The big Brent recovery as Iran sanctions loom
RIYADH (Arab News): At the close of last week, the Brent crude price had risen to $75.82 a barrel, with WTI (Nymex) also up. Oil prices rose amid the fall in US crude inventories by 5.84 million barrels, the biggest drop in four weeks. Cushing, Oklahoma inventories were at multi-year lows, 40 million barrels down since mid-May. This was attributed to record-high US refining use amid healthy refining margins, and the summer driving season’s robust demand. Also, there has been a disruption of Syncrude production in Alberta since June.
The recovery in oil prices last week was also due to a tightening market as a result of the upcoming Iranian oil supply disruption. Further tightening in the market came as S&P Global Platts figures showed sharply lower oil exports from Iran for the first half of August, down to 1.68 million barrels per day compared to July exports that averaged 2.32 million barrels per day.
In addition to the lack of upstream investment and new technologies, as the European oil supermajors have walked away from investing in Iranian upstream projects, Iran’s old oil fields are operating under severe production constraints and despite any cutback in exports, those fields will not be mothballed. Instead they will keep pumping oil at a slow and steady pace. Iran will return to the 2012–2015 scenario, where it accumulated crude in floating storage vessels waiting for sanctions to end. This is the only way Iran can maintain production from its old wells. While Iran will still be producing, there will be fewer buyers.
Together, China and India have been the two largest purchasers of Iranian crude at about 1.2 million barrels per day. Unlike during the previous 2012-2015 sanction period, both China and India are trying in advance to navigate to other suppliers to partially replace Iranian crude. During the previous sanctions, China and India slightly trimmed their Iranian oil imports, but oil-to-goods swaps continued. When Iran had fewer customers both nations benefited from deeper discounts and took advantage of better terms. These trade swaps took years to settle.
It’s already clear that China and India are adopting different strategies in regard to Iranian oil. China is one of the biggest buyers of US oil exports. However, given the current China-US trade dispute, the Asian giant does not want to lose its Iranian crude imports. China has already been hit with the loss of Venezuelan crude, due to the collapse of production in the beleaguered South American nation. Now, China is indicating that it is still willing to purchase crude from Iran, even going so far as to switch to shipping the crude on vessels owned by the National Iranian Tanker Co.
On the other hand, India needs to maintain easy access to the US financial system and to do so it must aim to comply with the US sanctions policy. Like China, India has also lost access to 300,000 barrels per day of crude from Venezuela. It is aiming to purchase more oil from the US, Mexico, Azerbaijan and the Arabian Gulf, but replacing nearly 600,000 barrels per day of Iranian crude is a major undertaking. It seems that the economies of China and India are both vulnerable to the tightening oil market and uncertainties over supplies later this year, when US sanctions against Iran will start to bite.