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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It was shaping up to yet another dull OPEC+ meeting. Cut and dry. Copy and paste. Rubber-stamping yet another monthly increase in production quotas by 432,000 b/d. Month after month of resisting pressure from the largest economies in the world to accelerate supply easing had inured markets to expectations of swift action by OPEC and its wider brethren in OPEC+.
And then, just two days before the meeting, chatter began that suggested something big was brewing. Whispers that Russia could be suspended made the rounds, an about-face for a group that has steadfastly avoided reference to the war in Ukraine, calling it a matter of politics not markets. If Russia was indeed removed from the production quotas, that would allow other OPEC+ producers to fill in the gap in volumes constrained internationally due to sanctions.
That didn’t happen. In fact, OPEC+ Joint Technical Committee commented that suspension of Russia’s quota was not discussed at all and not on the table. Instead, the JTC reduced its global oil demand forecast for 2022 by 200,000 b/d, expecting global oil demand to grow by 3.4 mmb/d this year instead with the downside being volatility linked to ‘geopolitical situations and Covid developments.’ Ordinarily, that would be a sign for OPEC+ to hold to its usual supply easing schedule. After all, the group has been claiming that oil markets have ‘been in balance’ for much of the first five months of 2022. Instead, the group surprised traders by announcing an increase in its monthly oil supply hike for July and August, adding 648,000 b/d each month for a 50% rise from the previous baseline.
The increase will be divided proportionally across OPEC+, as has been since the landmark supply deal in spring 2020. Crucially this includes Russia, where the new quota will be a paper one, since Western sanctions means that any additional Russian crude is unlikely to make it to the market. And that too goes for other members that haven’t even met their previous lower quotas, including Iraq, Angola and Nigeria. The oil ministers know this and the market knows this. Which is why the surprise announcement didn’t budge crude prices by very much at all.
In fact, there are only two countries within OPEC+ that have enough spare capacity to be ramped up quickly. The United Arab Emirates, which was responsible for recent turmoil within the group by arguing for higher quotas should be happy. But it will be a measure of backtracking for the only other country in that position, Saudi Arabia. After publicly stating that it had ‘done all it can for the oil market’ and blaming a lack of refining capacity for high fuel prices, the Kingdom’s change of heart seems to be linked to some external pressure. But it could seemingly resist no more. But that spotlight on the UAE and Saudi Arabia will allow both to wrench some market share, as both countries have been long preparing to increase their production. Abu Dhabi recently made three sizable onshore oil discoveries at Bu Hasa, Onshore Block 3 and the Al Dhafra Petroleum Concession, that adds some 650 million barrels to its reserves, which would help lift the ceiling for oil production from 4 to 5 mmb/d by 2030. Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco is expected to contract over 30 offshore rigs in 2022 alone, targeting the Marjan and Zuluf fields to increase production from 12 to 13 mmb/d by 2027.
The UAE wants to ramp up, certainly. But does Saudi Arabia too? As the dominant power of OPEC, what Saudi Arabia wants it usually gets. The signals all along were that the Kingdom wanted to remain prudent. It is not that it cannot, there is about a million barrels per day of extra production capacity that Saudi Arabia can open up immediately but that it does not want to. Bringing those extra volume on means that spare capacity drops down to critical levels, eliminating options if extra crises emerge. One is already starting up again in Libya, where internal political discord for years has led to an on-off, stop-start rhythm in Libyan crude. If Saudi Arabia uses up all its spare capacity, oil prices could jump even higher if new emergencies emerge with no avenue to tackle them. That the Saudis have given in (slightly) must mean that political pressure is heating up. That the announcement was made at the OPEC+ meeting and not a summit between US and Saudi leaders must mean that a façade of independence must be maintained around the crucial decisions to raise supply quotas.
But that increase is not going to be enough, especially with Russia’s absence. Markets largely shrugged off the announcement, keeping Brent crude at US$120/b levels. Consumption is booming, as the world rushes to enjoy its first summer with a high degree of freedom since Covid-19 hit. Which is why global leaders are looking at other ways to tackle high energy prices and mitigate soaring inflation. In Germany, low-priced monthly public transport are intended to wean drivers off cars. In the UK, a windfall tax on energy companies should yield US$6 billion to be used for insulating consumers. And in the US, Joe Biden has been busy.
With the Permian Basin focusing on fiscal prudence instead of wanton drilling, US shale output has not responded to lucrative oil prices that way it used to. American rig counts are only inching up, with some shale basins even losing rigs. So the White House is trying more creative ways. Though the suggestion of an ‘oil consumer cartel’ as an analogue to OPEC by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is likely dead on arrival, the US is looking to unlock supply and tame fuel prices through other ways. Regular releases from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve has so far done little to bring prices down, but easing sanctions on Venezuelan crude that could be exported to the US and Europe, as well as working with the refining industry to restart recently idled refineries could. Inflation levels above 8% and gasoline prices at all-time highs could lead to a bloody outcome in this year’s midterm elections, and Joe Biden knows that.
But oil (and natural gas) supply/demand dynamics cannot truly start returning to normal as long as the war in Ukraine rages on. And the far-ranging sanctions impacting Russian energy exports will take even longer to be lifted depending on how the war goes. Yes, some Russian crude is making it to the market. China, for example, has been quietly refilling its petroleum reserves with Russian crude (at a discount, of course). India continues to buy from Moscow, as are smaller nations like Sri Lanka where an economic crisis limits options. Selling the crude is one thing, transporting it is another. With most international insurers blacklisting Russian shippers, Russian oil producers can still turn to local insurance and tankers from the once-derided state tanker firm Sovcomflot PJSC to deliver crude to the few customers they still have.
A 50% hike in OPEC’s monthly supply easing targets might seem like a lot. But it isn’t enough. Especially since actual production will fall short of that quota. The entire OPEC system, and the illusion of control it provides has broken down. Russian oil is still trickling out to global buyers but even if it returned in full, there is still not enough refining capacity to absorb those volumes. Doctors speak of long Covid symptoms in patients, and the world energy complex is experiencing long Covid, now with a touch with geopolitical germs as well. It’ll take a long time to recover, so brace yourselves.
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