'Biggest' change in oil market history: Crude prices set to soar ahead of shipping revolution

  • New rules coming into force in approximately 18 months' time are seen as a source of great concern for some of the world's biggest oil producers.
  • On January 1, 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will enforce new emissions standards designed to significantly curb pollution produced by the world's ships.
  • Global benchmark Brent crude will climb to $90 a barrel by 2020 as new international shipping laws overhaul the types of fuels produced by refiners, Morgan Stanley analysts predicted in a research note.

Instead of OPEC, Iran or even Venezuela, the most prominent driver of oil prices over the next two years is likely to come in the shape of a shipping revolution, analysts have warned.

New rules coming into force in approximately 18 months' time are seen as a source of great concern for some of the world's biggest oil producers. That's because global energy and shipping industries are thought to be ill-prepared for the looming sea change.

On January 1, 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will enforce new emissions standards designed to significantly curb pollution produced by the world's ships.

"It's the biggest (change) in the history of the market," Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects, told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" this week.

Why are the changes being enforced?

Amid a broader push towards cleaner energy markets, the IMO's changes will specifically look to cut back sulfur emissions. The pollutant is a component of acid rain, which harms vegetation and wildlife, and is blamed for some respiratory illnesses.

The forthcoming measures are widely expected to create an oversupply of high-sulfur fuel oil while sparking demand for IMO-compliant products — thus ratcheting up the pressure on the refining industry to produce substantially more of the latter fuels.

"That is very important because Middle Eastern producers lose out heavily from that because their crude tends to be very high sulfur," Sen said.

A support vessel flying an Iranian national flag sails alongside the oil tanker 'Devon' as it prepares to transport crude oil to export markets in Bandar Abbas, Iran, on Friday, March 23, 2018.
Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A support vessel flying an Iranian national flag sails alongside the oil tanker 'Devon' as it prepares to transport crude oil to export markets in Bandar Abbas, Iran, on Friday, March 23, 2018.

In contrast to some of the world's leading oil producers in the Middle East, including OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia, the U.S. is expected to be better-placed to cope with the IMO's measures due to their reputation for producing lighter crude.

What does this mean for oil prices?

Global benchmark Brent crude will climb to $90 a barrel by 2020 as new international shipping laws overhaul the types of fuels produced by refiners, Morgan Stanley analysts predicted in a research note published last week.

"We expect the crude oil market to remain under-supplied and inventories to continue to draw," the bank said, before adding: "This will likely underpin prices."

To be sure, the IMO's rules will ban ships using fuel with a sulfur content higher than 0.5 percent, compared to 3.5 percent at present, unless ships are fitted with equipment to clean up its sulfur emissions.

Right now, few ships have invested in equipment to scrub pollutants from engines that burn high-sulfur fuel, so many external observers believe the majority of shipping companies are investing in capacity to make low-sulfur fuel.

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