Sunday, April 08, 2012

Canadian & Russian supply risk scenarios

Happy Easter folks! Following on from California, the Oilholic is once again back in Beautiful British Columbia, as vehicle licence plates from the province would point out, should you need reminding in these serene picturesque surroundings. When talking non-OPEC supply of the crude stuff – Russia and Canada always figure prominently in recent discussions, the latter more so than ever.

In fact, when it comes to holding exposure to oil price sensitivity, as recommended by some analysts for the next two quarters, via mixed bag of investments – Russian equities and “natural resources linked” (and not yet showing signs of Dutch disease) Forex including the Russian Rouble and the Canadian dollar are flagged-up more often than ever. In fact the Canadian Dollar, often called south of the border by Americans as the “Loonie” (based on a common bird on the CAD$1 coin), is proving pricier and more worthy than the world’s reserve currency itself in the post-Global financial crisis years.

Between Russia and Canada, given that the latter has a more diverse range of exports, the Russians have a bigger problem when it comes to oil price swings. In fact, ratings agency S&P reckons that a sustained fall in the price of oil could damage the Russian economy and public finances and consequently lead to a cut of the long-term sovereign rating.

"We estimate that a US$10 decline in oil prices will directly and indirectly lead to a 1.4% of GDP decline in government revenues. In a severe stress scenario, where a barrel of Urals oil drops to, and stays at, an average US$60, we would expect the general government to post a deficit above 8% of GDP. In that scenario, the long-term ratings on the Russian Federation could drop by up to three notches," says S&P credit analyst Kai Stukenbrock.

The rise in oil prices over the past decade has supported an expansionary fiscal policy, while still allowing the country to build up fiscal reserves. Still, fiscal expansion, not least significant countercyclical spending during the recent crisis, has led to a significant increase in expenditures relative to GDP.

As a result, despite record revenues from oil in 2011, S&P estimates the general Russian government surplus at merely 0.8% of GDP. To balance the budget in 2012, the agency thinks the government will require an average oil price of US$120 per barrel.

While former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin has also expressed fears of Russian over reliance on the price of oil, most analysts have a base price range of US$90 to 100 for 2012. So a fear it may well be; it remains what it is – a fear! Another ratings agency – Moody’s noted last month that as a result of financial flexibility built up over the past two years, rated Russian integrated oil & gas companies will be able to accommodate volatility in oil prices and other emerging challenges in 2012 within their current rating categories.

"In 2011, rated Russian players continued to demonstrate strong operating and financial results, underpinned by elevated oil prices," says Victoria Maisuradze, an Associate Managing Director in Moody's Corporate Finance Group. "Indeed, operating profits are likely to remain stable in 2012 as an increased tax and tariff burden will offset the benefits of high crude oil prices. All issuers have stable outlooks and our outlook for the sector is stable."

Nevertheless, developing reserves in new regions remains a major challenge for Russia as traditional production areas deplete; a problem which the Canadians don’t have to contend with. In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose hand is now politically more stronger than ever, told an audience in London that Canada was ranked third in the world for gas production, seventh in oil production, the market leader in hydroelectricity and uranium. He described it six years ago as “just the beginning.”

Harper’s journey to make Canada an ‘energy superpower’ is well and truly underway. The Oilholic charted the view from Calgary on his visit to Alberta last year and has followed the shenanigans related to the US ‘dis’-approval of Keystone XL pipeline project over the course of 2011-12. Over the coming days, yours truly would revisit the subject with a take on prospective exports to Asia via British Columbia.

Continuing with non-OPEC supplies, the Oilholic’s old contact in Warsaw – Arkadiusz Wicik, Director of Energy, Utilities and Regulation at Fitch Ratings – believes Shale gas in Poland could still be a game changer for the country's energy sector despite the disappointing shale gas reserve estimate published in March by the Polish Geological Institute (PGI).

PGI assessed most likely recoverable shale gas reserves to be between 0.35 and 0.77 trillion cubic meters (tcm), which is about one-tenth the 5.3 tcm estimated by the US Energy Information Administration in April 2011. PGI estimates maximum recoverable shale gas reserves at 1.92 tcm.

Wicik believes it is still too early to make any meaningful assumptions about the future of shale gas in Poland, believed to have one of the highest development potentials in Europe. “Less than 20 exploration wells have been drilled by domestic and foreign companies, in many cases with disappointing results. From a credit perspective, we view shale gas exploration as high risk and capital intensive. Partnerships among domestic companies to share exploration risks and costs, or more participation by foreigners would be positive,” he says.

Exploration by Poland's energy companies at an early stage gives them a chance to become major players should the commercial availability of gas be proven over the next several years. This was not the case in the US, where the shale gas industry was developed by a number of smaller, independent players as the Oilholic noted in a special report for Infrastructure Journal. Large US oil and gas companies have only recently started to be active in the sector, mostly through acquisitions.

Wicik notes, “We do not expect that the success in the US, which led to about a 50% decrease in US gas prices between 2008 and 2011, will be easily replicated in Poland. Commercial production in the first five to 10 years is unlikely to substantially lower gas prices given high breakeven costs. Also, Poland and the US differ both in terms of shale formations and the gas market structure.”

A number of foreign companies already have exploration concessions for shale gas in Poland, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips (through a service agreement with Lane Energy), Marathon Oil and Eni. Local players that have been granted exploration concessions include PGNiG, PKN Orlen, Grupa Lotos and Petrolinvest.

Another three large domestic companies - PGE, Tauron, and KGHM - also plan to enter shale gas exploration. In January 2012, they signed three separate letters of intent with PGNiG regarding cooperation in shale gas projects. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo: Oil Refinery, Quebec, Canada © Michael Melford / National Geographic.

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