One year on

Tank Storage Magazine review

Alex Booth from Kpler looks at how global crude storage levels are adjusting to a post COVID-19 environment

the rapid build-up of crude oil-on-water and the subsequent transition to onshore inventories through the second quarter of 2020 has been well covered, including in a previous article for this publication (see p42 in August/September 2020) Since peaking in early July at
3.77 billion bbl, onshore inventories drew by 770,000 bpd through the second half of the year, hitting 3.64 billion bbl by the end of December 2020. Since that point, global inventories as tracked by Kpler have moved largely sideways. Data to the end of March puts onshore tracked inventories at 3.64 billion bbl, just 5 million bbl lower after a period of three months.


In total, onshore oil storage remains
200 million bbl over levels going into 2021 amid the fact that OECD oil demand is still estimated to be down 10% year-on-year (y/y) while non-OECD demand is still down around 2% y/y. Crude oil-on-water also increased through December 2020 as imports into China were cut at year end. The metric remained stable through January and February 2021 before retreating again through March. This onshoring has come at a cost to in-tank inventories however which have been building. Net changes point to a tighter market overall but not as convincingly as many would like.

Whilst onshore crude oil inventories have largely flatlined so far this year, the macro picture masks significant regional variations. The largest regional draw over the quarter has been tracked in Latin America, down 21 million bbl. Venezuela has drawn consistently since October 2020 as exports outpace production, despite ongoing sanctions. Commercially driven draws have been tracked for facilities in the Bahamas as traders unwind storage plays and release crude into a stronger market. North America, non-China Asia Pacific and Africa also saw modest draws, down between
5-9 million bbl each. China and OECD Europe both built 14 million bbl in the first three months of 2021 although with different determining factors.

The pace of recovery in China has been swift but is showing signs of faltering as the rest of the region struggles to keep pace, and export markets for refined products remain muted. Asia is dependent on Europe for disposal of surplus distillates, but this outlet continues to suffer from weak demand. Crude oil imports to China had rebounded from December 2020 returning to levels seen in the second half of 2020 with imports in the first quarter averaging up 1.8 million bpd y/y. Crude imports into OECD Europe remain severely depressed however, with Q1 2021 down 1.4 million bpd y/y. Despite this fact, inventories in the region still built over the quarter.

Chinese crude inventories have built in both the government strategic petroleum reserves (SPR) and commercial tanks. SPR inventories, as tracked by Kpler, peaked in June 2020 at 407 million bbl, up 28 million bbl y/y. They have largely flatlined since then, ending March 2021 at 403 million bbl. Commercial inventories kept building though the summer as large quantities of cheap US crude were digested from tankers sat offshore. Month end commercial inventories peaked at 560 million bbl in September 2020 and after bottoming out in January 2021 have since rebuilt somewhat leading to levels at the end of March 2021 of 531 million bbl, a draw of 29 million bbl or just
162,000 bpd over the six-month period. As of the end of February 2021, combined crude inventories were up 113 million bbl y/y. By the end of March this delta had dropped to 58 million bbl as crude inventories had already started to build in March 2020 as China was the first economy to be hit by the coronavirus.


The ability for the global crude market to have drawn inventories through the second half of last year rests largely with the changes made by the OPEC+ group to address crude oversupply. Demand has improved in some geographies and sectors, with Asia, the US and petrochemicals performing well. however, these gains have been mitigated by continued lacklustre performance elsewhere. Ongoing lockdowns and restrictions across Europe, rising case rates in India and across Latin America as well as continued barriers to any significant return to normal international travel mean that global oil demand is still severely curtailed. Nonetheless, OPEC+ has managed to maintain discipline in production cuts. While exports have recovered somewhat, averaging
26.1 million bpd so far this year, up from a low of 24.5 million bpd in June/July 2020, current departure levels remain well below those of Q1 2020, which averaged 29.8 million bpd.

In the OPEC+ March 2021 meeting, the group surprised markets by extending their cut pledge, leaving it unchanged, with Saudi Arabia continuing to cut an additional 1 million bpd on a voluntary basis. The decision should not have come as such a surprise, given the lack of significant draws in onshore crude oil inventories and an uncertain picture in the refined products markets at the time.

With ongoing concerns about demand recovery in many parts of the world and the prevalence of data pointing to a continuation of structurally weak oil markets, it is likely that OPEC+ will continue to remain cautious about opening up the taps. Some concessions have been made for countries less dependent on higher oil prices for government budgets, but the overarching trend is for restraint. In fact, OPEC has revised down their official demand growth expectations for the balance of 2021. Concerns surrounding new variants in the US as well as a third wave of infections in Europe have tempered demand growth expectations across the market. This, in combination with ongoing cuts from OPEC+ will likely lead to stagnating inventory draws until later in the year.

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Alex Booth is the head of research at Kpler, a global provider of intelligence solutions for commodity markets. He gave a presentation on this subject as part of The Terminal of Tomorrow, StocExpo’s online conference.

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