Oljerigg i Nordsjøen fotografert av Harald Pettersen, Statoil.

U.S. crude oil inventory levels are keeping prices in check, with Cushing reserves hitting their lowest seasonal level in 10 years. Oil markets are finding the balance between tight supply and U.S. financial market dynamics today, fresh off the back of seven-year highs and on track to hit steady monthly gains for January. Despite global supply concerns emanating from Ukraine-Russia tensions, threats to infrastructure in the UAE and OPEC+ struggling to hit its targeted monthly output increase, oil markets remain stable thanks to sliding equities and the possibility of an interest rate hike by the U.S. Federal Reserve on Wednesday, writes Senior Oil Markets Analyst Louise Dickson in Rystad Energy.

Oil prices will remain bullish through the end of February, but bearish blips are expected throughout the year as investors cash out and move into the strengthening U.S. equities market, which should benefit from some momentum following tomorrow’s Fed meeting.

The chatter around $100 oil remains hypothetical, but such a bull scenario could materialize even on the backdrop of tighter monetary policy globally if the core producers from OPEC+ keep production below target levels and if Iranian crude remains off the market.
Further supply disruptions resulting from activities in Libya or the UAE could also create the bullish conditions required for oil prices to cross the triple-digit threshold.
A $100 price spike would eventually be corrected by marginal production, primarily by US shale producers and other production players in Canada, Brazil, Norway and Guyana.

The upside risk to prices could escalate due to further attacks on UAE oil infrastructure objects, Libya’s still unresolved election outcome, outages in Ecuador, unexpected offshore maintenance due to weather-related events, or a frigid air arriving in Texas for the second time this winter season and hampering production.

Downside risk to the current oil prices is mainly tied to oil demand consumption fallout from the Omicron variant or other future variants that would necessitate tighter restrictions and negatively impact refined products such as jet fuel, diesel and gasoline.
However, global concerns over Omicron appear to be waning with governments removing restrictions and lockdowns, which is positive news for refined products demand barring any new variant emergence.

The gas market is enjoying strong price levels as global demand remains strong and as storage levels start to fall, but the Omicron variant is bringing new uncertainty.

Natural gas prices may face headwinds from the Covid-19 Omicron variant and doubts over vaccine efficacy, which is causing a pullback in energy commodities worldwide, but bullish factors are still at play as temperatures drop and the saga of European supply uncertainty continues.

In Europe, forecasts pointing to below-normal temperatures and an accelerating withdrawal from the already low storage levels are supporting TTF prices.

Storage levels are down 4% from last week and assuming a 5-year average depletion profile between now and end March 2022, storage levels may start April 2022 at a very low 21% of notional capacity.

However, European storage risks drastic depletion to around 12% of the notional capacity by April 2022 if we consider a depletion profile similar to earlier this year, which may happen if the winter continues to be severe, wind generation fluctuates,  and substantial additional supplies from Russia are not forthcoming.

Gazprom will rely on day-ahead capacity booking on the Yamal-Europe pipeline throughout December, which could inject some volatility into prices as traders are left guessing how much volume will materialize day-to-day.

Moreover, the recent surge in carbon prices, which are rolling into new all-time highs day on day, may throw a spanner in any plans for runaway gas-to-coal switching. 

That said, we note that LNG imports continue to be robust, with Western and Southern Europe importing around 6.8 Mt in November, up from 5.7 Mt in October, which may contribute some level of comfort to the market for the end of 2021.

In the US, consistent forecasts for mild weather going into December have placed the Henry Hub deep into sub-$5/MMBtu territory.

Nevertheless, we are now firmly into the withdrawal season and storage depletion may accelerate if the weather takes a turn for the cold and residential heating demand increases sharply.

TTF and Asian LNG prices at $30-plus per MMBtu continue to provide a significant source of competing demand for exports. Therefore, despite a significantly improved domestic balance, the US market cannot rest easy that supply for its own consumption will always be sufficient until international prices have adjusted downwards.

In Asia, Japanese and Korean buyers have reluctantly stepped back into the spot market to procure supplies for January amid sustained cold temperatures, expectations of a colder-than-normal winter, and ongoing production concerns at the Bintulu LNG complex in Malaysia.

Those waiting for prices to correct downwards over the past few weeks may have been left disappointed and chosen to buy pre-emptively as price risk remains skewed to the upside as we approach peak winter in the tightest LNG market on record.

Chinese buyers remain priced out of the spot market and China is expected to steadily raise the already high volumes of pipeline imports from Russia from around 28 million cubic meters per day now to a potential 43 million cubic meters per day by year-end. 

We note a drop in LNG vessel deliveries to China, though this may be related to China’s new law governing data privacy. This may reduce transparency on LNG deliveries into the world’s currently largest LNG importer and inject another element of chaos into a very volatile market.

In addition to production from the now commissioning Sabine Pass 6 and Calcasieu Pass facilities in the US, we can expect some marginal improvement to LNG supply availability through year-end, assuming no further disruptions.

Feedgas at Freeport LNG in Texas is again testing the 1.7 BCFD levels, though we would  need to see it hold at those levels before concluding that the ordeal of fluctuation that has plagued the facility since September is over.

Egypt may also be able to supply some additional volumes, having increased exports by about 45% from October to November as domestic demand is generally limited during winter.

After being taken offline on 16 November, Gorgon Train 1 in Australia restarted production on 26 November, with the production loss limited to two cargoes, only to be replaced by an outage at Gorgon Train 3, which has been taken offline to repair piping at its dehydration unit. This may leave the market no better off if the outage duration stretches beyond a week.

Rystad Energy’s weekly gas and LNG market note from our Senior Gas Markets Analyst Kaushal Ramesh:

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