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Quote of the Week

“U.S. production is about to have a Wile E. Coyote moment where it literally falls off a cliff. One-hundred-and-twenty-thousand barrels, maybe even next month, will drop off…. The supply and demand mismatch will probably come in 2017.”

Emad Mostaque, analyst with London-based consultancy Ecstrat 

1.  Oil and the Global Economy
2.  The Middle East & North Africa
3.  China
4.  Russia
5. The Briefs

1.  Oil and the Global Economy

New York oil lost 35 cents last week closing at $40.39 a barrel after having dipped just before settlement to $38.99, the lowest price since August. In London Brent closed up 1.1 percent for the week at $44.66.  Prices were weaker in the US as nationwide crude stocks climbed by 252,000 barrels, but stocks at Cushing, Ok storage depot rose by 1.8 million barrels. The US rig count was down by ten last week, after a two-rig increase the week before.  Russia and the Saudis continue to pump at or near maximum capacity. Most brokers are expecting that Iran will be back into the markets in the first quarter of 2016 at about 500,000 b/d day to start.

The $40 price support level held last week despite several mid-day price dips into the $30s. Many traders see this as significant and believe that a close below $40 a barrel would trigger another price decline. Many traders also believe that another price slump is coming in the next few weeks as the current month – second month spread has widened to $2.90 a barrel, the most since 2011. This is seen as an indicator that oil prices will slip below the $40 support level. Mild weather forecasts for the Europe and the US this winter could cut the demand for heating oil substantially.

Discussions about when the next price rally will take place are in full swing. Some see a rally as soon as next year as US shale oil production declines and the increased demand sparked by lower prices continues. Others see the rally in 2017 as the world first must work through revived Iranian exports while still others are expecting oil prices to remain below $100 a barrel for the rest of the decade.

As 2015 draws to a close, the key issue for this publication of when world oil production will peak is back on the table.  World production less the Saudis, Iraq, Russia, the US, and Canada, has dropped by some 5 million b/d in the last ten years, leaving only five big producers to worry about. With low prices rapidly driving down production in the US and Canada, this leaves only Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Russia to keep global production from going into a decline. None of these countries, however, shows much potential to offset declines elsewhere in the world. The Saudis can keep producing at the current pace for a while, but Russia is already having problems maintaining production as its economy contracts and Iraq is rapidly coming unglued from domestic instability. If anything Iraq’s production could slump markedly in the next year or so.

For now, it looks as if 2015 will be some sort of peak for global oil production, but whether it remains the all time peak or whether production bounces back somewhere in the future is still an open question. There is no doubt that there are still substantial oil reserves to be exploited. Some of these such as those in Iraq and Iran can be produced at moderate prices so that production will only be constrained by geopolitical considerations – which in the Middle East are considerable for both countries.

Elsewhere future production of oil depends on higher prices and perhaps climate considerations. We are already seeing environmental concerns starting to limit exploitation of Arctic reserves and the growing threat of climate change could result in agreements to limit production of fossil fuels. The cost of non-polluting sources of energy is dropping rapidly and numerous technological breakthroughs are on the horizon which could be important. The bottom line is that we seem to be on a course to see some sort of oil production peak this year – that when the returns are in 2016’s production of oil will be lower than in 2015. The ultimate question of peak oil may take a decade or more to determine if this has been the all-time peak — unless rapid and large declines in global production take place in the near future.

US natural gas prices took a tumble last week falling by 24 cents per million BTU’s or 10 percent between Monday and Friday’s close. The EIA announced that gas in storage rose to an unprecedented 4 trillion cubic feet last week and weather forecasters say that the cold snap currently enveloping northern parts of the US will not be as bad as feared.

2.  The Middle East & North Africa

Iran: An IAEA report issued last week suggests that the oil and banking sanctions on Iran could be lifted as soon as mid-January based on the pace at which Tehran is removing and/or mothballing nuclear and related material. The Iranians deactivated 4,530 centrifuges in the month ending November 15. At this pace, they should be finished by January 12th.  Iran also has to get some 17,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of its stocks either by shipping it out of the country, most likely to Russia, or diluting it below the level it can quickly be enriched to weapons-grade levels.

Iran has other problems, however, that could yet interfere with the lifting of the sanctions. Over the weekend it sentenced the Washington Post reporter it has been holding to an unspecified prison term for espionage. Most see this as part of larger game that hardline Iranians are playing to prevent better relations with the US and the West in general. These elements fear that growing interaction with the West will eat away at the underpinning of their theocratic state which is not universally supported by the Iranian people.  These intra-governmental problems and growing involvement in Syria suggest that Iran’s return to being a major force in the oil markets may not be a sure thing.

Syria/Iraq: While Baghdad’s oil output increased by 13 percent to 500,000 b/d in 2015, growth in production may not continue in the coming year. To begin with, the Iraqi’s have had to sell some their lower grade crude for as low as $30 a barrel in order to unload it into a glutted oil market. A major drop in oil revenues coupled with civil war has forced the country to cut back significantly on other expenditures. Foreign oil companies have been told that government funds to expand oil production will be substantially reduced in the coming year and the government’s bills and other obligations are not being paid. The largest troubles are Baghdad’s payments to provincial governments which have been reduced or are not being made. In the case of Kurdistan this has already resulted in a situation in which the Kurds are selling their oil directly to foreign customers and not sharing the revenue with Baghdad. Direct Kurdish oil exports, with some help from the Israelis, are beginning to reach customers in the Baltic markets anxious to reduce dependence on Russia. Local authorities in Basra which is the heart of Iraq’s oil production are threatening similar measures unless more revenue sharing money arrives from Baghdad.

In Syria, a bombing campaign by Russia and the US is underway to eliminate the oil exports that keep the Islamic state well financed. In the past year the US has conducted only limited attacks on the Syrian oil industry, which is nearly all under ISIL control, from fears of causing too many civilian casualties and that destroying the region’s oil supply would harm the millions living under ISIL control. These policies have been swept away by the attacks on the Russian aircraft and Paris so that what remains of the Syrian oil and oil transport industries is likely to be destroyed by bombing over the next few weeks.

Saudi Arabia/Yemen: The war in Yemen continues to bump along with Saudi airstrikes continuing daily. The UN now puts the casualty count at 5,700 killed. Riyadh is pushing back about the bad press the air strikes are generating and maintains that the Saudi Air Force, trained by the US, takes great care to strike only military targets with smart bombs. The Saudis point out that the only reporting on the bombing is coming from Houthi and kindred sources which naturally say that anybody killed in the air strikes was a harmless civilian. The US has approved the sale of $1.29 billion worth of smart bombs for the Saudi Air Force so that it can continue the air strikes.

Russia’s central bank has warned about the growing risk of Saudi intrusion into Russian oil markets in Europe which takes 70 percent of Moscow’s oil exports. Russia’s “Urals blend” usually sells in Europe at a $2 discount to Brent prices. In recent months, however, the Russians have had to discount their oil by $3.50 a barrel to compete with the Saudis.

The Saudis also are becoming defensive about their strategy of forcing oil prices lower as a means of driving high-cost oil producers, especially in the US, from the market. Last week Saudi Oil Minister Al Naimi reassured a group of oil executives that the demand for oil will continue to grow by 1 million b/d each year for the rest of the decade. He said that the industry must continue to invest to insure an adequate oil supply and that OPEC would work with other oil exporters to stabilize the markets.

3.  China

China’s economy now constitutes some 11 percent of global GDP and 10 percent of world trade. It accounts for 11 percent of world oil demand and 40 to 70 percent of the demand for other key commodities. Its money supply is now about 20 percent of the world’s total.  With numbers like these, there is growing concern that the continuing economic slowdown could lead to a major worldwide economic crisis. Trade with the numerous countries that export to China is already shrinking with the volume of China’s imports down about 4 percent in the first three quarters after having grown at an average of 11 percent each year between 2004 and 2011. The biggest losers are Asian countries; however, Chile and Brazil are not far behind in terms of their total exports that have been going to China.

A new report from Oxford Economics concludes that if China’s slowdown continues on into a “hard landing” the resulting economic dislocation could “shake the world.”

Last week the bad news from China focused on the steel industry as prices fell to record lows, down 37 percent since the beginning of the year. With apparent steel consumption down 6 percent to 590 million tons in the first 10 months of 2015, many steel plants will have to be closed in the coming months leading to widespread economic dislocation. The slowdown in domestic consumption also has resulted in dumping of large quantities of steel abroad. This has led to complaints from steel mills across the world that they cannot compete with the state-subsidized Chinese steel industry. So far there has been much talk but little real action to stop the Chinese dumping, but should export restrictions come if will be even worse for China’s over-built steel industry.

In a surprise move, Beijing cracked down on China’s largest “underground bank” which has handled $64 billion in illegal foreign exchange transactions as the proceeds from corruption and other illegal activity have moved money out of the country. Some 370 people have been arrested or otherwise punished and some 3,000 bank accounts have been frozen showing the scale of the operation.

China’s coal consumption continues to drop, down 4.7 percent in the first 10 months, year on year. The economic losses being suffered by coal producers are up 33 percent so far this year due to lower consumption and falling coal prices.

In 2012, the US and China together were responsible for some 40 percent of global GHG emissions. Although both countries have pledged to lower these numbers, there are concerns whether these pledges will be realized. The US plans to lower emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025 and China says its emissions will peak by 2030. These plans are to be discussed in Paris next month.

4. Russia

As the only outside power having much influence over the Assad government in Syria, it is becoming recognized the Moscow may hold the key to any settlement of the Syrian situation. This shift in perception has resulted in a stronger ruble and a rebound in the Russian stock market for much of last week. The theory is that the EU might be willing to forgive President Putin’s transgressions in Ukraine and support for the Assad government and lift the sanctions on Russia in return for a settlement that would slow the flow of Syrian refugees.

The four-day ruble rally, however, ended on Friday as attention turned to the price of oil which continues to fall and the threat of the Saudis taking market share away from Russia. With the Brent benchmark down by 11 percent in November, the price of Brent in rubles fell to a low of 2,868 well below the 3,323 average for the previous 12 months. The ruble is down 4.1 percent against the dollar and about 30 percent in the past year after the central bank allowed the currency to trade freely.

Russian wages and retail sales continue to decline. Real wages in October fell 10.9 percent from a year earlier. Retail sales were down by 11.7 percent suggesting that Moscow is having a hard time breaking out of its first recession in six years.

5.  The Briefs

World Energy Outlook 2015: In 2013, the global biofuels share of total transport fuels was 3 percent. Under the different scenarios, current policies are projected to lead to biofuels rising to 4 percent in 2025 and 5 percent in 2040. Under its New Policies Scenario the 2025 projections at 4 percent is the same, but the 2040 projection rises to 6 percent. Under the more aggressive 450 Scenario, the 2025 projection is 7 percent and the 2040 projection is 18 percent. (11/16)

The world’s biggest oil companies have doubled down on their promise to protect dividends, despite a precipitous drop in profits this year, driven by a steep decline in oil prices. (11/16)

The British government, joining other major world economies, announced plans to phase coal out of its energy portfolio within the next decade. (11/19)

In the U.K.’s North Sea operations, the cost of dismantling oil production facilities over the next decade will be higher ($25.7 billion) than previously forecast ($22.2 billion) as more fields are scheduled to halt production. Plugging and abandoning wells makes up the biggest part of the decommissioning costs. Over the next decade, 79 out of 470 platforms are forecast for removal in the U.K. continental shelf. (11/18)

Norway’s Statoil is withdrawing from Alaska. Statoil said its exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea couldn’t compete with projects elsewhere. The company, which entered Alaska in February 2008, said it would close its office in Anchorage following recent exploration results in neighboring leases, and exit all its operations in the Chukchi Sea. Weak oil prices are reducing companies’ appetite for high-cost exploration in Arctic frontier areas. (11/18)

In Germany, water levels on the Rhine River are likely to rise above one meter in some places later this week, temporarily easing navigation and enabling oil product importers in Germany and Switzerland to restock supplies from more normally loaded barges. (11/19)

OPEC: Approval of OPEC’s five-year plan has been delayed until 2016, delegates said, since OPEC’s board of governors was unable to agree on the group’s long-term strategy. It won’t be presented to oil ministers when they meet on Dec. 4 in Vienna. (11/18)

The United Arab Emirates may cut government spending as a result of the slump in oil prices. Oil accounted for almost a third of the nation’s gross domestic product last year. (11/16)

Kurdish oil: Denmark’s Maersk Oil said it received approval to start an oil field development plan in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq approved a field development plan for the Swara Tika discovery. (11/18)

Israel must take advantage of a global downturn in the upstream oil and gas industry in order to recruit the engineering specialists it needs to exploit the approximately 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas it found off its coast in 2009 and 2010. (11/20)

The Afghan government said it’s closer to finalizing a deal with a consortium of energy companies that could pave the way for gas exploration and production. As of February 2011, the last full year for which the government has data, there were 34 wells operating in three fields with limited production. (11/21)

In Pakistan, the Asian Development Bank said it was providing more than $1 billion in loans to help address chronic power issues in the country. Pakistan’s aging infrastructure means the country lacks a reliable power sector. The ADB described the status of the power sector in Pakistan as “crippling.” (11/21)

India’s fuel demand touched a five-month high in October as demand for vehicles ahead of the festive season led to a surge in the consumption of diesel and gasoline. Last month passenger car sales jumped 22 percent. (11/17)

China’s government on Wednesday moved to shore up ailing demand for natural gas across its economy with deep pricing cuts aimed at spurring greater use by domestic industry. The cut equaled a 28% reduction in average city-gate prices nationwide. The cuts signal Beijing is serious about weaning its reliance on coal as part of cleaning up China’s economy. (11/19)

Across Africa, oil below $50 has made more than two-thirds of investment projects on the continent non-viable. When six of the 10 biggest global oil discoveries in 2013 were made in Africa, it underlined the potential of the energy riches that had lured myriad companies. Now, African production, already 19 percent below its 2008 peak of 10.2 million barrels a day, is set to drop for a third year. Some nations including Nigeria are proposing increasing royalties at a moment the industry can least bear it. Persuading governments to cut their share of the spoils won’t be easy with the end of the oil boom destabilizing economies as revenue slumps and currencies tank. (11/20)

Kenya’s dry hole: Despite earlier optimism about the reserve potential in frontier African oil and gas basins, Tullow Oil said it came up empty handed in its efforts in Kenya. London-based Tullow said it didn’t find any hydrocarbons worth exploring further at a frontier, or wildcat, well in northern Kenya. (11/18)

In Libya, trading house Glencore has secured a deal to buy as much as half of the oil which the volatile country is currently exporting, market sources said, as it looks to boost trading to help offset flagging profits from mining. (11/21)

Liberia: Countries such as Nigeria and Ghana have awarded a number of exploration blocks offshore and Liberia has followed suit. ExxonMobil plans to begin drilling in late 2016 or early 2017. (11/18)

Nigeria has been hit by a fresh round of fuel shortages after the country’s main fuel marketers were denied credit facilities by banks. (11/19)

Argentina’s Vaca Muerta, one of the more lucrative shale basins in the Americas, could see its production double by 2018, Wood Mackenzie reports, though they also cite 10% growth per year over the next year or two. (11/21)

Brazil’s Petrolbras hasn’t reached its lofty production targets. Instead, it attained a more dubious title: the world’s most-leveraged oil company, with $127.5 billion in debt as of Sept. 30. Now, the bill is coming due. Loans of nearly $24 billion mature in 2016 and 2017. Investors and analysts are fretting about what’s next: repayment, restructuring or default. Petrobras’ total debt at the end of the third quarter was up 44% from the end of 2014. (11/20)

Venezuela’s president ordered a review of ties with Washington after uncovering allegations the United States was spying on employees at the state oil company. (11/20)

Mexico’s secretary of energy said his country submitted a formal request to join the Western-backed International Energy Agency. Energy Secretary Joaquin Coldwell said joining the Paris-based IEA would advance regional interests. (11/18)

In Canada, Suncor Energy plans to spend $6.7-7.3 billion and to produce 525,000-565,000 boe/d in 2016, with a slight decline in annual oil sands output as a result of significant planned maintenance activities scheduled at various facilities. (11/19) The investment would be an increase from about C$6.3 billion this year. (11/18)

Canada’s Suncor, the country’s largest crude producer, is seeking to take advantage of an industry downturn to get even bigger. As competitors struggle or walk away from bitumen production in northern Alberta because of a 60 percent slide in crude prices since June of last year, Suncor is ready to step in with acquisitions, saying they have cracked the code for making money in the notoriously costly region. (11/19)

TransCanada, the Calgary-based pipeline operator, has withdrawn its application in Nebraska for its Keystone XL pipeline.  The company called the move a “pause” while it considers the next steps for the controversial project, which TransCanada said it remained committed to completing despite the Obama administration’s rejection of the pipeline last week at the federal level. (11/19)

The US oil rig count declined by 10 during the week ending Nov. 20, dropping the total to 564, Baker Hughes Inc. said. That is about a third of the 1,574 oil rigs operating in the same week a year ago. (11/21)

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is the biggest government stockpile of oil in the world. Should the U.S. government continue to maintain it? (11/16)

Merger: The American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance agreed to combine, with ANGA becoming a new market development group within API that will continue to promote gas as a clean, affordable energy resource. (11/19)

Shell said it confirmed what it considers a high-value and significant discovery of oil in the deep US waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They describe Kaikias as a high-value opportunity with development potential that could exceed 100 million barrels of oil equivalent recoverable. (11/20)

Chesapeake Energy’s debt tumbled to a record low on Thursday as the price of oil plunged. The company’s $1.1 billion of unsecured notes due in 2017 dropped 12.2 cents to 70.75 cents on the dollar. (11/20)

Bankruptcies: Thirty-seven North American oil and gas producers have filed chapter 11 cases in 2015, according to a law firm. The cases involve $13.1 billion in debt, and industry and economic indicators suggest more producer bankruptcy filings will occur before the year is out. (11/20)

Atlantic offshore dispute: City officials and business leaders visited Washington, D.C., to pressure the White House to keep Atlantic basins off-limits to energy explorers. The National Ocean Industries Association, an industry group, said about 1.34 million barrels of oil equivalent per day could be produced from the Atlantic basin by 2035. (11/21)

Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, the chair of the Senate energy committee, blames President Obama’s policies for the abandonment of offshore oil leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea by Norway’s Statoil as well as the closing of its offices in Anchorage. (11/19)

The US Justice Department said it filed criminal charges in response to a 2012 oil platform incident in the Gulf of Mexico that left three workers dead. Three rig workers were killed following an explosion on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico operated by Black Elk Energy. (11/21)

The number of earthquakes in Oklahoma has soared. In 2011, a string of powerful earthquakes struck near the town of Prague. Geologists eventually linked the quakes to increased oil and natural-gas production in the area—specifically, to the practice of injecting wastewater from hydraulic fracturing into wells deep underground. A resident injured by an earthquake sued companies that operate injection wells in the region. Now it’s up to the courts to decide whether oil and gas drillers should be held liable for those damages. (11/16)

California, like other parts of the United States, has seen a surge in car and truck use over the last two years as a result of strong economic growth, job creation and a big drop in fuel prices. But in recent months, growth in both driving and fuel sales has slowed in the state that consumes 11% of US fuel, pointing to more moderate increases in gasoline and diesel demand. (11/20)

Gasoline demand in the US averaged 9.24 million b/d in the four weeks ended Nov. 13, the highest seasonal level since 2007, according to the EIA. That’s up from 9.06 million a year earlier. For all of 2015, demand is up more than 300,000 barrels a day. (11/20)

NGVs: most of the 150,000 US vehicles running on natural gas are still trucks and buses. One reason is that natural-gas-powered cars need a much bigger fuel tank, limiting storage space. Now scientists at U.C. Berkeley and other institutions have come up with a new technology to pack more natural gas into a small space without the very high pressure or very low temperatures that are normally required. (11/21)

Several gasoline and distillate shippers are gearing up to fight Colonial Pipeline’s newest proposed tariff, saying a revised version will still squash competition and curb access to the critical artery that moves millions of barrels per day to the US Northeast from the Gulf Coast. One opponent said that a key provision in the tariff would shut out many small shippers while favoring bigger ones. (11/19)

The takeover of Simmons & Co. by Piper Jaffray Cos. for $139 million marks the end of an energy industry dealmaker founded by one of the leading champions of the “peak oil” theory, Matthew R. Simmons. (11/20; for more, see Commentary)

The EPA proposed tougher new limits on Tuesday on smokestack emissions from nearly two dozen states that burden downwind areas with air pollution from power plants they can’t control. (11/18)

Wind energy is becoming a “mainstream power source,” accounting for 31 percent of all new electricity capacity added to the US grid between 2008 and last year, according to a US DOE report. Wind now provides 4.4 percent of total US electricity generation. As of last year, there were 65,000 MW of land-based wind power on the grid and another 13,600 MW is under construction. Longer turbine blades and taller towers are making wind technology more efficient and cost-competitive.  (11/20)

Hydrogen: European university researchers have achieved the proof-of-principle for an innovative technique to extract hydrogen from methane without the formation of CO2 as a byproduct.  Solid black carbon in high quality powder form is a byproduct of the process and has market value, which will lower the system costs. (11/20)

The cost of batteries is falling to the point that they are becoming an increasingly viable option for uses such as supporting the stability of power grids, according to Lazard, the investment bank.  Electricity storage has until recently been prohibitively expensive, but its emergence at an economically viable cost will enable increased use of wind and solar power, which are not always available.

Easier AC: It is difficult for a power grid, especially in developing countries, to handle large amounts of air-conditioning. A good solution for slowing the growth of electricity peaks is to use thermal solar AC. This technology directly uses solar heat to produce cooling and drying, instead of attempting to convert it to electricity. AC demands and solar energy supply coincide forming a perfect combination of demand and availability. As opposed to PV solar cells which typically convert less than 20% of the sun’s energy to electricity, an AC using thermal solar power could harness up to 60% of the sun’s radiated energy. (11/18)

Egypt’s foreign-currency crunch has solar developers concerned about financing new power plants. The political upheaval has scared away outside investors and tourists, and Egypt’s foreign reserves have dwindled to $16.6 billion, less than half 2010 levels. (11/20)