September was the first month the United States recorded exporting more petroleum than it imported
In September 2019, the United States exported 89,000 barrels per day (b/d) more petroleum (crude oil and petroleum products) than it imported, the first month this happened since monthly records began in 1973 (Figure 1).
Net petroleum trade is calculated as total imports of crude oil and petroleum products less total exports of crude oil and petroleum products. The United States currently imports more crude oil than it exports, but it exports more petroleum products than it imports (Figure 2). The balance of this petroleum trade activity has been changing during the past 10 years, from annual net petroleum imports of 9.6 million b/d in 2009 to annual net imports of 2.3 million b/d in 2018. Long-running changes in U.S. trading patterns for both crude oil and petroleum products have resulted in a steady decrease in overall U.S. net petroleum imports.
Increasing U.S. crude oil production, which rose from an average of 5.3 million b/d in 2009 to 12.1 million b/d in 2019 through September, has resulted in a decrease in U.S. crude oil imports from an average of 9.0 million b/d in 2009 to 7.0 million b/d through September 2019. The decrease in U.S. crude oil imports also corresponded with a decrease in the number of sources the United States imported crude oil from.
In December 2015, the United States lifted restrictions on exporting domestically produced crude oil. Since then, U.S. crude oil exports have been the largest contributor to U.S. petroleum export growth; U.S. crude oil exports have grown from 591,000 b/d in 2016 to 2.8 million b/d in 2019 through September. Despite increasing exports of crude oil, however, the United States remains a net importer of crude oil. The United States continues importing primarily heavy high-sulfur crude oils that most U.S. refineries are configured to process, and more than 60% of U.S. crude oil imports come from Canada and Mexico.
At the same time, U.S. refineries responded to increasing domestic and international demand for petroleum products (such as distillate fuel, motor gasoline, and jet fuel) by increasing throughput. Gross inputs into U.S. refineries rose from an annual average of 14.6 million b/d in 2009 to 17.0 million b/d through the third quarter 2019, and they have regularly set new monthly record highs.
The increase in refinery production of petroleum products has outpaced the increase in U.S. consumption, contributing to an increase in petroleum product exports. The United States has gone from net petroleum product imports of 698,000 b/d in 2009 to net petroleum product exports of 3.2 million b/d so far in 2019. In the first nine months of 2019, the United States exported 1.4 million b/d of distillate, 1.1 million b/d of propane, and 864,000 b/d of motor gasoline, the three largest petroleum product exports.
Although seasonal monthly import and export patterns may result in month-to-month back and forth changes between net imports and net exports for some products such as motor gasoline, the United States has been a net exporter of several products on an annual basis (Figure 3). The United States has been an annual net exporter of distillate and residual fuel since 2008, a net exporter of hydrocarbon gas liquids and jet fuel since 2011, and a net exporter of motor gasoline since 2016.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) had forecast that the United States would transition to net petroleum exports in September 2019. In the November STEO, EIA forecasts that U.S. net petroleum exports will continue to increase, averaging 751,000 b/d in 2020, the first time that the United States is expected to be a net petroleum exporter on an annual basis.
U.S. average regular gasoline price falls, diesel price increases
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell less than 1 cent from the previous week to remain at $2.58 per gallon on December 2, 12 cents higher than the same time last year. The West Coast price fell more than 6 cents to $3.41 per gallon, the Gulf Coast price fell more than 1 cent to $2.23 per gallon, and the Rocky Mountain price fell nearly 1 cent to $2.82 per gallon. The Midwest price increased by more than 2 cents to $2.42 per gallon, and East Coast price increased by nearly 2 cents to $2.48 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price rose less than 1 cent, remaining at $3.07 per gallon on December 2, 14 cents lower than a year ago. The Midwest price rose by more than 1 cent to $2.98 per gallon, the East Coast price rose by nearly 1 cent to $3.06 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price rose by less than 1 cent to remain at $2.78 per gallon. The West Coast price fell by nearly 2 cents to $3.70 per gallon, and the Rocky Mountain price fell by nearly 1 cent to $3.24 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories decline
U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 1.7 million barrels last week to 91.8 million barrels as of November 29, 2019, 4.1 million barrels (4.6%) greater than the five-year (2014-18) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Midwest, East Coast, and Gulf Coast inventories decreased by 0.8 million barrels, 0.7 million barrels, and 0.4 million barrels, respectively. Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories increased by 0.2 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 5.8% of total propane/propylene inventories.
Residential heating fuel prices increase
As of December 2, 2019, residential heating oil prices averaged nearly $3.01 per gallon, almost 2 cents per gallon above last week’s price but more than 19 cents per gallon below last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged almost $2.05 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon more than last week’s price and nearly 8 cents per gallon more than a year ago.
Residential propane prices averaged nearly $2.04 per gallon, almost 4 cents per gallon higher than last week’s price but more than 39 cents per gallon lower than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged almost $0.91 per gallon, nearly 1 cent per gallon higher than last week’s price and more than 6 cents per gallon above last year’s price.
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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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