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Quotes of the Week

“The situation is worse than it was in 2007. Our macroeconomic ammunition to fight downturns is essentially all used up. Debts have continued to build up over the last eight years and they have reached such levels in every part of the world that they have become a potent cause for mischief. It will become obvious in the next recession that many of these debts will never be serviced or repaid, and this will be uncomfortable for a lot of people who think they own assets that are worth something. The only question is whether we are able to look reality in the eye and face what is coming in an orderly fashion, or whether it will be disorderly. Debt jubilees have been going on for 5,000 years, as far back as the Sumerians.”

William White, chairman, OECD’s review committee; former chief economist, Bank for International Settlements

“So much of the frenzy in shale in the past few years was a result of the money pouring out of Wall Street.  It was as much a Wall Street play as it was an oil-and-gas play. It was putting money to work. Companies took on all that risk and now we see the result [–bankruptcies].”

Terry Clark, White Marlin Oil & Gas Co.

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

1.  Oil and the Global Economy

Oil prices touched 12 year lows of just above $27 a barrel on Wednesday and then rebounded sharply to close above $32 on Friday. Other than the major east coast snowstorm in the US and the expectation there would be more demand for heating oil, there was no significant news to touch off the rebound other than traders feeling there was not much downside for oil prices left and that it was time to take profits. The rapid rebound was helped by the record size of the short positions held by hedge funds. As these were liquidated, the rebound accelerated to gain some 21 percent from the Wednesday lows.  Hints by the European Central Bank last week that there could be a further stimulus coming also supported the move.

Analysts and investment banks warned, however, that there is no fundamental reason to expect higher prices in the immediate future and that lower prices than were touched on Wednesday remain a possibility. The IEA warned last week that the oil markets could “drown in oversupply” once Iranian production begins to increase. The Bank of Montreal says it may be three years before the markets come into balance and prices start to rise significantly. There is still not much good economic news from the world’s main oil consumers and many expect consumption to slip further in the immediate future. Even the leading technical analysts are skeptical that we have seen this year’s lows as yet, terming the price jump last week a classic “dead cat bounce.”

As was expected, US crude inventories grew by 4 million barrels last week and gasoline stocks climbed by 4.6 million barrels.  Total products supplied by US refiners were down 1.8 percent from last year and gasoline consumption was down by 2.8 percent. The giant snow storm that shut down much of the east coast over the weekend, which climate scientists say was helped along by unusually warm water in the North Atlantic, will not do much to help with gasoline consumption this week.

The debate over whether we have enough space to store all the crude that is being sent into inventory continues with Reuters telling us that some 230 million barrels of new storage capacity will be completed this year.  Half of it, however, is in new Chinese strategic reserve sites not normally accessible for commercial use. The Chinese, however, are supposed to be building some 40 million barrels’ worth of new commercial space for their privately owned “teapot” refineries in Shandong province which are now allowed to import oil for the first time. There is also supposed to be at least 100 million barrels worth of space left in commercial storage tanks around the world. A lot of this “free” space however, is in inland facilities and salt caverns which are not normally used for temporary storage of commercial oil. Crude stocks at Cushing, Okla., up 191,000 barrels last week, are now around 70 percent of capacity, the level considered the practical maximum by the industry. While there is storage space available, it is not necessarily where people can make use of it. The question of whether a space shortage will drive prices lower in the coming year or so remains open.

Fears of epic debt defaults within the oil industry and elsewhere continue to rise. A leading monetary theorist has warmed the avalanche of bankruptcies that are coming will test the social and political fabric as the the global financial system becomes increasingly unstable. European banks have already admitted that they have $1 trillion in non-performing loans and Wall Street has its problems with defaults mounting in the US shale oil industry. The size of China’s debt is becoming legendary. Whether all this can be managed in an orderly fashion in the next few years is a critical question. The talk at the Davos conference this week is that oil prices could be “a lot lower for a lot longer.”

2.  The Middle East & North Africa

Iran:  Despite much brave talk on the part of Iran’s leaders that that new era is at hand and they will soon be exporting another million barrels a day, many are skeptical about how quickly Tehran can increase exports. The Iranians do have existing contracts with several major Asian oil buyers, but have been shut off from European markets for the last three years due to the sanctions. While the major sanctions forbidding importation of Iranian oil have been lifted, there are still many secondary sanctions, especially those imposed by the US, which may be a problem for insurance companies and bankers. Few large companies are willing to run afoul of US regulations which could ban them from doing business with the US for doing business with Iranian firms still being sanctioned.

The US has sanctions on much of Iran’s Republican Guard for a variety of actions it has taken over the years. Unfortunately for Tehran, the Guard not only guarantees the security of the state, but is also involved with many of the Iran’s most lucrative economic activities. There is a danger that companies could find themselves banned from doing business with the US in return for supplying insurance, banking, or other services to Iranian firms which turn out to be controlled by the Republican Guard. These issues may take considerable time to clarify. Some analysts are saying the Tehran may not be able to export much more than another 350,000 b/d this year no matter what the size of its discounts.

Iran’s problem become even trickier when Tehran tries to attract large foreign investments to upgrade its oil industry. As the Sunni-Shiite conflict intensifies, Iran may find that its deep involvement in numerous Middle Eastern conflicts will deter many from investing in its economy out of fears that there may be retaliation from the much larger community of Sunni Arab states, or that sanctions might be re-imposed for some misstep on Tehran’s part.

Syria/Iraq: Last week left mixed results in Syria none of which were good for a swift end to the civil war. In the West, Syrian forces with the help of heavy Russian bombing retook the last rebel-held town in Latikia province, removing the pressure on the Assad government. In the East, however, the Islamic State continued the attack to take the major government-held city Deir al-Zour which has a population of 200,000. The Observatory says both sides are suffering heavy losses in the siege of the city. The loss of Deir al-Zour to ISIL would be a major blow to the Assad government and to perceptions concerning Moscow’s intervention. So far the major result of the four-month Russian bombing campaign, which may be killing more civilians by indiscriminate bombing than actual rebel fighters, is to insure that the Assad government will not be driven from power by the uprising and to insure that the civil war can continue indefinitely.

As oil plays a decreasing role in the Syrian situation, except to the extent the remnants of Syria’s oil production keeps the Islamic State functioning, it is a fair question as just why the situation is of concern from a peak oil perspective. Nearly all the major players in the Middle East, including its major oil producers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, are deeply involved in Syria, as are the US, EU, Russia, Turkey, and Israel. The refugee flood into Europe as millions of Syrians are being driven from their homes is beginning to tear at the political fabric of the EU and is even reverberating into the US presidential elections. As long as this situation continues to deteriorate, it threatens oil exports from the region — as is already happening in Libya.

The Pentagon and its coalition, which is much more careful in carrying out air strike strikes than Moscow or the Assad government, says it has killed more than 25,000 ISIL fighters in 18 months of air strikes and that the numbers are increasing. While many of these fighters have been replaced by recruitment or impressment of more fighters from the millions living in territory under ISIL control, US officers say there is a noticeable decline in the quality and dedication of the ISIL fighters. Turkey and other countries are making efforts to stem the flow of highly motivated foreigners into the conflict. The US says it is making preparations for a major push by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake Mosel this year.

Genel Energy which is deeply involved in Kurdish oil production says that low oil prices are becoming a major problem for the company’s profitability and for the Kurdish government, which depends on oil for nearly all its revenue.  Baghdad expects that it will be able to increase production by 400,000 b/d this year, despite the lifting of the sanctions on Iran.

Libya: The situation in Libya clearly is moving again. Last week 32 people were nominated to serve as cabinet members in a new Libyan unity government. These individuals still need to be approved by the parliament sitting in Tobruk. The US and its allies in Europe have begun to step up intelligence activities in Libya in anticipation of bombing and commando raids against the Islamic State which now controls about 150 miles of Libyan coastline extending out from Sirte. Last week the Islamic State’s forces attacked and damaged more oil storage tanks at the Ras Lanuf oil export terminal. Four tanks were set on fire as was a pipeline linking the tanks to the Amal oil field.

With pressure on the Islamic state increasing in Iraq and Syria, many of its foreign recruits are being directed to Libya where as yet there is no military pressure against the organization. It appears that this is about to change and the US and Europe are preparing for a military intervention against the 3,000 or so jihadists operating in the country.

Saudi Arabia/Yemen:

The anarchy in Yemen continues with ISIL car bombing having killed some 25 officials in Aden during the past month. Saudi bombings of Houthi-held towns, including the capital of Sana, continue to kill and injure dozens including many civilians. The new animosities between the Saudis and Iran have lessened the possibility of a negotiated end to the civil war which seems destined to go on indefinitely. The latest mediation efforts by Pakistan have been rejected. The Yemen war is estimated to be costing the Saudis some $200 million a day to support the bombing campaign and the foreign mercenaries it has recruited to fight the Houthis. Riyadh can ill afford this expenditure considering the size of the deficits it is running.

Saudi oil exports climbed to a seven-month high of 7.7 million b/d in November as the need for oil to support domestic air conditioning declined and refineries normally buying Saudi oil came back online from maintenance.

Rumors are increasing that 80-year King Salman is suffering from dementia and has increasing trouble functioning. This situation has raised questions as to how soon there will be a new king and whether he will be the 55-year old crown prince bin Nayef, favorite of the US or possibly the deputy crown prince and son of the current king, 29-year old Mohammad bin Salman.  It is too early to talk about the possibility of an intra royal family conflict over a successor to the king which could lead to serious consequences for the country and its oil exports; however, the issue looms in the background.

3.  China

Chinese economic growth remains at the top of the concern list not only for the oil industry, but for much of the global economy.  Last week Beijing announced that its GDP growth rate for the 4th quarter was down to 6.8 percent and for the year was down to 6.9 percent. Given the importance of these numbers to the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party and its ability to govern, it is doubtful if any lower growth rates will be announced in the immediate future, despite many indications that it is actually much lower.

Recent gyrations in Chinese equity markets are also raising concerns about the outlook for China’s economy although some see little relationship in what happens in the stock markets as compared to actual economic progress. Many see the stock markets driven by government announcements of the latest stimulus plan as opposed to corporate profitability. In general, companies do not depend on the equity markets for their financing which either comes directly from the state or through bank loans. Some see China’s stock markets as a way for the government to soak up excess spending power from the general public.

China’s economic slowdown is raising concerns among those countries which send a major share of their exports to China. Beijing consumes about 50 percent of some raw materials so any slowdown can have a major impact. Most vulnerable are those countries that have made major investments in the belief that Chinese firms would always be reliable customers for their exports. Sales in China account for some 15 to 30 percent of the earnings of German automobile companies. The recent anti-extravagance campaign is killing the sales of Cognac producers, one of which makes a third of its profit from Chinese sales.

In the oil news, one of China’s private “teapot” refineries recently ordered two crude cargoes worth $50 million from European traders. When the tankers arrived off the Chinese coast, the company found it was unable to secure the credit to pay for the shipments which had to be sent elsewhere.  This incident is increasing concerns about dealing with other than the large state-owned Chinese oil companies which do not have cash flow problems. The Chinese National Overseas Oil Co, which is the largest offshore oil company in China, announced that it is cutting its output for the first time since 1999 due to the low oil prices.  This is in line with what nearly all the large international oil companies are doing.

4. Russia/Ukraine

The ruble had a rather wild ride last week, falling below the 80 ruble to the dollar psychological threshold to touch 86, the lowest level on record. The ruble then rebounding along with oil prices on Thursday and Friday to close out the week at 78. Moscow abandoned supporting the ruble in 2014 after spending many billions of dollars trying to support it in the face of collapsing oil prices. Since then the Bank of Russia has said that it would only support the ruble if there are risks to the government’s financial stability. The Bank reacted to the sharp decline in the ruble last week as if it were a normal development and and did not seem worried about new lows against the dollar being touched. Oil companies and others with large export earnings are forced to make large conversions of dollars and euros into rubles at the end of each month in order to pay taxes. These large conversions usually give the ruble a nice bump.

Protests are rising across Russia as the government cuts pensions and senior subsidies in an effort to balance the budget. Many workers and retirees have been badly hurt by the rampant inflation that has taken place partly due to the sanctions imposed on Russia for its Ukrainian venture. Food prices were officially rose by 20 percent last year, but many say the true number is closer to 33 percent. Retail sales across Russia dropped by 13 percent in the year ending in November and new car sales are off 40 percent – but sales of Rolls Royces were up by 5 percent as the rich continue to spend. It is traditional in Russia for companies to cut working hours or simply stop paying workers in hard times. This keeps them officially employed and reduces the chances of social unrest.

In December, President Putin said the worst of the recession which shrank the economy by 3.9 percent and pushed inflation up to 12.5 percent was over and that 2016 would be a better year with modest growth returning. Putin has been looking at the oil price collapse as an opportunity to diversify Russia’s economy which, while not as bad as most oil exporting states, is still dependent on oil and gas sales for 50 percent of state revenues. Russia increased its oil production slightly last year, reduced some spending and is relying on its reserves to keep it going until oil prices recover.  It will be interesting to see if a deepening economic crisis brings about any changes in Russia’s newly aggressive foreign policy.

5.  The Briefs

The IEA’s executive director Fatih Birol said 2016 will be the third year in a row the world will have more oil supply than demand.  He said prices will remain under pressure. He doesn’t see any reason why we will have a surprise increase in the price in 2016. (1/19)

EIA forecast: The global market likely won’t pull away from the current supply side excess until at least 2017 as crude oil lingers in storage.  Adam Sieminski, the head of the EIA, told U.S. lawmakers the first draw of global inventories isn’t expected until the third quarter of 2017, which would mark 15 straight quarters of a build. (1/21)

Moody’s Investors Service has placed the ratings of 120 oil & gas companies around the world on review for downgrade, the rating agency said in a statement. The reviews reflect a mix of declining prices that are near multi-year lows, weakening demand and a prolonged period of oversupply that will continue to significantly stress the credit profiles of companies in the oil & gas sector. (1/23)

Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Statoil, three of Europe’s biggest oil producers, were among more than 100 energy companies whose credit ratings were placed on review for possible downgrade by Moody’s Investors Service. (1/22)

Royal Dutch Shell said it expects fourth quarter profits to come in at around 50 percent lower year-on-year as the industry continues to suffer from the dramatic declines in crude oil prices. There’s a durable sense of weakness in the oil economy and, while recovery is expected, it’s uncertain when, Royal Dutch Shell said Wednesday. (1/21)

The IMF cut its world growth outlook to 3.4% from 3.6% last October, as the commodities slump and political gridlock push Brazil deeper into recession, plunging oil prices hobble Mideast crude producers, and the rising dollar curbs U.S. prospects. (1/19)

The European Commission has decided not to include plans for centralized natural gas buying in its revised draft EU gas supply security regulation, which is expected to be proposed on February 10. (1/22)

The pace of drilling in the North Sea, the center of UK oil production for the past 40 years, has sunk to a record low as crashing energy prices force explorers to abandon costly projects. Just 63 percent of oil and gas rigs in the UK North Sea were being used as of Jan. 19, according to data provider RigLogix. That’s the lowest since the Houston-based company started tracking their operation in 2000. In the Norwegian North Sea, the 71 percent rate is also the worst on record. (1/22)

Norway’s Statoil said Tuesday it had almost halved the planned capital expenditure at the delayed Johan Castberg oil field in the Barents Sea to around $6 billion, as oil companies scramble to simplify projects and cut costs amid tanking prices. The company said it had chosen to develop the field with a floating production, storage and offloading vessel, or FPSO, and load the oil directly onto oil tankers rather than piping it to shore. (1/20)

Schlumberger will cut 10,000 more jobs from its current 95,000 staff due to ongoing cancellations of projects by customers.  The world’s largest oilfield services company disclosed on Thursday a $1bn loss for the final quarter of 2015.  The latest wave of cuts means Schlumberger will have axed 34,000 employees, or 26 per cent of its original workforce, since November 2014. (1/22)

Total said it reached an agreement to transfer 20 percent of its stake in a production sharing contract for the Kharyaga operation in Russia to state-controlled oil company Kharyaga.  Kharyaga would take a 40 percent stake and serve as the operator. The French energy company said the project near the Arctic north of Russia has produced around 110 million barrels of oil and generated $3 billion in revenue for the country since the start of operations in 1999. Average production from the two development regions within the Kharyaga oil field is around 30,000 barrels of oil per day. (1/22)

Russian energy company Gazprom is proposing to supply Russian LNG to Pakistan’s newly constructed LNG terminal and associated pipeline infrastructure at the port city of Gwadar near the Iranian border. The facility, the country’s first and built with Chinese assistance, went into service in May 2015. (1/22)

Offshore Australia: after years of delays, cost overruns and labor unrest, Chevron’s $54 billion Gorgon LNG project faces another challenge: the weakest energy prices in more than a decade. As Chevron prepares to start exports, oil prices — which traditionally determine the value of LNG shipments — are languishing near 12-year lows. The project will add to a wave of new supply, including the first deliveries from the U.S., amid weakening demand. Gorgon highlights the challenge of investing in major energy projects amid unpredictable and volatile prices. Brent crude has more than halved since Chevron decided to go ahead with the development in 2009, and its cost has ballooned to $54 billion from $37 billion. (1/23)

Malaysia’s state-oil firm Petronas is planning to slash as much as $11.4 billion in capital and operating expenditure over the next four years, according to an internal memo. (1/19)

In Iran, the next phase of development for the giant South Pars natural-gas field will start producing in February, Petropars, the state-owned company that runs it said. Phase 19 of the field initially will produce 11 million cubic meters a day and be earmarked for domestic consumption. South Pars, an offshore field in the Persian Gulf divided between Iran and Qatar, is the world’s largest natural-gas field not associated with crude oil. (1/21)

Saudi Arabia shipped 7.72 million b/day, the most oil in seven months in November in a sign that overseas refineries were getting prepared to put plants back on line after seasonal maintenance. (1/19)

The Iraqi oil ministry has reduced the local retail price of high octane gasoline from $0.87 to $0.69/liter to reflect the lower cost of importing it, the government said on Sunday. (1/18)

M.E. renewables: Why are the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf region announcing ambitious plans for renewable energy when the fossil fuels they produce are so cheap? It’s all about water. Water is a very expensive commodity in this part of the world and extensively used in the energy sector.  Increasing renewables generation can substantially reduce water withdrawal. (1/20)

Egypt: earlier this month, BP’s diversion of a tanker of liquefied natural gas (LNG) away from Egypt to Brazil due to payment issues is the first sign that the country’s currency crisis could be jeopardizing its energy supplies. (1/22)

For Nigeria, the lifting of sanctions against Iran could take up Nigeria’s share of oil exports to India. (1/19)

In Nigeria, the state oil company is shutting down two of the country’s four refineries because militant attacks on pipelines have affected their supplies. The refineries had recently reopened following months of inactivity. (1/21)

Offshore Ghana: Britain’s Tullow Oil is sending one of the world’s biggest floating deep-water oil production platforms to West Africa to pump crude for at least 20 years. With costs (operating plus capital expenditure) of around $20 per barrel and an expected production life of 20 years or more, Tullow hopes it can weather the lowest oil prices in 13 years. (1/22)

Venezuela’s opposition refused on Friday to approve President Nicolas Maduro’s “economic emergency” decree in Congress, saying it offered no solutions for the OPEC nation’s increasingly disastrous recession. Underlining the grave situation in Venezuela, the International Monetary Fund on Friday forecast an 8 percent drop in gross domestic product and 720 percent inflation this year. (1/23)

Venezuela default coming? Farmers brought parts of Uruguay to a standstill this week demanding the government help them recover unpaid bills from Venezuela in the latest sign that the crisis-ravaged South American country may soon renege on it debts.  In spite of Venezuela’s socialist President Maduro reassuring bond investors that he will make good on more than $10bn of payments this year, economists say default is “practically inevitable.” (1/23)

In Mexico, the drop in their crude oil prices this week to around $20 a barrel is likely to put pressure on an already tight budget of state oil company Pemex, while government revenue is protected at least this year by oil price hedges.  Pemex, which produces 2.27 million barrels a day of crude oil, has an investment budget this year equivalent to $16.3 billion at the current exchange rate and down from $23.5 billion in 2015.  But the fall in Mexico’s export crude price, which dipped below $19 on Wednesday and sent the Mexican peso to new lows against the U.S. dollar, raises concerns that Pemex may have to make further cutbacks. (1/23)

Canada’s biggest oil sands producers, which have stubbornly resisted halting output even as the price of their crude hits record lows, are planning a higher-than-normal maintenance schedule this year The move is seen temporarily curbing supply in the second and third quarters, which should lift crude prices in the region and give producers a respite from selling their barrels below cash costs. (1/23)

The U.S. total rig count declined by 13 for the week ended January 22.  Oil rigs declined by 5 to 510 while gas rigs dropped 8 to 127.

US exports: The first oil tanker to sail from the US after restrictions were lifted on the country’s crude exports has arrived in Europe three weeks later. The most likely ultimate destination for the oil is the Cressier refinery in Switzerland operated by a Vitol and Carlyle joint venture. (1/21)

The Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s energy regulator, reported crude oil production for November at 70.9 million barrels per day, about 4 million barrels, or 5 percent, lower than for the month of October. (1/23)

Hurting: Across oil fields from Texas to North Dakota fears are growing that crude’s plunge below $30 a barrel is more than just another market milestone and marks a countdown to an endgame for many shale producers that so far have braved the 18-month downturn. Many of around 50 listed U.S. independent oil producers and scores of smaller ones need $40-$60 a barrel to break even. A longer spell of $30 oil will confront them with stark choices: bankruptcy, debt write-downs in return for deep concessions to creditors, or fire sales of assets at a time when potential buyers are skittish. (1/21)

Negative oil price? Flint Hills Resources said it would pay negative $0.50 a barrel Friday for North Dakota Sour, a high-sulfur grade of crude. That’s down from $13.50 a barrel a year ago and $47.60 in January 2014. The negative price is due to the lack of pipeline capacity for a particular variety of ultra-low-quality crude. (1/18)

Southwestern Energy Co. on Thursday announced a sweeping workforce-reduction plan that will lay off or reduce the roles of about 45% of the company’s employees as it struggles with plummeting fuel prices. The move will affect about 1,100 employees. The filing cited “anticipated lower drilling” and the company said it had no drilling rigs in operation at the start of 2016. (1/22)

Chesapeake Energy Corp. fell to the lowest since April 2000, making it the worst-performing stock in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index Tuesday, on investor concern that sinking oil prices would hurt the company’s ability to repay debt. The stock hit $2.96 per share, down 84% year over year. (1/20)

Methane releases: The Interior Department proposed rules Friday to cut methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations on federal lands, the latest move in President Barack Obama ’s climate change agenda. The rules are aimed at helping meet an administration goal of cutting the oil and gas industry’s emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by as much as 45% from 2012 levels over the next decade. (1/23)

The American Petroleum Institute said the upstream energy sector was in decline, with completed wells down 51 percent year-over-year, and it was restrictive regulations that were to blame.  API argues for policies which reduce unnecessary regulations and speed up permitting on federal lands. (1/21)

In Oklahoma, after days of negotiations with regulators, embattled oil producer Sandridge Energy Inc. has agreed to shut down several wells used to dispose of wastewater that had been linked to earthquakes in the state. By early February, Sandridge will stop using seven wells. Three will be closed entirely; the other four, plus another previously unused well, will be given over for earthquake research. Sandridge also agreed to reduce the amount of wastewater injected into roughly 40 other wells. (1/21)

US drivers continue to see gas prices drop, though the rate of declines are leveling off with prices only 18 cents less than this date last year. Motor club AAA reports a national average retail price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline at $1.87. (1/21)

Coal vs. gas: Last year looks like it was an unwelcome watershed for the embattled U.S. coal industry. Power companies in 2015 for the first time may have burned more natural gas than coal to generate electricity, according to analysts who attribute it to the cheapest gas prices in 16 years and a record number of coal-fired plants retired from service because of the high cost of meeting environmental regulations. (1/21)

Carbon battle: A federal appeals court on Thursday declined to temporarily block a key Obama administration environmental rule to limit carbon emissions from power plants, rejecting requests by states and companies that wanted the regulation halted while they challenged it in court. (1/22)