Never mind US$35, world's cheapest oil is already close to US$20

A customer refuels his car at a gas station operated by Total SA in Luc-La-Primaube near Rodez, France, on Dec 11, 2015.
A customer refuels his car at a gas station operated by Total SA in Luc-La-Primaube near Rodez, France, on Dec 11, 2015.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - As oil crashed through US$35 (S$49.30) a barrel in New York on Monday (Dec 14), some producers were already living with the reality of much lower prices.

A mix of Mexican crudes is already valued at less than US$28, an 11-year low, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Iraq is offering its heaviest variety of oil to buyers in Asia for about US$25. In western Canada, some producers are selling for less than US$22 a barrel.

"More than one-third of the global oil production is not economical at these prices," said Mr Ehsan Ul-Haq, senior consultant at KBC Advanced Technologies Plc. "Canadian oil producers could have difficulty in covering their operational costs."

Oil has slumped to levels last seen in the global financial crisis in 2009 amid a global supply glut.

While the prices of benchmarks West Texas Intermediate and Brent hover in the US$30s, they represent a category of crude - light and low in sulfur - that is more highly valued because it is easier to refine. Some producers of thicker, blacker and more sulfurous varieties have suffered heavier losses and are already living in the US$20s.

A blend of Mexican crude has plunged 73 per cent in 18 months to US$27.74 on Dec 11, its lowest level since 2004, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Venezuela is experiencing similar lows. Western Canada Select, which is heavy and sulfurous, has slumped 75 per cent to US$21.37, the least in almost eight years.

Other varieties including Ecuador's Oriente, Saudi Arabia's Arab Heavy and Iraq's Basrah Heavy were selling at below US$30, the data show.

Bitumen - which technically is not crude but a heavy black viscous oil that constitutes the so-called tar sands along with clay, sand and water - is trading at around US$13 a barrel, suffering a drop of more than 80 per cent since June 2014.

Crudes of this type trade at a discount to lighter varieties because to process them "refiners have to invest in upgrading facilities such as coking plants, which are very expensive", KBC's Ul-Haq said.

Said Mr Torbjoern Kjus, an analyst at DNB ASA in Oslo: "Most places in the world, a lot of the producers they don't really get the Brent price, and they don't get the WTI price. It's really a dramatic situation that really cannot continue for a very long time for many producers."

Mexico's government insulated itself from the oil slump after it managed to hedge 212 million barrels of planned exports for 2016, using options contracts to secure an average price of US$49 a barrel. The nation's 2015 oil hedge provided it with a bonus of US$6.3 billion.

But not all oil-producing nations are as well protected. Opec member Venezuela's national budget for next year assumes a price of US$40 when its own crude is trading at just above US$30. The country's dollar reserves have fallen by 32 per cent this year to US$14.6 billion.

Even oil prices from Opec, which supplies about 40 per cent of the world's crude, are trading below the main two benchmarks. The daily price of 12 crudes produced by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries stood at US$33.76 a barrel on Monday, the lowest in seven years.

Ironically, those selling at the lowest prices have even more incentive to pump, potentially deepening the glut that is weighing on prices.

"A lot of the producers might want to sell as much at current prices," rather than a level that could be even lower in coming weeks, Mr Abhishek Deshpande, an analyst at Natixis SA, said by e-mail.

That's a distinct possibility, according to Trafigura, the world's third-biggest independent oil trader. "I don't think we have reached the bottom of the cycle yet," Mr Christophe Salmon, chief financial officer at Trafigura, said in an interview on Monday.