Crude oil held in pipelines (pipeline fill) in the United States grew from 75 million barrels in March 2011, the earliest data available, to nearly 124 million barrels in September 2019, a 64% increase, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Working and Net Available Shell Storage Capacity report (Figure 1). The increase is due to the significant expansion of the U.S. crude oil pipeline system over that period. Almost 97% of the 48 million barrel increase in crude oil pipeline fill, which includes some volumes of crude oil in transit via water and rail, occurred in the Gulf Coast (Petroleum Administration for Defense District, or PADD, 3) and the Midwest (PADD 2).
Pipelines are the primary method of transporting crude oil in the United States. The increase in U.S. crude oil production in recent years has required the construction of new pipelines and reconfiguration of existing pipelines, including the conversion of natural gas pipelines to crude oil pipelines. The Gulf Coast region, which was responsible for 70% of the growth in U.S. crude oil production between 2010 and 2018, has experienced the largest pipeline buildout during that time period. The Permian Basin, covering West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, contributed the most to crude oil production growth and supported higher crude oil inventories in the region, including increased pipeline fill.
According to EIA’s Liquid Pipeline Projects Database, more than 100 crude oil pipeline projects were completed between March 2011 and September 2019. During this time, about 90% of projects were located in either the Gulf Coast or Midwest regions (Figure 2). The most prevalent project types were pipeline expansions and new pipeline builds. The vast majority of the projects were for transporting crude oil within their respective regions.
Many pipeline expansions increased crude oil takeaway capacity from producing regions. For example, in 2018, Enterprise Products Partners L.P.’s 418-mile Midland-to-Echo 1 Pipeline System was placed into service to transport crude oil from the Permian Basin to locations near Houston, Texas. Other Permian Basin projects completed in 2018 included Plains All American’s Sunrise Pipeline Expansion and Enterprise Products Partners L.P.’s new Loving County Pipeline. The Sunrise Pipeline Expansion transports crude oil from the Permian region to Cushing, Oklahoma, and destinations in the Gulf Coast and the Loving County Pipeline transports crude oil from Permian Basin fields in New Mexico to Midland, Texas, a crude oil supply hub.
About 64% of crude oil production, 52% of U.S. petroleum refining capacity (measured by operable distillation capacity), and 52% of crude oil storage is located in the Gulf Coast (Figure 3). Rising Permian crude oil production decreased crude oil imports, and increased demand for crude oil at petroleum refineries have coincided with several projects aimed at increasing crude oil pipeline deliveries to Gulf Coast refineries. For example, the 264-mile Kinder Morgan Crude & Condensate Pipeline (KMCC), which includes a converted 109-mile natural gas pipeline, initiated deliveries of crude oil and condensate from the Eagle Ford region to Houston in 2012. Kinder Morgan later included a 27-mile lateral to Phillips 66’s refinery in Old Ocean, Texas. In 2014, TC Energy’s Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion was placed into service to supply refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.
In the Midwest, Cushing, Oklahoma—a key crude oil storage hub—has experienced significant increases in crude oil pipeline capacity as new crude oil tank farms were built to handle rising supplies. Crude oil working storage capacity in Cushing rose 59% between March 2011 and September 2019 to reach 76 million barrels. Cushing receives large volumes of crude oil by pipeline and rail from various areas such as Canada and the Rocky Mountains (PADD 4). For example, TC Energy’s 2014 expansion of the Keystone Pipeline transports crude oil that originated in Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries via Cushing. Several additional pipeline projects that entered service between 2014 and 2018 were designed to move crude oil from the Rocky Mountains, which includes the Bakken formation, to Cushing.
Growing crude oil exports have also supported increases in crude oil pipeline capacity. The removal of restrictions on U.S. crude oil exports at the end of 2015, combined with higher crude oil production, allowed an increase in crude oil exports in the Gulf region, which grew from 3,000 barrels per day (b/d) in 2010 to 1.8 million b/d in 2018. Petroleum terminals in the Gulf Coast that once imported large volumes of crude oil now load crude oil tankers for export to international destinations. Enterprise Products Partners L.P. recently completed an expansion to its Midland-to-Sealy Pipeline and conversion of its Seminole Red Pipeline to service the Enterprise Crude Houston (ECHO) terminal, a facility where shippers can load U.S. crude oil for export.
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices fall
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell more than 1 cent from the previous week to $2.56 per gallon on December 9, 14 cents higher than the same time last year. The West Coast price fell 7 cents to $3.34 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain price fell nearly 3 cents to $2.79 per gallon, and the Gulf Coast price fell more than 2 cents to $2.20 per gallon. The East Coast and Midwest prices remained unchanged at $2.48 per gallon and $2.42 per gallon, respectively.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell more than 2 cents from the previous week to $3.05 per gallon on December 9, 11 cents lower than a year ago. The West Coast price fell by nearly 6 cents to $3.65 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain price fell by more than 3 cents to $3.21 gallon, the Gulf Coast price fell by 2 cents to $2.76 per gallon, the Midwest price fell by nearly 2 cents to $2.97 per gallon, and the East Coast price fell by nearly 1 cent to $3.05 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories rise
U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 1.7 million barrels last week to 93.5 million barrels as of December 6, 2019, 7.4 million barrels (8.6%) greater than the five-year (2014-18) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountain inventories increased by 3.3 million barrels and 0.1 million barrels, respectively. Midwest and East Coast inventories decreased by 1.1 million barrels and 0.6 million barrels, respectively. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 5.8% of total propane/propylene inventories.
Residential heating oil prices increase, propane prices decrease
As of December 9, 2019, residential heating oil prices averaged almost $3.02 per gallon, more than 1 cent per gallon above last week’s price but more than 18 cents per gallon below last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged nearly $2.07 per gallon, more than 2 cents per gallon higher than last week’s price and more than 7 cents per gallon higher than a year ago.
Residential propane prices averaged more than $2.02 per gallon, almost 1 cent per gallon lower than last week’s price and nearly 42 cents per gallon less than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged more than $0.83 per gallon, more than 7 cents per gallon lower than last week’s price and nearly 8 cents per gallon below last year’s price.
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Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.
Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.
Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.
Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.
But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.
Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.
Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)
|Region||Consumption (mmb/d)*||Refining Capacity (mmb/d)|
*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.
The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.
Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.
Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.
Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.
Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.
Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett