U.S. Gulf Coast crude oil imports averaged 1.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in March 2019, the lowest level since March 1986 and significantly lower than the peak of 6.6 million b/d in March 2007. Preliminary weekly data indicate that Gulf Coast crude oil imports have averaged about 1.9 million b/d through April and May (Figure 1). Falling crude oil imports into the U.S. Gulf Coast so far in 2019 are the result of both recent events and continuing longer-term trends. Recently, sanctions on Venezuelan imports and heavy refinery maintenance have reduced imports. At the same time, imports to the Gulf Coast have also decreased because of sharp declines in imports from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) following an agreement among members to reduce production and because imports are being replaced by increased production of domestic crude oil. Together, these trends have fundamentally changed how the Gulf Coast region is supplied with crude oil. In the past five consecutive months, the U.S. Gulf Coast has exported more crude oil than it imported (net exports), and since 2015, it has consistently received more crude oil from other regions of the United States than it has sent to other regions (net receipts).
Gulf Coast crude oil imports are typically lower in the early months of the year as refineries reduce runs as part of their seasonal maintenance. This year, planned maintenance activity was higher than usual. The four-week average of gross refinery inputs in the Gulf Coast fell from 9.6 million b/d for the week ending January 4, higher than the five-year (2014-18) maximum and 648,000 b/d higher than the five-year average, to a low of about 8.6 million b/d from mid-February until mid-April. Although 8.6 million b/d of gross refinery inputs is more than the Gulf Coast’s five-year average level for the period, eight consecutive weeks of relatively flat refinery runs is longer than normal during refinery maintenance at this time of year. This extended period of lower refinery runs for longer in the early months of 2019 reduced the need for crude oil imports, contributing to the more-than-three-decade-low crude oil imports during this period.
Around the same time, the U.S. government announced additional sanctions on Venezuela that included limitations on crude oil imports from Venezuela. In 2018, 20% of all Gulf Coast crude oil imports were from Venezuela, an annual average of 498,000 b/d. The Gulf Coast was the destination for 98% of all U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude oil in 2018. Because of the imposition of sanctions, refiners in the Gulf Coast sharply reduced imports of Venezuelan crude oil. Between January and March 2019, Gulf Coast imports of crude oil from Venezuela fell by 498,000 b/d to 47,000 b/d in March. As a result of the Gulf Coast reductions, U.S. four-week average imports from Venezuela fell from 603,000 b/d for the week ending January 25 to 12,000 b/d for the week ending May 31 (Figure 2).
An additional change in Gulf Coast crude oil imports occurred following a November 2016 agreement by OPEC members to cut crude oil production. As a result of the production cuts, many OPEC members reduced exports to the United States in favor of growing markets in Asia. One year after the production-cut agreement, crude oil imports from OPEC processed at Gulf Coast refineries had fallen 562,000 b/d from 2.1 million b/d in November 2016 to 1.5 million b/d in November 2017. Imports of crude oil from OPEC members into the Gulf Coast continued to decline, falling to 1.4 million b/d in 2018 and down to 513,000 b/d in March 2019 (Figure 3).
Before the OPEC production cuts in 2016, the Gulf Coast had already started reducing crude oil imports because of rising domestic production and changes in domestic crude oil pipeline infrastructure. Gulf Coast crude oil production increased from 2.7 million b/d in 2008 to 7.9 million b/d in March 2019. Much of this increased crude oil production was of light sweet crude oil that allowed Gulf Coast refineries to reduce imports of light sweet crude oil from foreign sources. Then pipeline infrastructure that once took imported crude oil from the Gulf Coast and delivered it to other regions of the United States was reversed, instead delivering increased domestic crude oil production and imports from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. By 2015, this reversal meant that the Gulf Coast changed from being a net shipper of crude oil to other U.S. regions to being a net recipient. More recently, as imports have declined and crude oil exports have expanded, the Gulf Coast actually exported more crude oil than it imported for five consecutive months (Figure 4).
Because of all these changes combined, foreign-sourced crude oil receipts at Gulf Coast refineries accounted for an average of 36% of Gulf Coast refinery crude oil inputs in 2018, compared with 73% in 2008. The sources of those imports have also changed, with Canada and Mexico accounting for 54% of all imported crude oil processed in Gulf Coast refineries in March, representing a new high.
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices fall
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell nearly 2 cents from the previous week to $2.81 per gallon on June 3, more than 13 cents lower than the same time last year. The Gulf Coast price fell nearly 5 cents to $2.42 per gallon, the West Coast price fell nearly 4 cents to $3.60 per gallon, and the East Coast price fell more than 3 cents to $2.66 per gallon. The Midwest price rose more than 3 cents to $2.75 per gallon and the Rocky Mountain price increased slightly, remaining at $2.98 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell nearly 2 cents to $3.14 per gallon on June 3, nearly 15 cents lower than a year ago. The West Coast price fell more than 2 cents to $3.76 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 2 cents to $3.16 per gallon and $2.88 per gallon, respectively, and the Midwest and East Coast prices each fell over 1 cent to $3.03 per gallon and $3.15 per gallon, respectively.
Propane/propylene inventories rise
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 2.5 million barrels last week to 68.3 million barrels as of May 31, 2019, 9.1 million barrels (15.4%) greater than the five-year (2014-2018) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast inventories increased by 1.2 million barrels, and Midwest and East Coast inventories each increased by 0.7 million barrels. Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 7.2% of total propane/propylene inventories.
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On 10 December 2021, if all goes to plan Royal Dutch Shell will become just Shell. The energy supermajor will move its headquarters from The Hague in The Netherlands to London, UK. At least three-quarters of the company’s shareholders must vote in favour of the change at the upcoming general meeting, which has been sold by Shell as a means of simplifying its corporate structure and better return value to shareholders, as well as be ‘better positioned to seize opportunities and play a leading role in the energy transition’. In doing so, it will no longer meet Dutch conditions for ‘royal’ designation, dropping a moniker that has defined the company through decades of evolution since 1907.
But why this and why now?
There is a complex web of reasons why, some internal and some external but the ultimate reason boils down to improving growth sustainability. Royal Dutch Shell was born through the merger of Shell Transport and Trading Company (based in the UK) and Royal Dutch (based in The Netherlands) in 1907, with both companies engaging in exploration activities ranging from seashells to crude oil. Unified across international borders, Royal Dutch Shell emerged as Europe’s answer to John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire, as the race to exploit oil (and later natural gas) reserves spilled out over the world. Along the way, Royal Dutch Shell chalked up a number of achievements including establishing the iconic Brent field in the North Sea to striking the first commercial oil in Nigeria. Unlike Standard Oil which was dissolved into 34 smaller companies in 1911, Royal Dutch Shell remained intact, operating as two entities until 2005, when they were finally combined in a dual-nationality structure: incorporated in the UK, but residing in the Netherlands. This managed to satisfy the national claims both countries make on the supermajor, second only to ExxonMobil in revenue and profits but proved to be costly to maintain. In 2020, fellow Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever also ditched its dual structure, opting to be based fully out of the City of London. In that sense, Shell is following the direction of the wind, as forces in its (soon to be former) home country turn sour.
There is a specific grievance that Royal Dutch Shell has with the Dutch government, the 15% dividend tax collected for Dutch-domiciled companies. It is the reason why Unilever abandoned Rotterdam and is now the reason why Shell is abandoning The Hague. And this point is particularly existentialist for Shell, since its share prices has been battered in recent years following the industry downturn since 2015, the global pandemic and being in the crosshairs of climate change activists as an emblem of why the world’s average temperatures are going haywire. The latter has already caused the largest Dutch state pension fund ABP to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby divesting itself of Royal Dutch Shell. This was largely a symbolic move, but as religious figures will know, symbols themselves carry much power. To combat this, Shell has done two things. First, it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of energy transition, announcing ambitious emissions reductions plans in line with its European counterparts to become carbon neutral by 2050. Second, it is looking to bump up its dividend payouts after slashing them through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating share buybacks to remain the bluest of blue-chip stocks. But then, earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s emissions targets were ‘not ambitious enough’, ordering a stricter aim within a tighter timeframe. And the 15% dividend tax remains – even though Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government has been attempting to scrap it, with (it is presumed) some lobbying from Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever.
As simplistic it is to think that Shell is leaving for London believes the citizens of the Netherlands has turned its back on the company, the ultimate reason was the dividend tax. Reportedly, CEO Ben van Buerden called up Mark Rutte on Sunday informing him of the planned move. Rutte’s reaction, it is said was of dismay. And he embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade Royal Dutch Shell to change its mind, by immediately lobbying his government’s coalition partners to back an abolition of the dividend tax. The reaction was perhaps not what he expected, with left-wing and green parties calling Shell’s threat ‘blackmail’. With democracy drawing a line, Shell decided to walk; or at least present an exit plan endorsed by its Board to be voted by shareholders. Many in the Netherlands see Shell’s exit and the loss of the moniker Royal Dutch – as a blow to national pride, especially since the country has been basking in the glow of expanded reputation as a result of post-Brexit migration of financial activities to Amsterdam from London. The UK, on the other hand, sees Shell’s decision and Unilever’s – as an endorsement of the country’s post-Brexit potential.
The move, if passed and in its initial stages, will be mainly structural, transferring the tax residence of Shell to London. Just ten top executives including van Buerden and CFO Jessica Uhl will be making the move to London. Three major arms – Projects and Technology, Global Upstream and Integrated Gas and Renewable Energies – will remain in The Hague. As will Shell’s massive physical reach on Dutch soil: the huge integrated refinery in Pernis, the biofuels hub in Rotterdam, the country’s first offshore wind farm and the mammoth Porthos carbon capture project that will funnel emissions from Rotterdam to be stored in empty North Sea gas fields. And Shell’s troubles with activists will still continue. British climate change activists are as, if not more aggressive as their Dutch counterpart, this being the country where Extinction Rebellion was born. Perhaps more of a threat is activist investor Third Point, which recently acquired a chunk of Shell shares and has been advocating splitting the company into two – a legacy business for fossil fuels and a futures-focused business for renewables.
So Shell’s business remains, even though its address has changed. In the grand scheme of things, never mind the small matter of Dutch national pride – Royal Dutch Shell’s roadmap to remain an investment icon and a major driver of energy transition will continue in its current form. This is a quibble about money or rather, tax – that will have little to no impact on Shell’s operations or on its ambitions. Royal Dutch Shell is poised to become just Shell. Different name and a different house, but the same contents. Unless, of course, Queen Elizabeth II decides to provide royal assent, in which case, Shell might one day become Royal British Shell.
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