Baby Break It Down

COVID-19 has created a number of challenges across the energy value chain, including lower demand for motor gasoline and jet fuel and, subsequently, surplus crude oil. However, even with diminished demand, the facilities that produce and process these fuels have to keep operating at some level, as do petrochemical plants. Workers in the energy industry are considered essential due to the importance of having fuel available to power vehicles and manufacturing facilities, natural gas to enable continued operation of power industries, and logistical infrastructure to ensure that feedstock supply can make it to processing facilities and eventually consumers. Given the need for round-the-clock operations, COVID-related social distancing measures have presented a unique challenge for refinery and petrochemical facilities. To maintain adequate staffing while protecting personnel from the coronavirus, these facilities have been making major adjustments. If, as we all hope, things begin moving back toward “normal” in the coming months and refinery and petchem utilization ramps up, these efforts to keep workers safe will only gain in significance. Today, we discuss staffing issues in these key industry sectors during the pandemic.

The COVID-19-induced social isolation and subsequent economic slowdown have caused major drops in U.S. refined products consumption, especially gasoline and jet fuel, which have experienced declines of as much as 44% and 70%, respectively, relative to similar periods in 2019. Diesel fuel consumption has been off as much as 20% on the same basis, and given that COVID is a global crisis, product exports have also fallen. As a result, U.S. refinery utilization has dropped to less than 70% for the last few weeks, the lowest levels since September 2008 during Hurricane Ike. All this presents refiners with two challenges: (1) reduced total demand; and (2) the disproportionate decline in gasoline and jet fuel. Each refinery is configured differently and has a varying degree of flexibility to react to these challenges. Today, we discuss what refiners can do to adjust operations and product yields, and examine the point at which some refineries might be forced to shut down completely.

Sharply declining refinery demand for crude oil was a key driver in the historic collapse in near-term futures prices for WTI at Cushing earlier this week. With stay-at-home directives in place in most of the industrialized world, U.S. — and global — demand for motor gasoline and jet fuel has plummeted to levels not seen in decades. These changes in refined-products demand, which may continue for months, already are having significant impacts on U.S. refineries — not just in how much crude oil they need but in operators’ decisions on whether to adjust their crude slates and ramp down or alter their operations. Their urgent challenge is to revise their yields to something close to the appropriate volumes of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Today, we begin a blog series on the U.S. refining sector and what refiners can — and can’t — do to adapt to these extraordinary times.