London — Oil tanker storage is about the only thing in demand in the crude market right now.
The coronavirus pandemic has obliterated consumption, forcing producers and traders to store more oil on the water.
Draining these floating stockpiles may take years despite rising hopes of an OPEC+ orchestrated production cut.
S&P Global Platts Analytics estimated there was potential storage capacity for crude, oil products and NGLs of 1.4 billion barrels, made up of about 1 billion barrels on land and 400 million barrels at sea.
Tanks have filled up rapidly since January, when storage was less than 100 million barrels, and is set to hit 1.3 billion barrels by the end of the month, according to Platts Analytics estimates.
With land options running out, the race to secure floating storage has picked up significantly in recent weeks, with up to 40 VLCCs and 20 Suezmaxes already placed on long-term chartering, according to S&P Global Platts estimates.
Some super tankers have been booked to store crude for up to three years --potentially the longest ever duration for floating storage, traders said.
Storage costs have almost tripled in the past two weeks, supported by a steepening contango market structure that makes it more profitable to store oil because the forward price is higher than the prompt price.
Platts Analytics estimated floating a cargo of Brent for 6-12 months in a VLCC has a $7-$9/b incentive.
Some analysts said Saudi Arabia was chartering tankers to raise storage costs and squeeze rival producers.
"By the end of April, we expect Saudi Arabia to have sealed the win over pesky US frackers...It will achieve its goal by elevating the cost of ocean freight to the point where US producers seeking to export oil will net receipts of $20/b," oil analyst Phil Verleger said in a recent note.
Meanwhile, major producers now face an almost insurmountable task to rebalance the market, even if a coordinated cut of up to 15 million b/d involving the US, OPEC+, Norway and a host of smaller producers gets signed off.
That may be enough to stop global storage capacity being exhausted, but a longer-term problem will be reducing commercial stockpiles back toward their five-year moving average.
"Any cut is unlikely to affect April supply, which will already set storage on trajectory towards tank tops, but would slow down stock builds, potentially soften freight rates, and accelerate the inflection point towards stock draws and support down the curve," Platts Analytics said in a note.
Production cuts look inevitable if storage is exhausted and demand remains depressed.
Analysts said the greatest impact will be in the Atlantic Basin where low prices, high stocks and the longest travel time to customers will likely lead to production curtailments in the US, Canada, Brazil and West Africa.
OPEC and Russian crude, cheaper to produce and close to demand hubs China and India and Europe, may be better placed even if the fiscal pain will be no easier to bear.
The collapse in oil prices has already been taking a toll.
The Baker Hughes oil and gas rig count on Friday registered a drop of 64 rigs on the week to 664, as E&P capital budget cuts and activity slowed amid a continued ravaging of operators' financial and operational outlooks.
Whiting was the first US shale player to enter bankruptcy proceedings due to the price rout last week.
Meanwhile, Brazil's state giant Petrobras cut output by 100,000 b/d for a few days and left the door ajar for further reductions, while Canada's Athabasca Oil suspended a project, signaling the challenge for high-cost oil sands producers.
Global refineries have been rationalizing and tweaking their slates to cope with the fallout in the gasoline and jet fuel markets as global transport remains frozen.
Refinery run cuts could escalate the market imbalance to as high as 20 million b/d in the next 2-3 months, Platts Analytics said.
"Given the drastic decline in global oil demand, any cuts reflect oil that will not be sold. The impact on the oil market is expected to limited," independent energy industry commentator Anas Alhajji said.
"However, production cuts will reduce future overhang in storage, making market management easier in the future" Alhajji said.
A return to oil market supply management may be approaching but it could be too late to make an immediate difference to brimming stockpiles.