West Texas Intermediate, the oil grade most associated with American production, plunged down to -$40 April 20. You read the right. For a while yesterday, sellers had to pay people forty bucks to take a barrel of crude.
As with any product, the business of oil isn’t a once-and-done. It must be produced, shipped and processed, and then the refined product must be shipped and retailed. What happened April 20 is a bottleneck in that process. Production surged ahead of pipeline shipping capacity, leaving some producers with nowhere to put their crude.
The real kicker is that this is not the “negative prices” outcome I predicted a couple weeks back. “All” the April 20 event was was a single facility in a single country running out of future leased storage capacity for the month of May. The April 20 price crash will happen again in the same place and it will be bigger: June WTI futures contracts are now spazzing, and America’s Cushing oil storage and transport nexus undoubtedly will be actually full by then. But even this is nothing but the warmup for the big show.
That will happen when the world runs out of storage.
Numbers are fuzzy in this corner of global oil markets. In part because everyone classifies and categories their oil storage capacity differently. In part because they should (gasoline storage is functionally different from raw oil storage). In part because some countries don’t share data because they’re lazy or secretive. But no one thinks there’s a whole lot of storage capacity left. Global oversupply of crude right now is over 20mpbd (with 30mbpd seeming to be the “average” guestimate). Most folks in the know are now musing that what storage remains will be filled up completely sometime in May or early-June.
And filled up it will be, because that is the express goal of the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi price war started out as a spat with the Russians over carrying the burden of a production cut. It has since expanded into the Saudis targeting the end markets of every single one of what the Saudis’ consider to be inefficient producers. The Saudis are directly targeting markets previously serviced not just by US shale and Russian, but those serviced by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan and Libya and Iraq and Iran and Malaysia and Indonesia and Mexico and Norway and the United Kingdom and Nigeria and Chad and you get the idea.
As of this morning, there are still at least 24 supertankers carrying at least 50 million barrels of Saudi crude en route to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Most will arrive in May, seeking to fill up as much of what remains of U.S. storage as possible. Similar volumes are in route to Europe and even bigger volumes to Northeast Asia. In most cases the destinations are the transshipment nodes that enable distribution of inland-produced oil to coastal locations: Rotterdam, Suez, Singapore, Korea.
Assuming you’ve got deep pockets, and Saudi Arabia’s are some of the world’s deepest, it isn’t a stupid strategy. If the Saudis can push prices firmly negative, it will absolutely crush many of the world’s energy producers. My back-of-envelope math suggest some 20 million barrels per day of production capacity – one-fifth of global output – will go offline for years. And then Riyadh will have what it wants: the ability to raise prices as much as it wants and to reign supreme over the world of oil for at least several years. (There are still a veritable swarm of flies that will need to be dealt with in that particular ointment, but the Saudi plan seems sure of generating plenty of ointment nonetheless.)