Abu Dhabi seeks to shift oil markets with its own crude benchmark

By Anthony DiPaola on 10/11/2019

DUBAI (Bloomberg) - The Middle East produces a fifth of the world’s oil, but the region’s never had a benchmark price that competes with London’s Brent or New York’s WTI. That could be about to change.

One of the Persian Gulf’s biggest producers, Abu Dhabi, wants to create a benchmark for Middle Eastern crude that competes for customers in Asia with exports from America’s shale boom. If the new contract for Abu Dhabi’s Murban crude takes off, it could herald a fundamental shift in the way Gulf producers sell oil.

“I think this has legs,” said Mike Muller, Vitol Group’s head of crude trading for Asia. Murban is “a single grade that serves as a good reference, quality-wise, for the big new flow that’s coming into Asia,” he said this month at a conference in the Middle Eastern oil-trading hub of Fujairah.

Government-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. plans to start futures trading of Murban next year by setting up a new commodities exchange in the emirate.

What is Murban?

  • Abu Dhabi’s biggest grade with planned capacity of 1.8 MMbpd
  • Murban flows by pipeline from Abu Dhabi’s main onshore fields to the port of Fujairah outside the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint at the mouth of the Persian Gulf
  • Buyers can load Murban on to the largest oil tankers at Fujairah or onto smaller vessels at Jebel Dhanna port in the Gulf

How a producer prices its oil can have a big financial impact. For the Middle East, a formula that leaves even a few cents on the table for every barrel sold could mean an annual loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue.

The main global reference prices, or benchmarks, for crude are for West Texas Intermediate oil in the U.S. and North Sea Brent in Europe. Buyers and sellers can trade futures for both, helping to determine prices for the physical commodity. The current benchmark for Middle Eastern sales to Asia is based on a price assessment of Dubai crude compiled daily by price-reporting agency Platte, a division of S&P Global Inc.

ADNOC is working with Intercontinental Exchange Inc., the platform where Brent is traded, to set up the Murban contract. Like WTI and Brent, Murban is relatively light and low in sulfur. This may enhance its appeal as a benchmark for Asia, where refiners can use it more readily as a substitute for U.S. crude.

“There is a need for a new marker to reflect shifting crude flows,” Ahmed Mehdi, a research associate at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said by phone from London. “Murban has many of the characteristics for benchmark success: large physical volumes, its availability for spot trading, and potential for a forward paper market.”

ADNOC hopes to boost the contract’s liquidity, or trading volume, by persuading international oil companies and traders to take minority stakes in the new exchange, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

However, Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, can’t guarantee that other Middle Eastern producers too would adopt Murban as their benchmark. A lack of such converts would limit the new contract’s appeal, and even successful benchmarks can take years to develop.

ADNOC and ICE both declined to comment. Although ADNOC hasn’t announced details about the contract, traders say the company will need to loosen restrictions that bar buyers from shipping the crude to any destination they want.

Not The First

Abu Dhabi wouldn’t be the first regional producer to venture down this path. Oman and the U.A.E. emirate of Dubai joined with CME Group Inc. in 2007 to start the Dubai Mercantile Exchange to trade Omani crude futures. Saudi Arabia began using DME Oman futures as a component in its official pricing last year.

Even so, the DME has had only modest success, and the Oman futures contract has yet to supplant Platts pricing as a regional benchmark.

Whether the Murban contract succeeds or not “is a very difficult question,” Adi Imsirovic, head of oil at Gazprom Marketing and Trading, said at the conference in Fujairah. “How do you get liquidity without confidence, and how do you get confidence without liquidity?”

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