By Alex Kimani
- Supertanker rates reached record levels earlier this year.
- Very Large Crude Carrier rates have plunged to just $38,000 per day, falling some 62% from a few weeks ago.
- OPEC+ cuts and waning SPR releases are short-term volume headwinds in the oil transportation sector.
Earlier in the year, supertanker freight rates hit record levels as traders scrambled to park crude in storage to take advantage of a record gap between spot and future prices shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. Freight rates for very large crude-oil carriers (VLCC) along the Middle East Gulf to China route reached as high as $180,000 a day while VLCC time charter rates for floating storage jumped to as much as $120,000 per day.
But the situation has now reversed with supertanker rates plunging sharply. According to Bloomberg, ships capable of hauling 2 million barrels of crude are now earning about $38,000 a day, down 62% from just weeks ago after OPEC+ cut production and reduced releases from US reserves lowered seaborne volumes, Bloomberg reports.
“Clearly OPEC+ cuts and waning SPR releases would both be short-term volume headwinds. They cut production from the first of November and you would expect some lag, and we are seeing activity in the Middle East cooling off somewhat. That’s the simple explanation,”Lars Bastian Ostereng, an analyst at Arctic Securities has told Bloomberg.
Lower freight rates are encouraging some crude to travel longer distances. For instance, Bloomberg has reported that a South Korean refiner bought 2 million barrels of U.S. crude for March arrival. Meanwhile, offers for long-haul U.S. cargoes for delivery to Asia have declined partly due to lower shipping costs.
But things could not be more different in the natural gas arena.
Energy Crisis Sparks Mad Dash For Floating LNG Terminals
Demand for LNG floating storage and regasification units (LNG-FSRUs) has increased sharply this year, with Europe facing an energy supply squeeze as Russia has progressively cut pipeline gas flows.
Demand for LNG imports has intensified after the ruptures on the key Nord Stream pipeline system quashed any prospect of Russia turning its gas taps back on. This has forced dozens of countries in Europe to turn to FSRUs or floating LNG terminals, which are essentially mobile terminals that unload the super-chilled fuel and pipe it into onshore networks.
Currently, there are 48 FSRUs in operation globally, with Rystad Energy revealing that all but six of them are locked into term charters.
According to energy think-tank Ember, the EU has lined up plans for as many as 19 new FSRU projects at an estimated cost of €9.5bn.
The biggest beneficiaries are Korean shipbuilding, for whom FSRUs are a major revenue-generator. Korea is the definitive world leader in this field. According to local media, Korean shipbuilders managed to book 46% more orders so far, YoY. And the government’s goal is for the country to grab 75% of the market share by 2030.
The setup couldn’t be better. With the supply of these vessels so tight, the cost of charters into Germany has doubled year-on-year to $200,000 a day.
“Last year there was a surplus of FSRUs and this year there is a deficit. Up until now there have been sufficient vessels in the market, but as most have now been taken, it’s becoming more challenging,” Per Christian Fett, the global head of LNG at shipbrokers Fearnley LNG in Oslo, has told Bloomberg.
Texas-based Excelerate Energy Inc. is sending three FSRUs to Europe with combined throughput capacity to import 15 billion cubic meters of gas, or about 10% of the pipeline and LNG imports from Russia in 2021. Demand for the terminals in Europe is so strong that it could make it less affordable for emerging nations to use FSRUs for their own needs. “The risk is real that underutilized facilities in other regions of the world could be relocated to Europe, existing charter terms permitting,”Kaushal Ramesh, a senior analyst at consultant Rystad Energy, has said.
New Dutch terminal
The Netherlands has taken its first delivery of LNG at a new terminal, boosting Europe’s efforts to wean itself off Russian gas. Previously, the Netherlands could only import LNG through Rotterdam; however, that has changed with the commissioning of two FSRUs, the Golar Igloo and Eemshaven LNG, moored in Eemshaven. The FSRU project was completed in record time Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. With the pair of floating ships now supplying gas to the landlocked Czech Republic and Germany.
“The arrival of the new LNG terminal is an important step not only for the Netherlands, but for the whole of Europe to completely phase out the dependence on energy from Russia as quickly as possible,” Rob Jetten, Dutch minister for climate and energy, has declared. FRSUs offer the quickest and most efficient way for Europe to end its reliance on the pipelines that bring in large quantities of natural gas from Russia.
Europe has been working hard to wean itself off Russian energy commodities ever since the latter invaded Ukraine. The European Union has banned Russian coal and plans to block most Russian oil imports by the end of 2022 in a bid to deprive Moscow of an important source of revenue to wage its war in Ukraine.
But ditching Russian gas is proving to be more onerous than Europe would have hoped for. Whereas supplies of Russian pipeline gas–the bulk of Europe’s gas imports before the Ukraine war–are down to a trickle, Europe has been hungrily scooping up Russian LNG. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the bloc’s imports of Russian liquefied natural gas jumped by 41% Y/Y in the year through August.
“Russian LNG has been the dark horse of the sanctions regime,” Maria Shagina, research fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, has told WSJ. Importers of Russian LNG to Europe have argued that the shipments are not covered by current EU sanctions and that buying LNG from Russia and other suppliers has helped keep European energy prices in check.
Maybe Europe’s LNG imports from Russia can be justified on a purely economic basis.
Natural gas prices in Europe have plunged over the past few weeks with CNBC reporting that a “Wave of LNG tankers is overwhelming Europe in an energy crisis and hitting natural gas prices.” According to MarineTraffic via CNBC, 60 LNG tankers, or ~10% of the LNG vessels in the world, are currently sailing or anchored around Northwest Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Iberian Peninsula.
It’s a fair bet that a good chunk of those vessels originated from the United States.
Europe’s natural gas demand has skyrocketed as the EU tries to lower its reliance on Russian natural gas following its invasion of Ukraine. Europe has displaced Asia as the top destination for the U.S. LNG, and now receives 65% of total exports. The EU has pledged to reduce its consumption of Russian natural gas by nearly two-thirds before the year’s end while Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have vowed to eliminate Russian gas imports outright. Unlike pipeline gas, supercooled LNG is much more flexible and can be shipped from far-flung regions, including the U.S. and Qatar.
Europe is not alone here. Shipping data has revealed that China has imported nearly 30% more gas from Russia so far this year, typically at a steep discount.
Thankfully, there’s a clear upside to imports of Russian LNG to Europe: the continent has managed to fill its gas stores well ahead of schedule, with Reuter’s gas meter revealing that 90% of the EU gas storage is currently filled.