Physical oil and futures align to tell story of a tighter market

New marine fuel regulations from 2020 are encouraging refiners to switch to crude grades that produce smaller quantities of high-sulfur fuel oil. (AFP)
Updated 23 November 2019

Physical oil and futures align to tell story of a tighter market

  • Premiums for heavier grades continue to rally because of the continuing US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela

LONDON: The physical crude oil market and the structure of the oil futures curve have rarely been more aligned over the past few years than in recent weeks, and they tell a counter-intuitive story of a tight oil market next year. 

While OPEC and the International Energy Agency point to a swelling oil glut next year due to booming non-OPEC supplies including in the US, the physical market offers a different story. Traders are prepared to pay near-record premiums for sweeter barrels as new marine fuel regulations from 2020 encourage refiners to switch to crude grades that produce smaller quantities of high-sulfur fuel oil. 

However, premiums for heavier grades, which produce more fuel oil, also continue to rally due to a deficit created by US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. In addition, the structure of the oil futures market shows that premiums of front months to later dates – known as backwardation – have narrowed in recent weeks, also suggesting the market’s expectations of a glut are diminishing somewhat. 

To be sure, benchmark oil futures do not necessarily follow the physical market and could still decline next year if global oil demand falls because of the US-China trade dispute or if US oil output surprises again on the upside. Soaring physical crude prices are also negatively impacting refining margins, often prompting refiners to cut processing. New marine fuel rules have created a rally in certain crude oil grades. 

From January 2020, the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) will ban ships from using fuels with a sulfur content above 0.5 percent, compared with 3.5 percent now, unless they have sulfur-cleaning kits called scrubbers. 

Nigeria’s biggest crude stream, Qua Iboe, is valued at a premium of $3.30 a barrel, the highest since 2013, Refinitiv Eikon data shows. Azeri Light, or BTC, has a premium of $5.10 to the benchmark, its highest since 2013. 

Both crudes are valued especially highly by simple refineries as they are ideal for producing IMO-compliant bunker fuel oil, said Eugene Lindell, an analyst at JBC Energy in Vienna. “The focus now is on not producing high-sulfur fuel oil at all costs. If you are a simple refinery, it comes down to choosing the right crude,” he said. “The end result is a lot of people are going to be seeking these grades and that boosts the price. They will remain strong and may increase further.” 

While the rally in those two light, sweet grades stands out, sour crudes such as Russian Urals have been supported by other factors. Urals in northwest Europe is trading at a premium of $1 a barrel to dated Brent, a record high. “The strength in sour crudes, despite IMO 2020, is due to the loss of sour crude supplies from Venezuela and Iran and high demand for heavy molecules to feed the conversion units of more complex refineries,” analysts at Energy Aspects wrote. 

US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela have forced the two OPEC members to cut oil exports sharply, tightening the market for sour crude. Voluntary OPEC cuts due to a supply pact that producers are expected to renew in December have also curbed output. Expectations of a growth slowdown in US shale could also tighten the market further. North Sea crude grades, which underpin the Brent futures contract, are also rallying. Ekofisk, one of the five grades that can set the value of dated Brent, jumped to its highest since 2013 on Tuesday.

The rally in physical crude is being reflected in strengthening time spreads in the Brent futures market, even though the outright price at $62 a barrel is well below this year’s high of $75. The first-month Brent contract is trading at a premium to the second month, indicating current tight supply. 

Backwardation persists for future months, although it becomes shallower next year. 

“We expect Brent oil prices to continue trading around our $60-a-barrel forecast with backwardation likely to persist as the ongoing OPEC cuts and slowing shale activity offset rising other non-OPEC supply and moderate demand growth,” Goldman Sachs said in a report this month.


Technology will not replace labor despite rapid digital transformation

Updated 28 January 2020

Technology will not replace labor despite rapid digital transformation

  • Hayman said he believes technology should help people and offer them support rather than replace them
  • The UAE is among the top performers in the Middle East in terms of digital transformation in industrial sectors

ABU DHABI: Digital technology will not replace labor; the aim of it is to improve areas of inefficiency in different industrial sectors, CEO of AVEVA Group plc Craig Hayman told Arab News.

Most sectors around the world from retail to financial services and telecommunication, have been digitized in some way, according to Hayman.

But while this widespread introduction of digital technology inevitably reduces costs and increases efficiencies in the workplace, it is also seen by many as the death knell for their jobs.

A 2019 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that approximately 14 percent of workers globally will face a high risk of their jobs one day becoming automated and “32 percent face major changes in the tasks required in their job and, consequently, the skills they would need to do their job.”

Another 2017 McKinzy&Company report said up to 800 million workers around the world could be replaced by robots by 2030.

But Hayman said he believes technology should help people and offer them support rather than replace them.

“In the industries AVEVA serves, there are so many areas of inefficiency that we are delivering improvement for without any replacement of labor. It is more about giving the people more tools to effectively do their jobs,” he added.

For example, Hayman said, a worker who is doing maintenance repair is given the tools to know more about the correct isolation procedures around this repair.

OECD’s 2019 report said the effect of digitization on labor will not be evenly distributed nor happen at a steady pace. “It is most likely to be concentrated in certain jobs, selected sectors and particular geographical areas, and may move in fits and starts,” the report adds.

While digital technology around the world began to witness a transformation in the last decade across different industrial sectors, the Middle East has become a major contributor to this transformation.

The UAE is among the top performers in the Middle East in terms of digital transformation in industrial sectors, Hayman said.

A 2016 report by McKinzy&Company also said the UAE ranks the top in adopting digital technology and it matches the world’s digital leaders on several metrics.

Hayman said he believes there is a strong digital ambition in the region. “I think some of the digital projects in the Middle East are starting to yield good results. We have seen this with customers like Al-Marai and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).”

In the UAE’s oil and gas sector for example, there is ADNOC’s Panorama Digital Command Centre which is a real-time data visualisation centre that offers insights and identifies new ways to improve performance. “The Panorama Digital Command Centre is known around the world; that was an eight-week project for us almost two years ago,” Hayman said.

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan inaugurated ADNOC's advanced Panorama Command Centre and Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform on Nov 12, 2017. (WAM)

Saudi Arabia’s Aramco has also established tech projects such as “the use of robots and self-guided autonomous devices in remote inspection and maintenance in plant areas, and the installation of smart sensors with advanced analytic capabilities,” according to a 2018 report by Aramco.

When asked how much companies spend to digitize their services in the oil and gas sector, Hayman said about $250 billion a year was spent in capital expenditure in the oil and gas sector.

Saudi Arabia has adopted a digital transformation strategy that began in 2019 and is expected to conclude in 2022. The strategy’s “main components are digital health, digital education, e-commerce, and smart cities,” a 2019 report by the Saudi National Platform said.

On health, the Kingdom launched a telemedicine technology in which in 2019 it saved a million lives out of which 10,000 were critical, the Kingdom’s Minister of Communication and Information Technology Abdullah bin Amer Al-Swaha said in a panel discussion held in Davos at this year’s World Economic Forum.

Telemedicine is a technology that provides electronic clinical services to patients without an in-person visit.

In the digital education sector, Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Digital Library (SDL), which is said to be the largest collection of academic information resources in the Arab world, according to the Kingdom’s Ministry of Education. “SDL includes over 310,000 scientific references covering the different academic disciplines. The content of the library is continuously updated, providing huge resources of knowledge in the long run.”

When asked about the opportunities and challenges the digital trend creates for entrepreneurs, Hayman said if an entrepreneur can deliver technology in the context of trust and partnership, he or she is definitely moving on the right track.

A 2019 report by the World Economic Forum said digital technology can help the government and private sectors to create initiatives that form “a holistic global entrepreneurial ecosystem that enables sharing, learning and access to resources at a mass scale and at low cost.”