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Last Updated: September 9, 2017
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Hurricane Harvey disrupts U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, infrastructure, and supply chainsWith its landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas as a Category 4 storm two weeks ago on August 25, 2017 and subsequent path along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Harvey caused substantial disruptions to crude oil and petroleum product supply chains and prices because of the high concentration of petroleum infrastructure in the Gulf Coast, Petroleum Administration for Defense District (PADD) 3. Just over half of all U.S. refinery capacity is located in PADD 3; Texas alone represented 31% of all U.S. refinery capacity as of January 2017. These refineries supply petroleum products to local markets, domestic markets on the East Coast (PADD 1) and in the Midwest (PADD 2), and international markets. As of March 2017, PADD 3 accounted for 49% of total U.S. working crude oil storage capacity and over 40% of working storage capacity for both motor gasoline and diesel fuel. Furthermore, PADD 3 represented 62% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2016, with an additional 18% coming from the Federal Offshore Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Harvey’s most significant effect on petroleum markets was to curtail refinery operations in Texas. Refinery operations are largely dependent on a supply of crude oil and feedstocks, electricity, workforce availability and safe working conditions, and outlets for production. As a result of Hurricane Harvey, many refineries in the region either reduced runs or shut down in its aftermath. For the week ending September 1, 2017, gross inputs to refineries in PADD 3 fell 3.2 million barrels per day (b/d) (-34%) from the previous week and were down 2.8 million b/d (-31%) from the same time last year. Four-week average PADD 3 gross refinery inputs fell to just above that measure’s five-year average of 8.5 million b/d (Figure 1). Outages and reduced runs resulted in PADD 3 refinery utilization falling from 96% to 63%, while other areas of the country remained virtually unchanged.

Figure 1. Gulf Coast (PADD 3) gross refinery inputs

In addition to refineries, many crude oil and petroleum product pipelines reduced operations or shut down. The most prominent of these was the Colonial Pipeline system, a 2.5 million b/d petroleum product pipeline consisting of approximately 5,500 miles of pipeline that consistently operates at or near full capacity. Colonial connects 29 refineries and 267 distribution terminals, carrying gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from Houston, Texas to New York Harbor. Decreased supplies of petroleum products available for the pipeline in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, forced Colonial Pipeline to curtail operations and ship intermittently for a brief period of time before continuous operations at reduced rates were restored on September 6.

Disruption to Colonial Pipeline supplies reduced PADD 1 total motor gasoline inventories by 2.2 million barrels to 60.5 million barrels for the week ending September 1. Of this drawdown, 2.1 million barrels occurred in the Lower Atlantic (PADD 1C) states. This draw is less than a previous outage of the Colonial Pipeline in September 2016, when PADD 1C inventories fell nearly 6 million barrels.

Another logistical complication was created when the ports of Corpus Christi and Houston-Galveston were closed to ship traffic as a result of the storm. Large volumes of crude oil and refined products are both imported and exported through these ports.

In PADD 3, the net result of all these events led to Gulf Coast crude oil inventories to build by 1.7 million barrels for the week ending September 1, 2017. With refinery operations on the Gulf Coast disrupted, crude oil inventories in Cushing, Oklahoma also increased by 800,000 barrels.

The net effect on PADD 3 motor gasoline inventories because of impaired refinery runs and transportation options was a draw of 60,000 barrels to 82.4 million barrels for the week ending September 1, 2017, but inventories remain 9.2 million barrels (13%) higher than the five-year average.

Both crude oil and gasoline prices were influenced by the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Because of lower refinery runs and limited reductions in crude oil production, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil futures prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) decreased from $48 per barrel (b) on August 25 when Hurricane Harvey made landfall, to $46/b on August 30. WTI crude oil futures prices have since increased, reaching $49/b on September 6.

By contrast, gasoline futures as well as wholesale and retail prices for gasoline increased because of the impacts on refineries and pipeline infrastructure. On the Gulf Coast, the wholesale price of gasoline increased from $1.66 per gallon (gal) on August 25, 2017 to $2.05/gal on August 31. The benchmark Reformulated Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending (RBOB) gasoline NYMEX futures price increased from $1.67/gal to $2.14/gal over the same period (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Gasoline spot and futures prices

As a result of the changes in wholesale and futures prices, retail prices for gasoline also increased. The U.S. average regular retail gasoline price increased $0.28/gal to $2.68/gal between August 28 and September 4, 2017. The PADD 3 and Houston, Texas prices both increased $0.35/gal to $2.51 per gallon and $2.43/gal, respectively. The statewide Texas average regular retail gasoline price increased $0.40/gal to $2.56/gal (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Regular gasoline retail prices - all formulations

Unlike previous significant Gulf Coast hurricanes, such as Katrina (2005), Gustav (2008), and Ike (2008), Hurricane Harvey had a more westward path, with the strongest effects of the storm mostly missing the largest concentration of offshore oil and gas production facilities. The Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement estimates that approximately 2.0% of Gulf of Mexico platforms were evacuated as of September 4, representing shut-in oil production of 121,484 b/d. According to the Texas Railroad Commission and other public sources, EIA estimates the highest on-shore crude oil production outages of approximately 500,000 b/d occurred around August 25 and 26.

The outcomes from Hurricane Irma are likely to be very different. While Hurricane Harvey impacted a major source of U.S. transportation fuels supply, demand in unaffected areas remained intact. Irma, which is projected to impact Florida and potentially the Eastern Seaboard, will likely disrupt demand centers.

Because of the displacement, evacuations, and other safety measures initiated as a result of the Hurricane Harvey, some respondents to EIA’s surveys may not have been able to submit data within the reporting window. EIA has and will continue to work diligently with respondents to ensure robust and accurate statistics.

U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel retail prices increase

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price increased 28 cents from the previous week to $2.68 per gallon on September 4, up 46 cents from the same time last year. The East Coast price rose nearly 39 cents to $2.72 per gallon, the Gulf Coast price rose 35 cents to $2.51 per gallon, the Midwest price rose 23 cents to $2.54 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain price rose 14 cents to $2.61 per gallon, and the West Coast price rose over 11 cents to $3.02 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price increased 15 cents to $2.76 per gallon on September 4, 35 cents higher than a year ago. The Gulf Coast price rose 19 cents to $2.62 per gallon, the East Coast price rose over 16 cents to $2.79 per gallon, the Midwest price rose 14 cents to $2.71 per gallon, the West Coast price rose 13 cents to $3.04 per gallon, and the Rocky Mountain price rose 8 cents to $2.80 per gallon.

Propane inventories gain

U.S. propane stocks increased by 6.3 million barrels last week to 79.9 million barrels as of September 1, 2017, 19.2 million barrels (19.4%) lower than a year ago. Gulf Coast, Midwest, East Coast, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories increased by 4.5 million barrels, 1.4 million barrels, 0.3 million barrels, and 0.2 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 4.3% of total propane inventories.

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High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.  

A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.

Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.

Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.

And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.

That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.

Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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