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Trump faces big decisions on energy industry rescue as U.S. runs out of places to store abundance of oil

President Trump arrives to speak with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration is considering government loans to help out the oil and gas industry.
President Trump arrives to speak with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration is considering government loans to help out the oil and gas industry. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The White House’s scramble to contain an energy market crisis became harder on Monday, when U.S. crude oil prices plunged more than 20 percent, an oil services company declared bankruptcy, and a flotilla of about 20 Saudi Arabian supertankers continued their approach to the Gulf of Mexico.

The timing and optics couldn’t be worse. With the U.S. oil industry running out of places to store production and consumption of auto, truck and jet fuel crippled by the novel coronavirus, the White House is under growing pressure from Republicans to address the falling oil prices and stop the Saudi tankers from unloading and adding to the oversupply.

Citing falling oil prices and mounting job losses, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said in a recent tweet: “My message to the Saudis: TURN THE TANKERS THE HELL AROUND.”

The price of U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil has fallen about 90 percent since the beginning of the year. Trump has for three years cheered the idea of low gasoline prices, but prices have now slumped so much that the dynamic risks causing mass layoffs in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota. The U.S. economy is already reeling because of the coronavirus pandemic, and economic shocks caused by the oil crisis are making things worse.

The United States routinely imports small amounts of Saudi oil, which helps U.S. refiners optimize their facilities for different grades of oil. But the new wave of tankers from the Saudi kingdom will arrive as President Trump is being pressed to do something to aid U.S. oil and gas companies and help navigate an oil glut caused by the coronavirus.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Sunday that the Trump administration is considering government loans to help out the industry, an extreme step to try to limit more economic damage.

Markets, however, are moving faster than the administration. Not only did the price for June delivery drop to about $13, but the price of oil for as late as September also fell, a sign that traders lack confidence in a sharp recovery.

Instead, investors are expecting the oversupply to increase, even though Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries vowed to slash output by 9.7 million barrels a day after diplomatic intervention by Trump earlier this month.

Thanks to stay-at-home orders and the cratering U.S. economy, consumption of car, truck and jet fuel has tumbled 31 percent since March 13 as people comply. Pioneer Natural Resources chief executive Scott Sheffield estimates that production cuts totaling 15 million to 20 million barrels a day are needed.

“It’s not over,” said Antoine Halff, co-founder and chief analyst at Kayrros, an energy data analytics company. “I think you still have tremendous amount of oversupply.” He said the pressures that turned prices topsy-turvy last week “are not going to alleviate very soon.” And though inventories aren’t full yet, companies are buying up space in anticipation of an overflow soon, said Halff, former chief analyst at the International Energy Agency.

What Trump once called “energy dominance” suddenly looks like weakness. Trump wants to help the industry, which he said on Friday had been “unnecessarily hurt.” In addition, a dozen senators from Republican states have been urging him to do something. So, the president has directed Mnuchin and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette to come up with a plan to channel funds to the industry. “We will never let the great U.S. oil & gas industry down,” Trump tweeted.

“The industry has worked too hard to get the U.S. to a place of energy dominance,” said John Kilduff, founding partner at the asset management firm Again Capital, who was called by one senior administration official. “I said we don’t want to lose that. We should give them aid, as crazy as that sounds.”

In conversations with independent analysts, senior administration officials have floated a variety of ideas including the imposition of tariffs on imported crude oil; purchasing oil in the ground and leaving it there until prices rebound; providing cash in return for equity stakes in faltering companies; and creating a government lending program similar to one for the airline industry.

The Federal Reserve could provide backing to some oil companies, just as it is doing with other businesses short on credit.

The president could also try to build on his diplomatic work to persuade Saudi Arabia to divert some of the tankers heading this way. Saudi Arabia has announced cutbacks in production effective May 1, but the decision to send these tankers to the United States was made a month ago when the Saudis were still trying to flood the global markets in a dispute with Russia.

And U.S. purchasers already own the oil.

“What we don’t want is to come out of this pandemic and have an energy sector that is really weak so that Russia and Saudi Arabia dominate again,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who has met with Trump twice recently.

“He’s really, really supportive,” Sullivan said, “He wants to look at all the tools available. He recognizes how important this is to the country.”

The most likely move would be to let companies lease storage space in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease the supply glut.

It would be easier to buy supplies for the reserve, which has about 79 million barrels of spare capacity. “We’re going to have that filled up pretty soon,” Trump said Friday, “and we’re doing it at a very, very low cost.” But that requires an appropriation, and Democrats in Congress are reluctant to approve money to bail out the industry without helping the renewable energy business, too, by extending tax credits. Trump doesn’t want to do that.

American Petroleum Institute President Michael J. Sommers said in an interview that the oil and gas industry opposes any measure that would treat the petroleum industry differently from other sectors of the economy. But the API did write a letter to the secretaries of commerce and energy and the U.S. trade representative urging that they insist China fulfill its commitment under the Phase 1 trade agreement to buy $18.5 billion more U.S. energy this year than it did in 2017, including crude oil and liquefied natural gas.

Any of these measures would require a leap of faith for Republicans who have shied away from such government interference in market swings. Although the administration isn’t embracing any of these ideas yet, Robert McNally, president of the Rapidan Energy Group and a former National Security Council staffer, said, “Nothing forces oilmen and conservative politicians to lose their principles faster than a price bust.”

Usually, incumbent presidents want falling gasoline prices; few items correlate as closely to reelection. “But this is an unprecedented year,” said Jason Bordoff, head of Columbia University’s global energy center. “No one is driving, so there is not much concern with gasoline prices, and the acute pain in the economy is much larger in politically important states.”

Both Sullivan and his fellow Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas are up for reelection.

Meanwhile, companies are stumbling forward.

Oil service firms continue to lay off more workers as the nation’s drilling rig count plunged to 465 on Friday, the fifth consecutive week of decline and down 53 percent from a year ago, according to the oil field service company Baker Hughes.

The amount of oil fed into refineries sank to its lowest level since September 2008, when the financial crisis hit.

The financial sector could feel the ripple effects as oil companies carrying high levels of debt face deadlines for loan or bond payments.

Fitch Ratings said last week that eight of the top 10 “bonds of concern” were energy companies, led by Chesapeake Energy, California Resources and Diamond Offshore. On Monday, Diamond filed for bankruptcy. Another leading shale oil and gas ­producer, Whiting Petroleum, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Energy companies account for 60 percent of all bonds of concern, according to Fitch.

Even major oil companies have seen their stock prices swoon. ExxonMobil shares have tumbled 38 percent since the beginning of the year, and the market valuation of Netflix now matches ExxonMobil’s.

The most pain is being felt in the shale oil and gas sector. The explosion of production over the past decade from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota to the Permian Basin in West Texas has made the United States the largest oil producer in the world, with Russia and Saudi Arabia close behind.

Saudi Arabia and Russia, which waged a brief but punishing price war just as world demand collapsed, wanted guarantees of lower production from the United States, whose output in Texas alone outstripped the output of Iraq.

But while the U.S. government hasn’t made any such guarantee, U.S. production is shrinking on its own. Costs for shale oil run anywhere from $15 to $35 a barrel, and even after bouncing back from negative prices, a barrel of the U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude still cost $16.89.

Continental Resources, founded and owned mostly by informal Trump adviser Harold Hamm, has halted most of its production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale basin, according to Reuters. It had been producing about 150,000 barrels a day at the beginning of the year.

It was the latest blow for Continental, which cut capital spending by 55 percent March 19 and cut oil output by 30 percent April 7.

“At $30-plus, the industry survives but crippled. At $25 or below for several months to a year the industry is decimated and will not return,” Pioneer’s Sheffield said in an email. “We will have lost our advantage as a global industry producer.”

During the week ending April 17, U.S. oil production slipped 900,000 barrels below its record 13.1 million-barrels-a-day level just a month ago, according to the American Petroleum Institute. BP cut 70,000 barrels a day of production; more production cuts may be imminent. U.S. production will soon drop 2 million barrels a day, Brouillette, the energy secretary, told the Group of 20 nations recently.

Governors in oil-producing states are doing what they can. In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) delayed for two months the collection of the state severance tax, which brings in $40 million a month, including oil, gas and timber. But the payments can only be suspended or forgiven by the legislature.

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum (R) convened the three-member North Dakota Industrial Commission to consider a rule change that would allow producers to shut in oil without being penalized by losing their leases.

Some oil executives have even dusted off the role of the Texas Railroad Commission, which set production quotas from the Great Depression until 1972. It served as a model for the OPEC cartel.

Now Pioneer Natural Resources and Parsley Energy, the second- and 10th-largest oil producers in the state, want the commission to impose across-the-board output cuts of 1 million barrels a day to avoid “disorderly shut-downs.” The API opposes such a move, but the three-person commission will meet on May 5 and 20, and the outcome is a toss-up.

Meanwhile, the scramble for storage continues. The number of tankers being used as floating storage has increased from around 10 in February to more than 60 today, carrying a record 160 million barrels of oil. The price of renting a tanker has soared from about $20,000 a day in February to more than $150,000 a day last week.

API’s Sommers says companies are asking the Bureau of Land Management for permission to store oil in pipelines on federal lands and allow companies to suspend production without losing their leases.

He says that in late April or early May the industry could hit a “storage wall.”

Sheffield says that even if supply and demand come into balance, storage at record highs will depress prices for years to come. He said that the “market is telling us we should not drill another well in the U.S.” for the next two years.

Kilduff agrees. “The overhang is going to be the killer,” he said.

One irony of the current crisis is that some oil companies’ requests echo the demands of climate activists who want to leave oil in the ground and “stop the money pipeline.”

“We’ve known all along we had more oil than we could burn, if we took climate change seriously,” Middlebury College professor and climate activist Bill McKibben said in an email. “And now we’re in a moment when we have more oil than we could possibly use. The answer seems to me to be clear: keep it safely in the ground. Forever.”

Others take away a different climate lesson.

“This is the most extreme demand-side response anyone could imagine,” Columbia’s Bordoff said. “When people talk about getting off oil, here we have 4 billion people on lockdown and oil demand is only down 30 percent. It’s a sobering reminder of how hard it is to get off of oil and decarbonize the global economy.”