Supplement, Oil & Energy

Oil flood from OPEC fight to strain world’s tanks

Published : 14 Mar 2020 09:26 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 09:11 PM

The oil-price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia is set to unleash the biggest flood of crude ever seen, perhaps more than the world can even store, report agencies. 

As producers ramp up shipments in a battle for dominance of global markets, and the coronavirus crushes demand, more than a billion extra barrels could flow into storage tanks. That could strain the available space and send oil prices crashing further, with brutal consequences for the petroleum industry and producing nations.

“I don’t see how you don’t exhaust global storage capacity, if this goes on until summer at the production numbers being talked about,” said Jeffrey Currie, global head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The feud between Riyadh and Moscow has already inflicted a heavy toll.

Oil prices have slumped 32%, to about $34 a barrel, since the two exporters fell out over how to deal with the virus, severing the global alliance of producers they’d led for three years and launching a competition to offer customers the steepest discounts. The rout has driven American shale drillers such as Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Apache Corp. to cut dividends and spending.

The looming glut may still be held in check: President Donald Trump promised to take oil off the market on Friday by filling up the U.S. strategic reserve. Producers could take months to fully activate the idle assets they need to flood the market. And as low crude prices batter the two belligerents’ economies, a “truce” will probably be reached, according to Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup Inc. But if hostilities continue, the tide of oil is likely to become a tsunami.

Saudi Arabia announced it will supply record volumes, of more than 12 million barrels a day next month, and the United Arab Emirates will push oil fields beyond their normal capacity to bolster output by about a third. Russia will add 500,000 barrels a day, while others in the fractured OPEC+ coalition, such as Iraq and Nigeria, also plan production increases. 

If storage is maxed out, oil prices will likely fall until producers with the highest operating costs, most probably American shale drillers, are forced to halt output. Or the loss of revenues could strain one of the more politically-fragile producing nations -- such as Venezuela or Iran -- to breaking point. U.S. shale production “won’t really start dropping until the end of the year,” said Paola Rodriguez-Masiu, an analyst at consultant Rystad Energy AS in Oslo. “So the market will be completely saturated.”

Global supply is already exceeding demand at an unprecedented rate of 3.5 million barrels a day, due to the impact of the coronavirus, according to the International Energy Agency, which advises major economies. Once the OPEC+ nations increase supply, the surplus will balloon in the second quarter, to more than 6 million a day, Bloomberg calculations show. Goldman Sachs anticipates stock builds of a similar magnitude. By the end of the year, more than 1 billion extra barrels will have been dumped onto world markets.

In total, global crude inventories stand to expand by 1.7 billion barrels this year, according to Bloomberg’s calculations, about three times as much as during the biggest-ever surplus recorded by the IEA. That was in 1998, when Brent fell to an all-time low of less than $10 a barrel.

About 65% of the world’s total 5.7 billion barrels of oil-storage is currently in use, according to energy data provider Kayrros SAS. At current rates the theoretical limits, which are somewhat below the full figure, could be approached in just over a year, the company estimates.

“The fill rate that we are experiencing now is totally unprecedented,” said Antoine Halff, Kayrros’ chief analyst. “But even at this staggering pace, we are not running out of storage altogether. On paper, we still have some runway.”

For oil traders, there are opportunities to earn massive profits by hoarding barrels and then exploiting the difference between low short-term and higher long-term prices. Vitol Group, the largest independent trading house, has leased tanks in South Korea that could be used to take advantage of the price spread.

As tanks on land are exhausted, companies will increasingly use supertankers at sea to accommodate the excess, said Rodriguez-Masiu. The cost for storing crude on such vessels has doubled in the past three months, E.A. Gibson ship brokers estimates. But when there’s no longer anywhere to put unwanted barrels, oil producers will have no choice but to reduce operations. 

“At some point the oil price will have to drop in such a way that makes it uneconomical for producers in the U.S. to keep pumping oil,” she said. As many of these companies have locked in revenues by selling futures contracts as a hedge, the production slowdown probably won’t occur until the end of year, Rodriguez-Masiu said. For some of the countries that rely on high oil prices to fund government spending, that may be too late.

Even before the latest crisis, prices were challenging for the “fragile five” OPEC members of Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and Venezuela, said Helima Croft, head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets LLC. Iran, facing the twin onslaught of American sanctions and depressed oil prices, is now high on the list of the vulnerable. “This is a catastrophe for the fragile five,” she said. “It’s now become the shaky six.”