Braziel
Amid all the turmoil and negative news in energy markets this year, U.S. propane has been the exception, turning in a stellar performance. Even with exports up almost 10% in November from the same period last year, averaging 1.3 MMb/d for the month, inventories remain in good shape at 92.6 MMbbl, or about 5% above stocks in November 2019. Part of the reason has been strong production numbers, which are down only 5% since January, and up a whopping 14% since May. Weather has been another contributor to robust stock levels, with November 2020 coming in as one of the warmest on record. But winter is just arriving. And with export volumes now greater than total U.S. winter consumption, market dynamics have shifted. It now takes more inventory in the ground throughout the winter to support the combination of U.S. demand and exports. But how much more inventory is enough? And how should we factor in the potential for further increases in exports? At the same time, the market is still facing the possibility of another round of declining production due to COVID-related drilling cutbacks. This blog series is about making sense of what’s going on in the propane market today, and what may be coming up in the months ahead.
Like everything else in 2020, the propane market has been exceedingly difficult to navigate. So far this year, we’ve seen Mont Belvieu propane prices down to 24 cents/gallon (c/gal) and up to 57 cents. Exports continue to increase, but stocks seem to be reasonably healthy, partly thanks to November so far being one of the warmest on record. Propane production was projected to dip in the fourth quarter but has held up pretty well. During the spring there was considerable concern about the possibility of a tight supply-demand situation this winter, but so far, market conditions seem relatively benign. Does that mean we are in the clear for winter 2020-21? Unfortunately, there may be a few gotchas still out there. As always, a lot depends on the weather. But there are other factors at work that could surprise us because some of the statistics we’ve relied on in the past to gauge what’s ahead are not what they used to be. In today’s blog, we begin a series looking at those factors.
In their second-quarter earnings presentation last week, Energy Transfer said that they and their joint venture (JV) partners, Satellite Petrochemical, expect the first commissioning cargoes from their new 180-Mb/d ethane export facility in Nederland, TX — formally known as Orbit Gulf Coast NGL Exports LLC — to begin in November, only three months from now. This new outlet for U.S.-sourced ethane comes at a time when production of oil, gas, and NGLs faces near-term declines due to reduced drilling activity resulting from low crude prices. With those declines, will there be enough ethane supply to meet the capacity of the new Orbit export dock and other upcoming ethane-related projects? The short answer is, yes … for the right price. Today, we examine the latest supply and demand dynamics shaping the U.S. ethane market.
As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise, so does the oil patch’s apprehension that crude oil prices could be poised to take another hit. If that happens, producers would have to review, yet again, their plans for optimizing production as best they can, given their pricing outlook. But producers do not all receive uniform prices reflecting NYMEX WTI for their physical barrels — far from it. Crude quality and proximity to a demand market can make a big difference in the price that the barrels will ultimately sell for. Price reporting agencies (PRAs) such as Argus and Platts track and publish these differentials. But how are those differentials calculated and how do they affect producers? Today, we discuss crude differentials and their impact.
Brent is by far the most important crude oil benchmark in the world, with well over 70% of all global crudes tied either directly or indirectly to the North Sea crude’s price. But the original Brent crude oil production is almost played out, with all of the offshore Brent producing platforms soon to be decommissioned. This might seem to be a big problem, but in the world of crude oil trading, it is a total non-issue, because Brent is no longer simply a grade of crude oil. It is a multi-layered matrix of trading instruments, pricing benchmarks, and standard contracts linked together by price differentials traded across a number of mechanisms and platforms that form the foundation of a robust, vibrant, and extremely important marketplace. Today, we delve further into the mechanics of the Brent complex, the key components that make it work, and the transactional glue that binds them together.
Do not try and refine the Brent; that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth...there is no Brent. Then you will see it is not the Brent that gets refined; it is only yourself. For those who are not fans of The Matrix, that sentence may seem a little cryptic, but it makes a point that is little understood outside the rarified world of crude oil trading. The production of North Sea Brent crude oil is down to less than a couple of hundred barrels per day. Soon it will be gone altogether. But 70% of all crude oil in the world is tied either directly or indirectly to the price of Brent. How is that possible? Well, it’s because Brent is no longer simply a grade of crude oil. Over the past two decades, it has evolved into an intricate, multi-layered matrix of trading instruments, pricing benchmarks and standard contracts that is a world unto itself. A world with a huge impact across almost everything in today’s energy markets. Unfortunately, no one can be told what Brent is. You have to see it for yourself. So that’s where we’ll go in this blog series. Warning: To read on is like taking the red pill.
On April 20, that fateful day in crude oil markets when the CME May contract for WTI at Cushing collapsed to negative $37.63/bbl, the number of contracts involved in the chaos was relatively small. So you might think that most producers sat on the sidelines, watching Wall Street paper traders writhe in stunning financial pain. But not so. Almost all producers saw their crude prices that day crashing in exactly the same magnitude. That’s because the daily price of the CME WTI contract is part of the formula pricing used in a very large portion of crude oil contracts in U.S. markets, both directly and indirectly. There are two formula mechanisms that are commonly used in crude oil sale/purchase contracts that are responsible for that linkage: the CMA and WTI P-Plus. These arcane pricing mechanisms are complicated, but in order to understand U.S. crude markets, it is critically important to appreciate how they work. Today, we continue our deep dive into crude oil contract pricing mechanisms.
The global economic shut-down caused by COVID continues to wreak havoc on U.S. markets. Last week, the dynamics that resulted in negative prices for NYMEX WTI thrust crude oil, and, more specifically, storage at Cushing, OK, into the national spotlight. The extraordinary imbalance in U.S. crude oil supply and demand has been pushing record volumes of oil into storage at the Cushing crude hub and tankage along the Gulf Coast. The same fundamental factors have also driven a surge in stocks of refined products like gasoline and diesel. Now the questions on everybody’s mind are, how long until storage tanks are completely full and what will that mean? Today, we’ll discuss recent trends and consider what record storage builds mean for the oil patch.
On Monday, front-month WTI at Cushing cratered to a negative $37.63/bbl. On Tuesday, the same futures price rose by nearly $48 to close at about $10/bbl — a positive $10, that is. As for WTI to be delivered in June, it lost well over a third of its value on Tuesday, ending up at less than $12/bbl, but over the past two days it has roared back to over $16/bbl. No doubt the WTI futures market will see more wild times in the days and weeks ahead as traders look to avoid the traps that ensnared the market as the May contract approached expiry. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the past week, it’s that it really helps to understand the ins and outs of the futures market — especially when it is so volatile. Perhaps the most important thing to wrap your head around is that while the futures market mostly involves financial players who will never take physical delivery of oil, the two markets — financial and physical — are fundamentally linked. Prompt-month futures converge on spot prices over time, while physical contracts are settled in part based on NYMEX futures, so producers will feel the sting of Monday’s negative prices when physical April deliveries are invoiced. Today, we begin a two-part blog series examining U.S. spot crude pricing mechanisms.
Like the proverbial dog who finally catches the truck he’s been chasing, only to wonder what to do next, midstreamers at long last have brought on enough crude oil pipeline capacity to move Permian barrels to the Gulf Coast. In fact, right now there appears to be more than enough pipeline space, with several pipes flowing less than their capacity. What midstream companies now face is a race to the bottom as their pipelines compete with each other to attract barrels by offering service to Gulf Coast markets at the lowest price — resulting in transportation rate compression. Today, we begin a blog series on the tug-of-war for barrels and its effect on prices.
The Houston Ship Channel (HSC) is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the U.S. Each year, thousands of vessels utilize the waterway, importing and exporting goods ranging from pharmaceutical products to what the Census Bureau classifies as “Leather Art; Saddlery Etc.; Handbags Etc.; Gut Art”. More to the point of today’s blog: over 10 million tons of energy products move through the channel each month. But as ships grow ever larger, the ports and canals that service them must also adapt to be able to handle their increased dimensions. The Houston Ship Channel now finds itself in a situation where it must adapt to meet increasing market demands. Today, we continue our series on the issues facing some Texas ports and the measures being taken to help alleviate them.
In terms of raw tonnage, the Port of Houston is by far the busiest in the United States. The 52-mile-long Houston Ship Channel (HSC) — running from just outside downtown Houston out to an area between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula — is the artery that enables the heavy ship traffic, much of it tied to crude oil, LPG, petroleum products and other hydrocarbons. But in the same way that Houston’s Interstate 45 traffic backs up during the morning commute, the ship channel traffic, which normally runs at about 60% of peak levels, can be (and has been) subject to delays when there’s an accident, visibility problems, or a slow-moving double-wide taking up two lanes. With energy-related export activity on the rise, efforts are underway to address those issues. Today, we begin a series on the issues facing some Texas ports and the measures being taken to help alleviate them.
When crude oil prices crashed in the second half of 2014 and 2015, producers survived by becoming leaner and more efficient. That transition included drastic reductions in the rates paid to services companies while wringing ever more oil and gas out of each well and, in the process, permanently altering the economics of drilling and completion. This year, producers are again facing a lower-price environment; since early October (2018), crude prices have dropped more than 30%. In the current, more conservative investment environment, can producers do it again? Can additional value be squeezed out with bigger well pads and longer laterals? Today, we continue a series exploring the benefits and risks of these highly concentrated and highly complicated operations.
Dominator. Showboat. Brass Monkey. These are not player names in the re-established XFL; these are project names given to colossally proportioned drilling pads in the Permian and Appalachia. A single one of these well pads can be home to 20, 30, even 60 or more permitted well spots, each with miles-long laterals branching out in multiple directions. In today’s blog, we begin a series exploring the motivations that sparked this trend to larger pads and discuss the impact they’re having on the upstream and midstream sectors.