3 Energy Sectors Most Threatened by the Coronavirus

Yves here. At least as of when I loaded this post, Mr. Market appeared to be trying to regroup a bit after Monday’s freakout. However, the news on the progress of the coronavirus is still not pretty. For instance, from the Financial Times:

Japan has urged companies to adopt remote working, staggered shifts and online meetings to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, a day after global stocks suffered their worst session in two years on fears over the accelerating international spread of the disease.

An expert government panel warned that Japan was on the brink of a rapid expansion in the virus, with 146 infections confirmed in more than 16 different prefectures, excluding cases from an infected cruise ship and Japanese evacuees from China. In numerous cases the source of the infection was not clear….

Iran said there had been 12 deaths and 61 confirmed coronavirus cases in the country, a sharp rise from the eight fatalities and 43 infected patients it reported a day earlier. Despite the outbreak in Italy, EU authorities said there were no plans to suspend travel across the 26-country Schengen area of visa-free travel…

The expert panel in Japan recommended changing its strategy of keeping the infection out altogether to containing it and slowing its spread. It no longer made sense to test everybody who might have been exposed to the virus, they said, as doing so would overwhelm the healthcare system.

Instead, Japan was asking anybody who felt ill to isolate themselves and said they should only seek medical help if they suffered severe symptoms.

The fact that Japan, which does have a good health system, isn’t able to track disease propagation, is troubling. It raises concerns that that some, perhaps many, are vulnerable at such low viral loads that they are getting sick not via in-person contact but via contaminated surfaces (recall that the Journal of Hospital Infections found that coronaviruses can live as long as nine days on glass, metal, and plastic).

By Alex Kimani, a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com. Originally published at OilPrice

At a time when the energy sector is weighed down by debt and reeling from low commodity prices, American energy producers are now bracing for the biggest demand shock to hit the markets in decades: the effects of the coronavirus outbreak in China and beyond.

The outbreak has already claimed more than 2,600 casualties and infected nearly 80,000 globally, including 3,000 medical staff in China.

While the outbreak may not sweep the globe as swine flu did in 2009, the fear of a global epidemic managed to shave 975 points off the Dow Monday morning, and experts seem to agree that the economic effects of the fallout are likely to be more severe.

UBS recently warned that it could drag global economic growth to near negative levels during the first quarter of the year and cause the worst growth slowdown since the 2008 crash.

The effects are already showing up in companies’ guidance and market reactions, with Apple recently saying that revenue for the March quarter would fall below its initial estimate, citing a temporary hit to global phone supply.

There are indications that suggest the outbreak may be tapering off, with the daily number of new cases in China beginning to decline. However, researchers have warned that it could rebound once Chinese residents return to work and school, and what spooked the markets Monday was a spike in coronavirus cases outside China.

Here are the three energy sectors that are likely to be hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic, and why:

#1 Oil, Grounded by Demand

Oil and natural gas prices have remained low for the past year and could remain that way with the biggest oil importer now grounded.

China, the world’s top oil importer, bought 41.24 million tonnes of crude in 2019, equivalent to 10.04 million barrels per day (bpd). But just two months after the outbreak of the virus, Chinese oil demand is down sharply because of dwindling air travel, road transportation and manufacturing.

China consumes 13 of every 100 barrels of oil that the world produces, and global oil companies are likely to feel the heat to some extent. Bloomberg has reported that Chinese oil demand has dropped by about 3 million barrels a day, or ~20% of total consumption.

The drop marks the largest demand shock in the market since the global financial crisis that ended in 2009. It’s also the most sudden shock the market has suffered since the Sept. 11 attacks nearly two decades ago.

Energy analytics firm S&P Global Platts has warned that the virus could shave global oil demand by as much as 4 percent, or 4.1 million barrels a day, in February and an average daily fall in global demand of 290,000 to one million barrels.

Meanwhile, energy watchdog IEA has said oil demand is likely to fall by 435,000 b/d in 1Q 2020–the first quarterly contraction in more than 10 years–and lowered its 2020 growth forecast by 365,000 b/d to 825,000 b/d.

The EIA is a bit more sanguine and still expects West Texas Intermediate to remain above $50.00/bbl this year and average $55.71 in 2020.

Global demand for jet fuel has taken a big hit after a series of carriers suspended flights to China. Key international airlines that have cancelled or reduced flights to China include British Airways, Lufthansa, American Airlines, United Airlines, Austrian Airlines and Swiss International Air Lines. Other international airlines are also rapidly scaling back flights.

Jet crack spreads–a metric that measures the differential between an oil product and the crude from which it is derived–have already narrowed against Brent crude amid expectations of lower demand. Asian jet fuel refining margins have fallen to the lowest levels in over 10 years. More than 50 million people are affected by a travel lockdown in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak, slowing gasoline consumption.

Last week, some optimism returned to stock markets and oil prices briefly rallied when it appeared that new infections are slowing down. Unfortunately this was short-lived after China changed its methodology of counting the new cases leading to the numbers shooting up considerably and slowing the oil rally. While the negative effects of the epidemic on oil demand are not likely to last, the outbreak could damage the Chinese economy enough to lead to a more prolonged period of subdued demand and oil prices.

Whereas oil producers in places like Iraq and Saudi Arabia could see a 10% drop in profits, those in the United States could lose as much as 60% of their profits due to the much higher break-even price for the average oil well drilled in shale fields at roughly $45 a barrel. Most of the crude oil that China imports comes from Russia, Africa, Iran and other Persian Gulf nations, meaning producers in those regions are likely to feel the heat the most.

#2 Natural Gas, Already A Wreck

Natural gas prices recently tumbled to historical lows and are down nearly 15% since the start of 2020 with excess supply and inventory build up pressuring prices. The coronavirus outbreak is not helping the situation, either.

The global LNG leader Royal Dutch Shell has warned that the coronavirus outbreak is already hurting LNG demand and forcing it to reroute supplies previously earmarked for mainland China.

Yet, according to Ira Joseph, global head of power and gas analytics at S&P Global Platts, the coronavirus outbreak is not fundamentally changing the direction of the LNG market because it was already weak and heading in this direction. The coronavirus outbreak is seen acting more as a catalyst for this historic price collapse.

And the situation might not improve any time soon. Last year, RBC predicted that natural gas prices might take years to fully recover.

#3 Battery and Energy Storage

Last week, Utility Dive—which covers news and trends in the utility industry—warned that the coronavirus epidemic “… is going to be a very big deal” with respect to Chinese manufacturing.

Eight provinces in the country have already announced work stoppages as a result of the outbreak, which has negatively impacted multiple solar manufacturing campuses. This is highly significant considering that most of the world’s solar panels are made in China.

China also happens to be home to most of the world’s lithium-ion battery manufacturing. Utility Dive has warned that the country’s battery storage production capacity could contract by 10%–or 26 GWh–compared to earlier forecasts.

On a more positive note, Utility Dive says a major disruption for the U.S. power sector isn’t very likely since electricity generation comes from either domestic or non-Chinese sources, like coal, natural gas, renewable energy, and nuclear.

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  1. Synoia

    Utility Dive says a major disruption for the U.S. power sector isn’t very likely since electricity generation comes from either domestic or non-Chinese sources, like coal, natural gas, renewable energy, and nuclear.

    Oh really! Where do the spare parts come from?

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Power stations normally keep an adequate supply on spare parts on-hand to deal with unexpected failures of equipment. They’ll also dip into that stash to replace worn-out parts, but that’s usually done on a planned basis during “outage season”, when electrical demand is the lowest and the grid can be fully energized using only a subset of generation assets. During the moderate temperatures of spring and fall, specifically. The spring outage season usually doesn’t start until April.

      Given their existing supplies of spare parts and the time until the next outage season, a two-month shutdown of China could easily be endured by US power producers. A two-year shutdown, though, could make things tougher.

      1. Olga

        You are mostly correct; however, not all parts are made in China. Siemens, for example, has manufacturing facilities in several countries, including the US. So all depends… And, given that the off-season (or, shoulder season) outages for maintenance are about to start, generators should have prepared for this work. Typically, preparations start months before.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Yep. I don’t see large-scale crises caused by parts shortages happening at power stations anytime soon. The only exception might be an extremely destructive failure that took out more equipment than their spares could cover, but even here non-Chinese suppliers can fill in most of the gaps.

      2. clarky90

        I am not an engineer and have never worked in a power generator plant (my caveat). However I have fixed (or tried to) things over many decades. There can be thousands, even hundreds of thousands of potential “points of failure” in a large, complex system. FI, the giant, medium and small transformers in an electrical grid. Suppose the electricity is generated but cannot be delivered because of a critical transformer failure? I believe that this situation, potentially, can bring down gigantic swaths of the network?

        Cascading consequences……

        One jeweled bearing failure, in a complex, bespoke, mechanical Swiss wristwatch, stops the entire mechanism.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Today’s electrical grid isn’t that fragile. I do work in the power generation business, and I’ve seen the aftermath of an “extremely destructive failure” that resulted in a generator outage that lasted not for a couple of hours, but for a couple of months (because a bunch of new equipment had to be ordered and built from scratch).

          Nevertheless, the grid didn’t go down because other generators were available to take up the load. Most of the time, there is spare generation capability on hand, as electrical demand is usually well below the absolute peak. Only during extreme heat or cold would we be in an “all hands on deck” scenario.

          And similarly, things are reasonably robust on the transmission side. Certainly there will be the occasional transformer or power line failure that temporarily blacks out a region, but grid operators keep a full supply of transformers and cable on hand for these types of events as well. There have been some uglier failures where branch circuit protection doesn’t work properly and permits things to cascade (like the northeast blackout of 2003) or where repair resources simply get overloaded (like the derecho outage of 2012), but those are rare. And even in those ugly scenarios, there were ways to get the grid back up.

    2. clarky90


      A 32 yo analyst with a MBA, calling on his vast store of life experiences (FI, he has visited Bali)…… …..opines..

  2. clarky90

    Some people are regretting “Kondo Marieing” their warm woolen coat, the stout boots, the old cans of beans and that spare can opener. Possessions that had all, failed “to spark joy.”

    As a result of constant amateur psychoanalysis, directed towards preppers (as “hoarders”) by the fake MSM, many people are now, not prepared. (If I have backup/spare/sufficient/just in case, then I could be mentally ill?)

    My Grandmother Eliza, always had well stocked cupboards when I knew her. She saved useful (who knows, someday this could come in handy?) bits and pieces. She had guided her family (my mom…) through the Great Depression.

    As often happens, POVs can skip a generation. I take after my Grandma, thank God.

  3. Ignacio

    41.24 million tonnes of crude in China in 2019 looks like incorrect for the top importer. Total oil products consumption in Spain was 59.8 million tonnes in 2019 and almost everything imported. Problems with metric systems?

  4. jefemt

    I’m wondering about Asian solar panels? Renewable energy tax credit starts reduction/ ratcheting down after 2019…

    1. Ignacio

      A price spike is on the books. Even if the largest companies want to restart they face internal supply constraints.

  5. ocop

    A 4th sector would be coal. The black rock is already on life support in U.S. power markets due to low energy prices (caused by low natural gas prices). A domestic recession would presumably be fatal, not to mention a synchronized global slowdown.

    This is undoubtedly a huge win for the environment in the short term, but it may not be such as great thing for power markets both in terms of stability and price volatility. Fracking has led to such a glut of low gas prices that its really contorted power markets into strange forms. Unclear how long that can last before everything starts to break. Coal miners can’t be making much money these days. Nor gas frackers. Nuclear plants are on the economic brink. The U.S. power system is headed towards becoming dangerously reliant on gas production fueled by endless QE. Or may already be there. Feels like a setup (over a number of years) for a whipsaw in electricity prices.

  6. Steve

    Using household bleach as a disinfectant brings up the issue of bleach’s rapid loss of potency over time, opened or unopened. Make your own bleach from granular pool shock which does not lose effectiveness when stored in a cool dry place. If you need a volume of disinfectant for church facilities, etc,…
    There is a lot of confusing info on prepper websites re: making your own bleach- scratch that and use the EPA info:

    This is from the EPA website

    If you don’t have liquid bleach, you can use one of the other disinfection methods described below.

    Granular calcium hypochlorite. The first step is to make a chlorine solution that you will use to disinfect your water. For your safety, do it in a ventilated area and wear eye protection. Add one heaping teaspoon (approximately ¼ ounce) of high-test granular calcium hypochlorite (HTH) to two gallons of water and stir until the particles have dissolved. The mixture will produce a chlorine solution of approximately 500 milligrams per liter. To disinfect water, add one part of the chlorine solution to each 100 parts of water you are treating. This is about the same as adding 1 pint (16 ounces) of the chlorine solution to 12.5 gallons of water. If the chlorine taste is too strong, pour the water from one clean container to another and let it stand for a few hours before use. CAUTION: HTH is a very powerful oxidant. Follow the instructions on the label for safe handling and storage of this chemical

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