Showing posts with label oil tankers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label oil tankers. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Chasing tankers in Beautiful British Columbia

The Oilholic has crossed the international dateline and has gone from being 6000 miles east of London in Tokyo, Japan to being 4700 miles west in "Beautiful British Columbia, Canada" as vehicle registration plates in Vancouver remind you with customary aplomb.

It’s a bit cloudy and tad soggy here, a marked contrast to sunny Tokyo. In between meeting family, friends and contacts, yours truly has also penned two Forbes columns – one on the direction of the South Korean economy and a second one on the oil price bottoming out.

This blogger would say it is all well and good that both global benchmarks – Brent and WTI – are lurking at or just below the $40 per barrel level, and some, including the International Energy Agency, are opining that prices may well have bottomed out. While accepting those sentiments is not difficult, China’s anticipated flat demand could spell trouble over the medium term, as one explained in the latter Forbes post

Shipping traffic out of this Canadian province where yours truly is at the moment, typifies the oil and gas world’s dependency on emerging markets in general and Far Eastern economies in particular, led by – who else – but China.

Wherever you admire BC’s amazing shoreline and Vancouver’s beautiful waterfronts – atop Grouse Mountain (above left), Concord Pacific Place in Downtown Vancouver (right), City Harbour inlet (below left), Port Moody or on the other side of the Burrard Inlet from English Bay beach (one's favourite spot) – you cannot miss umpteen oil and gas tankers either waiting to dock or waiting to leave with their crude cargo from the area.

Over the last 12 years on each visit to the area, the Oilholic has only seen the volume of traffic rise exponentially. Unsurprisingly, it causes much consternation among the very strong regional environmentalist groups. Their worst fears were heightened again by the spillage of bunker fuel in April 2015 off West Vancouver’s Sandy Cove.

Prior to that, there have been other incidents, though the most serious one dates back to July 2007 when an excavator working on a sewage line pierced a oil pipeline releasing more than 250,000 litres of crude oil. Nearly 70,000 litres flowed into the Burrard Inlet, with the resulting clear-up costing the province $20 million.

Yet loading and outflow of oil (and gas) from British Columbia, a province which has very little of its own and serves mainly as a transit point, to the Far East is only going to increase not decrease. In the last election, Canada’s new carbon footprint conscious Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals bagged 17 of 42 seats in the province; their best result since 1968.

Some, to quote a retired civil servant and old contact, can be described as “tree huggers”, which is not necessarily a bad thing and there are plenty of trees to hug in BC. Tree huggers or not, Trudeau promptly appointed three of his MPs from BC to his cabinet

But with the Canadian economy going through a lacklustre patch, oil markets grappling with oversupply and China expected to buy less, the stakes are going to get higher even if the Western Canadian Select – which trades at a discount (currently above US$14) to the West Texas Intermediate – goes lower. Quite frankly, there is very little the carbon conscious PM can do here.

Furthermore, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, BC Premier Christy Clark and her provincial Liberals were actually banking on an oil and gas boom in time for a 2017 regional election, eyeing both jobs and revenue.

Instead they, along with much of the oil and gas world, now have a complicated and prolonged bust on their hands, with the general direction of Canadian oil dispatches more than likely to be Eastwards, even if the US remains Canada’s largest trading partner for oil and much else. Just ask neighbouring Alberta; the politics (and economics) of it all is likely to get much more complicated! 

However, given lower demand from both Japan and China, it is quite likely that you might spot marginally fewer tankers in British Columbian waters. The Oilholic does stress on the word ‘marginally’ though, and that won't satisfy the tree huggers. That’s all for the moment from Vancouver folks! Next stop San Francisco, California, USA via short stopover in Phoenix, Arizona. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’! 

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To email: gaurav.sharma@oilholicssynonymous.com

© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo I: View of Vancouver from Grouse Mountain, North Vancouver, Photo II: Concord Pacific Place, Downtown Vancouver, Photo III: City Harbour inlet, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada © Gaurav Sharma, March 2016.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Bosphorus, a 'Wild Project' & Turkish politics

The Oilholic spent better parts of the afternoon in pouring rain examining the strategic maritime artery known to world as the Bosphorus, a strait that forms the boundary between Europe and Asia and splits Istanbul.

For nearly 7 hours, yours truly criss-crossed on ferries from Kabataş on Istanbul's European side to Kadıköy on the Asian side, back to Eminönü on European side [where ancient Byzantium was built] and finally a return journey up and back from Rumelifeneri, Sariyer, passing twice under the Bosphorus and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges.

The said journeys ensured this blogger got a true picture of how busy the world's narrowest natural strait is and it's getting busier with oil and LNG tankers going back and forth from the Black Sea. Excluding local traffic, roughly around 132 ships pass through the Bosphorus on a daily basis, making it the second densest maritime passage after the Strait of Malacca. 

The Oilholic is no naval man, but aboard a vessel on Bosphorus - given the blind bends and S-shaped turns - often one couldn't spot ships approaching from the opposite direction at several points. As if natural and geographical challenges weren't enough, the heavy municipal ferry traffic linking Istanbul's European and Asian sides make navigation even trickier.

The photo (on the right, click to enlarge) is an apt illustration - clicked from a ferry one is aboard, zipping past a Greek tanker, behind which is another ferry, behind which is another tanker in the distance. This is a typical day's navigation for captains of ships passing through here on a murky day like today.

On either side of the Bosphorus live around 14 million souls who call Istanbul home. Makes you think – what if there is a collision? According to Istanbul University, modern navigation techniques have considerably [and thankfully] reduced incidents. Nonetheless, since the end of World War II there have been over 450 incidents on record.

Of the 26 incidents classified as 'major', eight involved tankers and almost all collisions resulted in a crude oil, petroleum or other distillate spill of some description. The worst incident happened nearly 20 years to this day, on March 13, 1994 when a Cyprus registered tanker collided with a bulk carrier resulting in 27 deaths, the spillage of 9,000 tons of petroleum and combustion of another 20,000 tons. The blaze lasted for four days and tanker was completely burnt. Not only was the marine environment harmed, but traffic was suspended for several days.

However long ago the incident may have taken place (and there have been others albeit less serious ones since), it chills people here to this day. Most of the oil shipments originate from Russian ports. Local sources say around 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) to 3.2 million bpd move through the Turkish straits, which include the Marmara Sea, Çanakkale (or Dardanelles, the separation point of the Gallipoli Peninsula from Asia) and of course the Bosphorus.

The cumulative volume for each year almost singularly depends on how Russian exporters shift their load per annum between Baltic and Black Sea ports. So getting his thinking cap on, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, just before seeking re-election for a third term in 2011, announced the 'Kanal İstanbul' project – an idea first mooted in the 16th century.

The PM said that ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic (founded in 1923), the nation needed a "crazy, magnificent" project. The idea is to carve up an artificial canal that would be 50km long, 150m wide and 25m deep. Istanbul itself would turn into two peninsulas and an island courtesy of the artificial re-jigging.

The published measurements carry a message. Any structural engineer would tell you that a canal of the above dimensions would certainly be capable of handling very large crude carriers (VLCCs). This would cut the need for suezmaxes (largest ship measurement capable of transiting through the Suez Canal conventionally capable carrying 1 million barrels) from criss-crossing the Turkish Straits as frequently as they do these days.

It could also help Erdoğan, currently facing local elections and umpteen demonstrations, circumvent the Montreux Convention, which gives Turkey a mandate over the Bosphorus, but allows free passage of civilian ships while restricting passage of naval warships not belonging to Black Sea bordering nations. Critics say the PM is looking to bypass the Montreux Convention, but supporters say he's making a case for good business, while appearing to do his bit for the ecology as well.

Alas a pre-election promise of 2011 and one that's morphed into pre-2014 local elections plan doesn't appear to be properly costed. The figure in the Turkish press is US$10 billion. It's sent all the project financiers this blogger has contacted about it scratching their heads. The headline project valuation is just too low for a project of this magnitude, in fact highly improbable, given the lira's fortunes at the moment.

However, a government official told this blogger that "finance won’t be a problem" while another said "it won’t be needed" as the Turkish Government will self-finance with Phase I already underway. Doubtless, some Russian help – if asked for – would be forthcoming. Ironically, it's a Russian financier, whose kids are [of course] studying in England, who told yours truly, "Erdoğan's project cost estimate is as you British say – a load of bollocks!!"

The PM simply describes the project rather mildly as his "Çılgın Proje" or "Wild Project" and by the looks of things, it certainly is wild. Don't know what the final costs would be, but the target is to have it ready by 2023. As for Russian crude, Ukraine stand-off or not, Baltic or Black Sea routes, it'll ship unabated. Last year, just as Rosneft was eyeing acquisition of TNK-BP, the world largest independent oil trading house Vitol and rival Glencore (now Glencore-Xstrata) agreed to lend $10 billion to the Russian giant to help it finance the acquisition.

In exchange, both the trading houses received a guarantee of future oil supply. A simple Google search would tell you, its not the largest oil trading deals in history, but its right up there dear readers. For Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul, the project would be about his legacy to Turkey, along with a third Bosphorus suspension bridge – Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge – which is scheduled to open in May 2015.

However, right now under his watch Turkey appears to be in a fight for its soul. Erdoğan's "mildly Islamist" (as The Economist prefers to call it) Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AK Party is hugely popular in rural areas but not quite so in urban centres.

Since arriving on March 8, right up and until this afternoon, as the Oilholic prepares to fly out, there have been repeated protests and clashes in Taksim Square. Even if you are a couple of miles away from the flashpoints, the smell of tear gas is around. It all erupted in May last year with mass protests. The political context is well-documented in the mainstream media as is Erdoğan's tussle with his once mentor cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gülen.

The latest casualty in these god awful political melees was 15-year old Berkin Elvan, who died yesterday following 269 days in a coma after being hit on the head by a tear gas canister last year. He didn't commit a crime say locals; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught in a skirmish while out to buy bread for his mother.

Erdoğan can build his legacy around urban developments, bridges, canals and superefficient shipping lanes, he can put forward uncosted grandiose dreams, but if lives like Berkin's are the price for his fixation to power, then something is inherently wrong with Turkish politics and the way the PM thinks. On this unusually sad note, that's all from Istanbul folks. Sorry for the temporary digression from what this blog is about, but it's difficult not to feel anything. Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

Addendum, Mar 15: According to a BBC World service report, as further clashes following the death of Berkin Elvan have spread well beyond Istanbul to 30 other towns, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has claimed that the boy had links to "terrorist organisations"…Along with most of Istanbul, the Oilholic despairs!

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To email: gaurav.sharma@oilholicssynonymous.com


© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: The Bosphorus Bridge. Photo 2: Traffic in the Bosphorus. Photo 3: Tanker in the Bosphorus. Photo 4: Election fever in Istanbul, Turkey © Gaurav Sharma, March 2014.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Turkey's Russian connection: Bazaars to barrels

The Oilholic finds himself in a soggy Istanbul, with Turkey in the middle of election fever and the Black Sea in the grip of a Cold War style stand-off over Ukraine.

Before landing here, yours truly ran in to a Moody's spokesperson at BA's Heathrow T5 lounge. It seems that the ratings agency predictably sees Gazprom and Russia's banking sector taking a hit, if recent notes to subscribers are anything to go by. With 52% of Gazprom's exports to Europe currently routed through Ukraine and the country contributing up to 8% of its revenues, there is trouble ahead. Nonetheless, it can cope pretty well in the face of an escalation.

When it comes to the banking sector, Moody's reckons the aggregated exposure could be as high as US$30 billion. The Kremlin is likely to step in if needs be but it won't be needed as the figure equates to less than 2% of system assets. Interestingly, just before dashing off to our respective flights, our friend from Moody's gently nudged the Oilholic and quipped, "Wait till you get to Istanbul and see NATO member Turkey's exposure to Russia." And so this blogger came, he saw and he wondered!

We'll come to the barrels later, lets start with the bazaars first. Despite the unusually miserable weather, the city is packed with Russian tourists. From the metro to the tourist spots, you cannot escape Russian chatter in the background. "For sale" signs in retail outlets are up in two languages – Turkish and Russian. In expanding its tourism sector and wider economy, Turkey has welcomed Russian tourists and business investments with open arms including a favourable visa regime for over 10 years now.

The results are tangible. With the Turkish Lira in throes of unpredictability, every big ticket item – from designer stuff and marquee labels to high value Turkish handicrafts – is priced by retailers here in euros; with quite a few Russians around with more than a few euros.

Digressing from retail to banks, the exposure of Turkish banking institutions to Russia is harder to quantify as the current macroclimate in the country [not Ukraine & NATO] has conspired to turn the situation fluid. Unfortunately, no one wants to nail a figure on record as forex permutations are making life difficult extremely difficult for the analysts, but off record it is certainly not "as high as Ukraine."

Excluding exposure of Russian banks to Turkish infrastructure project finance exercises, $5 billion to 10 billion is a reasonable conservative guesstimate. From banks, rather crudely to barrels – Russia is Turkey's 6th largest export market. Mostly consumables, textiles and manufactured goods worth $3 billion were exported by Turkey to Russia in 2012.

What came back from Russian shores was $27 billion worth of imports including crude oil, distillates, natural gas and iron and steel that same year. Of the said figure, $17.26 billion were oil & gas imports! Using a dollar valuation at constant exchange rate (which has been anything but constant), we are looking at a 625% jump in Russian "imports" between 2002 and 2012. The said percentage need not be sensationalised as the starting point was a low base, but it gives you an idea of NATO Turkey's exposure to [and reliance on] Russia.

Furthermore, the Bosphorus is a major maritime artery for oil & gas shipments via the Black Sea. Exports from the Russian loading port of Novorossyisk by tankers via the Turkish straits have been rising steadily over the last 10 years. Recognising this, Turkey even has an embassy in Novorossyisk.

Recently, Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk, in sync with the Oilholic, was correctly berating Germany for its exposure to Russian gas and why it would give the EU a weaker hand over the Ukrainian tussle.

"Germany's reliance on Russian gas can effectively limit European sovereignty. I have no doubt," Tusk told reporters, ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to his country. [Ouch!]

Maybe Tusk ought to look at fellow NATO member Turkey too. If the diplomatic row continues to escalate, Turkey would find it very hard to indulge in verbal or economic jousts with Russia. It took a very vocal stand with Syria, but one suspects it may not be the case this time around. Banks, bazaars and barrels could all feel the squeeze – it's what colleagues in the analyst community down here openly acknowledge.

However, you don't need them or the Oilholic. All you need to do is take the tram from Istanbul's Grand Bazaar through to Kabataş, the last stop on the European shore of the Bosphorus, between Beşiktaş and Karaköy. The journey will help you reach the same conclusions unaided by charts, graphs and economic gobbledegook. And here's hoping, the weather is kinder to you than it has been to the Oilholic. That's all for the moment from Istanbul folks! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

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To email: gaurav.sharma@oilholicssynonymous.com


© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: Eminonu Waterfont, Istanbul, Turkey Photo 2: Greek oil tanker Scorpio passes through the Bosphorus, Turkey. ©  Gaurav Sharma, March 2014.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On Bukha’s oil & the beauty of Khasab

The Oilholic finds himself roughly 27 km west of Khasab, here in Oman in the wilayat (district) of Bukha on the Musandam peninsula. This area has its own 'crude' place in the history of Omani oil & gas production.

Not far off its coastline is what the government has designated as offshore exploration Block 8 – a unique prospection zone in a country whose main production hubs are largely onshore.

What's more, according to a roughneck based here, both are 'beautiful' fields. Split into Bukha and West Bukha, in 1994 Block 8 apparently yielded gas condensate that was so high in quality (64°API), according to a Petroleum Directorate of Oman (PDO) spokesperson, that you can pretty much use it to run a car without refining (a sample is pictured above left)! No exaggeration, if you get the 'purity' standpoint.

Norway’s DNO International, under a remit from Muscat, is a major player here with two production fields. Its data indicates that production from West Bukha 2 and 3 fields currently averages 8,000 oil barrels per day as well as 27 million cubic feet of dry gas. All of this is sent via a 34 km pipeline for onshore processing at a plant located in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. Furthermore, two additional wells – West Bukha 4 and 5 are in the pipeline, no pun intended.

Exciting times indeed for the Musandam Governorate (split from the rest of Oman by the UAE), which has of late started enjoying the prosperity seen in the rest of the country. Recent prosperity aside, this peninsula oozes history from ancient to modern when it comes to global trade. Market analysts should find it quite gripping – at least yours truly did!

Musandam juts out into the Strait of Hormuz, with the Persian Gulf on one side and the Sea of Oman on the other. Turn the clock or sundial back 5,000 years and you would have seen ships from ancient Oman (then known as Magan) sail between Mesopotamia and India. Magan’s traders knew about (and traded with) India well before the British, French and Portuguese traders ‘discovered’ the country. A museum exhibit offers a model of the vessels and charts the route (above right).

Local historians even suggest that interaction via sea routes took place with the Indus Valley Civilization on one side and modern day Egypt on the other. Fast forward to 2013, and you can easily spot oil tankers from any high vantage point – of which the peninsula provides several. Views of the Strait of Hormuz include tankers carrying their crude cargo out to the world as it is a crossing point for 90% of the Gulf's oil due to be shipped overseas (see below left).

As if by divine convenience – the most navigable bit lies in Omani territorial waters. To say that Musandam bears silent testimony to the history of global trade routes would be an understatement – it has actually shaped them. Roman Empire’s logs from the 2nd century mention the Cape of Musandam, as do Marco Polo’s from the 13th century.

The Portuguese occupied Musandam between 1515 and 1622 and the imposing Khasab Castle (see below) was built during the occupation. For just over four centuries, it has overlooked regional territorial waters and formed the focal point of the modern city of Khasab. After the defeat and expulsion of the Portuguese in the 17th century, the locals modified the castle to suit their defensive needs. Today, it is a modern day museum featuring several exhibits depicting the way of life in this enchanting part of Oman (see below right).

Targeted reinvestment of regional oil wealth by the administration of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has improved links between Khasab and the rest of Oman via air and sea. A local ferry service links Khasab to Muscat, as does a daily Oman Air flight. Sand, sun and sea on one side and mountains on the other, leave everything from hiking to snorkelling as a leisure option. And should you wish to spot dolphins, get a local tour guide to take you out to the sea!

There are a few local hotels, but the Golden Tulip Resort (now Atana), Khasab is the most impressive one in the area with great views of the waterfront from a poolside balcony and most of its rooms. It is also only a few minutes away from the Bassa Beach. There is a huge supermarket right next to Khasab Castle, with the sea-port terminal for a ferry to Muscat and Khasab airport for a flight close by! Right, that’s that for travel tips and observations. (Click below left for the sights minus the sound)

One tiny and somewhat darkly funny footnote though! A different kind of trade is also flourishing here which speaks volumes about the prosperity in Oman and the lack of it in sanction-squeezed Iran, whose coastline is barely 45 km across the Strait.

Using a decent pair of binoculars, the Oilholic spent a good few hours this evening noting how Iranian smugglers dock off the Port of Khasab (see below right for an aerial view) and conduct a 'cash and carry' trade. First off, differentiating a decidedly tacky Iranian boat from an Omani Dhow or a local motorboat is quite easy. The smugglers' communication method is rather rudimentary including a signalling system involving a combination of torchlights and car headlights. As for the cargo, do not be alarmed – it includes things as non-sinister as western branded biscuits, stimulants such as tea, coffee and cigarettes and of course dodgy satellite TV recorders.

By playing the dumb tourist card, the Oilholic got a local boatman to reveal that the trade route used here is a 50 minute motor-boat ride between Khasab and Qeshm Island, Iran and then on to the Iranian mainland. Most of the activity takes place from sunset onwards. But this desperate activity, which is lucrative for some, is also mighty dangerous.

Cross-crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the dark with no lights to avoid detection is fraught with danger. Storms often claim lives, as do unreported collisions with tankers and containers ships. Yet, driven by the desire to make a quick buck out of the cravings of a sanction squeezed Iran, the smugglers keep coming. Warehouses hoard until the price of a particular commodity is high enough in Iran and lo and behold a buyer usually arrives in the dark of the night.

Surprisingly, some of the smugglers or "shooties" (as they would be called were you to translate literally from Farsi), happen to be women! The Oilholic can personally vouch for it with a fair bit of disbelief! One is all for gender equality - but this is something else. Don't know about the Iranian side, but not many on the Omani side seem to mind the shooties plying their trade. If caught offshore by the Omani authorities the pretext of "fishing" usually gets the shooties away!

The traders of Musandam have been a very resourceful lot for centuries. In the 21st century, legal or not, sanctions have driven Iranians to a different, dangerous kind of resourcefulness. While illegal, it certainly is tenacious. Speaking of a more formal dialogue between Iran and Oman, Sultan Qaboos has become among the first world leaders to interact with Iran’s new president – Dr Hassan Rouhani. The Sultan, who is often seen as a bridge between the West and the Islamic Republic, oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Tehran and Muscat, which would see the latter export natural gas to Oman in a 25-year deal with a US$60 billion valuation.

While further details are yet to be formally announced, the transportation of natural gas would involve pulling a pipeline from Iran to Oman under the Sea of Oman, east of the Strait of Hormuz. Local media reports suggest that the deal would be the largest (by valuation) between the two nations. Sadly that’s all from Khasab folks as the Oilholic packs his bags for a short overnight stay in Muscat before the flight home to London. More from Oman later, in the meantime keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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To email: gaurav.sharma@oilholicssynonymous.com

© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo 1: Bukha oil on display in Khasab, Oman. Photo 2: Model of Mesopotamian ships. Photo 3: Oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Photo 4: Khasab Castle. Photo 5: Collage of sights in Khasab. Photo 6: Port of Khasab as seen from Oman Air flight 917 © Gaurav Sharma, August 2013.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Strait of Hormuz & Omani moves

The view of the Strait of Hormuz (pictured left) from the Musandam Peninsula is amazing. Let's face it - it's easier for the Oilholic to check it out here from the Omani side, rather than the Iranian side as the latter is not the most welcoming place for bloggers in general 'crude' or 'refined'. Not that yours truly has as of yet requested the Islamic Republic to issue him a visa.

As the world frets about Egyptian problems affecting oil tanker (and other) traffic from the Suez Canal, the Omanis are doing their utmost to mitigate one other potential threat – the one from Iran to close the Strait to oil traffic, should it be provoked by the West. The country is investing heavily in improvements and new build of its ports infrastructure.

The idea is to challenge nearby Dubai's dominance as a port hub and that too on the 'wrong' side of the Strait and prone to the Iran effect. Were you to look at a regional map, you'd find that all four of Oman's sea-port hubs/developments currently seeing investment (Muscat, Sohar, Salalah and lately Duqm) won't be affected in the highly unlikely event of the Strait becoming strife and blockade marred.

Of the four ports named above - Duqm, an erstwhile fishing village rather than a port, starts afresh complete with a new refinery, petrochemical plant, beachfront hotels and well, housing too. Billions are being invested in Duqm, with a figure nearing US$2 billion-plus being touted around.

Mitigating the Iranian threat is not foremost on Omani minds. This country has always maintained a balance between the West and Iran. In fact, the Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said Al Said is currently on a private visit to Iran and has announced fresh oil & gas sector co-operation between the two countries. However, diversifying Oman's economy away from oil & gas most certainly is on the nation's policy planning cards.

Aside from sea-ports, the government also wants Muscat International airport to rival Abu Dhabi and Dubai as an air transit point and aviation hub. The government's airport operator, Oman Airports Management, plans to award a dozen contracts this year and in 2014 to upgrade airport facilities in the capital city of Muscat (See above, click image to enlarge - for the current Muscat Airport terminal, ongoing construction work for the new one and an artist's impression of what it would look like in the future) along with Salalah. Additionally, the flag carrier Oman Air has ordered $2.5 billion worth of swanky new planes, according to a spokesperson.

However, the Oman government has made it abundantly clear that it wants to maintain the country's rustic charm, charcter and its points of differentiation from regional neighbours. So there won't be a mad Dubai-styled commercial rush. Afterall, standing out from the crowd is a unique selling point - so why ditch it? The Oilholic is certainly sold, blown away by the beauty of Musandam Peninsula and his first evening in Khasab before heading back to Muscat.

It's been an amazing experience from spotting oil tankers to mountain goats, soaking the sunshine to enjoying the mountainous views and beaches that are natural and not made of imported sand as is the case with Dubai. Even the Emiratis are suitably impressed, vindicated by the fact that UAE nationals are the biggest overseas buyers of Omani residential real estate, according to locals here. Officially speaking, Oman's Ministry of Housing said that of the 3,376 property sale deeds distributed to GCC nationals last year, Emirati buyers accounted for 1,694 titles.

Speaking of Emiratis buying things, Etihad Airways' sudden acquisition of a 49% stake in Serbia’s JAT and the latter's subsequent rebranding into Air Serbia has a strange ring to it. It's not that Etihad can’t make acquisitions and buy stakes! In fact, far from it – the airline already has stakes in Virgin Australia, Air Berlin, Aer Lingus, Air Seychelles and Jet Airways.

It's just that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan has of late been professing his love for the Balkan country. The Emirate's investment vehicle Mubadala is also actively sniffing around all things Serbian from agricultural assets to hotels. However, its the timing the Oilholic is puzzled about and nothing else! For the record, Eithad denies any political pressure and or that either forays by His Majesty or the airline are related. That's all from the Musandam Peninsula for the moment folks. Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

To follow The Oilholic on Twitter click here.

To email: gaurav.sharma@oilholicssynonymous.com

© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo 1: Straight of Hormuz, Khasab, Musandam Peninsula, Oman. Photo 2: Muscat airport collage (Left to right – Muscat Airport Terminal, Ongoing construction work at Muscat Airport, Artist’s impression of new Muscat airport) © Gaurav Sharma, August, 2013.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hawaii’s crude reality: Being a petrohead costs!

In a break from the ‘crude’ norm for visits to the USA, the Oilholic packed his bags from California and headed deep out to the Pacific and say ‘Aloha’ to newest and 50th United State of Hawaii. It’s good to be here in the Kona district of the Big Island and realise that Tokyo is a lot closer than London.

It is interesting to note that Hawaii is the only US state still retaining the Union Jack in its flag and insignia. The whole flag itself is a deliberate hybrid symbol of British and American historic ties to Hawaii and traces its origins to Captain John Vancouver – the British Naval officer after whom the US and Canadian cities of Vancouver and Alaska’s Mount Vancouver are named.

What’s not good being here is realising that a 1.3 million plus residents of these northernmost isles in Polynesia pay the most for their energy and electricity needs from amongst their fellow citizens in the US. It is easy to see why, as part dictated by location constraints Hawaii presently generates over 75% of its electricity by burning Petroleum.

Giving the geography and physical challenges, most of the crude oil is shipped either from Alaska and California or overseas. Furthermore, the Islands have no pipelines as building these is not possible owing to volcanic and seismic activity. Here’s a view of one active crater – the Halema’uma’u in Kilauea Caldera (see above right). You can actually smell the sulphur dioxide while there as the Oilholic was earlier today. In fact the entire archipelago was created courtesy of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. The Big Island’s landmass of five plates is created out of Mauna Kea (dormant) and Mauna Loa (partly active) and the island is technically growing at moment as Kilaueu still spews lava which cools and forms land.

So both crude and distillates have to be moved by oil tankers between the islands or tanker lorries on an intra-island basis. The latter  creates regional pricing disparities. For instance in Hilo, the commercial heart of the Big Island and where the tanker docking stations are, gasoline is cheaper than Kona by almost 40-50 cents per gallon. The latter receives its distillates by road once tankers have docked at Hilo.

The state has two refineries both at Kapolei on the island of O‘ahu 20 miles west of capital Honolulu – one apiece owned by Tesoro and Chevron. The bigger of the two has a 93,700 barrels per day (bpd) and is owned by Tesoro; the recent buyer of BP’s Carson facility. However in January Tesoro put its Hawaiian asset up for sale.

Tesoro, which bought the refinery for US$275 million from BHP Petroleum Americas in 1998, said it no longer fitted with its strategic focus on the US Midcontinent and West Cost. The company expects the sale to be completed by the end of the year. Its Hawaiian retail operations, which include 32 gas stations, will also be part of the deal. Chevron operates Kapolei’s other refinery with a 54,000 bpd capacity. Between the two, there is enough capacity to meet Hawaii’s guzzling needs and the pressures imposed by US forces operations in the area.

In this serene paradise with volcanic activity and ample tidal movement, power generation from tidal and geothermal is not inconceivable and facilities do exist. In fact, for the remaining 25% of its energy mix, the state is one of eight US states with geothermal power generation and ranks third among them. Additionally, solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity increased by 150% in 2011, making Hawaii the 11th biggest US state for PV capacity. However, it is not nearly enough.

One simple solution that is being attempted is natural gas – something which local officials confirmed to the Oilholic. The EIA has also noted Hawaii’s moves in this direction. Oddly enough, while Hawaii hardly uses much natural gas, it is one of a handful of US states which actually produces synthetic natural gas. Switching from petroleum-based power generation to natural gas for much of Hawaii’s power generation could lower the state’s power bills considerably as the massive disconnect between US natural gas and crude oil prices looks set to continue.

Strong ‘gassy’ moves are afoot and anecdotal evidence here suggests feelers are being sent out to Canada, among others. In August, Hawaii Gas applied for a permit with the Federal Government to ship LNG to Hawaii from the West Coast. While the deliveries will commence later this year, arriving volumes of LNG would be small in the first phase of the project, according to Hawaii Gas. At least it is a start and the State House Bill 1464 now requires public utilities to provide 25% of net electricity sales from renewable sources by December 31, 2020 and 40% of net electricity sales from renewables by December 31, 2030.

That’s all for the moment folks as the Oilholic needs to explore the Big Island further via the old fashioned way which requires no crude or distillates – its the trusty old bicycle! Going back to history, it was Captain James Cook and not Vancouver who located these isles for the Western World in 1778. Regrettably, he got cooked following fracas with the locals in 1779 and peace was not made between Brits and locals until Vancouver returned years later.

Moving away from history, yours truly leaves you with a peaceful view of Punaluʻu or the Black Sand beach (see above left)! It is what nature magnificently created when fast flowing molten lava rapidly cooled and reached the Pacific Ocean. According to a US Park Ranger, the beach’s black sand is made of basalt with a high carbon content. It is a sight to behold and the Oilholic is truly beholden! On a visit there, you have a 99.99% chance of spotting the endangered Hawksbill and Green turtles lounging on the black sand. For once, yours truly is glad there are no bloody pipelines in the area blotting the landscape. More from Hawaii later - keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo 1: Halema’uma’u, Kilauea Caldera. Photo 2: Punaluʻu - the Black Sand beach, Hawaii, USA © Gaurav Sharma 2012.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Tankers in English Bay & Canada's Confidence

The Oilholic headed to downtown Vancouver from the suburbs this afternoon, up on Burrard Street, turning right on Davie Street, down Jervis Street straight through to Sunset Beach in order to get a look in at the English Bay which is quite a sight. Standing bang in the middle of the beach, to your left would be Granville Island, the Burrard Bridge overlooking it and Granville Bridge reaching out to it.

To your right would be two more beaches and Stanley Park on the Vancouver Downtown Peninsula and looking out to the horizon you’ll see pristine waters of the Bay littered with tankers (see image above on the left, click to enlarge). The view is a vindication of Western Canada’s growing crude credentials and its clout in the world of oil & gas exports. Yours truly and other onlookers would often spot the odd oil or LNG tanker on the horizon making its way to or from Vancouver Harbour and docking bays on the inlet towards Port Moody. However, this afternoon the Oilholic counted 12 tankers - the most yours truly has ever counted on five previous visits to the Bay!

There is a new found confidence in the Canadian energy business and a palpable shift in the balance of economic prowess from a manufacturing-led East Coast/Eastern dominated macroeconomic dynamic of the 1950s to a natural resources-led West Coast/Western dominated economy since 2005 or thereabouts. Furthermore, an ever mobile financial services sector with its hubs in Montreal and Toronto now looks increasingly Westwards. Law firms and advisory firms are increasing their presence in Western Canada by expanding practices and a network of partners in Calgary and Vancouver.

Calgary now has more corporate headquarters than Montreal. Of the top 20 most profitable Canadian companies by exchange filings in 2010, eight were natural resources companies with a Western Canadian slant (viz. Suncor, Barrick, Imperial Oil, PCS, Teck, CNR, Goldcorp and EnCana).

A recently spurned merger between natural resources and banking sector(s) dominated stock exchanges of London (LSE) and Toronto (TSX) would have been ideal. But much to the dismay of the Oilholic, the Canadians involved wanted to go it alone and whether you agree or not. In more ways than one LSE and TSX are rivals, especially when it comes to attracting mining companies.

Switching tack to big shots in Ottawa – well to begin with Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an Alberta man. Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and the inimitable Rt. Hon. Joe Oliver – the country’s Natural Resources Minister and the most vocal among his G7 peers with an identical ministerial portfolio – are all ‘Western’ Canadians.

Having visited Canada on an annual basis since 2001, the Oilholic has seen the transformation of Canadian politics and the country’s economy first hand and it has been extraordinary in a positive sense. Harper’s “ocean of oil soaked sand” in Northern Alberta has more of the crude stuff than any other crude exporting country bar Saudi Arabia. Let’s not forget the Saudis’ reserves position has been verified by Aramco, Canada’s has been subjected to scrutiny by half world’s independent verifiers of different political leanings and persuasions.

The total value Canada’s natural resources according to various estimates at 2009 prices comes in at US$1.1 trillion to US$1.6 trillion, with the bituminous bit and shale alone accounting for at least 45% per cent of that depending on which financial analyst or economist you speak to.

“Canada’s biggest advantage as an oil exporter in the eyes of the world is that it’s no Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, in a business full of unsavoury characters, dealing with Canadians makes for a welcome change,” quips one patriotic analyst on condition of anonymity.

In the oil business there are no moral absolutes and no linear path to the Promised ‘Crude’ Land. Canada will have its fair share of challenges related to extracting, refining and marketing the oil. The will to do so is certainly there and so are the buyers. The Oilholic’s timber trade analogy has won him quite a few beers from Canadians and pragmatic macro analysts who loved it. There is an unassailable truth here – American dithering and often unjust punitive action against Canadian timber exports in the 1990s lead a Liberal party-governed Canada to look Eastwards to Japan and China.

Fast forward to 2011-2012 and history is repeating itself with President Obama’s dithering over Keystone XL (although TransCanada’s reputation in relation to leaks has not helped either). Akin to the 1990s, there are other buyers in town for the Canadian crude stuff, with India joining the tussle for Canadian attention along with Japan, South Korea and China.

When a Liberal-led Canadian federal government looked elsewhere in the 1990s to market and sell its dominant natural resource at the time, if the US government thinks a present-day Conservative government with a parliamentary majority and a forceful character like Stephen Harper at the helm won’t do likewise (and sooner) when it comes to oil, then they are kidding themselves more than anyone else.

The presence of Korean, Indian and Chinese NOCs can be felt alongside top 20 IOCs in Calgary. Not a single oil major worth its weight in crude oil has chosen to ignore the oil sands, just as onlookers at Sunset Beach can’t ignore tankers on the English Bay horizon. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo: Oil & LNG tankers on the English Bay horizon, British Columbia, Canada © Gaurav Sharma 2012.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Californian emission law, refiners & Muir woods

When in town, spending a few hours watching shipping lanes in the San Francisco bay area is an old pastime of the Oilholic’s, especially when it comes to spotting oil tankers which bring in some of the crude stuff to the area's refiners.

This morning, while sitting on Pier 39, yours truly spotted three pass by along with a few loaded containers - all following a well practised drill moving along a designated route under the Golden Gate Bridge, past Alcatraz Island before turning away left. Away from eye-view and the rather tranquil shipping lanes, there is local trouble at the mill for the already beleaguered refiners who have to contend with overcapacity and stunted margins.

It comes in the shape of a gradual but steady implementation of California's (relatively) new environmental regulations by 2020. This piece of regulation is known as California's Global Warming Solutions Act a.k.a. the AB 32, the central objective of which is to reduce Californian greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

According to the California Air Resources Board, in 2013 it will begin enforcing a state-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions. The cap-and-trade programme coupled with the Low Carbon Fuel Standard would give California some of the most stringent air quality and emissions laws in the USA, although a spokesperson refused to describe it as such.

Ratings agency Moody’s believes refining and marketing (R&M) companies Tesoro, Alon USA, Phillips 66 and Valero are particularly exposed to the gradual implementation of the new environmental rules.

"California's increasingly stringent environmental regulations will challenge refiners over the next decade, increasing operating costs and negatively impacting refined product demand. These new rules will reduce cash flow that could be used for debt repayment or strategic growth and could discourage refiners from investing in California," says Gretchen French, a senior analyst and Vice President at Moody’s.

Among the majors, Chevron which has a significant refinery capacity in California, is likely to feel the impact most among its peers. Nonetheless as ratings agencies generally tend to rate integrated oil & gas companies higher than R&M only companies, Chevron should have no immediate concerns. The company's long-term debt is rated by Moody’s Aa1 with a stable outlook according to a communiqué dated March 27th.

The agency believes Chevron's ratings reflect its significant scale and globally integrated operations, its diversified upstream reserves and production portfolio, and a strong financial profile, which is underpinned by strong cash flow coverage metrics, low financial leverage, robust capital returns, and a conservative approach to shareholder rewards.

Furthermore, Chevron's strong liquidity profile is characterised by free cash flow generation, ongoing asset sales proceeds, and a large cash position. Chevron's liquidity is further supported by US$6 billion of unused committed credit facilities due in December 2016. Moody's does not expect the new rules to affect the ratings for Tesoro, Alon, Phillips 66 or Valero either over the near to medium term, but the new standards could limit credit accretion.

"Well diversified companies with high financial flexibility and strong liquidity will shoulder the new burdens and weaker demand most easily. Refiners with efficient cost structures and high distillate yields will retain the greatest advantage," French says.

Additionally, a pool of commentators here in the Bay Area seem to suggest that most players – especially Tesoro and Valero – have had a fair bit of time to indulge in regulatory risk mitigation. This piece of legislation was to be expected as California has admirably been a state keen on conservation, forestry and the environment.

The “Father of the US National Parks” – John Muir – an author, naturist and an early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the USA did most of his life’s important work here in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. In 1908, Muir who also founded one the country’s most important conservation organisation – the Sierra Club – had a national park named after him. This amazing redwood forest - the Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco - now provides joy to countless visitors among whom the Oilholic was one this afternoon.

More than six miles of trails are open for visitors to experience an easy walk on the valley floor through the primeval redwood forest. Though the forest is naturally quiet, the Oilholic is in agreement with the US National Park Service, that people are key to preserving the ancient tranquillity of an old-growth forest in our noisy, modern world. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo 1: Oil Tanker in the San Francisco Bay Area shipping lane. Photo 2: Valero Pump. Photo 3: Collage of Muir Woods National Monument, California, USA © Gaurav Sharma.

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