Iran cuts oil production to lowest in 40 years as storage fills

Tehran’s exports fell to new lows as it struggles to find buyers for its sanctions-hit oil in an oversupplied market.

Iran ATM
Coronavirus has heaped even more pain on Iran's economy that was already battered by crippling US sanctions [File: Mohamadreza Nadimi/Reuters]

Iran has slashed crude oil production to its lowest level in four decades as storage tanks and vessels are almost completely full due to a drop in exports and refinery run cuts caused by the coronavirus pandemic, industry data showed.

Total onshore crude stocks surged to 54 million barrels in April from 15 million barrels in January, and swelled further to 63 million barrels in June, according to FGE Energy.

Market intelligence firm Kpler estimated Iranian average onshore crude storage for June to be approximately 66 million barrels.

That is about 85 percent of available onshore storage capacity.

“However, it will technically not be possible to fill tanks to 100 percent given technical constraints at storage tanks and potential infrastructure bottlenecks,” said Homayoun Falakshahi, a senior analyst at Kpler.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have ratcheted up since 2018, when the United States withdrew from a 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and six major powers and President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran, hammering vital oil exports.

The exact number of Iranian vessels on floating storage is a bit of a black box as they have all turned off their AIS signals.

by NORDEN spokesman

Iran’s floating storage is also filling up. Shipping sources said Iran was estimated to be using roughly 30 tankers to store oil – most of them supertankers, each of which can carry a maximum of two million barrels of oil.

This would equate to more than 50 million barrels of oil being stored, which has been static for some months. This is likely to be a combination of crude and condensate, a very light grade of crude, the sources said.

Refinitiv data showed a maximum of 56.4 million barrels were being held in floating storage by July 3.

Iran’s fleet of crude oil tankers numbers 54 vessels, data from valuations specialist VesselsValue showed.

“Iran storage is expected to continue as we do not see these vessels being able to trade anytime soon,” a spokesman for shipping group NORDEN said.

“The exact number of Iranian vessels on floating storage is a bit of a black box as they have all turned off their AIS signals,” he said, referring to a vessel’s tracking transponder.

Production cuts

The oil ministry is trying to manage crude stocks by shutting more production.

Iran’s total liquid production- including crude oil, condensate and natural gas liquids – fell from 3.1 million barrels per day (bpd) in March to three million bpd in June, according to FGE. The firm predicts the production will fall by another 100,000 bpd in July.

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A man looks at daily exchange rates as he walks in Ferdowsi Square in Tehran, Iran, where the local currency, the rial has hit new lows in recent days [File: Mohamadreza Nadimi/Reuters] 

Crude production was as low as 1.9 million bpd in June, according to Reuters OPEC survey. That was almost half of Iran’s production in 2018, and the lowest level since 1981, the beginning of Iran’s war with Iraq and attacks on its oil facilities, according to OPEC data.

Iranian exports also fell to new lows as an oversupplied market and the coronavirus pandemic made it harder for Tehran to find customers willing to take its sanctions-hit oil.

Iranian crude exports were about 100,000 bpd in May, according to Kpler, and approximately 210,000 bpd according to FGE, reaching a new low, and a fraction of the more than 2.5 million bpd that Iran shipped in April 2018.

Kpler estimated June crude exports at 237,000 bpd and FGE at 210,000 bpd.

In the absence of official data, estimates are usually based on cargo tracking and could be subsequently revised.

Condensate stocks have also skyrocketed and are still rising. Managing the condensate inventories would be more difficult for Iran, analysts said, as they were a byproduct of gas production on which the country relies heavily.

“We still see Iran’s condensate stocks to continue building and approaching critical levels within the next 12 months,” FGE said.

Iran’s domestic products demand, especially petrol, also dropped in the first half of 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns, putting more pressure on the inventories.

Iran is a coronavirus hot spot in the Middle East with more than 11,000 reported deaths, according to a Reuters News Agency tally. As a result, Iran’s refinery runs significantly dropped in the second quarter of 2020.

Refinery intake for crude fell to 1.4 million bpd in May from 1.5 million bpd in April, FGE estimated. The intake was almost 1.8 million bpd in February before the lockdown.

Source: Reuters