How soaring US oil exports are transforming the global oil game from Dubai to Shanghai
How soaring US oil exports are transforming the global oil game from Dubai to Shanghai
First, sharp drops in US imports of crude oil eroded the biggest market that producers like OPEC had relied on for many years. Now, surging US exports – largely banned by Washington until just two years ago — challenge the last region OPEC dominates: Asia.
US oil shipments to China have surged, creating trade between the world’s two biggest powers that until 2016 just did not exist, and helping Washington in its effort to reduce the nation’s huge trade deficit with China.
The transformation is reflected in figures released in recent days that shows the US now produces more oil than top exporter Saudi Arabia and means the Americans are likely to take over the No.1 producer spot from Russia by the end of the year.
The growth has surprised even the official US Energy Information Administration, which this week raised its 2018 crude output forecast to 10.59 million bpd, up by 300,000 bpd from their last forecast just a week before.
When US oil exports appeared in 2016, the first cargoes went to free trade agreement partners South Korea and Japan. Few expected China to become a major buyer.
Data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows US crude shipments to China went from nothing before 2016 to a record 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in January, worth almost $1 billion. Additionally, half a million tons of US liquefied natural gas (LNG) worth almost $300 million, headed to China from the US in January.
The US supplies will help reduce China’s huge trade surplus with the US and may help to counter allegations from President Donald Trump that Beijing is trading unfairly.
“With the Trump administration, the pressure on China to balance accounts with the US. is huge... Buying US oil clearly helps toward that goal to reduce the disbalance,” said Marco Dunand, chief executive and co-founder of commodity trading house Mercuria.
As the energy exports rose, China’s January trade surplus with the US narrowed to $21.895 billion, from $25.55 billion in December, according to official Chinese figures released on Thursday.
The energy sales to China are still modest compared with the $9.7 billion of oil shipped by OPEC to China in January. But they are already cutting into a market dominated by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Russia — with the threat of much more competition to come.
“We see US crude as a supplement to our large base of crude” from the Middle East and Russia, said a refinery manager for China’s oil-major Sinopec, declining to be named as he was not cleared to speak to media.
He said that Sinopec was looking to order more US crude this year.
China’s crude imports climbed to a record 9.57 million bpd in January, official data showed on Thursday.
Meanwhile, US imports have fallen below 4 million bpd, against a record 12.5 million bpd in 2005.
At average December/January volumes, American oil and gas sales to China would be worth around $10 billion a year. Including exports to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the figure doubles.
US exports would be even greater but for infrastructure constraints: no US port can handle the biggest oil tankers, known as Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC).
To address that, one of the biggest facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port Services (LOOP), is expanding in order to handle VLCCs soon.
For Chinese buyers, the main attraction of US oil has been price. Thanks to the shale boom, US crude is cheaper than oil from elsewhere.
At around $60.50 per barrel, US crude is currently some $4 per barrel cheaper than Brent, off which most other crudes are priced.
For many established oil exporters like the Middle East-dominated OPEC or Russia, who have been withholding production since 2017 in an attempt to push prices higher, these new oil flows mark a big loss in market share.
“OPEC and Russia accepted that the US will become a big producer because they simply wanted to get the price where it is today,” Mercuria’s Dunand said.
Since the start of the OPEC-led supply cuts in January 2017, oil prices have risen by 20 percent, though prices in February have come under pressure again in large part due to soaring US output.
The flood of US oil may even change the way crude is priced.
Most OPEC producers sell crude under long-term contracts which are priced monthly, sometimes retro-actively. US producers, by contrast, export on the basis of freight costs and price spreads between US and other kinds of crude oil.
This has led to a surge in traded volumes of US crude futures, known as West Texas Intermediate (WTI), leaving volumes of other futures like Brent or Dubai far behind.
“Buyers, like sellers of US oil, started hedging WTI,” said John Driscoll, director of Singapore-based consultancy JTD Energy Services.
Despite all these challenges to the traditional oil order, established producers are putting on a brave face.
“We have no concern whatsoever about rising US exports. Our reliability as a supplier is second to none, and we have the highest customer base with long-term sales agreements,” said Amin Nasser, president and chief executive officer of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil behemoth.
Russian oil industry now self-reliant enough to weather US ‘bill from hell’
- Western sanctions imposed in 2014 over Russia’s annexation of Crimea have already made it extremely hard for many state oil firms such as Rosneft to borrow abroad
- Russian gas exporting monopoly Gazprom has maintained its output since 2014 and actually increased exports to Europe to an all-time high in 2017
MOSCOW: Stiff new US sanctions against Russia would only have a limited impact on its oil industry because it has drastically reduced its reliance on Western funding and foreign partnerships and is lessening its dependence on imported technology.
Western sanctions imposed in 2014 over Russia’s annexation of Crimea have already made it extremely hard for many state oil firms such as Rosneft to borrow abroad or use Western technology to develop shale, offshore and Arctic deposits.
While those measures have slowed down a number of challenging oil projects, they have done little to halt the Russian industry’s growth with production near a record high of 11.2 million barrels per day in July — and set to climb further.
Since 2014, the Russian oil industry has effectively halted borrowing from Western institutions, instead relying on its own cash flow and lending from state-owned banks while developing technology to replace services once supplied by Western firms.
Analysts say this is partly why Russian oil stocks have been relatively unscathed since US senators introduced legislation to impose new sanctions on Russia over its interference in US elections and its activities in Syria and Ukraine.
The measures introduced on Aug. 2, dubbed by the senators as the “bill from hell,” include potential curbs on the operations of state-owned Russian banks, restrictions on holding Russian sovereign debt as well as measures against Western involvement in Russian oil and gas projects.
While the rouble has fallen more than 10 percent and Russian banking stocks have slumped 20 percent since the legislation was introduced, shares in Russian oil firms have climbed 2 percent, leaving them 27 percent higher so far in 2018.
“The main driver of the Russian oil industry’s profitability is the oil price denominated in roubles and it is currently posting new records as the rouble is getting weaker. Hence the sanction noise often even has a positive impact on Russian oil stocks,” said Dmitry Marinchenko at Fitch Ratings.
The prospects for the latest US sanctions bill are not immediately clear. It would have to pass both the Senate and House of Representatives and then be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
To be sure, Washington could really hurt the Russian oil industry if it introduced Iran-like measures forbidding oil purchases from the country. But given Russia produces more than 11 percent of global crude, such a measure would lead to a major spike in oil prices and hit the US itself hard as it is the world’s largest oil consumer.
Russian gas exporting monopoly Gazprom, for example, has maintained its output since 2014 and actually increased exports to Europe to an all-time high in 2017, securing a 34 percent share of EU markets amid rising demand.
But of all Russian oil and gas companies, it is the only one to have borrowed significant sums from the West — about $5 billion in 2017 and $3 billion in 2018 so far — using Eurobonds and syndicated loans.
What’s more, those amounts are only equivalent to a small proportion of Gazprom’s annual capital spending of $22 billion. The rest of the Russian oil industry invests a similar amount each year as well, mostly without Western funding.
That represents a major departure from the years prior to the sanctions when the lion’s share of Russian oil industry’s borrowing came from Western banks or export-backed facilities with trading houses and major oil companies.
In 2013, for example, a year before the first Western sanctions, Rosneft alone borrowed more than $35 billion from Western institutions to buy smaller rival TNK-BP and to fund its capital spending.
There has been a similar shift in joint ventures between Russian and Western companies.
A decade ago, dozens of projects were planned but the number has shrunk to just a few ventures, which are important but not critical to help Russia maintain its output growth.
US oil giant Exxon Mobil and Italy’s Eni, for example, have dropped plans to help Russia develop offshore fields and US company ConocoPhillips sold out from Russia’s biggest private oil firm Lukoil.
The key remaining ventures involving Western companies are three projects between BP and Rosneft in East and West Siberia and a gas venture between Rosneft and Exxon Mobil on Sakhalin island.
Also on the gas front, Royal Dutch Shell and France’s Total have been considering new liquefied natural gas projects with Gazprom and Novatek, as well as a new pipeline to Europe under the Baltic Sea.
But to put the projects in perspective, the combined cost of all of them is about $50 billion — less than a 10th of the Russian oil industry’s investment program for the next decade.
And if Western institutions are wary of lending to Russia, other countries such as China have been prepared to step in. Novatek and Total, for example, launched the $27 billion Yamal LNG plant this year with Beijing’s financial support.
The weakest link in the Russian oil industry in the face of sanctions has traditionally been high-end Western technology such as complex drilling, hydraulic fracturing or IT, said Denis Borisov, director of EY’s oil and gas center in Moscow.
Russia’s drilling and oil servicing market is worth about $20 billion a year and the share of the market held by Western service companies has remained fairly steady over the last few years and at about a fifth.
“But the process of replacing foreign equipment with local production has gathered pace,” said Borisov.
Rosneft, which produces 40 percent of Russian oil, has recently tested its own simulated hydraulic fracturing technology — the extraction technique that spurred the boom in US shale oil production.
The technology first came to Russia mainly via major Western oil services firms such as Schlumberger and Halliburton .
Companies such as Schlumberger are still doing a lot of complex drilling work in the Caspian Sea and West Siberia for Lukoil, as well as working on the world’s longest extended reach well for Exxon and Rosneft off the Sakhalin island.
But Fitch’s Marinchenko said the reliance of Russian oil firms on Western technology has declined since 2014 thanks to imports from China and local production of drilling equipment.
Since 2014, Rosneft’s own drilling subsidiary has doubled its market share to 25 percent, meaning the company has become almost self sufficient.
“It is clear that new wide-scale sanctions on technology will not become the start of an end for the Russian oil industry, especially if Europe doesn’t join them,” said Marinchenko. “But it will complicate the development of hard to extract or depleted deposits.”