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Oil Update–November 2017

With WTI prices at about $58.00 per barrel, I am updating my WTI oil price forecast upward over the next several weeks to range between $50.00 and $60.00 per barrel. As mentioned last month, geopolitical uncertainties are likely to have created a floor near $50 per barrel. Aside from the conflict between the Kurds and Iraqis, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and the potential for President Trump to decertify the Iran nuclear deal, the arrests in Saudi Arabia have added to the list of geopolitical uncertainties.

In its latest monthly report, the International Energy Agency lowered its global crude demand growth outlook by 100,000 barrels per day for 2017 and 2018. The reduction in demand growth was in direct opposition to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countrie’ report that raised demand growth. If the IEA is correct in its forecast, current prices might not be sustainable.

On November 30, OPEC and Russia are scheduled to announce their decision whether they will extend their oil production cuts past March of 2018. Most, including me, expect that the cuts will be extended to the end of the year. Even if the cuts are extended, the bulls might declare victory and reduce their long positions. On the other hand, prices might rise even further with decreased uncertainty.

Because of the extended rally in oil prices and because of IEA’s reduced growth demand, I am cautious about oil prices escalating much further in the near future. I do appreciate, however, that global oil inventories are falling, and that might cause prices to spike higher. We should gain more insight after the market’s reaction to OPEC’s decision.

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Oil Update–October 2017

I am updating my WTI oil price expectations for the next several weeks to range between $50.00–$57.50 per barrel. The bottom oil-price limit is higher because geopolitical uncertainties have likely created a floor near $50 per barrel. The geopolitical uncertainties stem from the conflict between the Kurds and Iraqis, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and the potential for President Trump to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. Another positive factor is the upcoming OPEC meeting at the end of November where many expect the agreement limiting crude-oil output to be extended beyond March 2018. The top oil-price limit has been raised because, with recent WTI prices being near $54 per barrel, it leaves further room to the upside. At current prices, producers are hedging their future production and will, therefore, produce additional volumes that should damp further increases in oil prices. With oil prices near $54 per barrel, I expect that WTI is near the higher end of its near-term range.

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A good friend Paul Precht recommended that I view a YouTube video “Tony Seba: Clean Disruption – Energy & Transportation.” Seba offers a fascinating presentation of how he sees the future of energy and transportation unfolding. Even if he is only half correct, there will be dramatic changes for society and especially Alberta. After viewing fifteen minutes of this hour-long video, you will be hooked. I urge you, though, to set aside an entire hour—you’ll not be disappointed.

Precht and I met during the 1990s when we worked together to create a new fiscal framework for the oil sands industry. At that time, he was working at Alberta Energy, a ministry of the Government of Alberta, and I was working at Syncrude. We have remained in touch throughout the years and have collaborated on several projects as consultants.

On the topic of energy, my WTI oil price expectations for the next several weeks to range between $45–$55 per barrel, a slight increase from my expectations of last month. After reading a few articles—for example, “Mission Accomplished? OPEC banishes contango: John Kemp”—that claimed reduced oil inventory levels in advanced economies, I am slightly more bullish.

The next few weeks will be interesting because this is typically a shoulder period between high demand from summer driving and high demand for winter heating. Refineries are often shut down for maintenance to take advantage of this slow time. With the recent storms in the Gulf Coast, I am curious to see how this year’s shoulder period evolves. Also higher prices may provide incentive for drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) to be brought on stream, not to mention that higher prices might inspire new drilling. Unless there is a spike in demand, these events ought to have a moderating effect on a steep oil price rise. Given this backdrop, I am have raised my expectations from last month.

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Oil Update–August 2017

I am staying with my WTI oil price expectations for the next several weeks to range between $43–$53 per barrel. With the continuing fallout from the tropical storm Harvey, I expect increased volatility in oil prices.

I have updated my graph. As a refresher, one of the benchmarks that I track is the US Energy Information Administration’s Short Term Energy Outlook data for US crude oil and liquid fuels production as shown in the next graph, which is an updated version from the prior month. Every month the EIA releases a new forecast. The January forecast is the lowest line along the horizontal axis, and the August forecast is near the top for much, but not all, of the graph. Solid-line portions represent historical data, and the dotted-line portions are forecasts. Because of data revisions, not all months start from the same point. Please note that liquid fuels include ethanol, natural gas plant liquids, and biodiesel.

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts—US Crude Oil and Liquid Fuels Production

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts

Looking at the updated graph, we note that the last four months—May, June, July, and August—seem to be clustered together. In other words, the forecasts seem to be converging.

Dan Dicker in his article “It’s Finally Time to Look at Oil Stocks” (subscription might be required) states that oil prices are likely to rise by year-end.

The trend for oil is finally about to change. Oil has been range-bound for all of 2017, with rigs continuing to increase and stockpiles continuing to swell. But rigs are beginning to roll over and are, I believe, going to decrease through the rest of the year. And more importantly, stockpiles are beginning to sink, finally going under the 10-year average for the first time in 4 years. That trend is going to continue as well.

Oil is about to break out of its range — to the upside.

Of course, the oil companies deciding to cut production and capex will accelerate both of these trends, making oil even more likely to rise to $60 by year end — maybe even $70.

In a subsequent article “Oil Will Turn Soon, But Not All Oil Companies Will Follow,” (again, subscription might be required) Dicker states the following:

I believe oil prices will get constructive soon, overcoming their year-long range between $43 and $54 dollars a barrel. We can see three factors that are going to push oil out of this range to the upside. First, we see oil stockpiles falling under the 5-year average, signifying the rebalancing is coming. Second, we see rig counts beginning to roll over, making the projections for increased production in 2018 far too optimistic. And third, major rollbacks of capex from oil producers, announced in their second-quarter reports, are going to accelerate both of these trends.

I disagree with Dicker. We have just examined the graph for expected production. As discussed, recent forecasts have converged. There is a time lag between drilling and production. So, I expect that much of the remaining production for 2017 is already set in the forecast. According to a Wall Street Journal article “Investors Eager to Hear Shale Companies’ Plans for Rest of 2017,” (subscription required) many oil companies have already hedging contracts in place, and there are many drilled-but-uncompleted wells waiting to be connected to pipelines. Furthermore, a Financial Times article “Oil Traders grapple with US crude conundrum” (subscription required) suggests that prices are likely to stay low.

Behind this, analysts and traders say, is seemingly unstoppable US oil production. Those betting the industry will continue ramping up output are — for now — firmly winning the biggest debate in the oil sector regarding just how much production, led by the shale revolution, can grow despite prices languishing below $50 a barrel.

“The train has left the station in terms of shale,” said Gary Ross, head of Pira Energy, a unit of S&P Global Platts.

The so-called Brent-WTI spread, which measures the price difference between the two big crude markers, is just one indicator that points to traders betting that US shale output will grow in excess of 1m barrels a day next year, or enough to meet about 75 per cent of anticipated global demand growth.

And just today, the Wall Street Journal published an article “Saudi Arabia, Russia Pushing for Three-Month Extension to Oil Cut Deal” (subscription required). If these two countries expected prices to recover above $60 by year-end, they likely would not have called for an extension.

The end of 2017 is only a few short months away. We will soon learn if $60 per barrel has been achieved. My expectation is that, with already anticipated increased production, oil prices will remain below $60 per barrel.

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Oil Update–July 2017

I am updating my WTI oil price expectations for the next several weeks to range between $43–$53 per barrel, two dollars per barrel lower than before. The reasons for changing are increased production from Libya and Nigeria, Ecuador straying outside its production cap, and general cynicism toward OPEC being able to reduce global inventories as quickly as expected.

Although I have reduced my expectations, should OPEC announce significant changes to its policy after meeting this weekend in Saint Petersburg, Russia, then all bets are off.

If the current situation persists, however, then I am comfortable with my updated values.

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Oil Update–June 2017

US Weekly Oil Production Versus US Oil Rig Count – June 2017.

US Weekly Oil Production Versus US Oil Rig Count

With the recent release of the US Energy Information Administration’s Short Term Energy Outlook, I have revised downward my forecast for WTI oil price to between $45 and $55 per barrel for the next several weeks, until midsummer. The reason for lowering my forecast is that the EIA has forecast more production between now and roughly the end of 2018. Furthermore, in its “Forecast Highlights” it says the following: “EIA forecasts that implied global petroleum and liquid fuels inventories will decline by about 0.2 million b/d in 2017 and then increase by an average of 0.1 million b/d in 2018.” I anticipate that the forecasted build in inventories in 2018 might keep a lid on oil prices.

Let’s take a quick review of some data. You’ve likely seen a variation of the following graph where oil production has almost recovered to pre-downturn levels, yet the number of oil rigs being used is roughly half that at the peak of production. The key point from this graph is that production efficiency per rig has increased. It’s important to remember that this graph represents all rigs involved in US oil production, not just those used for shale oil.

One of the benchmarks that I track is the US Energy Information Administration’s Short Term Energy Outlook data for US crude oil and liquid fuels production as shown in the next graph, which is an updated version from the prior month. Every month the EIA releases a new forecast. The January forecast is the lowest line along the horizontal axis, and the June forecast is the top line for much, but not all, of the graph. Solid-line portions represent historical data, and the dotted-line portions are forecasts. Because of data revisions, not all months start from the same point. Please note that liquid fuels include ethanol, natural gas plant liquids, and biodiesel, and this total volume is different from just the oil volume shown in the prior graph.

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts—US Crude Oil and Liquid Fuels Production

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts

In February and March, the EIA revised substantially upward its December 2018 production forecast. In the last four months, the December 2018 production forecast remained relatively constant, but the production volume leading up to December 2018 was increased with each new forecast.

With production forecasts increasing each month and with the EIA forecasting a slight build in global inventories, I am more cautious. I want to wait for more data throughout the summer. Do global inventories draw down faster than many expect, or do they remain relatively stable?

In this weekend’s Barron’s magazine article (subscription required) “Energy Shares Could Soon Heat Up,” Andrew Bary discusses bullish comments made by Morgan Stanley’s energy analyst Evan Calio.

The Energy Select Sector SPDR exchange-traded fund (ticker: XLE), which tracks the energy stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, is off 12% so far in 2017, compared with a 9% gain in the broad market. The more volatile SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF (XOP) is down 21% after hitting a new 52-week low last week. “This is one of the worst beginnings to the year ever,” says Evan Calio, an energy analyst at Morgan Stanley. “Investor sentiment is horrible.”

Nevertheless, Calio remains upbeat on U.S. exploration-and-production stocks, seeing about 15% upside on average from current levels. He expects oil prices to rise to the mid-to-high $50s over the summer and into the fall, supported by drawdowns of crude inventories and the effect of output reductions announced by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. A rally in energy stocks could be under way, after their 2% gain on Friday.

Calio is more bullish than I am at present. If, however, global inventories deplete faster than expected over the summer, I will reverse my current position and go back to my prior expected range of $50–$60 per barrel.

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Oil Update–May 2017

With WTI prices briefly spiking below $44 per barrel, May was an exciting month for oil prices. Even though prices dipped further than I expected, I remain optimistic and expect oil prices to generally be bound between $50 and $60 per barrel for the next few months.

One of the benchmarks that I am tracking is the US Energy Information Adminstration’s Short Term Energy Outlook data for US crude oil and liquid fuels production as shown in the graph. Every month the EIA releases a new forecast. The January forecast is the lowest line along the horizontal axis, and the May forecast is the top line. Solid-line portions represent historical data, and the dotted-line portions are forecasts. Because of data revisions, not all months start from the same point. Please note that liquid fuels include ethanol, natural gas plant liquids, and biodiesel.

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts—US Crude Oil and Liquid Fuels Production

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts

To date, the largest jumps in December 2018 production volumes were from the February and March forecasts. The May forecast for December 2018 production volumes of about 15.8 million barrels per day is just over a million barrels per day greater than estimated in the January forecast. Clearly, the large increase in US production surprised many analysts and, very likely, OPEC, too.

Moving away from the graph, I came across an interesting comment from Pioneer Natural Resources chairman Scott Sheffield in a Forbes article “Up On Trump, Down On Oil, Hamm Warns Frackers Not To Spook OPEC.”

Others at CERAWeek have been more bold. Vicki Hollub, CEO of Occidental Petroleum, the Permian’s biggest producer, predicted Tuesday that output from the basin could grow from 2 million barrels per day now, to 5 million bpd. Scott Sheffield, chairman of Pioneer Natural Resources, another Permian giant, said 8 million to 10 million bpd in a decade. What’s different is that Oxy and Pioneer have a vast inventory of Permian acreage that the companies say offers good cash-on-cash returns even at $40 oil.

I haven’t seen other forecasts as aggressive. That said, Sheffield’s forecast deserves careful consideration and monitoring.

Switching to the key OPEC development, I was surprised by OPEC’s decision to extend its oil production cuts for an added nine months because I had expected only a six-month extension. As we saw on May 26 by the drop in oil prices from roughly $52 to $49 per barrel, many were disappointed that OPEC didn’t cut deeper. I agree, however, with Helima Croft’s comments in the Wall Street Journal article “Oil Prices Edge Higher Following OPEC Decision” (subscription might be required).

While the market had a “knee jerk reaction” because it “remains skeptical” on the impact of OPEC’s cuts, “we encourage investors to separate the near-term, noise-driven price gyrations and focus on the improving global fundamental backdrop,” said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, LLC, who said she believes oil will eventually move between $50 and $60 a barrel.

So now we wait to see how this situation plays out. The summer driving season has begun and refineries are running at high throughputs. Will global oil inventories have shrunk by very much at the end of the summer in September?

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Oil Update–April 2017

Oil prices dipped below $50 late last week, tumbling since Wednesday when the US Energy Information Administration announced an unexpected gasoline build in its weekly update on inventory levels. More downward pressure came on Friday, April 21, when Baker Hughes said that the oil-rig count rose by five to 688.

On that same Friday, the Financial Times wrote (subscription required) the following:

But concerns are mounting that a ramp up in US shale production will undermine a push by Opec and other producers such as Russia to reduce excess stockpiles and bring to a close the worst price crash in a generation.

One Wall Street trader said: “There are lots of things at play. US production is surging, there are concerns about demand in Asia, hedge funds are reducing their bets on a higher oil price. It’s all coinciding and putting pressure on prices.”

While there is plenty of news to suggest that oil prices will remain soft, I continue to expect that oil prices will generally be bound by $50 to $60 per barrel. I anticipate that in late May OPEC will agree to extend its production cuts for another six months. Furthermore, more oil is expected to be consumed as driving seasons kicks into high gear over the next few months. With continued production cuts and increased consumption, prices should be supported at $50 per barrel.

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Oil Update–March 2017

Although West Texas Intermediate prices are hovering around $50 per barrel, we’ve seen oil prices dip into the high $40s in March, which is lower than I expected.

To understand oil prices better I read online newspapers and other sources. At lower oil prices there were more bearish articles forecasting $40 in the near term. Now, there are more bullish forecasts—for example, Reuters’ analyst John Kemp reported that Goldman Sachs suggests that an OPEC production cut extension might not be need to support prices.

I anticipate that OPEC will extend its cuts because it seems determined to provide support to oil prices. As evidence, the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reported on March 29 the following:

Investors also welcomed comments from OPEC members who are showing a willingness to cut more of their supplies to make a dent in global inventories. United Arab Emirates announced plans to reduce its production by about 200,000 barrels from March to May, “which is actually more than was agreed,” said Commerzbank analysts in a recent note.

For the next couple of months, I continue to expect that WTI prices will stay between $50 to $60 per barrel.

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Oil Update–February 2017

As I expected, oil prices have remained relatively range bound in the mid-$50 range. I continue to expect this range to hold for the next few weeks.

At these prices, many are concerned that increased drilling for shale oil production will offset the recent production cutbacks and force oil prices back down again. While that might happen, I expect that it won’t.

Looking at oil production data in the US Energy Information Administration’s “Annual Energy Outlook 2017” report, note in the reference case that US total oil production from the lower 48 states is forecast to be relatively flat from 2018 to 2050. In 2018, the forecast volume is 9.32 million barrels per day. In 2029, forecast production hits a peak at 10.55 million barrels per day, and in 2050 forecast production is 9.86 million barrels per day. Oil wellhead prices are forecast to increase from $49.90 per barrel in 2017 to $72.18 in 2020 and to over a $100 by 2036. All prices are in 2016 US dollars. The key point is that even though prices are rising quickly, oil production forecasts do not rise significantly above 10 million barrels per day.

I am also closely watching “U.S. crude oil and liquid fuels production” data forecasts from US Energy Information Administration’s “Short Term Energy Outlook” monthly reports. Crude oil and liquid fuels production includes crude oil, natural gas plant liquids, ethanol, and biodiesel.

The January 2017 “Short Term Energy Outlook” report contained the following total production data, both historical and forecasts, in millions of barrels per day:

  • December 2016: 13.500
  • December 2017: 14.276
  • December 2018: 14.810

2017 shows an increase of about 5.75 percent, and 2018 shows an increase of about 3.74 percent.

In February’s monthly report, the historical and forecast data were revised as follows:

  • December 2016: 13.443
  • December 2017: 14.382
  • December 2018: 15.253

2017 shows an increase of about 6.98 percent, and 2018 shows an increase of about 6.06 percent.

It’s important to note that the percentage increases are increases in the average production during the month of December compared to average daily production during the prior December. This is in contrast to the average daily production increase throughout the year that is forecast to be much less. For example, in the January report, the forecast annual average daily growth in crude only, excluding natural gas plant liquids, ethanol, and biodiesel, for 2017 was 1.3 percent and for 2018, 3.3 percent. In the February report, the data was revised for 2017 at 1.1 percent growth, and 2018, 6.1 percent.

As more “Short Term Energy Outlooks” are released, I plan to track the changes to both historical and forecast production data. Will production forecasts continue to increase and, if so, more rapidly than previously thought?

On January 19, 2017, the Financial Times article “‘Permania’ grips the US shale oil industry” (subscription required) revealed estimated breakeven oil prices for Permian basin producers. Most participants have an average breakeven price of between $40 and $60 dollar per barrel. The most productive assets have breakeven prices below $40 per barrel. The least productive assets, however, require much higher prices, up to $100 per barrel for Apache, for example. I expect that companies are focused on their more productive assets now when prices are in the mid $50s. A key point, though, is that oil prices will need to exceed $60 for all Permian basin assets to be developed.

The following quote comes from the Wall Street Journal February 16 article “Oil Gains on Possible Extension to Production Cuts” (subscription required):

On Thursday, Reuters reported that OPEC sources said the cartel could extend the six-month deal to cut supply, or make more severe cuts, if oil stocks don’t drop by around 300 million barrels.

Because US production is not forecast to exceed much beyond 10 million barrels per day in the near term and because current world production is likely unsustainable at prices below $60 per barrel, Saudi Arabia will probably play a waiting game. It will likely continue to keep or deepen current cuts until such time as more OPEC production is desired.

Forecasts are always wrong—it’s just a question of how wrong. It is important to keep monitoring information and adjusting one’s forecasts.

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