On Saturday, September 14, 2019, an attack damaged the Saudi Aramco Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Abqaiq oil processing facility is the world’s largest crude oil processing and stabilization plant with a capacity of 7 million barrels per day (b/d), equivalent to about 7% of global crude oil production capacity. On Monday, September 16, 2019, the first full day of trading after the attack, Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices experienced the largest single-day price increase since August 21, 2008 and June 29, 2012, respectively.
On Tuesday, September 17, Saudi Aramco reported that Abqaiq was producing 2 million b/d and that its entire output capacity was expected to be fully restored by the end of September. Additionally, Saudi Aramco stated that crude oil exports to customers will continue by drawing on existing inventories and offering additional crude oil production from other fields. Tanker loading estimates from third-party data sources indicate that loadings at two Saudi Arabian export facilities were restored to the pre-attack levels. Likely driven by news of the expected return of the lost production capacity both Brent and WTI crude oil prices fell on Tuesday, September 17.
Crude oil markets will certainly continue to react to new information as it becomes available in the days and weeks ahead, but this disruption and the resulting changes in global crude oil prices will influence U.S. retail gasoline prices.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that Saudi Arabia was producing 9.9 million b/d of crude oil in August, and estimates from the Joint Organizations Data Initiative (JODI) indicate the country exported 6.9 million b/d during July, the latest month for which data are available (Figure 1). Estimates from a third-party tanker tracking data service, ClipperData, indicate Saudi Arabian crude oil exports in August remained at 6.7 million b/d. These crude oil production and export levels are each 0.5 million b/d lower than their respective 2018 annual averages. JODI data indicate that Saudi Arabia held nearly 180 million barrels of crude oil in inventory at the end of July 2019. Saudi Arabia can use these inventories to maintain a similar level of crude oil exports as before the strike, assuming the production outage is short in duration, as indicated by Saudi Aramco’s update on September 17.
Saudi Arabia is rare among oil producing countries, in that it regularly maintains spare crude oil production capacity as a matter of its oil production policy. EIA defines spare capacity as the volume of production that can be brought online within 30 days and sustained for at least 90 days using sound business practices. In the September Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) EIA estimated that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) spare capacity was 2.2 million b/d in August 2019, nearly all of which was in Saudi Arabia. Outside of OPEC, EIA does not include any unused capacity in its spare capacity total, even when countries periodically hold such capacity (as is the case with Russia). During previous periods of significant oil supply disruptions, Saudi Arabia generally increased production to offset the loss of supplies and stabilize markets (Figure 2).
Following the September 14 attack and an ensuing outage at the Abqaiq facility, the amount of available spare capacity that can be brought online within 30 days in Saudi Arabia is unknown. In addition, because Saudi Arabia holds most of OPEC’s spare capacity, there is likely little spare production capacity elsewhere to offset the loss. Russia may be able to increase production in response to disruption and higher prices, but the amount of time needed for these volumes to become available is uncertain. The United States would also likely be able to increase production, but it would take longer than 30 days. Therefore, without Saudi Arabian spare capacity, the global crude oil market is vulnerable to production outages, as events would be more disruptive than normal.
The most readily available alternative source of supply during a supply outage is stocks of crude oil. As of September 1, commercial inventories of crude oil and other liquids for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members were estimated at 2.9 billion barrels, enough to cover 61 days of its members’ liquid fuels consumption. On a days-of-supply basis, OECD commercial inventories are 2% lower than the five-year (2014-18) average (Figure 3).
The United States has two types of crude oil inventories: those that private firms hold for commercial purposes, and those the federal government holds in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) for use during periods of major supply interruption. Weekly data for September 13 indicate total U.S. commercial inventories were equivalent to 24 days of current U.S. refinery crude oil inputs, with the SPR holding additional volumes equal to slightly more than 37 additional days of current refinery inputs, for a total of 62 days. The supply coverage provided by oil inventories can also be measured by days of net crude oil imports (imports minus exports). By this metric, as of June 2019 the United States could meet its net import needs by drawing down the SPR for 162 days. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act states the President may make the decision to withdraw crude oil from the SPR should they find that there is a severe petroleum supply disruption. The SPR has been used in this capacity three times since its creation: first, in 1991 at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm; second, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005; and third, in June 2011 to help offset crude oil supply disruptions in Libya.
Although U.S. imports of crude oil from Saudi Arabia have declined during the past three years—and recently hit a four-week average record low of 380,000 b/d in the week ending September 6—the United States still imports about 7 million b/d of crude oil (Figure 4). As a result, a tighter global crude oil market and increased global crude oil prices will ultimately increase the price of crude oil and transportation fuels in the United States.
Crude oil prices are the largest determinant of the retail price for gasoline, the most widely consumed transportation fuel in the United States. In general, because gasoline taxes and retail distribution costs are generally stable, movements in U.S. gasoline prices are primarily the result of changes in crude oil prices and wholesale margins. Each dollar per barrel of sustained price change in crude oil translates to an average change of about 2.4 cents/gal in petroleum product prices. About 50% of a crude oil price change passes through to retail gasoline prices within two weeks and 80% within four weeks. However, this price pass-through tends to be more rapid when crude oil prices increase than when they decrease. Brent crude oil prices are more relevant than WTI prices in determining U.S. retail gasoline prices.
EIA is closely monitoring the developments related to the oil supply disruption in Saudi Arabia and the effects that they have on oil markets. EIA’s findings will be reflected in the October STEO, which is scheduled for release on October 8.
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices increase
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price rose less than 1 cent from the previous week to remain at $2.55 per gallon on September 16, 29 cents lower than the same time last year. The Rocky Mountain and Midwest prices each rose 2 cents to $2.65 per gallon and $2.46 per gallon, respectively. The East Coast price fell nearly 1 cent to $2.45 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price fell less than 1 cent to $2.23 per gallon. The West Coast price remained unchanged at $3.25 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price rose nearly 2 cents to $2.99 per gallon on September 16, 28 cents lower than a year ago. The West Coast and Rocky Mountain prices each rose nearly 3 cents to $3.57 per gallon and $2.96 per gallon respectively, the Midwest and Gulf Coast prices each rose nearly 2 cents to $2.88 per gallon and $2.76 per gallon, respectively, and the East Coast price rose nearly 1 cent to $3.00 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories rise
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 2.9 million barrels last week to 100.7 million barrels as of September 13, 2019, 14.3 million barrels (16.6%) greater than the five-year (2014-18) average inventory levels for this time of year. Gulf Coast inventories increased by 1.2 million barrels, and East Coast and Midwest inventories each increased by 0.9 million barrels. Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 4.1% of total propane/propylene inventories.
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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