How about some good news to start the year? Over the past few weeks, ethylene margins have blasted into the stratosphere. These are good times for steam crackers, those petrochemical plants that use mostly NGL feedstocks to produce ethylene and other building-block chemicals. As you might expect, this newfound prosperity has a lot to do with ethylene’s price. In December alone, the price of ethylene was up 50%; versus April it’s up a whopping 4X, coming in yesterday at 37.5 cents per pound (c/lb). There are a whole range of factors responsible, including petchem outages due to the hurricanes, new downstream derivative units coming online, robust exports from the Enterprise Morgan’s Point dock, and, oh yes, strong demand for downstream products — everything from food packaging to construction materials. Is the spike in ethylene prices going to last? And what does it mean for NGLs, which account for more than 95% of the feedstock supply for U.S. ethylene. We’ll explore those questions and more in this blog series we begin today.
Posts from Rusty Braziel
Welcome to 2021! We finally have that train wreck of a year 2020 behind us, and it’s time to look forward. At RBN, we have a long-standing tradition of doing just that in our annual Top 10 Energy Prognostications, where we lay out our expectations for the most important developments for the coming year. But how is that possible amid the chaotic market conditions still ahead? So much has changed, so many market factors have been disrupted, and so few guideposts remain unscathed, there is just no way to predict what is going to happen next, right? Nah. All we need to do is stick out our collective RBN necks one more time, peer into our crystal ball, and see what 2021 has in store.
Whew. We made it! 2020 is finally in the rear-view mirror. And with the New Year, it’s time for the annual Top 10 Energy Prognostications blog, our long-standing RBN tradition where we lay out the most important developments we see for the year ahead. Unlike many forecasters, we also look back to see how we did with our predictions the previous year. That’s right! We actually check our work. Usually we roll our look back and prognostications for the upcoming year into a single blog. But after the mayhem of 2020, and considering how that upheaval has changed the landscape for 2021, this time around we are splitting our prognostications into two pieces. Monday’s blog will look into the RBN crystal ball one more time to see what 2021 has in store for energy markets. But today we look back. Back to what we posted on January 2, 2020.
Well, here we are. The last day of 2020. We are tempted to say “unprecedented” to describe the year. But the word is so overused — there’s been an unprecedented use of the word “unprecedented” — let’s just say it will be good riddance to have this one behind us. After all, we’ve seen a collapse in transportation fuel demand, an oil price war between major producers, negative $37/bbl crude prices, massive LNG cargo cancellations — the list goes on — all in the context of a global pandemic and much of the world committed to weaning itself off fossil fuels over the next few decades. How do you make sense of all that? How do you anticipate when it’s going to be “all right” again? Well, one thing we can do is to heed the events and trends that captured the market’s attention during all this chaos. In other words, to put a spotlight on the things that the market considers top priority — crowd-sourced market intelligence, if you will. Well, at RBN we have one way to do that. We scrupulously monitor the website hit rate of the RBN blogs that are fired off to over 30,000 people each day and, at the end of each year, we look back to see which topics generated the most interest from you, our readers. That hit rate reveals a lot about major market trends. So, once again, we look into the rear-view mirror to check out the Top 10 blogs of the year based on the number of rbnenergy.com website hits.
Within the next year, the Permian Highway and Whistler natural gas pipelines will add 4.0 Bcf/d of incremental capacity from the Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast, with gas supplies on those pipes primarily targeting LNG exports. But in the years since these pipeline projects were initially envisioned, market conditions have been radically transformed by consequences of the COVID era, on both the supply and demand sides of the equation. The outlook for supply growth is lower, while the dependability of LNG exports has been thrown into question following massive cargo cancellations this summer. In RBN’s special-edition multi-client market study, titled Some Beach, we break down the consequences of these developments into eight distinct steps that demonstrate how Texas gas markets are likely to evolve as flows and basis respond. Today’s blog summarizes those conclusions.
Down to only two months left in 2020. Whew! We’ll all be relieved to see this one disappear in the rear-view mirror. It’s been an extreme roller coaster ride for oil and gas — from the onset of the COVID pandemic and the crude price collapse in the spring, to withering demand for transportation fuels, to one hurricane after another, to chaotic swings in natural gas prices. And being thrashed about by all this turmoil are the natural gas liquids, with each NGL product taking its own wild ride through erratic market conditions. It’s been a challenge just keeping up with what is going on. At RBN, we’ve been working on a new app to address this challenge, and today we are rolling it out to you, as a reader of our daily blog. We are talking about access to everything from spot and futures prices, to market statistics, to reports on intra-day pricing, and to market alerts as they happen. Sound interesting? If so, hang on to your hat and read on in this RBN product advertorial.
Over each of the past eight years, we’ve opened the doors at RBN’s School of Energy with updated analytical models, new subject modules, and timely special features that have reflected the evolution of energy markets from the early days of the Shale Revolution and $100/bbl crude oil, through the price crash of 2015-16 and the incredible 2017-19 rebound. But these market shifts pale in comparison with what’s happened so far in 2020: a global pandemic, crude crashing to negative $37/bbl, a wipeout in LNG exports, a Cat 4 hurricane into Lake Charles — it just seems to keep on coming. Which means there has never been a more important time to reassess market analytics in the context of these tectonic shifts in the energy industry. That is exactly what we’ll cover today in this blatant advertorial for RBN's Fall 2020 School of Energy.
Lower crude oil prices whack oil-directed drilling, slashing crude production, which cuts associated gas output, tightening the gas supply-demand balance, and boosting gas prices enough to spur more gas-directed drilling — it’s a classic case of commodity market schadenfreude, where one product benefits at the expense of another. That’s the way it was supposed to work, according to various trading strategies touted a few weeks back. But here we sit, with crude oil prices still around $40/bbl and gas prices languishing at a paltry $1.66/MMBtu. Was there something wrong with the schadenfreude thesis, or do we have to look deeper to understand how prices will behave in this convoluted COVID era? In today’s blog, we’ll explore this question and what it may mean for natural gas prices in the coming months.
Energy markets balance — eventually. In the midst of the turmoil we’ve experienced this year, there have been periods when it seemed like markets were going to hit the wall. But even with the historic WTI oil price glitch on April 20, the physical crude oil markets continued to function. That’s the way it is supposed to work, and it’s good news. The bad news is that figuring out how these markets are balancing in these volatile conditions can be challenging if not downright perplexing. Nowhere is that more true than the market for U.S. propane. Production is down, but so is demand. Inventories are up, and so are prices. Propane continues to be exported, even though global demand has been whacked by COVID. In today’s blog, we explore these developments and put the spotlight on RBN’s NGL Voyager, our subscriber report and data service that we have just reformatted, upgraded and generally reconstructed to meet the information needs of today’s NGL marketplace.
During the last two weeks of April, a barrel of propane in Mont Belvieu was more expensive than a barrel of WTI crude oil in Cushing. That’s never happened before. You might think that such an aberration could be blamed on the wacky April-May 2020 COVID crude market, but that is only part of the story. Propane production is falling and pre-COVID projections of continued supply growth are out the window. But new gas processing plants, pipelines, fractionation facilities, dock capacity and downstream demand have come online in recent years, in anticipation of those ill-fated additional supplies. Already we are seeing flows, price relationships and differentials convulsing in response to the new reality, and projections of future supply/demand imbalances suggest a previously unthinkable possibility: a market that can’t get enough propane supply, especially if the winter of 2020-21 is a cold one. In today’s blog, we will explore the evidence of these market developments that is already visible and look to what may be ahead for propane supply and demand.
In an energy market filled with incalculable uncertainty, it is no surprise that most of the focus is on the short term: production shut-ins, collapsing demand, refinery unit shutdowns, ballooning storage inventories and continually weakening prices. But even in the face of such dire circumstances in the weeks just ahead, there remains a cautious optimism — relatively speaking — for the resumption of some kind of new normal on the other side of COVID. You can see that expectation in the numbers, with the WTI May 2020 contract settling on Friday at $18.27/bbl, but the May 2021 contract up to $35.52/bbl. Granted, that May 2021 price would have been catastrophic if viewed in January 2020, but now it’s a bullish 95% increase over the front month. It is that shift in perspective that underlies the fundamentals content that we developed for our two-day Spring 2020 Virtual School of Energy, held last week in the cloud: how things were viewed BEFORE the meltdown, and how things look AFTER — over the next five years. Did you miss the conference? Not to worry. The entire 14 hours of content are available online in our encore edition. It’s almost like being there! Today’s advertorial blog reviews some of the most important findings we covered at School of Energy and summarizes our overall virtual conference curriculum.
Energy markets are changing faster than at any time in history. It’s hard enough just to keep up with what’s happening today, much less try to anticipate what’s ahead on the other side of COVID. But that’s exactly what we’ll be doing next week at RBN’s Virtual School of Energy. More than one-third of the curriculum is a detailed review of RBN’s hot-off-the-presses forecasts for all the essential elements of U.S. crude oil, natural gas and NGL markets, including our freshly updated outlooks for production, infrastructure utilization, exports/imports and demand. Better yet, we’ll put these forecasts in the context of our fundamental analysis and models, so you can not only understand where it looks like we’re headed today, but gain the skills to adjust your outlook on the fly as circumstances change. Although this blog is an advertorial, stick with us if you would like to know more about how the RBN crystal ball works.
Like everything else in the world, energy markets are undergoing totally unprecedented convulsions. It seems as if everything that was working before COVID-19 is now broken, and an entirely new rulebook has been thrust upon us. Of course, it is impossible to know how crude oil, natural gas and NGL markets will play out over the next few weeks, much less in the coming years. But if we make a few reasonable assumptions, extrapolate from what we know so far, and crunch through a bit of fundamental analysis, it is possible to imagine what energy markets will look like after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us. One thing is for sure: things will not be anything like they were before. Where energy markets may be headed next is what we will conjure up in today’s blog.
Statewide shelter-in-place orders, worldwide business shutdowns, market meltdowns, medical calamities. Much of what is going on right now is unprecedented in the modern era, and there are no guideposts to help predict what happens next to the world as we knew it. But in the boom-bust energy sector, it is déjà vu all over again. We have seen steep drops in prices, drilling activity and production enough times to have some idea about how this is likely to play out. Granted, this time around it is particularly bad, but that doesn’t change the sequence of events that we are likely to experience over the coming months and years. Today, we’ll look back at what happens to Shale-Era basins after a price collapse, focusing on the inherent lag between a major reduction in activity level and the inevitable production response.
Throw out your old production forecasts. Delete your pricing model spreadsheets. Push out the dates on your infrastructure project timelines. Or kill the projects all together. We’ve got a black swan on our hands here, folks. Perhaps a flock of black swans. And while we may see something like normal again in a few months, there is little doubt that it will be an entirely new normal. How do we even think through the wrenching transformations that are working through energy markets? At RBN, we don’t have any more answers than anyone else, but we do have a structured approach to market analysis supported by a set of spreadsheet models that are the core of our School of Energy, scheduled for April 14-15. We think that’s exactly the kind of approach necessary to make sense out of this volatile and chaotic market. And although we have cancelled the in-person conference, we’ve made the decision to GO VIRTUAL! Today, we explain our decision to move forward with the virtual School of Energy and discuss the new material we are incorporating into the curriculum to address today’s market realities.