Oil made its way into various public conversations between last month’s posting of The Oil Big Five and this month’s roundup of some of oil’s biggest and hottest topics. Looking back over the past few weeks, and then looking forward toward the rest of the year, it’s clear that there may not be any slowing down anytime soon.
Welcome, once again, to The Oil Big Five, where we ask our oil editors and analysts worldwide what they think are the most important or interesting topics in oil at the moment.
Each month we share our list, and then we hope that we get to hear from you, too — tell us what most interests you, what you’d like to see more of, what questions you have, or anything else that comes to mind. Oil, the world round, is an endlessly faceted and changing industry, and that’s what keeps us hooked.
1. Oil prices
On Monday, August 24, NYMEX October crude settled at $38.24/b and Dated Brent was assessed at $41.855/b—and the phrase “Black Monday” was tossed around online as markets worldwide made headlines. (Only last month we were wondering over the $50/b mark.) Everyone who thought that perhaps oil prices had reached a stable new normal was reminded in August that markets are always moving, and each new trading session brings a new chance to respond to (and shape) other factors.
As much as we talk here about the world of oil, this reinforced again that oil is just one part of a larger world economy. On September 8, Dated Brent was assessed at $49.01/b and NYMEX October crude settled at $45.94/b. What else could cause another headline-making price drop — or price rise — before the end of the year?
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2. Dubai crude cargoes
What do you do when an item’s price is marked down? Buy, of course. Trading volume during the Platts Market on Close assessment process for Dubai crude hit a monthly record high of 78 cargoes in August and a record 1,710 cash partial and spread trades during the month. Buying interest was spurred by prices dropping to near seven-month lows — the Platts cash assessment for October-loading Dubai crude oil cargoes averaged $47.691/b over the month.
Just as earlier this year, much of the buying was driven by China’s trading giants, especially ChinaOil. ChinaOil can store vast volumes in China’s strategic and commercial storage facilities, and the steep contango in the Dubai market structure means storing oil is profitable — and ChinaOil bought 72 of the 78 cargoes in the MOC process. Given the recent news about China’s economy, will buying slow down later this year? What else could support (or suspend) the buying interest?
3. US refiners and gasoline demand
In the US, summer is the traditional driving season and refiners plan accordingly for more drivers to be on the road. This year, refiners are hoping the strong gasoline season will extend into autumn and drivers will continue taking advantage of low prices at the pump and maybe squeeze in another road trip. The lower crude oil supply costs and steady gasoline demand have bumped up refining margins — for example, the US Gulf Coast conventional gasoline crack spread against Light Louisiana Sweet has averaged $25.03/b so far this quarter, up from $13.21/b in Q3 2014, Platts data showed as of September 1.
Strong home building and construction as well as a lower jobless rate than last year are also supporting gasoline and diesel use, and these could be longer-term lifts to demand. Some refiners are weighing the decision of whether to delay maintenance in light of high margins, but a well-supplied diesel market could keep margins under pressure moving forward. Will refiners keep running at full tilt well into the fall, or will the momentum fade sooner than many hope?
4. West African crude flows
Europe is expecting to see more West African crude oil in September, which could displace regional refinery demand for other grades. Asia currently has weaker demand for West African crude: refinery run cuts means demand dropping, it seems that some Asian buyers are opting for other barrels, like Latin American crude, and buying Angolan crude earlier in the summer means good supply. Add in attractive freight from West Africa to Europe and it means European refiners are picking up additional cargoes from both Nigeria and Angola.
More interest from US refiners as well means there’s a chance to move cargoes there, but can demand from Europe and the US make up for lower demand in Asian markets? Or would the extra crude volumes, particularly in Europe, where refining margins have been up this year, eventually bite into differentials in light of the wide array of crude grades from which to pick, as some have said?
5. US crude oil exports
The US Congress is back from its summer recess and a major crude oil topic is on the list of tasks expected to be tackled this fall. The US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a bill in July to repeal long-standing limits on US crude oil exports, and a US House Energy and Commerce subcommittee is expected Thursday to approve a bill that would lift all limits on US crude exports. This sets up a potential full House vote as early as this month.
This is a topic we have been closely tracking for a while now — including in the Capitol Crude podcast — and it will be interesting to see what could happen to markets if news comes out that Congress approves legislation to lift restrictions and open up US exports. (Remember what happened last year on the misconception that the limits had been lifted?) In addition to its market effects, what would it do to US producers and refiners, two camps that have sometimes been on opposite sides of the debate?