What to Watch in Oil Markets in 2019
January 18, 2019
Last year was a rollercoaster year for oil markets, and based on current trends, 2019 promises much of the same. Here are the top 10 oil market trends affecting global supply and demand to watch over the course of 2019.
Uncertainties for Demand
Global oil demand is estimated to have grown at 1.4 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2018 on the back of robust economic growth of 3.7 percent. While the IMF expects economic growth to average 3.7 percent again in 2019, this represents a downward revision made to its outlook in October as a result of several factors including a weaker outlook for some key emerging markets, recently implemented or approved trade measures by the United States, and retaliatory actions by its trading partners. Oil demand forecasts by the likes of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) were subsequently revised downwards. While the global economic outlook has continued to deteriorate since the time of those revisions, global oil demand projections have been left unchanged as a result of an offsetting effect caused by lower oil prices. The average of the base case forecasts of the EIA, IEA, and OPEC sees oil demand growing at 1.4 mb/d in 2019. While there is a potential upside case if a trade deal is reached between the United States and China, the growing list of downside risks to the global economic outlook over recent months skews the demand outlook to the downside.
U.S. Production Growth
In 2018, the United States realized its largest annual oil production gain in the industry’s over 150-year history due to skyrocketing levels of production growth in the Permian and Bakken shale plays. In total, year-on-year production growth amounted to 2.2 mb/d of petroleum liquids, adding more production in one year than the total output of a country such as Norway. So vast was the rate and scale of the production increase that it satisfied more than 140 percent of the increase in global demand and played an important role in forcing OPEC+ to once again curtail output. While West Texas Intermediate’s (WTI) recent decline to about $50 a barrel may reduce growth prospects relative to what they were, the EIA is still expecting 1.7 mb/d of petroleum liquids production growth next year. Towards the second half of 2019, the possible combination of a tighter global oil market and large Permian pipeline capacity additions could reopen the door for further U.S. supply surprises.
OPEC+ Production Cuts
2019 sees renewed commitment by OPEC+ to rein in production to once again “stabilize the market.” In some regards it is “back to the future” for the group, entering 2019 as they did in 2017—with a new agreement in hand and prices hovering at a similar level. At face value that previous agreement was a success, with the group achieving high levels of compliance and prices gradually rising in response before output was lifted on the back of growing supply concerns. The question now is whether OPEC+ can replicate the apparent success of the previous production agreement. The recent ramp-up in production by the leading members of the cohort, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iraq, the UAE, and Kuwait, means that closing in on compliance will not be as demanding as it may initially appear. Additionally, Saudi Arabia seems to be shooting for overcompliance in the first few months, as it did the last time around. This will help to support producers such as Russia, who will take time to ramp down their level of output. Finally, while not improving compliance rates directly, the bleak production outlook for Venezuela and Iran (also on our list) may once again see the group’s efforts being supported by large involuntary cuts.
As my colleague Raad Alkadiri wrote about it here, 2018 served as a stark reminder that politics is back at the core of global oil markets. This was most notably demonstrated by a number of politically related events running towards the end of the year, such as internal OPEC politics, U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations, and U.S.-OPEC relations. These dynamics significantly affected oil market outcomes and its trajectory moving forward. OPEC+’s pledged cut of 1.2 mb/d appeared on the weak side of what the data indicated was required to fully balance the market in the first half of 2019, with the final decision almost certainly being influenced by some of the political dynamics outlined above. While the role of politics will now likely be subdued as a result of lower prices, some of these dynamics will inevitably resurface in April with the expiration of Iran sanction waivers in May. Beyond that, if prices experience a significant increase, then expect to see an intensification of politically driven oil market dynamics.
The return of sanctions on Iran was arguably the biggest wildcard to have emerged for oil markets in 2018. The original expectation of very little leniency with regards to waivers saw prices rise considerably through September and October as the date of sanctions implementation approached. Ironically, however, by the time sanctions were implemented, the issuance of unexpectedly lenient waivers contributed to a very a significant price rout. Exports of oil from Iran are now likely to run somewhere in the region of 1 to 1.25 mb/d until the end of the current waiver period, upon which time the Trump administration must decide what, if any, countries receive waivers and if so, at what level. The administration has said its ultimate goal is to get to zero exports of Iranian oil to apply “maximum economic pressure” on the country. However, the timeline of realizing that goal remains uncertain with President Trump remaining averse to pushing oil prices higher. If prices remain relatively low, there will be significantly less leniency in any waivers issued; however, should oil prices manage to rise a great deal over the next several months, the political intervention that will be necessary to impose a zero-export strategy may increase (see the previous trend on our list).
Venezuela’s Downward Spiral
Starting in 2016, intensifying in 2017, and continuing through 2018, Venezuela’s production losses have played an important role in oil market balances and are likely to feature again this year. From January through June 2018, Venezuelan oil production declined by more than 300 thousand barrels per day (kb/d). While the rate of decline in the second half of 2018 eased off, the country was down another 50 kb/d of production in that time frame. Years of mismanagement, underinvestment, and ultimately economic collapse have all but destroyed the country’s economic backbone. The growing list of difficulties for the country, including the backing away of joint venture partners, multiple arbitration cases lining up against Citgo, and the possibility for expanded U.S. sanctions, will only help to accelerate the country’s economic implosion. While there are many uncertainties regarding the outlook for Venezuelan oil production, the factors continue to point towards further decline.
Volatility in Libya and Nigeria
Libya and Nigeria, two of Africa’s largest producers, remained volatile in 2018, as they have done for the past several years. Last year, Libya started on a very positive note with five months of stable production before significant disruptions were experienced in June and July due to military clashes at eastern export terminals. While production rebounded to a five-year high by November, it has entered the new year disrupted once again due to security issues, which temporarily shuttered the 315 kb/d El Sharara field. There appears to be no end in sight for the turmoil in the fractious nation, and so, intermittent disruptions look likely. Nigeria followed a very similar pattern to Libya in 2018: the year opened with relatively strong output before significant disruptions at key pipelines saw production fall in May through July. While leaks caused these most recent outages, sabotage and theft on oil infrastructure continues to be a problem. The chances for disruption to oil production increase in the coming months with a presidential election scheduled for February, which terrorist and militant groups are likely to use as an opportunity to launch offensives. Given the political outlook for both countries, sustained volatility is the likely trend for 2019.
Canada’s Crude Conundrum
Alberta’s short-term oil production curtailment of 325 kb/d went into effect on January 1st. The government’s target to slash oil inventory levels in half will likely be reached by March or April, upon which time the cuts will be reduced to 95 kb/d for the rest of 2019. This action has helped to accelerate a rebalancing in the price differentials that had already been underway. It will also provide insurance that the extreme discounting experienced for its crude in 2018 will not be seen in 2019. The provincial government also plans to add 15 kb/d of rail car capacity each month starting in December 2019 to reach 120 kb/d of additional capacity by August 2020. This action will provide more temporary relief, but ultimately it will not resolve the root of the problem, which is a lack of available pipeline capacity. Line 3, Keystone Xl, and the Trans-Mountain Expansion Project have all been beset by legal challenges and protests. Can 2019 be the year that province finally manages to add new pipeline capacity?
With an implementation date of January 1, 2020, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) tightening of its marine sulfur fuel content regulation will begin to have effects come the fourth quarter of this year. The regulation, which lowers the cap on the sulfur content of marine fuel oil to 0.5 percent, is expected to have a significant impact on product markets. The most noteworthy consequence will be on diesel demand. According to the EIA, the increase in demand will push up the average wholesale margin of 43 cents per gallon (cents/gal) in 2018 to 48 cents/gal in 2019 and out to 65 cents/gal in 2020. In driving up demand for diesel at the expense of high sulfur fuel oil, the regulation will also impact differentials in the crude market, driving demand for light, sweet crude over that of heavy, sour crude. Significant uncertainty remains about the possible outcomes of this regulation due to unknowns regarding rates of possible non-compliance and enforcement. Expect these to become clearer as the year progresses.
Although the possibility of No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act (NOPEC) legislation being enacted in 2019 looks quite slim, especially given that prices are relatively low, the lingering presence of a possible reintroduction of the bill into Congress this year will likely weigh on OPEC and Saudi Arabian production decisions moving forward. The bill reemerged towards the end of 2018 due to higher oil prices, but also as a result of increasing bipartisan criticism in Congress of Saudi Arabia in light of the Jamal Khashoggi revelations. If enacted, the legislation could open up producers to prosecution under the Sherman Antitrust Act, which would severely limit the organization’s ability to coordinate production levels. There is bipartisan support for NOPEC in Congress, and the president has lambasted the organization in the past, so if prices do manage to increase considerably this year, the possibilities of the bill being reintroduced increase substantially.
Andrew Stanley is an associate fellow with the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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