Photo: Orlan offshore platform - Sakhalin-1 project in the Okhotsk Sea, Russia (for illustration purposes); Source: ExxonMobil

Despite strong rebound, Rystad sees hard times ahead for Russia’s upstream sector

Despite the resilience shown by Russia’s upstream sector, which rebounded under pressure caused by sweeping sanctions imposed due to the Ukraine crisis, Rystad Energy, an energy intelligence group, believes that the country is not out of the woods yet as “the worst is yet to come.”

Rystad Energy informed on Wednesday that even though Russia has so far demonstrated high resilience to the unprecedented pressure imposed by Europe and the U.S. hard times lie ahead for this country as “the worst is yet to come.” According to the firm’s research, Russian crude output is expected to remain high for the remainder of the Northern Hemisphere summer. However, it is expected to decline again due to a countrywide economic downturn and a drop in refinery runs and crude exports.

Furthermore, Russia has actively ramped up oil production in June and July following a huge 1 million barrels per day (bpd) drop in April, with the July total almost recovering to the level seen before the start of the country’s conflict with Ukraine in late February. Rystad Energy explained that this “outstanding growth” was primarily driven by higher refinery runs while crude exports shrank after reaching record levels that exceeded 5 million bpd in April and May.

The energy intelligence group’s new estimate for average 2022 Russian crude production is 9.6 million bpd – up by 200,000 bpd from the June outlook – but the impending European Union (EU) embargo on imports coupled with domestic economic challenges mean “major hurdles lie ahead” for Russia.

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Based on Rystad Energy estimates, Russian crude exports have been on a downward trajectory this summer, falling to 4.6 million bpd in June and 4.2 million bpd in July. Both Europe and Asia reduced purchases of Russian crude in June, while July exports to Europe increased slightly as the region prepares for an oil embargo set to take effect in December. On the other hand, exports to Asia continued to drop, which could be explained by the discounts proposed for Russian blends being less generous than before.

Rystad points out that the exact reason is hard to determine as trading operations with Russian crude dropped off the radar after February, making it difficult to track the spreads between Russian blends and benchmarks. The energy intelligence provider outlines that price reporting services have been reporting various numbers. In line with this, Argus had the Urals discount to Brent in July reduced to $15 per barrel, while rivals Platts and Reuters did not change their estimates of between $30 and $40 per barrel.  

Daria Melnik, senior analyst at Rystad Energy, remarked: “Russia’s upstream sector has rebounded but this resilience is short-term. Domestic consumption has helped fill the gap during the peak demand season, but overseas demand for Russian blends has dipped spelling trouble further ahead. The upcoming EU embargo remains an unknown factor, when and where it will impact is not yet clear, but it will hasten the decline expected this autumn.”

Source: Rystad Energy
Source: Rystad Energy

Russia’s domestic market has picked up the slack, says Rystad, elaborating that some crude volumes were redirected from exports to the domestic market for refining. The energy intelligence firm underlind that refinery runs demonstrated “outstanding” month-over-month growth in June and July of 390,000 bpd and 330,000 bpd, respectively, and reached 5.8 million bpd in July versus 5 million bpd in May.

Moreover, higher margins coupled with seasonal demand growth inside the country were the main drivers. As domestic oil prices depend directly on realized Urals prices in the global market, huge discounts made refinery feedstock much cheaper. As a result, domestic refineries increased their production to take advantage of cheaper barrels, and local demand for gasoline and other products increased, which more than offset the drop in oil product prices.

Since some borders are closed and there are fewer flights to choose from, more Russians selected alternative vacation options, such as domestic road trips, creating additional demand for traditionally higher seasonal consumption. In addition, Russian refiners supplied more oil products to the Middle East and Africa.

In lieu of this, Rystad Energy expects Russian crude output to stay high for the rest of the summer, supported by seasonally high oil product demand, but the second half of the year will be challenging for oil producers as the effect of the EU oil embargo will gain steam, while the seasonal drop in refinery runs will be aggravated by an expected overall economic downturn in the country.

Looming EU embargo with yet unknown consequences  

Rystad Energy highlighted that while the EU embargo on Russian crude is set to come into force by the end of this year, it is not possible to ban 90 per cent of crude imports coming from Russia immediately. This means that the phase-out will be gradual during 2022.

With this in mind, the energy intelligence group sees the possibility of lags in embargo implementation as well as low compliance during the first months of 2023 due to economic woes and the logistics involved in replacing so many barrels. The company says that EU imports of Russian crude are expected to dwindle to just 600,000 bpd by December 2022 – a nearly 2.5 million bpd drop from the 3 million bpd before the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

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Rystad Energy forecasts that Russia will still be able to redirect a significant portion of crude volumes – or 75 per cent in the firm’s base case – to Asia and other markets. In line with this, it was recently reported that the UK – where the world’s leading insurance market, Lloyd’s of London, is located – decided to postpone the ban on providing Russian vessels with marine insurance, thereby giving Russian producers additional time to better prepare for new sanctions.

Rystad further emphasizes that the new date for the ban has not yet been disclosed. The energy intelligence provider states that the availability of rerouting options means that the 2.5 million bpd drop in Russian exports to the EU will not have a one-to-one impact on Russian upstream supply. Russian export losses are estimated at only 500,000 bpd to 600,000 bpd by December 2022.

Decline to start setting in when autumn comes

Rystad Energy believes that refinery runs are expected to start declining in the autumn, as oil product demand is set to pass its peak, but the firm sees a more pronounced drop in refinery runs than in quiet years. This is due to a significant fall in economic activity, which is expected in the third and fourth quarters of 2022 since the effect of financial and sectoral sanctions will begin to be felt.

The energy intelligence group informes that the Central Bank of Russia expects the national economy to collapse by between 7.5 per cent and 8 per cent year-over-year in the third quarter and by between 10 per cent and 11 per cent in the fourth quarter of this year. Due to this, lower economic activity will put pressure on refinery runs, which are expected to drop to 5.2 million bpd by December, or by 700,000 bpd as compared to December last year. 

Bearing all this in mind, Russia will have to cope with a national economic crisis as well as source new markets for its oil and oil products when the EU embargo comes into force. Rystad indicates that after the summer ramp-up, crude production is expected to fall again by 1.1 million bpd, but further recovery will be more challenging and will take more time. The firm also disclosed that a major uncertainty in the production forecast is cast by the widely reported initiative to impose a price cap on Russian crude.

Rystad Energy underscores that it is still unclear how this price cap would work, what the level would be, and which countries would support this idea, since, even if Russian companies agree to sell crude at a fixed price, a political decision could be made to forbid any crude imports to countries taking part in the initiative. In this case, crude production may drop much more significantly than currently expected, thus, Rystad Energy awaits more details on this initiative to be able to estimate Russian crude output in this price cap scenario.