The world’s largest emergency stockpile of crude oil is quickly falling apart.
The stockpile’s infrastructure, which currently stores 695.1 million barrels at four sites along the US Gulf Coast, is nearing the end of its design life and in need of a roughly $2 billion makeover, US Department of Energy officials claim.
“We’ve had several significant equipment failures over the last couple years that have affected our operational capability,” said Bob Corbin, the DOE deputy assistant secretary who oversees the stockpile, formally known as the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
In April, a water pipe at the DOE’s Big Hill site in Winnie, Texas failed, less than a year after a crude oil storage tank failed at the Bryan Mound SPR site near Freeport, Texas.
Throughout the system, pipes are corroding, tank floors need to be replaced, wells are failing mechanical integrity tests and pump motors, after decades of dealing with harsh weather and salty air off the Gulf of Mexico, are breaking down beyond repair, DOE officials claim.
Corbin said these issues complicate the ability of DOE to both drawdown and distribute crude oil at times of severe supply distributions, which is the primary reason the SPR was created more than four decades ago. They also complicate US’ ability to meet obligations under international agreements and could endanger energy security.
Last week, Corbin led a media tour of the Bryan Mound SPR site, the largest of the four SPR sites in Texas and Louisiana.
Bryan Mound is a 500-acre site which currently holds 245 million barrels of crude (2.1 million barrels below its design storage capacity) in 19 operational storage caverns.
The SPR has two types of caverns in salt domes: SPR-designed caverns and Early Storage Reserve-caverns. The ESR caverns are typically repurposed salt domes and have operational restrictions the more current SPR-designed caverns do not have. The ESR caverns at the Bryan Mound site were originally used by Dow Chemical to store magnesium. The entire SPR has 49 SPR-designed caverns and 11 ESR caverns.
Cavern 5 at Bryan Mound is the largest crude oil storage cavern in the world and can store up to 37 million barrels of crude. DOE claims that underground caverns, which are roughly 2,000 to 2,200 feet in depth and 200 feet in diameter, can be built for about 1/5 of the cost of conventional surface tanks and have operating costs of less than 30 cents/barrel. The SPR primarily holds light crude, but has 75 million barrels of medium sour, roughly 10.8% of its total inventory. It currently hold 266.1 million barrels of light sweet crude, 38.3% of its inventory, and 354 million barrels of light sour, or 50.9%.
Bryan Mound currently holds 68.6 million barrels of sweet crude in six caverns and 176.4 million barrels of sour crude in 13 other caverns. The site has 45 operational wells and connects to four crude oil distribution sales points: Freeport terminal ship docks; Jones Creek pipeline; Texas City terminal ship docks; and Texas City terminal pipeline.
Congress has approved sales of millions of barrels of SPR crude to help pay for unrelated transportation plans and a modernization effort for the SPR. These sales, which will continue through fiscal 2025, could take the SPR from its current inventory of 695.1 million barrels to 530 million barrels, a threshold DOE needs to stay above in order for the President to maintain statutory authority to approve emergency releases from the stockpile.
“If you get below 530 million barrels…that would basically take away the authority of the president to conduct limited drawdowns, which means small disruptions, not even huge disruptions, would be difficult, if not impossible to respond to as a result,” Corbin said.
Corbin said while millions of barrels of SPR crude will be sold off over the next nine years, he’s not sure if that crude will ever be replaced.
“Buying and selling oil at the same time, from a net inventory result, I think is counterproductive, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
In a report Corbin authored, DOE is expected to recommend an ideal size for the SPR, in light of the ongoing growth of US shale oil. Corbin declined to comment on that recommendation, but said the SPR will be “smaller than it is today” but its exact size is yet to be determined. The report is expected to be released within a month.
The SPR’s drawdown rate, the pace at which crude can be pushed out of storage caverns to pipelines, is designed to be 4.415 million b/d over 90 days before the rate begins to fall. But a smaller SPR could reduce that rate dramatically, hindering the ability of DOE to bring crude to a distressed global market.
“As you reduce your inventory levels, and reduce the number of caverns that oil is stored in, because of flow hydraulics, it changes both the drawdown rate and the maximum duration that you can sustain that rate,” Corbin said.
At the same time, the SPR is also losing as much as 2.4 million barrels per year by both natural creep, caused by the force of the earth pushing on the caverns, and induced creep, which occurs when a cavern needs to be depressurized for maintenance, he said.
“The creep issues will continue going forward, there is nothing anybody can do about those,” Corbin said. “The question becomes, from a planning perspective how does creep impact your storage capacity going forward and how does it impact your requirements for storage capacity going forward?”
Each SPR site uses a system where water is injected into caverns, displacing stored oil and brine and pushing it into crude pipes and eventually sent into pipelines and ships to the Gulf of Mexico.
The ability of that system to work, however, has been complicated both by the SPR’s aging infrastructure and changes to how crude oil now moves in the US. DOE is pushing for dedicated marine terminals in order to ship out crude at times of supply shocks so that crude which would otherwise be sent out from existing marine facilities would not be displaced. Details of this request will be featured in DOE’s upcoming report, Corbin said.
The SPR was established through the Energy Policy & Conservation Act of 1975 and is beginning to show its age. The floor of this tank (pictured above) has corroded and needs to be replaced.
During the tour, a crew worked on repairing a well of one cavern which had failed a state-mandated mechanical integrity test.
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 calls for sales between fiscal 2017 through 2020 totaling $2 billion from the SPR to pay for the effort to address many of these issues. But Congress still needs to appropriate the funding for this effort.
DOE warns that if sales do not take place over the next four fiscal years additional, larger volumes will need to be sold in later years when other sales are already scheduled to take place.
By Brian Scheid, Senior editor, oil news
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 23 March 2020 – Brent: US$27/b; WTI: US$23/b
Headlines of the week
Crude oil prices have fallen significantly since the beginning of 2020, largely driven by the economic contraction caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID19) and a sudden increase in crude oil supply following the suspension of agreed production cuts among the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries. With falling demand and increasing supply, the front-month price of the U.S. benchmark crude oil West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fell from a year-to-date high closing price of $63.27 per barrel (b) on January 6 to a year-to-date low of $20.37/b on March 18 (Figure 1), the lowest nominal crude oil price since February 2002.
WTI crude oil prices have also fallen significantly along the futures curve, which charts monthly price settlements for WTI crude oil delivery over the next several years. For example, the WTI price for December 2020 delivery declined from $56.90/b on January 2, 2020, to $32.21/b as of March 24. In addition to the sharp price decline, the shape of the futures curve has shifted from backwardation—when near-term futures prices are higher than longer-dated ones—to contango, when near-term futures prices are lower than longer-dated ones. The WTI 1st-13th spread (the difference between the WTI price in the nearest month and the price for WTI 13 months away) settled at -$10.34/b on March 18, the lowest since February 2016, exhibiting high contango. The shift from backwardation to contango reflects the significant increase in petroleum inventories. In its March 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on March 11, 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast that Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) commercial petroleum inventories will rise to 2.9 billion barrels in March, an increase of 20 million barrels over the previous month and 68 million barrels over March 2019 (Figure 2). Since the release of the March STEO, changes in various oil market and macroeconomic indicators suggest that inventory builds are likely to be even greater than EIA’s March forecast.
Significant price volatility has accompanied both price declines and price increases. Since 1999, 69% of the time, daily WTI crude oil prices increased or decreased by less than 2% relative to the previous trading day. Daily oil price changes during March 2020 have exceeded 2% 13 times (76% of the month’s traded days) as of March 24. For example, the 10.1% decline on March 6 after the OPEC meeting was larger than 99.8% of the daily percentage price decreases since 1999. The 24.6% decline on March 9 and the 24.4% decline on March 18 were the largest and second largest percent declines, respectively, since at least 1999 (Figure 3).
On March 10, a series of government announcements indicated that emergency fiscal and monetary policy were likely to be forthcoming in various countries, which contributed to a 10.4% increase in the WTI price, the 12th-largest daily increase since 1999. During other highly volatile time periods, such as the 2008 financial crisis, both large price increases and decreases occurred in quick succession. During the 2008 financial crisis, the largest single-day increase—a 17.8% rise on September 22, 2008—was followed the next day by the largest single-day decrease, a 12.0% fall on September 23, 2008.
Market price volatility during the first quarter of 2020 has not been limited to oil markets (Figure 4). The recent volatility in oil markets has also coincided with increased volatility in equity markets because the products refined from crude oil are used in many parts of the economy and because the COVID-19-related economic slowdown affects a broad array of economic activities. This can be measured through implied volatility—an estimate of a security’s expected range of near-term price changes—which can be calculated using price movements of financial options and measured by the VIX index for the Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 index and the OVX index for WTI prices. Implied volatility for both the S&P 500 index and WTI are higher than the levels seen during the 2008 financial crisis, which peaked on November 20, 2008, at 80.9 and on December 11, 2008, at 100.4, respectively, compared with 61.7 for the VIX and 170.9 for the OVX as of March 24.
Comparing implied volatility for the S&P 500 index with WTI’s suggests that although recent volatility is not limited to oil markets, oil markets are likely more volatile than equity markets at this point. The oil market’s relative volatility is not, however, in and of itself unusual. Oil markets are almost always more volatile than equity markets because crude oil demand is price inelastic—whereby price changes have relatively little effect on the quantity of crude oil demanded—and because of the relative diversity of the companies constituting the S&P 500 index. But recent oil market volatility is still historically high, even in comparison to the volatility of the larger equity market. As denoted by the red line in the bottom of Figure 4, the difference between the OVX and VIX reached an all-time high of 124.1 on March 23, compared with an average difference of 16.8 between May 2007 (the date the OVX was launched) and March 24, 2020.
Markets currently appear to expect continued and increasing market volatility, and, by extension, increasing uncertainty in the pricing of crude oil. Oil’s current level of implied volatility—a forward-looking measure for the next 30 days—is also high relative to its historical, or realized, volatility. Historical volatility can influence the market’s expectations for future price uncertainty, which contributes to higher implied volatility. Some of this difference is a structural part of the market, and implied volatility typically exceeds historical volatility as sellers of options demand a volatility risk premium to compensate them for the risk of holding a volatile security. But as the yellow line in Figure 4 shows, the current implied volatility of WTI prices is still higher than normal. The difference between implied and historical volatility reached an all-time high of 44.7 on March 20, compared with an average difference of 2.3 between 2007 and March 2020. This trend could suggest that options (prices for which increase with volatility) are relatively expensive and, by extension, that demand for financial instruments to limit oil price exposure are relatively elevated.
Increased price correlation among several asset classes also suggests that similar economic factors are driving prices in a variety of markets. For example, both the correlation between changes in the price of WTI and changes in the S&P 500 and the correlation between WTI and other non-energy commodities (as measured by the S&P Commodity Index (GSCI)) increased significantly in March. Typically, when correlations between WTI and other asset classes increase, it suggests that expectations of future economic growth—rather than issues specific to crude oil markets— tend to be the primary drivers of price formation. In this case, price declines for oil, equities, and non-energy commodities all indicate that concerns over global economic growth are likely the primary force driving price formation (Figure 5).
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices fall
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell nearly 13 cents from the previous week to $2.12 per gallon on March 23, 50 cents lower than a year ago. The Midwest price fell more than 16 cents to $1.87 per gallon, the West Coast price fell nearly 15 cents to $2.88 per gallon, the East Coast and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 11 cents to $2.08 per gallon and $1.86 per gallon, respectively, and the Rocky Mountain price declined more than 8 cents to $2.24 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell more than 7 cents from the previous week to $2.66 per gallon on March 23, 42 cents lower than a year ago. The Midwest price fell more than 9 cents to $2.50 per gallon, the West Coast price fell more than 7 cents to $3.25 per gallon, the East Coast and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 7 cents to $2.72 per gallon and $2.44 per gallon, respectively, and the Rocky Mountain price fell more than 6 cents to $2.68 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories decline
U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 1.8 million barrels last week to 64.9 million barrels as of March 20, 2020, 15.5 million barrels (31.3%) greater than the five-year (2015-19) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast inventories decreased by 1.3 million barrels, East Coast inventories decreased by 0.3 million barrels, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decrease by 0.2 million barrels. Midwest inventories increased by 0.1 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 8.5% of total propane/propylene inventories.
Residential heating fuel prices decrease
As of March 23, 2020, residential heating oil prices averaged $2.45 per gallon, almost 15 cents per gallon below last week’s price and nearly 77 cents per gallon lower than last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged more than $1.11 per gallon, almost 14 cents per gallon below last week’s price and 98 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.
Residential propane prices averaged more than $1.91 per gallon, nearly 2 cents per gallon below last week’s price and almost 49 cents per gallon below last year’s price. Wholesale propane prices averaged more than $0.42 per gallon, more than 7 cents per gallon lower than last week’s price and almost 36 cents per gallon below last year’s price.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 16 March 2020 – Brent: US$30/b; WTI: US$28/b
Headlines of the week