The following This Week in Petroleum articles were originally published throughout 2020. New feature articles of This Week in Petroleum will return on January 6, 2021. The retail price and inventory paragraphs, charts, and tables accompanying the feature article have been updated to reflect data from the latest Weekly Petroleum Status Report for the week ending December 25, 2020.
Published March 25, 2020: Oil market volatility is at an all-time high
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.
Published on April 22, 2020: WTI crude oil futures prices fell below zero because of low liquidity and limited available storage
On Monday, April 20, 2020, New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil front-month futures prices fell below zero dollars per barrel (b)—at one point, trading at -$40.32/b (Figure 2)—and remained below zero for part of the following trading day. Monday marked the first time the price for the WTI futures contract fell below zero since trading began in 1983. Negative prices in commodity markets are very rare, but when they occur they typically indicate high transactions costs and significant infrastructure constraints. In this case, the WTI front-month futures contract was for May 2020 delivery, and the contract was set to expire on April 21, 2020. Unless they have made other arrangements ahead of time, market participants that hold WTI futures contracts to expiration must take physical delivery of WTI crude oil in Cushing, Oklahoma. Typically, most market participants close any futures contracts ahead of expiration through cash settlement in order to avoid taking physical delivery, and only about 1% of contracts are physically settled. The extreme market events of April 20 and April 21 were driven by several factors, including the inability of contract holders to find other market participants to sell the futures contracts. In addition, in this case, the scarcity of available crude oil storage meant several market participants sold their futures contracts at negative prices, in effect paying a counterparty to close out of the contracts.
Published on June 3, 2020: March saw major declines in U.S. demand for petroleum products
On March 13, 2020, the President declared a national emergency in the United States in response to concerns regarding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. Reduced economic activity and stay-at-home orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 led to a sharp decrease in demand for petroleum products. Because refiners responded faster to reduced demand than crude oil producers, crude oil inventories increased as refinery runs fell. Despite reflecting only one-half of a month under the declared national emergency, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) March Petroleum Supply Monthly (PSM) data show the early effects of the COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
U.S. gross inputs into refineries fell by 670,000 barrels per day (b/d) (4.1%) from February to March to average 15.8 million b/d, the lowest monthly level since October 2015 (Figure 3). However, the refinery input decreases were not the same in every region of the United States. Gross inputs in the U.S. Gulf Coast (Petroleum Administration for Defense District, or PADD, 3), home to more than half of U.S. refining capacity, increased by 43,000 b/d (0.5%) from February to March, likely as a result of increased runs after maintenance in February. However, the year-over-year change also indicates relatively strong refinery runs in the Gulf Coast, with March 2020 runs averaging 193,000 b/d more than 2019 levels. Gross inputs in the Gulf Coast may have remained elevated compared with the U.S. average because refiners in the Gulf Coast produce petroleum products for consumption in other areas of the country and for export.
Published July 29, 2020: COVID-19’s impact on global commercial jet fuel demand has been significant and uneven
Although COVID-19 mitigation efforts have reduced demand for all transportation fuels, demand for jet fuel has likely declined the most in relative terms. For instance, in the United States—the world’s largest jet fuel consumer—average jet fuel product supplied (a proxy for consumption) in June 2020 was 41% of what it had been in June 2019, compared with 86% for gasoline and 88% for diesel fuel, according to the July edition of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO).
To estimate global changes in jet fuel consumption, EIA recently began using data from aviation company Cirium that detail each scheduled commercial passenger flight since January 2019, including the type of aircraft flown and its route. Using data on each flight’s origin and destination, EIA calculated the great-circle distance (which measures the straight-line distance between two points along the earth’s surface) for each flight. EIA then increased that distance by 10% per flight to compensate for the excess distance airplanes fly on average relative to the shortest, optimized path. After factoring in the average fuel efficiency of each flight’s aircraft (including fuel used during takeoff, landing, and taxiing), EIA estimated the volume of jet fuel consumed by each flight and summed these flights to estimate the volume of jet fuel consumed globally by commercial passenger flights (Figure 4).
Published August 19, 2020: U.S. refineries respond to record-low demand by decreasing inputs to certain downstream units
From March 2020 (when a national emergency was declared) to April 2020, U.S. demand for gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel fuel decreased. Jet fuel and gasoline demand (as measured by product supplied) dropped the most, decreasing by 50% and 25%, respectively. Diesel fuel demand decreased less than gasoline and jet fuel demand, falling 10% from March to April. Stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions affected gasoline and jet fuel demand more than diesel fuel demand. The decline in gasoline and jet fuel consumption was the result of consumers travelling less. But because diesel fuel is used extensively in trucking, increased demand for home delivery and distribution of necessary goods and services likely supported the volumes of distillate product supplied.
Refiners responded to the changes in transportation fuel demand by decreasing refinery runs, with the largest decreases seen in units focused on gasoline production. Gross inputs to atmospheric distillation units (ADU) in April 2020 were 3.4 million barrels per day (b/d) (21%) lower than the five-year (2015–19) average, and gross inputs to ADUs in May 2020 were 3.6 million b/d (21%) lower than the five-year average (Figure 5). Compared with ADUs and other downstream units, inputs to catalytic crackers, associated with gasoline production in a refinery, had the second-largest change on a volume basis from the five-year averages in April and May, averaging 1.6 million b/d and 1.4 million b/d lower, respectively. On a percentage basis, the decrease in inputs to catalytic crackers was the largest out of all units; inputs in April decreased 32% from the five-year average, and inputs in May decreased 29% from the five-year average.
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices increase
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price increased nearly 2 cents to $2.24 per gallon on December 28, almost 33 cents lower than the same time last year. The Midwest price increased more than 5 cents to $2.17 per gallon, the West Coast price increased nearly 2 cents to $2.79 per gallon, the East Coast price increased nearly 1 cent to $2.20 per gallon, and the Rocky Mountain price increased less than 1 cent, remaining virtually unchanged at $2.19 per gallon. The Gulf Coast price decreased less than 1 cent, remaining virtually unchanged at $1.93 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price increased nearly 2 cents to $2.64 per gallon on December 28, 43 cents lower than a year ago. The Midwest price increased nearly 3 cents to $2.59 per gallon, the West Coast price increased nearly 2 cents to $3.11 per gallon, the Gulf Coast increased more than 1 cent to $2.39 per gallon, and the East Coast and Rocky Mountain prices each increased nearly 1 cent to $2.66 per gallon and $2.59 per gallon, respectively.
Propane/propylene inventories decline
U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 6.5 million barrels last week to 75.1 million barrels as of December 25, 2020, 2.3 million barrels (3.0%) less than the five-year (2015-19) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast, Midwest, East Coast, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories declined by 3.5 million barrels, 1.6 million barrels, 1.0 million barrels, and 0.3 million barrels, respectively.
Residential heating fuel prices increase
As of December 28, 2020, residential heating oil prices averaged more than $2.44 per gallon, nearly 2 cents per gallon above last week’s price but almost 64 cents per gallon lower than last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged nearly $1.61 per gallon, almost 2 cents per gallon below last week’s price and more than 55 cents per gallon lower than last year.
Residential propane prices averaged more than $1.97 per gallon, 3 cents per gallon above last week’s price but nearly 4 cents per gallon below last year’s price. Wholesale propane prices averaged almost $0.84 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon lower last week’s price but nearly 13 cents per gallon above last year’s price.
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After the OPEC+ club met on September 1st, and confirmed that it would be sticking to its plan of increasing its crude supply by 400,000 b/d a month through December, China made a rather unusual announcement. It announced that it was going to release some crude oil from its strategic petroleum reserves, selling it to domestic refiners that were grappling with crude’s heady price rise over 2021. The release of strategic oil reserves isn’t news in itself. What is news is that the usually secretive China did it and did it publicly.
And it did it to send a message to OPEC+: attempts to create artificial scarcity to maintain crude prices will not be tolerated. China has a right to feel that way. Even though great strides have been made to ease the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide, the virus is still exerting major effects on the global economy. Not least a massive ripple through the health of global supply chains that has seen the price of almost everything – plastics, semiconductors, agricultural commodity, lumber, steel – spike due to supply issues. In some cases, the prices of raw materials are at historic highs. Crude oil is still nowhere near its peak of above US$100/b, but it is high enough to be concerning, especially since it is happening within a major inflationary environment. And for a manufacturing-heavy economy like China, that matters. That matters a lot. So China’s National Food and Strategic Reserves announced that it would be releasing some of the country’s crude stocks to ‘better stabilise domestic market supply and demand, and effectively guarantee the country’s energy security’, a month after the country’s producer price inflation – ie. the cost of manufacturing – hit a 13-year high.
China made good on that promise, releasing 7.38 million barrels from its stockpile to domestic bidders on September 24 with more tranches expected. This was the first ever recorded release from China’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR), which began back in 2009 in serendipitous response to crude oil prices exceeding the US$100/b mark for the first time in 2008. But curiously, it may not have been the first ever release. So secretive is the SPR that China does not reveal the size of the reserve, although analysts have estimated it at some 300-400 million barrels with total capacity of 500 million barrels using satellite imaging. It has been speculated that batches of crude from the SPR have been released before on the quiet. But this is the first time China has gone public. Compared to the country’s overall oil consumption, 7.38 million barrels is small, almost tiny. And even if additional supplies are released, it will not make a major impact on China’s oil balances. But the message is what is important.
It is a message that China is not alone in sending. US President Joe Biden has already called on OPEC+ to accelerate its supply easing plans, given indications that the crude glut built up over 2020 has been all but erased. It is a notion that would be supported by some OPEC+ members – Russia, Mexico, the UAE – but so far, the discipline advocated by Saudi Arabia has held. The US too has attempted to release of its own crude reserve stocks – the largest in the world with a capacity of 727 million barrels – but this was also in response to the devastating impact of Hurricane Ida. India, China’s closest analogue to size and stage, has been complaining too. As a major oil importer and with a shakier economic situation, India is particularly sensitive to oil price swings. US$70/b is way above what New Delhi is comfortable with. But since India’s appeals to OPEC+ have fallen on deaf ears, it is attempting domestic directives instead. India’s state refiners have been ordered to reduce crude purchases from the Middle East, but with supply tight, there aren’t many other people to buy from. India has also been selling oil from its strategic reserve – officially stated to be for clearing space to lease storage capacity to refiners – although since India is more transparent about these announcements, the announcement isn’t as surprising.
Will it work? At least immediately, no. Crude prices did come under pressure in the wake of China’s announcement, but then recovered with Brent hitting US$75/b. But the fact that China timed the announcement of the September 24 auction to coincide with peak global trading time and with a lot of details (again an unusual move) shows that Beijing is serious about wielding its strategic reserves as weapons. If not to moderate crude prices, then to at least stabilise it. But this is a war of attrition. China may very well have a planned schedule to release more crude reserves over 2021 and 2022 if prices remain high, but its supplies are finite. And they will have to eventually be replenished, possibly at an even higher cost if the attempt to quell crude price inflation fails. Thus far, the details of the SPR release hint that this is a tentative dip in the pool: the volume of 7.38 million barrels was far lower than the 35-70 million barrels predicted by some market participants. And because successful bidders can lift the oil up to December 10, it seems unlikely that a second auction for 2021 is in concrete plans at this point.
But, at the very least, the message has been sent. Beijing has a tool that it can wield if crude prices get out of hand, and it is not afraid to use it. The first step might have been small, and it is a giant leap in what mechanics are available to influence crude prices. And as history has proven, China can be very quick to scale up and very single-minded in its approach. Over to you, OPEC+.
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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