Archives for category: OPEX

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and is one of the founding members of OPEC. Despite this, their 2.5m bpd of oil production accounts for only 3% of global output. Venezuelan oil production declined over the last decade owing to complex geology and a difficult investment climate. However, several large IOC-operated gas fields offshore Venezuela could now offer some positivity.

The Hydrocarbon El Dorado

Venezuela’s 300bn bbl of oil reserves account for 18% of current global reserves. But 220bn bbls of these reserves are onshore in the Faja, or Orinoco heavy oil belt, which has produced around 1.3m bpd in recent years. Venezuelan heavy oil grades are a key part of world oil supply: many US refineries were designed to take its heavy grades of oil together with lighter Arab crudes, meaning the country is also important for the tanker market. But production from the Faja is expensive and technically challenging, and heavy crudes sell at a discount.

Making Heavy Work Of It

After the election of Hugo Chávez in 1999, Venezuela’s oil industry came under strain as social policies were funded by oil revenues, and reinvestment declined. After the 2003 general strike, 19,000 PDVSA employees were fired and replaced with government loyalists. Furthermore, in 2007, the government looked to capitalize on the high oil price environment by nationalizing international oil companies’ (IOCs’) assets.

Offshore production was always the minor fraction of Venezuela’s output (23%). However, lack of investment in maintenance hit it hard. This was particularly true of the very shallow water production in Lake Maracaibo, which has seen drilling for more than a century. Issues of pipeline leakage and even oil piracy on the lake helped production there decline. In total, output from the Maracaibo-Falcon basin (not exclusively offshore) fell 35% between 2008 and 2015. In total, offshore production is estimated to have dropped by about 38% to 0.57m bpd.

A Brighter And Lighter Future

The current political and fiscal situation in Venezuela offers little suggestion that it will be easy to arrest decline. However, a more permissive attitude to foreign investment may help. In October, agreements were signed to allow Chinese and Bulgarian investment to fund repairs offshore Lake Maracaibo. Perhaps more significant is the promise of gas, where greater IOC participation is permitted.

Trinidad, Venezuela’s very close neighbour, tripled their offshore production from 1998-2005. Venezuela has begun to make moves in the same direction, firstly via the Cardon IV project. The first field here, Perla, started up in 2015 run by an Eni-Repsol joint venture. As the graph shows, this has already had a small, but visible effect on Venezuelan gas output. Perla has reserves of 2.85bn boe and by Phase 3 is set to be producing 1.2 bcfd. This is likely to be added to from 2019 by up to 1 bcfd of output from the long-delayed Mariscal Sucre fields.

So, Venezuela has vast reserves but production has been falling. The political situation, combined with low oil prices, is likely to hinder any rapid turnaround in oil output. However, although progress has been slow, IOC involvement has at least provided some positive impetus for gas production offshore Venezuela.


A few weeks ago, OPEC and other major oil producers agreed to extend 1.73m bpd of production cuts until the end of Q1 2018. Despite this, oil prices have continued to slide, with Brent failing to close above $50/bbl this week. While a range of factors have contributed to this trend, perhaps the most important is US tight oil production. So what is going on in the shale patch? And why does it matter to shipping?

How Unconventional!

If nothing else, US tight oil production retains the ability to surprise. As was noted after the OPEC meeting in May (SIW 1,273), “it remains to be seen if shale production quickly offsets” the cuts. Well, if the early signs are anything to go by, this is clearly not an impossibility.

Tight or shale oil is oil extracted from otherwise almost impermeable geology via “fracking”, a process wherein fluids mixed with sands are pumped at pressure into well bores, creating fractures in the rock through which oil and gas can flow. In terms of oil price dynamics, the key aspect of shale projects is speed: they can have lead times measured in weeks and so are very responsive to changes in oil prices. But in turn, as tight oil production ramps up, it can put pressure on prices, as recent history shows.

Remarkable Resilience

The US tight oil sector really took off in 2011, with production more than tripling from 1.70m bpd to reach a peak of 5.47m bpd in March 2015, as the graph shows. At this point, tight oil accounted for 6% of global oil supply (96m bpd) and equated to 55% of the net growth in supply from 2011. Such rapid supply growth had not been priced into markets, a key factor in the 2014 oil price plunge. A partial revival in mid-2015 was smothered as US drilling was stimulated again. And, since the US land rig count hit a new low of 380 units in May 2016, activity has again been on the up; the November 2016 OPEC deal accelerated this and the land rig count now stands at over 900 units. Tight oil production growth now equates to around 35% of the OPEC cuts. Its resilience (via cost deflation) in the face of lower oil prices continues, it seems, though it may prove self-defeating yet again. Even so, tight oil could now be a long term part of the oil price context. A few years ago, forecasters saw US tight oil production peaking circa 2020. Revised projections taking into account new technologies and updated resource surveys do not see US tight oil output peaking before the 2030s.

More Surprises?

The negative and positive implications for shipping of higher oil prices were covered in detail previously (SIW 1,273). The converse applies to lower oil prices, with offshore suffering from reduced E&P activity but the merchant fleet perhaps seeing benefits from cheaper bunkers and crude oil trade growth. Tight oil also has implications for trade flows. For example, now that export restrictions have been lifted, around 0.7m bpd of crude oil was exported from the US via tankers in Q1 2017.

So a factor that was barely on the radar a decade ago has become a key determinant of oil prices, potentially for the long haul. Moreover, tight oil has a range of ramifications for shipping that merit close monitoring. Once again, shipping appears inextricably linked to a key facet of the global economy. Have a nice day.


Global oil prices were buoyed in Q4 2016 by OPEC’s decision to cut production. Perhaps more surprising still was the extent of compliance with quotas, for an organisation with a past track record of over-production. At their recent meeting, OPEC overcame some members’ objections and agreed to extend the cuts until March 2018. How will this affect the oil price and how does it impact the shipping industry?

Cutting To The Quick

Twenty years ago, OPEC had substantial control over the supply side of the oil market. Today, the rise of shale oil has created doubts that OPEC retains the power to influence the market in a lasting way. This question is still to be resolved, though it is true that the cuts have allowed shale producers a new lease of life in terms of spending (up c.50% in 2017) and drilling (the US land rig count is up 120% y-o-y). However, OPEC are making the most concerted attempt for more than a decade to control supply. As the Graph of the Month shows, past quota compliance has been poor, and indeed for a decade this was effectively acknowledged by the lack of a formal quota.

Cutting Down

The difference recently is that OPEC has actually succeeded in cutting to below the level of the quota, despite allowing some members (such as Iran) to avoid formal cuts. The collective reduction has partly been down to outages (notably in Nigeria and Venezuela). However, it also reflects Saudi Arabia shouldering a lion’s share of cuts (c.0.75m bpd or 55%).

Expectations of an extension to cuts boosted oil prices in the run up to the announcement (though after the meeting, prices fell as investors took profits). Higher prices have a range of ramifications for shipping. One consequence is higher fuel prices, increasing shipowners’ costs unless they can pass this on. Previous periods of high fuel costs pushed owners to slow steam. This mitigated the problem, to some extent, but few ships sped up when prices came down. So currently this would be a difficult trick to repeat.

Cut And Run?

The cuts could also affect tanker demand, either via lower crude and product exports (27% of seaborne trade), or lesser import demand if high prices moderate demand growth. So far, price increases have been moderate, and it seems as if the Saudis in particular have been doing their best to curtail domestic oil usage to protect long-haul export customers (more than 18m bpd, of 47%, of crude trade is exported from the Middle East Gulf).

Perhaps most obviously, the OPEC cuts have brought a modicum of more bullish sentiment to oil companies’ E&P investment decisions. This has helped offshore markets a little, notably through a small upturn in tendering and fixing activity for drilling rigs (Clarkson Research’s average rig rate index is up 2% since end-2016). However, there has been little to no effect on rates in related markets such as OSVs, and most would acknowledge the extreme fragility of any improvement.

So, the widely-trailed extension to OPEC production cuts boosted oil prices during May, although it remains to be seen if shale production quickly offsets this. Oil price dynamics have a mixture of positive and negative effects for shipping, but certainly remain crucial given the key role of oil both for shipping and for the wider economy. Have a nice day!


“Look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves” goes the saying, a mantra the shipping industry has a long taken to heart. In this week’s Analysis, we review trends in ship operating expenses (OPEX) that have taken the total cost base of the shipping industry through the $100 billion barrier for the very first time.

Watching The Pennies!

Of all global industries, perhaps few have had the extreme cost focus of shipping over the past 30 years. During the 1980s recession, any operating “fat” was largely removed with the growth of open registries and a drive to outsourcing. This helped shipping, alongside its near “perfect” competitive economic model, deliver exceptionally cheap and secure freight, in turn a key facilitator of globalisation.

Nice And Lean…

OPEX response since the financial crisis has been relatively modest. Our average OPEX index (using the ClarkSea “fleet” mix and information from Moore Stephens) shows just a 1% decrease in OPEX since the financial crisis to $6,451/day in 2016. By comparison, the ClarkSea Index dropped 71%, from $32,660/day in 2008 to $9,441/day in 2016 (a record low). In part, this modest, albeit painfully achieved, drop reflects upward pressures from an expanding fleet and items such as crew and ever- increasing regulation. However it also reflects the already lean nature of OPEX.

$100 Billion And Counting…

Our estimate for aggregate global OPEX for the world’s cargo fleet has now breached $100 billion for the first time, up from $98 billion last year and $83 billion in 2008. The largest constituent remains crew wages ($43 billion covering 1.4 million crew across the fleet). By comparison aggregate ship earnings for our cargo fleet fell from an eye watering $291 billion in 2008 to $123 billion in 2016!

Cutting The Fat…

One sector that has seen dramatic cost reduction has been offshore. Estimates vary, but 30% seems a reasonable rule of thumb for reductions in OPEX since 2014. While painful, this has been part of a process of making offshore more competitive against other energy sources (offshore contributes 28% of oil production, 31% of gas, and 16% of all energy) and one of the factors behind the increase in sanctioning of offshore projects.

Getting Smarter…

So shipping is one of the leanest industries around but is always under pressure to do more! It seems clear that squeezing cost in the traditional sense, offshore aside, will be pretty challenging — UK media reported on the docking of the 20,150 teu MOL Triumph, highlighting it was manned by only 20 crew! Getting smarter, collecting and using “big data” and technology and automation are all gaining traction. The industry’s fuel bill (accounted for outside of OPEX) is clearly a big target.

This will all require new technology, skills and perhaps new accounting approaches. Plenty of food for thought but it seems like just going on another severe diet won’t work this time. Have a nice day!