By Omoh Gabriel
One news item in the international wire service last week caught my attention. It is the fact that the United States of America has turned again to Nigeria for crude oil. The new twist in the US quest for Nigerian oil is coming on the heels of the slow down in shale oil fracking in the US.
The US oil production has fallen by about 600,000 barrels a day since peaking in 2015, and imports have filled the gap. The news looks cheering going by the fact that several tons of Nigerian crude have been on the high sea looking for buyers. According to the report, refineries along the US coasts are choosing to buy imports instead of local crude. “One of the biggest winners is Nigeria, which is regaining lost market share. Imports from Nigeria surged to 559,000 barrels a day in mid-March, compared with an average of 52,000 for all of 2015.
The opening up of the US market is giving Nigeria a new beginning with the US in oil trade. However, it is because the price of crude has dropped so low that it is no longer profitable for the US shale producers to continue in business. The current price of crude has made oil recovery from shale far more expensive than imported oil. The question is: will this bring relief to Nigeria’s dwindling revenue? Perhaps, in the last few years, Angolan crude has been finding it easier to attract buying interest than the light sweet and better quality Nigerian crude, which, until a few years ago, was the preferred choice for most refiners.
But it is not only due to higher prices and economics that Nigerian crudes are struggling; a lot has to do with the customer base of both countries. “Angolan crudes rely on countries that are growing at a rate of 5 per cent to 8 per cent while crudes out of Nigeria rely heavily on Europe, where economies are generally on a decline.” It must have been giving Nigeria’s oil authority a nightmare that the country’s export crude cargoes every month are grappling to attract end-users and refinery demand, and are instead being stored on ships and on storage terminals, idling away.
It is said that bulk of the oversupply in the Atlantic Basin crude market is comprised more of Nigerian crudes. What is further worrisome is the fact that a lot of Nigerian crude had been floating on the seas and in storage tanks with no home and no destination. But with the US now buying an average of 559,000 barrel per day, Nigeria can now have a respite. As a result of the boom in shale oil that the US experienced in the last few years and the crash in crude oil prices, the US Senate lifted its embargo on oil export. In the three months since the U.S. lifted its 40-year ban on crude oil exports, rather than flooding global markets, U.S. crude shipments to foreign buyers have stalled.
At the same time, imports into the U.S. jumped to a three-year high in what looks to be a reversal of a year-long decline in the amount of foreign crude brought into the American market. According to Bloomberg report, “As of March 25, the four-week average of imports was running at 7.9 million barrels a day, 9.8 per cent higher than the year before. “That’s not a one-week blip,” says Tim Evans, an energy analyst at Citi Futures. “We’re seeing a consistent pattern.” As it tuned out, the US producers, who reaped the benefits of the shale revolution, no longer enjoy a steep price advantage over foreign rivals in selling to domestic refiners. Production has fallen by about 600,000 barrels a day from its peak of 9.6 million in 2015. Curiously, almost the 600,000 barrels shortfall from US local production is now being imported from Nigeria. At the moment, refineries are buying foreign oil to replace the lost U.S. output—and, along with traders, are storing much of the less-expensive imported oil to sell when prices rise. According to Bloomberg, “During the early years of the U.S. shale boom, millions of barrels of light, sweet crude had one big problem: no affordable access to refiners on the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
To tap into the cheaper oil pooling in Oklahoma, pipelines that used to bring imported oil up from the Gulf were reversed to take shale oil down to the coast. Refiners in Philadelphia and New Jersey also began buying North Dakota crude instead of foreign oil, moving it by train across the country. By October 2014, U.S. imports had fallen by about 40 per cent from a high in 2006. “Analysts say that West Texas Intermediate crude has to be $3 to $5 cheaper than imported oil to pay for those pipeline and transportation costs. From 2011 to 2014, U.S. oil was on average $12.61 cheaper than equivalent foreign oil. The discount slowly narrowed as pipeline projects were completed and U.S. crude began to flow more freely from the middle of the country down to the Gulf Coast. “A week before the US Senate approved lifting the export ban on December 18, WTI traded around $3 below Brent.
Over the next month, the discount disappeared, and, for the first time in six years, WTI traded at a premium to Brent for a few days in January. WTI is now less than a dollar cheaper than foreign barrels available on the Gulf Coast. The irony of the shale boom, and all the light crude it unlocked, is that it came just as U.S. refiners were spending billions to process heavy oil. “In theory, there was always going to be a linkage between freeing up U.S. barrels and replacing them with foreign crude that U.S. refiners are better suited to run,” says Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners. “For some of the weakest U.S. producers with the highest costs, lifting the ban didn’t matter because they can’t compete on the global market, says Abudi Zein, co-founder of ClipperData, which uses customs data and ship-tracking information to estimate global oil flows.
For U.S. producers with the highest costs, “they’ll never be able to export because all of a sudden, they’re competing with Saudi Arabia and Iraq.” The U.S. is hoarding a lot of the imported oil. As of March 25, U.S. commercial crude inventories hit 534 million barrels. That’s near the all-time high in 1929, when U.S. commercial storage hit 545 million barrels, as huge oil finds coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression. Today, with oil so cheap, producers and traders are opting to wait for prices to rise instead of selling, especially with the futures market signaling that oil prices will rise. Traders can lock in those prices by taking out a contract for delivery a few months down the road”. How this will help Nigeria shore up its dwindling revenue is not yet clear. But one thing is certain, return of the US to buying Nigerian crude will ensure that there is a ready market for Nigeria. The NNPC had better take this chance seriously.