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Excess North Sea oil seen as capping price

Worries are growing that a build-up of unsold oil off the coast of the UK will keep prices down as the broader market surplus increases pressure on Opec to cut production.

Industry analysts and shipbrokers said an excess of light sweet crudes, has led to a surge in the number of Aframax tankers — which carry around 600,000 barrels — holding crude at sea.

About 15 of these vessels, from off the coast of Scotland through to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, are depressing prices of regional crude grades, shipbrokers said.

“The demand is just not there, it’s becoming a recurring theme,” said one shipbroker. He added that around three Aframax tankers is considered normal. “These vessels are stacking up.”

An inability to sell the crude has led traders to factor in delays in discharging tankers loaded with crude. Shipbrokers have said delivery dates that are several weeks out are becoming a regular occurrence.

The demand is just not there, it’s becoming a recurring theme … These vessels are stacking up

The time-lag could suggest an inability to discharge at a port as land-based storage facilities are filling up, or that traders are seeking to make a profit from selling oil at a later date.

Storing oil at sea as a trading strategy would normally utilise larger tankers. But the use of Aframax vessels may indicate a shorter-term, more opportunistic reaction to the surplus.

Oversupply in the oil market has caused an important price spread, that is an indicator of the size of any surplus, to widen. The difference in the price of January and February Brent contracts rose to more than a $1 a barrel on Thursday. This is an unusually large change month-on-month.

Weakness in the physical market could put pressure on the Opec cartel to trim production later this month as it seeks to implement a deal to ease the global surplus.

Although prices reached a year high last month in the days after the Algeria deal, they have since eased by 12 per cent. Brent crude, the global benchmark, edged up by 35 cents to $46.98 a barrel on Thursday

“There is too much supply in the Atlantic basin and this is a trend we see continuing unless Opec does something about it. There is a need for a significant cut to supply. Even a production freeze wouldn’t be enough,” said Eugene Lindell at JBC Energy consultancy.

The cartel faces a tough task as its own members ramp up output to a record level while other producer nations — from Kazakhstan to Russia — are increasing supplies.

Saudi Minister of Energy, Industrial and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih © AFP

Opec agreed in Algeria in September to curb supplies from the group, with special conditions given to Libya, Nigeria and Iran, whose output has been hit by wars and sanctions. The details of the deal are expected to be ironed out when ministers meet in Vienna on November 30.

Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, said he was keen the cartel reached a production target of 32.5m b/d to “speed up” the oil market’s recovery after a protracted downturn. This would imply a more than 1m b/d reduction from the group’s current output.

Excess supplies in the Mediterranean are also making it more difficult to place North Sea barrels.

Shipments from Kazakhstan’s Kashagan field have started driving exports of the light sweet crude, CPC Blend.

Meanwhile Russia, already the world’s biggest exporter outside of Opec, is pumping 11m b/d and sending more crude into the region from its Filanovsky offshore oilfield.

Separately, production of Libyan crude has more than doubled in recent weeks to around 600,000 b/d since the reopening of its eastern ports in September.

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