West Asia oil is regaining an edge in its supply battle with US shale. Low prices and a slump in global demand caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are slowly tilting the scales back in favour of some of OPEC’s low-cost producers.
However, the outcome of the US election, second-wave of the pandemic and potential return to the market for Libya’s crude could again upset the delicate balance between supply and demand for both sides.
US crude producers have been hit hard by prices slumping around $40/barrel. Output of crude and condensate from the light sweet crude producer may not start to recover until the second half of 2021, as the substantial drop in fracking crews and rig counts since March takes its toll. S&P Global Platts Analytics predicts US output averaging just 10.24 million b/d in 2021, compared with 11.38 million b/d this year. The forecast is well below the runaway 13 million b/d pre-Covid-19 peak.
The growing number of bankruptcies in the US shale sector is another sign of stress. Midcap producer Oasis recently filed for Chapter 11 protection, part of a growing trend among companies producing marginal US barrels. Chesapeake and Chaparral Energy filed earlier this year, while Whiting Petroleum emerged from Chapter 11 and completed its financial restructuring recently.
The fragile state of US shale producers could mean the majority of supply growth next year will be driven by OPEC+, leaving the market exposed to its policy changes and providing a heavier sourer diet. The oil producer alliance is currently unwinding from its original 9.7 million b/d output cut deal, which is scheduled to taper down to 5.8 million b/d from January next year. However, compliance with its quotas is another uncertainty weighing on market fundamentals.
Libya, Venezuela and Iran
Libyan production, which has been frozen from the market by internal strife, is poised to make a major return. Exports could reach 500,000 b/d in a matter of months if a fragile peace between warring factions holds. Output was as low as 110,000 b/d in early September before the UN-backed Government of National Accord and the self-styled Libyan National Army agreed a formal truce to restart pumping. However, the path back to sustained production remains fraught with uncertainty.
Meanwhile, the outcome of the US election could change the fate of Iran and Venezuela, both hit by sanctions. Platts Analytics sees potentially 3 million b/d of additional heavy sour crude hitting the market from the pair in the next couple of years if a breakthrough in geopolitical talks is made.
Even without the extra Iranian and Venezuelan barrels, three-quarters of output growth in 2021 is likely to come from the Middle East, with around 3 million b/d of additional supply hitting the market, according to Platts Analytics. Middle East crude is the mainstay supply for refineries in Asia, where economies such as that of China are recovering quickly from the demand slump caused by the pandemic.
Platts Analytics predicts oil demand growth of 6.3 million b/d next year, assuming a global economic upturn, which would still be around 2 million b/d shy of 2019 levels.
Despite this expected demand growth, extra supply may keep a lid on oil prices. OPEC+ producers may benefit from low-lifting costs and faster growth in key consumer markets in Asia but prices are likely to remain below levels that would satisfy the budgetary break-even that their economies require.
More supply is a victory of sorts for Middle East producers over shale, but a Pyrrhic one at that.
London-based Paul Hickin is associate director at S&P Global Platts. Views are his own.