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It started in mid-February for jet fuel and in mid-March for gasoline.
Oil companies are reporting financial fiascos every day: Today Exxon reported its first quarterly loss since 1999 ($610 million), on a “market-related” $2.9 billion write-down. “We’ve never seen anything like what the world is facing today,” CEO Darren Woods said.
On Thursday, Texas-based shale-driller Concho Resources reported a quarterly loss of $9.3 billion, after writing down the value of its oil and gas assets by $12.6 billion.
Also on Thursday, it was reported that Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy, a pioneer in shale-drilling, was preparing to file for bankruptcy (what’s taking so long?).
Still on Thursday, Royal Dutch Shell shocked the markets when it announced that it would reduce its dividend for the first time since 1945 (by 66% from $0.47 to $0.16). “The duration of these impacts remains unclear with the expectation that the weaker conditions will likely extend beyond 2020,” the statement said. The already beaten-up shares plunged another 17% in two days. Shares are down 47% year to date.
Earlier in April, among the oil companies that have already filed for bankruptcy, were two high-profile oil drillers, Whiting Petroleum and Diamond Offshore Drilling.
The drama is centered on the collapse in demand for crude oil. Crude oil is primarily used for two purposes: transportation fuel and as feedstock for the chemical industry. Even before the crisis, demand growth has been weak, particularly as transportation fuel in developed countries. But production has been surging, and amid ample and growing supply, prices were already weak, when the coronavirus hit.
Demand for transportation fuel in the US collapsed.
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While everyone is understandably watching the meltdown in the crude oil market, the global market for natural gas is also cratering.
At least 20 cargoes of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) have been cancelled by buyers in Asia and Europe, according to Reuters. The global pandemic and the unfolding economic crisis have slashed demand for gas worldwide. Cheniere Energy, one of the main exporters of U.S. LNG, has seen an estimated 10 cargoes cancelled by buyers halfway around the world, Reuters said.
The price for LNG in Asia was already crashing before the pandemic, owing to a substantial increase in supply last year. Prices for LNG in Asia for June delivery have recently traded at $2/MMBtu, only slightly higher than Henry Hub prices in the U.S.
As recently as October, LNG prices in Asia traded at just under $7/MMBtu.
The problem for American gas exporters is that after factoring in the cost of liquefaction and transportation, gas breakeven prices for delivering to Asia are around $5.56/MMBtu, according to Reuters. But prices are trading at less than half of those levels.
Gas exports tend to be conducted under rigid contracts, but cargoes are now facing cancellation.
“The financial prospects for [LNG] ? once one of the globe’s hottest energy commodities – seem to be imploding before our eyes,” Clark Williams-Derry wrote in a new report for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). He noted that LNG prices in the fall of 2018 were at around $12/MMBtu.
The oil majors have made large bets on LNG in recent years. Royal Dutch Shell spent more than $50 billion to buy BG Group in 2015. The move back then was made with an eye on surging demand for natural gas. “We will now be able to shape a simpler, leaner, more competitive company, focusing on our core expertise in deep water and LNG,” Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden said after closing on the acquisition of BG Group more than four years ago.
The deal remade Shell into one of the largest traders of LNG on the planet. Several other oil majors – Total SA, ExxonMobil and Chevron, for instance – have also made massive bets on LNG.
There’s a reason this week’s EIA survey showing gasoline and oil supplies declining has failed to stop RBOB prices from collapsing to 7-month lows: The start of the summer has done nothing to revive sluggish demand. That’s because despite what the EIA survey said, little has been done to reduce record fuel inventories.
The squeeze has gotten so bad, Northeast Colonial Pipeline Co., the operator of the biggest US fuel pipeline system, said that demand to transport gasoline to the country’s populous northeast is the weakest in six years, the latest symptom of a global oil market grappling with oversupply. It’s notable that this peak has arrived despite the advent of the summer driving season, which has seen gasoline demand pull back from last year’s record highs, according to Reuters.
Because of the oversupply in the northeast, “line space”… the cost of renting “space” on the pipeline to assure one’s ability to get supplies of gasoline when necessary… has gone negative, according to Reuters. What can be more exemplary of excess inventories and of reduced demand for gasoline than this?
Refiners are in part to blame for the problem – they have continued to pump motor fuel at record levels for the second year in a row, worsening the oversupply problem, for fear of losing access to pipeline capacity.
More broadly, attempts by large producers to reduce global supplies have failed to meaningfully raise the price of oil. And with good reason: Traders have been skeptical of an agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC producers, including Russia, to extend last year’s supply cut, and already they’re concerns are being validated: Iraq has said it plans to increase production later this year despite the agreement.
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It’s a good summer to be selling gasoline, not a great one to be buying it
In mid-February, the price of oil hovered around $50 US a barrel, and a litre of gasoline cost, on average, $1.01 Cdn.
This week, the price of oil is hovering around $50 a barrel and the average price of a litre of gasoline is $1.22. A few small things have changed over that five-month period: the Canadian dollar is lower by about three cents; Alberta has added a four cent tax to gasoline bought in that province.
But the big difference is that refineries are making a killing this summer.
Refining margins are the difference between the cost of crude oil and the cost of wholesale gasoline.
‘We’re at that part of the summer where demand for gasoline is never going to be stronger.’ – Stephen Schork, Schork Report
Both Canadian and U.S. refining margins are running at seven- and eight -year highs. In Canada last month, the refining margin was 27.7 cents per litre according to data compiled by Michael Ervin of the Kent Group.
“We’re at that part of the summer where demand for gasoline is never going to be stronger,” said Stephen Schork, editor of the Schork Report, which is focused on commodities.
“We’re at the height of the northern-hemisphere peak-demand season.”
Demand for gasoline is high
Demand for gasoline is indeed very high this summer. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gasoline demand is nearly seven per cent higher than it was a year ago. That’s a significant increase.
Refiners are going full steam right now, at over 90 per cent capacity, in order to keep up with demand.