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Last Updated: February 24, 2017
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In November 2016, high production and seasonally low internal demand contributed to record crude oil exports from Iraq and near-record exports from Saudi Arabia (according to the Joint Organizations Data Initiative (JODI), with published data dating to January 2002). In that same month price spreads in the market supported high levels of U.S. crude imports from those countries. However, market developments, including the November 2016 agreement among certain members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to reduce production and the recent widening of the spread between Dubai/Oman crude and U.S.-produced Mars crude, suggest U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia and Iraq are now becoming less attractive to U.S. refiners.

According to the latest JODI data, Saudi crude oil exports reached 8.3 million barrels per day (b/d) in November 2016, the highest level since May 2003, before declining to 8.0 million b/d in December. Saudi exports generally increase from August to November as seasonal declines in domestic consumption increase availability of oil for export. In Iraq, exports reached a record high of almost 4.1 million b/d in November and remained at that level in December (Figure 1). According to JODI data, Saudi and Iraqi production levels were relatively high prior to the pledged production cuts beginning January 2017, with December 2016 volumes up 321,000 b/d and 700,000 b/d, respectively, from their year-ago levels, creating an opportunity to increase exports.


Although crude oil exports from Saudi Arabia and Iraq increased in November and December, the transit times result in a delay before these shipments arrive in the United States and appear in EIA import data. Shipments take an estimated 47-51 days to reach the U.S. Gulf Coast from the Persian Gulf after traveling around the southern tip of Africa (Figure 2). Using a smaller vessel capable of transiting the Suez Canal in Egypt, a voyage from the Persian Gulf to the U.S. East Coast takes an estimated 32-36 days. Traveling from the Persian Gulf to the U.S. West Coast on a Trans-Pacific route requires an estimated 39-43 days.

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Given transit times, cargoes exported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in November and December 2016 would be expected arrive in the United States between December 2016 and February 2017. Imports from Saudi Arabia into the United States increased for five consecutive weeks, rising from 1.0 million b/d for the week ending January 6 to 1.3 million b/d for the week ending February 10. Similarly, U.S. imports from Iraq grew for five consecutive weeks, increasing from 373,000 b/d for the week ending December 9, 2016 to 723,000 b/d for the week ending January 13, 2017 (Figure 3).

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The price difference between Dubai/Oman medium sour grade oil, which serves as a benchmark price for similar grades produced through the Middle East, and Mars, a U.S. medium sour crude oil with similar properties, was at its lowest level for several years in 2016 (Figure 4). Under such pricing conditions, medium and heavy crude oils from Saudi Arabia and Iraq were attractive to U.S. refiners because they produced a profitable slate of finished products when processed in complex refineries.

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After OPEC announced crude oil production cuts in late November 2016, the relative price of Dubai/Oman crude oil rose because supply reductions pledged by Middle East producers disproportionately affected medium sour crudes. In January 2017, the premium of Dubai/Oman over Mars reached its highest level in over a year, which is likely to encourage U.S. refiners to process more domestic medium sour barrels while reducing imports of comparable grades from the Middle East.

U.S. average regular gasoline price falls, diesel price rises

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell less than one cent from the previous week to $2.30 per gallon on February 20, up 57 cents from the same time last year. The Midwest price fell two cents to $2.19 per gallon, while the Gulf Coast price fell one cent to $2.07 per gallon. The West Coast and Rocky Mountain prices each increased two cents to $2.75 per gallon and $2.25 per gallon, respectively. The East Coast price increased less than one cent, remaining at $2.29 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price increased less than one cent, remaining at $2.57 per gallon on February 20, 59 cents higher than a year ago. The Rocky Mountain price increased three cents to $2.55 per gallon, while the West Coast, Midwest, and Gulf Coast prices each increased one cent to $2.88 per gallon, $2.50 per gallon, and $2.43 per gallon, respectively. The East Coast price rose less than one cent, remaining at $2.63 per gallon.

Propane inventories fall

U.S. propane stocks decreased by 3.3 million barrels last week to 49.8 million barrels as of February 17, 2017, 16.9 million barrels (25.3%) lower than a year ago. Gulf Coast, Midwest, and East Coast inventories decreased by 1.8 million barrels, 1.0 million barrels, and 0.6 million barrels, respectively, while Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories were unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 5.8% of total propane inventories.

Residential heating oil price increases, propane price decreases

As of February 20, 2017, residential heating oil prices averaged nearly $2.65 per gallon, less than one cent per gallon more than last week’s price but 55 cents per gallon higher than last year’s price at this time. The average wholesale heating oil price is just under $1.72 per gallon, two cents per gallon less than last week but nearly 62 cents per gallon higher than a year ago. Residential propane prices averaged just below $2.45 per gallon, nearly one cent per gallon less than last week’s price but 42 cents per gallon higher than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged $0.82 per gallon, four cents per gallon lower than last week but nearly 35 cents per gallon higher than last year’s price.

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