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Nick Cunningham

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Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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The 5 Oil Factors To Watch In 2018

oil rig

Oil prices are set to close out the year somewhere around 15 percent up, and the oil market looks more stable than it has in years. But what does 2018 have in store?

Most analysts believe more of the same – inventory declines, some shale growth, a gradual increase in the oil price and eventually an end to the OPEC deal. But a lot of uncertainty remains.

Here are 5 key issues to watch as we head into 2018.

#1 U.S. shale growth

There is no doubt that U.S. shale output is continuing to rise, but there is quite a bit of uncertainty about the magnitude of growth. Expectations have fluctuated over the course of 2017. At the beginning of the year, outlets like the EIA and IEA had very bullish predictions for shale output, with the EIA expecting U.S. output to average 10 million barrels per day in 2018.

As the year wore on, numerous red flags began to pop up that raised a lot of questions about the health of the shale industry. Drilling costs began to rise again; some shale companies ran into operational problems; drilling activity fizzled when oil prices dipped below $50 per barrel, a sign that the shale industry’s breakeven prices (on average) were not as low as many thought; the rig count dipped; and investors began demanding more restraint and a slower pace of drilling. These problems seemed to suggest shale was sputtering.

However, more recently, data suggests shale is back on track, posting strong production gains in September. In their December reports, the IEA and OPEC predicted U.S. shale would add 870,000 bpd and 1 mb/d of new supply in 2018, respectively. That threatens to overwhelm demand growth. But the extent to which actual growth lives up to those forecasts will go a long way in determining the pace of rebalancing next year.

#2 OPEC Compliance

OPEC production fell in November for the fourth consecutive month, dipping by 130,000 bpd compared to a month earlier. That puts the group’s compliance rate with the production cuts at 115 percent, the highest number yet. The ability of OPEC to stick with its commitments is a positive sign heading into 2018 that they will be able to keep compliance rates high. To be sure, involuntary declines in Venezuela are somewhat masking less-than-100-percent compliance from Iraq and the UAE, but a reduction of supply is a reduction of supply. Related: Santa Is Putting Christmas On The Blockchain And Saving Billions

The big question is the durability of high compliance throughout 2018. An oil market that rebalances too quickly could lead OPEC members to abandon their pledges if they become tempted by higher oil prices. Russia has signaled that it is anxious to abandon the deal as soon as inventories fall back to average levels. The flipside is also true – a steep drop in prices could lure members into cheating as they become desperate for more revenues. But that is all speculation. For now, compliance looks good.

#3 OPEC’s Exit Strategy

OPEC has restored some stability to the oil market with its resolve to maintain output limits, and the strong cooperation, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Russia, reassured the oil market at the last OPEC meeting.

Yet, they left the details of an exit strategy for a later date, and the June 2018 meeting will carry extra weight, especially as the inventory surplus narrows. Exiting the production cuts is fraught with danger; even hinting that a return to full production could spook jittery oil traders, which is exactly why top OPEC officials were eager to push off that conversation. But by mid-2018, they won’t be able to avoid the issue. It’s likely OPEC will opt for some sort of glide path, a gradual lifting of the production limits, but we’ll have to wait and see.

#4 Inventories

OPEC’s strategy will largely come down to what happens to global inventories. OECD commercial stocks declined by more than 40 million barrels in October, putting total stocks at 2,940 million barrels, the lowest level in more than two years. The stock surplus is now at about 100 million barrels more than the five-year average, down two-thirds from the start of 2017. It’s likely that the surplus will be erased at some point in 2018, at which point OPEC will be under pressure to abandon its production limits. Related: The ‘Unknown Unknowns’ That Threaten U.S. Shale

However, the IEA said in its December Oil Market Report that it expects inventories to begin rising again in 2018, largely because of blistering growth from U.S. shale (see #1 above). The first half of the year, the IEA predicts, will see inventories rise at a pace of 200,000 bpd. If the agency is correct, zeroing out the surplus could prove elusive.

#5 Unexpected outages

All of these forecasts and predictions go out the window if supply disruptions occur. Just days ago, the Forties pipeline cracked and shut down, and the pipeline’s operator declared force majeure on oil shipments. The 450,000-bpd pipeline could be shut for weeks, leading to shutdowns at North Sea oil fields. This incident is exactly the type of event that can catch the oil market by surprise, leading to sharp and sudden price increases even if all seems well elsewhere in the world.

There are plenty of potential flashpoints that could lead to supply outages in 2018. The most obvious is Venezuela, which is suffering from steep and ongoing declines. Venezuela’s output fell by 41,000 bpd in November from a month earlier, after suffering a decline of 26,000 bpd in October. Production is at a 30-year low and is heading south. Other outages are entirely possible in unstable countries like Nigeria and Libya. Conflict between the U.S. and Iran would be a whole different animal, with serious implications for the oil market. Then, there are other potential outages that are entirely unpredictable beforehand. The crack in the Forties pipeline, the spill from the Keystone pipeline in the U.S. from a few weeks ago and the massive wildfires in Alberta in 2016 are just a few examples. It only takes one major disruption to upend the most carefully crafted oil forecast.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Jeffrey J. Brown on December 21 2017 said:
    In regard to the following story (all time low for discovered resources in 2017), given similar disappointing results in 2016, one would think that there might be a supply problem on the horizon, especially in regard to net oil exports. As I have periodically opined, the Saudi data suggests that they have already shipped about half of post-2005 Cumulative Net Exports (based on projecting a perpetual rate of increase in both production & consumption).

    Total BOE consumption globally was probably about 55 billions BOE in 2017 (total petroleum liquids + natural gas in BOE).



    ALL-TIME LOW FOR DISCOVERED RESOURCES IN 2017: AROUND 7 BILLION BARRELS OF OIL EQUIVALENT WAS DISCOVERED

    https://www.rystadenergy.com/NewsEvents/PressReleases/all-time-low-discovered-resources-2017

    Rystad Energy concluded this week that 2017 was yet another record low year for discovered conventional volumes globally. Less than seven billion barrels of oil equivalent has been discovered YTD.

    “We haven’t seen anything like this since the 1940s,” says Sonia Mladá Passos, Senior Analyst at Rystad Energy. “The discovered volumes averaged at ~550 million barrels of oil equivalent per month. The most worrisome is the fact that the reserve replacement ratio* in the current year reached only 11% (for oil and gas combined) - compared to over 50% in 2012.” According to Rystad’s analysis, 2006 was the last year when reserve replacement ratio reached 100%; largely thanks to the giant onshore gas field Galkynysh in Turkmenistan.

    End Excerpt.


    This is supportive of the following Petroleum Economist article:

    Oil demand: Beware the gap
    Forget a peak – falling production from existing fields should be the market’s immediate focus

    http://www.petroleum-economist.com/articles/markets/outlook/2017/oil-demand-beware-the-gap

    That producing wells and fields decline isn't exactly news—we know they do. But the glob­al rate of this decline is more difficult to put a number to. The rule of thumb offers up a range from 3-6% a year, with offshore rates higher than onshore, older fields higher than younger, and shale higher than all of them.

    But it seems that the decline rate has changed during the course of the oil market's downturn since mid-2014. Decline rates shrank in the initial phases of the price slump, as com­panies sought to keep existing production as high as possible by streamlining maintenance and focusing capital. Offsetting a field's or well's decline is, after all, often the cheapest barrel a company can bring to market. It was a way producers battened down the hatches to try to last out what was at first thought likely to be short-lived price weakness.

    As the notion that prices would stay "lower for longer" took hold, these temporary efforts were undercut by the sharp drop in capex. The result was an increase in the decline rate. Rystad estimated that 2016 had the highest decline rate of the past 25 years. It's likely to get worse, too, as the recent deep spending cuts steepen the decline curve for the next two years. Furthermore, we can expect a long-term structural increase in the decline rate, simply because—in the absence of many new fields be­ing developed—the average age of the produc­ing ones is now trending upwards. In 2017, we assessed the decline rate at 9+%, equating to about 8.8m b/d. That's five times greater than the demand increment for 2017.

    Significantly, the decline rate is highest in the producing segment that many in the mar­ket are relying on to swing higher to meet new demand: shale oil. A tight oil well can decline by up to 50% in its first year, after which the pace of decline starts to slow as the field ages. Even then, though, output still falls back at a rate well above the global average, regardless of the time frame examined.

    End Excerpt.


    Also, international refiners are now having the same concerns that US refiners have had for quite a while about inconsistent grades of crude oil/condensate blends from shale plays (frequently deficient in distillates):

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-14/u-s-oil-cocktails-spoil-chemistry-in-budding-asian-love-affair

    “Buyers are wary of grades such as Eagle Ford and can’t take much more of it.”

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