Saudi Arabia Faces Oil Supply Juggling Act After Vienna Cut Pledge

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Written by Argus Media, a member of the Aspect Partner Program and an independent media organization that produces price assessments and analysis of international energy and commodity markets. 

Saudi Arabia will do the heavy lifting for OPEC in the 1.2mn b/d OPEC/non-OPEC production cut that takes effect in January.

Under the new agreement with 10 non-OPEC producing countries led by Russia, OPEC will cut output by 800,000 b/d below the group’s officially announced October production of 32.9mn b/d for an initial period of six months. The non-OPEC countries will contribute a cut of 400,000 b/d for the same period. This is equivalent to a cut of 595,000 b/d over the whole year, or 217mn bl.

Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Khalid al-Falih had signaled earlier that a cut of 1mn b/d over nine months would be “adequate” to stabilize the market, amid signs that a growing crude surplus next year will weigh on prices. Front month Ice Brent fell by over $24/bl between 1 October and 6 December, to $60.06/bl. But it rose to $61.74/bl in Singapore on 10 December after news of the deal, and the discount of front month February to March shrank by around 10¢/bl.

Saudi Arabia will cut oil production to 10.2mn b/d next month, oil minister Khalid al-Falih said on December 7th. This is an implied reduction of 400,000 b/d from production of 10.62mn b/d in October, the baseline for cuts agreed in Vienna. Iraq will make the next biggest OPEC cut, of 140,000 b/d from its October baseline of 4.65mn b/d. China took a record 1.1mn b/d from Iraq in October. Non-OPEC Russia will cut just 228,000 b/d, or 2pc of its October production of 11.4mn b/d, Russian oil minister Alexander Novak said. Russia has been sending increasing amounts of medium sour Urals to China in addition to baseload ESPO Blend, and became the country’s largest supplier in October.

State-owned Saudi Aramco hopes to become China’s main crude supplier by 500,000-600,000 b/d next year, as it ramps up supply to the new Dalian Changxing and ZPC refineries. Achieving this goal while cutting production globally may require significant reductions in supply to markets other than China, such as the US.

Aramco announced steep cuts to formula prices for buyers in Asia-Pacific while hiking prices for buyers in the US and Europe ahead of the Vienna summit, which is likely to discourage crude purchases by buyers outside of Asia-Pacific. Saudi’s price cut — Mideast Gulf markers Platts Dubai physical and DME Oman futures remain in backwardation, with prompt prices above forward values — surprised buyers in China. But backwardation shrank by over 90¢/bl between October and November, its largest monthly average swing since August 2016, sending a signal to Riyadh that markets in Asia-Pacific were increasingly well-supplied.

And Aramco cut formula prices for lighter grades such as its Super Light and Arab Light more than for grades such as Arab Heavy, reflecting the present strength in demand for fuel oil. Fuel oil is trading at a premium to Dubai crude in Singapore for the first time since mid-2017. Saudi Arabia will implement pledged output cuts across all export grades in January-June 2019, al Falih said, as the premium it once could attract for lighter grades “is vanishing fast”.

Agreement nearly eluded the OPEC and non-OPEC Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee (JMMC). Qatar announced ahead of the meeting that it will resign its OPEC membership next year. Since June 2017, the country has been embroiled in a diplomatic spat with several of its Gulf Co-operation Council neighbors, including OPEC linchpin Saudi Arabia, fellow OPEC member the UAE and Bahrain. And Libya, Venezuela and Iran sought exemptions from any future production quotas amid disruptions to exports. Venezuelan production fell to 1mn b/d this month — it has lost 300,000 b/d of output in the last six months, Argus estimates. The last-minute 7 December deal exempts Iran, Venezuela and Libya from reducing their output because “special circumstances” have reduced their output.