Showing posts with label Clinton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Clinton. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Clinton in Crudeland, Ghanem’s death & Cressier

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been clocking up air miles trying to persuade India and China to import less of the crude stuff from Iran. While diplomatic issues dominated the headlines during her visit, Clinton is understood to have impressed upon the Chinese to lower Iranian imports. However, recent media reports suggest that instead of seeking alternative supplies away from Iran, the economic powerhouse is seeking alternative modes of payment to Tehran away from the US Dollar. First, Reuters cited Mohammed Reza Fayyad, Iran's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, acknowledging that his country was accepting Yuan payments in kind for oil exports to China. Then the FT reported that China has been providing the Yuan to Iran via Russian banks rather than its own international banks.

Arriving next in India, Clinton had a similar message for New Delhi. She “commended” India for lowering its reliance on Iranian imports urging it to do more. However, as the Oilholic noted on his non-state visit to India earlier this year - Indian policymakers openly admit this is easier said than done. Meanwhile conspiracy theories about the death on April 29 of former Libyan Oil Minister Shokri Ghanem, whose body was found in the River Danube in Vienna, are unlikely to go away with his funeral held four days ago.

In June 2011, his defection from the Gaddafi regime was the epicentre of media gossip – both in the run-up to the 159th OPEC meeting as well as during the event itself where his defection relieved some and riled others. Some doubted his intentions while others doubted that he’d even defected.

All in public domain was that since his defection he had been living in Vienna with his family and working as a consultant. It seemed to be a natural choice since Ghanem’s connection with the city went back a few decades. He had held a number of posts at the old OPEC HQ in Vienna rising to its head of research in 1993 before joining the Gaddafi government first as Prime Minister and then Oil minister which marked his regular return to Vienna until last year.

The Oilholic’s sources in Vienna suggest the Austrian authorities have ruled out foul play. All yours truly knows is that a passer-by saw his body in the river and called the police who found no other documents on him other than business cards of his consultancy. There were no signs of violence on the body and it is thought that he died of natural causes. At the time of his death, he was setting up a business with another OPEC veteran - Algeria's Chakib Khelil and other investors.

However back home, the new government in Tripoli never trusted him despite his defection and was in fact preparing a court case against him for making illegal gains during his time in the Gaddafi regime. Regardless of its circumstances, the void left by his death would be felt in Viennese diplomatic circles and at OPEC HQ where he began his career in earnest.

Going back to 2008, the Oilholic remembers his first interaction with Ghanem from press scrums at a meeting of ministers where journalists jostled to receive his answers in fluent English. His audience in Vienna had grown, more so as his boss Gaddafi had denounced terrorism and come back from the cold to rejoin the international community. Whether Ghanem himself was a saint or a sinner will now never be known.

Away from crude politics, troubled refiner Petroplus’ administrators have found a buyer for its Swiss asset – the Cressier Refinery – in the shape of Varo Holding, a joint venture between trading firm Vitol and AltasInvest. Under the sale agreement, cash strapped Petroplus would transfer Cressier and allied Swiss marketing and logistics assets - Petroplus Tankstorage, Oléoduc du Jura Neuchâtelois and Société Française du Pipeline du Jura to Varo.

Sources suggest Varo hopes to close the deal before the end of June with plans of restarting the 68,000 barrels per day refining facility thereafter. Finally, fresh economic headwinds are bringing about a price correction in the crude markets as recent elections in Greece and France have triggered a Greek Tragedy (Part II) and a Geek Tragedy (a.k.a. Francois Hollande) respectively.

A hung parliament and political stalemate with fears of the terms of the last Greek bailout not being met is impacting market sentiment on the one hand. On the other, newly elected Socialist President of France – Francois Hollande – sees his less than convincing mandate as one of the French public voting against ‘austerity’ and perhaps uncosted grandiose spending plans. On Tuesday, oil trading sessions either side of the pond remained volatile in light of the situation.

Summing up the nerviness in the markets following events of the past few days, Sucden Financial analyst Myrto Sokou notes, “Spain has confirmed that it will provide with additional money for the bank rescue of Bankia, the country's third largest bank in terms of assets. In Greece, the political situation is still uncertain as the country remains without a government after Sunday’s elections…The parties which signed the EU bailout memorandum are now in a minority as Greek voters rejected further austerity plans.”

Concurrently, analysts at Société Générale believe that generally bearish sentiments and still weak fundamentals should continue to combine and prevail and that the entire energy complex seems to be headed for a continued correction downwards. “Oil has performed better than other European energy commodities in 2012, but this seems to have changed during the first week of May. Oil price behaviour will be the key to avoid further slides in European energy prices,” they note.

As if that was not crude enough, an investment note by Citibank just hitting the wires suggests there is now a 75% possibility that Greece would be forced to leave the Eurozone within 12 to 18 months. With no swift Eurozone solution in sight, be prepared to expect further volatility and perceptively bearing trends in the crude markets. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo: Oil Rig © Cairn Energy Plc.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Keystone XL, politics & the King’s Speech

Even before the original Keystone cross-border pipeline project aimed at bringing Canadian crude oil to the doorstep of US refineries had been completed, calls were growing for an extension. The original pipeline which links Hardisty (Alberta, Canada) to Cushing (Oklahoma) and Patoka (Illinois) became operational in June 2010, just as another, albeit atypical US-Canadian tussle was brewing.

The extension project – Keystone XL first proposed in 2008, again starting from Hardisty but with a different route and an extension to Houston and Port Arthur (Texas) is still stuck in the quagmire of US politics, environmental reticence, planning laws and bituminous mix of the Canadian oil sands.

The need for extension is exactly what formed the basis of the original Keystone project – Canada is already the biggest supplier of crude oil to the US; and it is only logical that its share should rise and in all likelihood will rise. Keystone XL according to one of its sponsors – TransCanada – would have the capacity to raise the existing capacity by 591,000 barrels per day though the initial dispatch proposal is more likely to be in the range of 510,000 barrels.

Having visited both the proposed ends of the pipeline in Alberta and Texas, the Oilholic finds the sense of frustration only too palpable more so because infrastructural challenges and the merits (or otherwise) of the extension project are not being talked about. To begin with the project has a loud ‘fan’ club and an equally boisterous ‘ban’ club. Since it is a cross-border project, US secretary of State Hillary Clinton has to play the role of referee.

A pattern seems to be emerging. A group of 14 US senators here and 39 there with their counterparts across the border would write to her explaining the merits only for environmental groups, whom I found to be very well funded – rather than the little guys they claim to be – launching a counter representation. That has been the drill since Clinton took office.

One US senator told me, “If we can’t trust the Canadians in this geopolitical climate then who can we trust. Go examine it yourself.” On the other hand, an environmental group which tries to get tourists to boycott Alberta because of its oil sands business tried its best to convince me not to land in Calgary. I did so anyway, not being a tourist in any case.

Since 2008, TransCanada has held nearly 100 open houses and public meetings along the pipeline route; given hundreds of hours of testimony to local, state and federal officials and submitted thousands of pages of information to government agencies in response to questions. The environmentalists did not tell me, but no prizes for guessing who did and with proof. This is the kind of salvo being traded.

Send fools on a fool’s errand!

It is not that TransCanda, its partner ConocoPhillips and their American and Canadian support base know something we do not. It is a fact that for some years yet – and even in light of falling gasoline consumption levels – the US would remain the world’s largest importer of crude oil. China should surpass it, but this will not happen overnight.

The opponents of oil sands have gotten the narrative engrained in a wider debate on the environment and the energy mix. Going forward, they view Keystone XL and other incremental pipeline projects in the US as perpetuating reliance on crude oil and are opposing the project on that basis.

Given the current geopolitical climate, environmental groups in California and British Columbia impressed upon this blogger that stunting Alberta’s oil sands – hitherto the second largest proven oil reserve after Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar extraction zone – would somehow send American oilholics to an early bath and force a green age. This is a load of nonsense.

Au contraire, it will increase US dependency on Middle Eastern oil and spike the price. Agreed the connection is neither simple nor linear – but foreign supply will rise not fall. Keystone XL brings this crude foreign product from a friendly source.

Everyone in Alberta admits work needs to be done by the industry to meet environmental concerns. However, a 'wells to wheels' analysis of CO2 emissions, most notably by IHS CERA and many North American institutions has confirmed that oil sands crude is only 5 to 15 per cent ‘dirtier’ than US sweet crude mix.

The figure compares favourably with Nigerian, Mexican and Venezuelan crude which the US already imports. So branding Canadian crude as dirty and holding up Keystone XL on this basis is a bit rich coming from the US. Keystone XL increases US access to Canadian crude. Who would the Americans rather buy from Canada or Venezuela? Surveys suggest the former.

The pragmatists at CAPP

Over a meeting in Calgary, Dave Collyer, President of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) told the Oilholic that they have always viewed Keystone XL as an opportunity to link up Western Canada to the US Gulf coast market, to replace production that would otherwise be imported by the US from overseas sources most notably Venezuela and Mexico where production is declining according to available data. There are also noticeable political impediments in case of the former.

“We don’t see this pipeline extension as incremental supply into that orbit, rather a replacement of existing production through a relatively straightforward pipeline project, akin to many other pipeline projects and extensions that have been built into the US,” Collyer said.

Energy infrastructure players, market commentators and CAPP make another valid point – why are we not debating scope of the Keystone XL project and its economic impact and focussing on the crude stuff it would deliver across the border? CAPP for its part takes a very pragmatic line.

“Do we think there is legitimacy in the argument that is being made against Keystone? No (for the most part) but the reality is that there has to be due consideration in the US. I would assume the US State Department is in a position where it has no alternative but to employ an abundance of caution to ensure that all due processes are met. What frustrates Canadians and Americans alike is the length of time that it has taken. However, at the end of the day when we get that approval and it is a robust one which withstands a strict level of scrutiny then it’s a good thing,” Collyer said.

T I M B E R!

Canadians and Americans first started bickering about timber, another Canadian resource needed in the US, about taxation, ethics, alleged subsidies and all the rest of it way back in 1981. Thirty years later, not much has changed as they are still at it. But these days it barely makes the local news in Canada each time the Americans take some reactive action or the other against the timber industry. Reason – since 2003 there has been another buyer in town – China.

In 2010, timber sales from Canada to China (and Japan to a lesser extent) exceed those to the US. Over the last half-decade timber exports from the province of British Columbia alone to China rose 10 times over on an annualised basis. Moral of the story, the US is not the only player in town whatever the natural resource. Canadians feel a sense of frustration with the US, and rightly so according to Scott Rusty Miller, managing partner of Ogilvy Renault (soon to be part of Norton Rose) in Calgary.

“We are close to the US, we are secure and we have scruples. Our industry is more open to outside scrutiny and environmental standards than perhaps many or in fact any other country the US imports crude oil from – yet there are these legal impediments. Scrutiny is fine. It’s imperative in this business, but not to such an extent that it starts frustrating a project,” Miller noted.

Ask anyone at CAPP or any Toronto-based market analyst if Canada could look elsewhere – you would get an answer back with a smile; only the Americans probably would not join them. The Oilholic asked Collyer if Americans should fear such moves.

His reply was, “As our crude production grows we would like access to the wider crude oil markets. Historically those markets have almost entirely been in the US and we are optimistic that these would continue to grow. Unquestionably there is increasing interest in the Oil sands from overseas and market diversification to Asia is neither lost on Canadians nor is it a taboo subject for us.”

CAPP has noted increasing interest from Chinese, Korean and other Asian players when it comes to buying in to both crude oil reserves and natural gas in Western Canada. Interest alone does not create a market – but backed up by infrastructure at both ends, it strengthens the relationship between markets Canadians have traditionally not looked at. All of this shifts emphasis on Canadian West coast exports.

“Is it going to be straightforward to get a pipeline to the West coast – we’ll all acknowledge that it’s not. For instance, Enbridge has its challenges with the Gateway pipeline. There is an interest in having an alternative market. There are drivers in trying to pursue that and I would say collectively this raises the “fear” you mention and with some factual basis. However, the US has been a great market and should continue to be a great market...while some caution is warranted,” he concluded.

The King’s speech

We’re not talking about Bertie, (King George VI of England) but Barack (The King of gasoline consumers and the US President). On March 30th, the King rose and told his audience at Georgetown University that he would be targeting a one-third reduction in US crude imports by 2025.

“I set this goal knowing that we’re still going to have to import some oil. And when it comes to the oil we import from other nations, obviously we have got to look at neighbours like Canada and Mexico that are stable, steady and reliable sources,” he added. While I am reliably informed that the speech was not picked up by Chinese state television, the Canadian press went into overdrive. The Globe and Mail, the country’s leading newspaper, declared “Obama signals new reliance on oil sands.”

Shares of Canadian oil and service companies rose the next day on the Toronto Exchange, even gas producers benefited and 'pro-Keystone XL' American senators queued up on networks to de facto say “We love you, we told you so.” Beyond the hyped response, there is a solid reason. Keystone XL bridges both markets – a friendly producer to a friendly consumer with wide ranging economic benefits.

According to Miller, “Refining capacity exists down south. Some refineries on the US Gulf coast could be upgraded at a much lower cost compared to building new infrastructure. There are economic opportunities for both sides courtesy this project – we are not just talking jobs, but an improvement of the regional macro scenario. Furthermore, however short or long, it could be a shot in the arm for the much beleaguered and low-margin haunted refining business.”

The pipeline could also help Canadians export surplus crude using US ports in the Gulf and tax benefits could accrue not just at the Texan end but along the route as well. That the oil sands are in Canada is a geological stroke of luck, given the unpredictability of OPEC and Russian supplies. The US State Department says it will conclude its review of Keystone XL later this year. Subjecting this project to scrutiny is imperative, but bludgeoning it with impediments would be ‘crudely’ unwise.

This post contains excerpts from an article written by the Oilholic for UK's Infrastructure Journal. While the author retains serial rights, the copyright is shared with the publication in question.

Gaurav Sharma 2011 © Gaurav Sharma and Infrastructure Journal 2011. Map: All proposals of Canadian & US Crude Oil Pipelines © CAPP (Click map to enlarge)

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