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White House banks on Saudi oil to offset Venezuela sanctions, with no SPR release on tap

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Despite OPEC cuts, US expects Saudis to boost exports

Saudis unlikely to comply, sources say

US refineries told not to expect SPR release

Washington — The Trump administration is confident that key ally Saudi Arabia will fill any oil supply gap caused by US sanctions on Venezuela, with refineries along the Gulf Coast told not to expect any crude release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

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White House officials are "certain" that Saudi Arabia will boost crude exports to the US in coming weeks, according to one source briefed by the Trump administration, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Saudi officials have indicated no such plans, with OPEC in the midst of a production cut accord aimed at boosting oil prices.

The kingdom slashed its output to 10.21 million b/d in January, down almost 400,000 b/d from December's level, according to the latest S&P Global Platts OPEC production survey. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih has said February output would go even lower.

"The Saudis do not intend to increase exports," said a source familiar with the kingdom's views, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "There could be some tweaking of volumes from east to west, but we do not expect to see a lot at all."

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The US sanctions on Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA block some 500,000 b/d of the country's heavy crude exports to Gulf Coast refiners and are also expected to shut in at least 300,000 b/d of Venezuelan production.

Medium sour Saudi barrels are a top contender to fill that gap, many analysts have said, given the kingdom's ability to quickly ramp up production, while many US refiners are reluctant to run more light sweet shale oil, which is in abundance in the Gulf.

Heavy crude out of Canada faces pipeline and rail constraints, and increased exports out of Mexico remain unlikely due to declining production and contractual issues involving state oil company Pemex.

US imports of Saudi crude averaged 999,000 b/d in November, down about 47,000 b/d from October, according to the latest data from the US Energy Information Administration. Through November, US imports of Saudi crude averaged under 799,000 b/d in 2018, on pace to be the lowest volume since 1987.

NOPEC CONSIDERATIONS

Part of the Saudis' resistance to boosting exports stems from the US' issuance of Iran sanctions waivers in November, despite the kingdom raising its production by some 1 million b/d over the summer on Trump's insistence to keep the market well-supplied.

In addition, Saudi Arabia continues to oppose efforts by the US Congress to pass antitrust legislation aimed at OPEC, as well as sanctions connected to the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously approved the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels, or NOPEC Act, setting up a possible vote by the full House of Representatives, which analysts expect could be triggered if domestic gasoline prices spike. The bill would allow the US Department of Justice to sue OPEC for antitrust violations.

In addition, the Khashoggi-related sanctions package being weighed by Congress could target military support, arm sales and, potentially, petroleum-sector assets and crude flows, according to analysts with ClearView Energy Partners.

But White House officials do not believe that any of these efforts will inhibit more Saudi crude from being shipped to USGC refiners, sources said.

"They're positive of it," said a source who spoke to numerous administration officials this week about the potential shortfall. "There's no doubt for them that if there is [a supply shortfall] that the Saudis will be there."

NO SPR FOR NOW

Shortly before the Trump administration unveiled the sanctions on PDVSA last week, officials had considered an SPR release to counter any possible supply impact.

But that no longer is on the table, several sources said, and USGC refiners were not being prepped for an SPR release. Officials with the US Department of Energy, which manages the SPR, declined to comment.

Just as well, the reserve does not contain any heavy crude, so any release would not be able to fully replace the loss of Venezuelan barrels.

In a report Wednesday, analysts with the EIA wrote that PDVSA sanctions were "unlikely to have a significant impact on US refiners."

The EIA "does not anticipate any significant decrease in US refinery runs as a result of these sanctions," they wrote. "US imports of Venezuelan crude oil have been falling for several years and refineries have been replacing Venezuelan crude oil with other heavy crude oils."

-- Brian Scheid, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

-- Herman Wang, herman.wang@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Annie Siebert, newsdesk@spglobal.com