For a glimpse into what the global oil price might look like one day, a good place to look is the Dutch port of Rotterdam.
There, at a key hub for Europe’s oil trading and refining, crude imported from the U.S. is determining the price for an aspiring benchmark for North Sea oil one-third of the time, according to Argus Media.
That a U.S. grade is even considered for inclusion in a reference price for more than half the world’s crude underscores the sea change in global oil markets over the past decade.
America’s shale boom has driven the nation’s production up by about a third since 2016, with exports surging to Europe as well as Asia. At the same time, North Sea output has plateaued, forcing pricing agencies such as S&P Global Platts, which sets the region’s main benchmark, and Argus to widen the number of grades underpinning their benchmarks.
“The U.S. is an important new competitor” in terms of determining prices, said Olivier Jakob, the managing director of Petromatrix GmbH, a Zug, Switzerland-based researcher. “It is something that is pretty new, so for now you stay with the same way that you were pricing the North Sea, but there’s going to be increased competition.”
Traders and analysts have long argued that the global oil industry’s main reference price, which is based on cargoes loaded in the North Sea, needs an overhaul to reflect weaker regional production. But there are no signs that Platts’ Dated Brent is about to cede its dominant position as a benchmark any time soon. Multiple oil-producing countries the world over link the price of their barrels to Platts’ assessment, while crude futures are ultimately tied to it as well.
Platts said late last year that it would consider including new grades, including WTI, in its Dated Brent assessment. Last month, after a consultation, it said that there were no immediate plans to do so, instead considering the value of North Sea crude delivered to Rotterdam.
There’s little doubt the influence of American crude is growing in the region. Shipments to Europe averaged 560,000 barrels a day last year, up from about 100,000 in 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The five North Sea grades that make up the Dated Brent benchmark produced 960,000 barrels a day on average in 2018.
Some traders — especially those with U.S. barrels — previously said they would favor a global benchmark that incorporated both WTI and Brent. Others, mindful that the 660,000 barrel-a-day Johan Sverdrup field in the North Sea is due to produce its first oil later this year, oppose such a widening.
European producers will have to face increased competition from the U.S. either way. Occidental Petroleum Corp., one of the largest drillers in the Permian, is already exporting 10 percent of its production, its CEO said last week. With U.S.’s production forecast at 12.3 million barrels a day this year, it will far eclipse supply from the likes of the U.K. and Norway.
The U.K. production sank from about 3 million barrels a day of oil in the late 1990s to 1.1 million last year, according to the U.K. Oil and Gas Authority. Norway pumped 1.5 million barrels a day last year, compared with 1.7 million in 2011. That dynamic will only make U.S. crude more important — as a source of supply and as a way to determine prices.
“WTI is already being factored into the price of North Sea and West African crudes,” says Sandy Fielden, analyst at Morningstar Inc., based in Austin, Texas. “As long as there is too much WTI in the U.S., it will get demand from overseas.”
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