We're a Lot Less Together in the Oil World than We Used to Be, According to the IEA Outlook


"Interdependence has been a consistent theme in oil for many years, the idea being that even a small supply disruption in one part of the globe can have an impact thousands of miles away. Say goodbye to that notion."

Interdependence has been a consistent theme in the world of oil for many years, the idea that even a small supply disruption in one part of the globe can have an impact thousands of miles away.

Well, say goodbye to that notion, or at least part of it. The International Energy Agency has looked into the not-too-distant future and it sees a world divided between an increasingly self-contained western hemisphere and pretty much everywhere else.

The IEA, in its latest medium-term outlook, believes the world oil map will be deeply transformed over the next five years as regional shifts in demand and new sources of supply growth continue to reshape the global refining industry and as crude trade becomes increasingly split between the western hemisphere and the rest of the world.

Thanks to surging production of non-conventional oil in Canada and the US, North America will move closer to balance after having been a large importer, the IEA says. And the changing quality of US domestic crude production means that most of the light, sweet grades previously imported from West Africa and elsewhere will no longer be needed.

At the same time, the combination of robust demand growth in the Middle East and parts of the former Soviet Union and extensive refinery investment is set to reduce the amount of crude available for export.

Although the Middle East is expected to retain its role as the world's key producing area, the IEA reckons that rising regional demand and refining capacity will keep more crude in the region, slashing the volume available to export markets by an aggregate 1.9 million b/d over the next five years.

On the downstream side, OECD Europe, amid diminishing demand, challenging environmental standards, constraints in access to feedstocks and ageing plant, faces further capacity attrition, while North America is set to benefit from new, discounted feedstock supply, cheap natural gas and some of the lowest energy costs on the planet in the form of cheap natural gas.

Within the United States, demand is eroding and, as a glut of unconventional supply comes on stream, exports of refined products are growing fast. Asia and the Middle East are also increasing their exports of refined products, but these are the result of expanded refining capacity rather than falling demand. Even energy-hungry China could emerge as a new "powerhouse" in product exports if all planned projects go ahead and demand growth slows as forecast, the agency says.

So, the refined product trade map is set to become more and more integrated and interdependent, with long-haul product trade volumes increasing and providing the market with a greater degree of flexibility.

There's an interesting graphic in the IEA medium-term report which forecasts a shift in export patterns for crude oil from eastern Russia. At the moment, China receives around 300,000 b/d of crude from Russia through a branch of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, which has been in operation since early 2011. But a similar volume goes through the main ESPO line to Kozmino, a Pacific Coast port. Much of this currently goes by tanker to China, but the IEA expects the ex-Kozmino exports to be directed increasingly to the wider Asia area in the future.

China wants to increase its imports of pipeline oil from Russia and the head of Russian pipeline operator Transneft said in June that Beijing wanted to triple its volumes to around 900,000 b/d. This would be achieved by the building of a parallel line to the ESPO spur to China and a new link from the Pacific Coast southward.

The IEA, in a map in its report, seems to suggest that with these shifts, 1.1 million b/d of Russian crude could be headed to China by pipeline by 2017, with only 100,000 b/d leaving for other markets in Asia via the port of Kozmino, compared with 300,000 b/d at present.

Margaret McQuaile

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