Leaving behind the waters of the Caribbean Sea, the 1,100-feet long oil tanker Maran Apollo is emblematic of the wider petroleum market.
Steaming at 11.5 knots, she’s heading toward China, where oil demand is fast recovering, hauling a cargo of two million barrels of U.S. crude. But her voyage didn’t start a few days ago. She loaded in early May, and with no buyers during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak, the supertanker stood floating in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico for almost two months, waiting for better times.
Only a few days ago, she weighed anchor and left for the Chinese port of Rizhao -- a sign that refiners are starting to pull in crude that went unwanted for months.
It’s not any kind oil on board, though. Refiners are competing for barrels in one corner of the market known as medium-heavy sour crude -- barrels with a higher content in sulfur and relatively dense. It’s the kind of oil that Saudi Arabia and its allies pump. And also the type of crude that’s pumped offshore in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico -- and that’s what’s in the Maran Apollo’s tanks.
Like the wine industry, the oil market has its own vintages: global refiners seek their barrels much like connoisseurs covet bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Urals of Russia and Arab Light from Saudi Arabia are normally two of the most widely consumed -- think Cabernet Sauvignon, maybe a Merlot. But in today’s oil market, such crude is in increasingly short supply due to record output cuts by the two nations and their allies.
“Deep OPEC+ cuts and demand recovery have tightened balances and this has been reflected in improvements in physical differentials,” said Bassam Fattouh, director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “But the recovery has not been even, with medium-sour crudes faring better than light-sweet crudes.”
In normal times, medium-sour crude is usually cheaper than other streams, particularly those known as light sweet crude that have a lower sulfur content and are less dense.
But OPEC, which pumps mostly medium-sour crude, has cut output to the lowest since 1991, and Russia has also implemented brutal reductions. On top of that, medium and heavy sour crude accounts for the bulk of the supplies from Iran and Venezuela, where production has collapsed under the weight of U.S. sanctions and lack of investment.
The market is reflecting the under supply. The price of Urals, Russia’s flagship grade, has surged to a record premium to the Brent crude benchmark. Last week, it briefly changed hands at $2.40 a barrel above Dated Brent, a regional benchmark, compared with a discount of more than $4.50 a barrel in April, according to traders. S&P Global Platts, a price-reporting agency, assessed the grade at a premium of $1.90 for delivery to Rotterdam on June 29, matching a prior record high.
The surge means that Urals is selling in Rotterdam, the main oil refinery hub in northwest Europe, at roughly $45 a barrel, compared with a low point of about $15 a barrel in early April.
The price pattern is similar for other sour crude streams, from Oman in the Middle East to Oriente in Latin America. All are commanding hefty prices at a time when oil demand globally remains down roughly 10% below normal levels. Because sour crude makes a significant chunk of a typical refinery’s diet, the price increase is strangling the plants’ profitability.
“OPEC+ continues to tighten the screws,” Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at consultant Energy Aspects Ltd. said, referring to the group’s output cuts.
With the physical oil market tightening, OPEC is now able to increase the prices it charges to refiners. On Monday, Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, lifted its official selling prices to Asia for the third consecutive month, largely reversing all the discounts it offered during a brief price war with Russia in March and April.
Aramco and other national oil companies sell their crude at differentials to oil benchmarks, announcing every month the discount or premium they’re charging to global refiners. These so-called official selling prices help set the tone in the physical oil market, where actual barrels change hands.
The Saudi oil giant is now selling its most dense crude, called Arab Heavy, for the first time ever, at roughly the same price at its flagship Arab Light, an indication of the strength of the market for the medium-heavy sour grades. Typically, Arab Heavy has sold at a discount of about $2-to-$6 a barrel to Arab Light.
Not only is medium-heavy sour crude trading at a premium to benchmarks, but barrels for immediate delivery are commanding premiums to forward contracts, a price pattern known as backwardation that also reflects a tight physical-market. Dubai crude, a Middle Eastern medium sour barrel, is one example: backwardation between barrels for delivery now and in three months has surged to 60 cents per barrel. In mid-April it stood at minus $9.24 per barrel because the physical market was so glutted back then.
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