WoodMac: Three themes impacting oil markets, refining in 2021

Feb. 8, 2021

Balancing oil markets and the refining sector in 2021 hinges upon OPEC+ production, COVID-19 developments, and the energy transition, according to Wood Mackenzie. Following 2020’s oil demand shock amid the pandemic, WoodMac expects 2021 total liquids demand to average 96.7 million b/d, 6.3 million b/d higher than the 2020 annual level.  

“Our short-term forecast assumes vaccine distribution accelerating through 2021 and is underpinned by 5% expected growth in global GDP, according to our macroeconomic outlook, following the global economy’s 5.4% contraction last year,” said Ann-Louise Hittle, vice-president, Wood Mackenzie.

“The pace and strength of the global liquids demand recovery will depend on the pace of COVID-19 vaccine distribution and global economic recovery.” 

On the supply side, eyes will be on OPEC+. The group was due to ease its production restraint by 2 million b/d to 5.8 million b/d as of January 2021, but that has been waylaid by a complicated agreement made in December to bring output back in increments to be decided at the start of each month, along with the additional February-March cuts by Saudi Arabia. 

“We are assuming output gradually rises from April as the group obtains the planned 5.8 million b/d restraint level by 2021 third quarter. But OPEC+ decisions are a huge uncertainty for this year. Can OPEC+ negotiate deals each month and remain committed to production restraint? Some production restraint is needed in 2021 for market balance, but compliance could wane with demand recovery,” Hittle said.

In the US Lower 48, Hittle predicts that output will decline by around 500,000 b/d in 2021 on a year-on-year basis, a more moderate rate than in 2020. Rig activity is expected to continue to rise but much of the recovery rate is dependent on oil prices and the industry’s willingness to spend on volume growth again. 

While there is a glimmer of hope in global crude production this year, the refining sector continues to battle challenges compounded by COVID-19, OPEC+ production cuts, and new capacity additions.  

Even with demand projected to increase, 2021 refinery utilization will remain low. The threat of refinery rationalization remains. Over one million b/d of refining capacity will be completed in the Middle East and Asia this year; it remains to be seen if these new-build sites might prompt further rationalization in Europe and across Asia. 

Alan Gelder, vice-president, WoodMac, said: “In 2020, there was a surge in product stocks, particularly for middle distillates given the collapse in jet demand. High product stocks will slow the recovery in pricing, but will stocks return to prior levels? 

“A rapid recovery in gasoline demand could lead to weak distillate prices as gasoline demand will set refining runs. The relative recovery in demand between products is important to watch. However, any material increase in crude runs will weaken the pricing of high sulphur fuel oil as its current high price reflects limited supply.” 

Petrochemical integration and low freight rates changed the global pricing dynamics for diesel at the start of this year, depressing European prices, refining runs and margins, WoodMac said. European prices are now below those of Singapore as Asian refiners are running at high rates. Oil demand in Asia has recovered faster and their integrated refinery/petrochemical sites are achieving attractive margins, it continued.  

Low-cost freight, particularly on new VLCCs used initially in clean product service, is enabling Asian diesel to be exported long haul to Europe. This clears the local market, and supports local prices, but builds stocks in Europe, which then facilitates “reverse arb” flows, as the diesel is then moved from Europe to New York harbour. 

“Key to watch is the completion of new-build VLCCs, European diesel demand recovery and the draw-down of floating stocks, along with increasing freight rates as to when diesel pricing strength returns to Europe. The critical question is when does the recovery in demand lead to more OPEC+ crude exports so these new VLCCs go into crude service and freight rates are pushed higher,” Gelder said.

A hot topic in the refining sector this year is liquid renewables. The energy transition and the aspirations of many integrated oil companies to achieve carbon neutrality offers some hope to refineries under threat of closure, WoodMac said.  

 “The traditional closure route for a refinery is conversion into a terminal, so retaining a role in the distribution infrastructure for liquid fuels. Now, there is the opportunity to repurpose these facilities to also produce liquid renewables,” Gelder said.  

“California’s Low Carbon Fuels Standard is supporting such conversion to produce renewable diesel, pulling in materials from all over the world, not just the US. Feedstock selection is key, as the availability of preferred feedstocks, such as used cooking oil, is limited. Material policy moves by Asian countries to support local biodiesel production and use could be disruptive to other regions, such as Europe, so is something to watch out for,” he continued.