If you follow developments in the energy industry, you know that news about permitting for major infrastructure projects can sometimes read more like a horror story: 14 years to build an electric transmission line, a decade to get a mining permit, and the reality that some projects can be constructed in far less time than it takes to secure the required permits and work through any legal challenges. It’s a known problem with a lot of contributing factors, but no easy answers. In today’s RBN blog, we look at how permitting difficulties have become a flashpoint for all sorts of stakeholders — industry groups, environmental advocates, the general public, and politicians of all stripes. Our focus today will be on the current poster child of permitting challenges, Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), but we’ll also discuss how permitting setbacks complicate the development of all types of projects, from traditional oil and gas pipelines to initiatives at the heart of the energy transition.
Analyst Insights are unique perspectives provided by RBN analysts about energy markets developments. The Insights may cover a wide range of information, such as industry trends, fundamentals, competitive landscape, or other market rumblings. These Insights are designed to be bite-size but punchy analysis so that readers can stay abreast of the most important market changes.
WTI inched higher on Tuesday, settling at $73.20/bbl, up $0.39/bbl. That followed a huge 5% increase on Monday, triggered by curtailed exports of about 450 Mb/d out of Iraq’s Kurdistan region due to cuts on a Turkish pipeline on Saturday following an arbitration decision that confirmed Baghdad's consent was needed to ship the oil. Crude prices are also being supported by easing of concerns about the global banking system, making a recession less likely. In early Wednesday trading, WTI is up about $1.00/bbl to the $74/bbl range. WTI stats are out this morning.
U.S. steam cracker margins for normal butane feedstock have soared over the past month moving from the least economical to most economical feedstock. As shown on the chart below, butane cracking margins have increased from a negative 12 c/lb in late February to 21 c/lb as of March 27. Ethane and propane steam cracker margins have improved by only about 5 c/lb over the same period, well below the 33 c/lb increase in the butane margin.
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Way back in 2019, just about everyone in the refining world was talking about IMO 2020, the International Maritime Organization’s soon-to-be-implemented rule requiring much lower sulfur emissions from most ocean-going ships. A lot of forecasters were anticipating that major market dislocations would result — things like $50/bbl-plus diesel crack spreads, oversupply of high-sulfur fuel oil, and ultra-wide differentials between light and heavy crude oils. They did, but only briefly, in the last few months of 2019. The implementation of IMO 2020 turned out to be pretty much a non-event, and for much of 2020 and 2021, people didn’t think much about the new bunker fuel rule. Lately, things have been changing, as we discuss in today’s RBN blog.
Refinery closures. Shifting demand for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Yawning price differentials for refined products in neighboring regions. These and other factors have spurred an ongoing reworking of the extensive U.S. products pipeline network, which transports the fuels needed to power cars, SUVs, trucks, trains and airplanes — not to mention pumps in the oil patch, tractors and lawnmowers. New products pipelines are being built and existing pipelines are being repurposed, expanded or made bidirectional, typically to take advantage of opportunities that midstreamers, refiners and marketers see opening up. In today’s RBN blog, we begin a review of major pipelines that batch gasoline, diesel and jet fuel and look at the subtle and not-so-subtle changes being made to the U.S. refined products distribution network.
As the price of gasoline continues its seemingly never-ending upward path in the U.S. (not withstanding a bit of a pause in the past week), the cause (or blame, if you prefer) continues to shift. Of course, the Biden administration has heavily promoted the phrase “Putin’s price hike,” and the Russian president can certainly claim some of the blame. His invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions on the world’s second-largest exporter of refined products (after the U.S.) have led to the loss of several hundred thousand barrels per day of product supply. However, prices for refined products were already rising before his late February invasion due to a variety of other factors, both on the supply and demand sides of the equation. Perhaps the most important factor has been the loss of significant U.S. refining capacity over the last few years, which is limiting the ability of refiners to respond to the strong demand recovery and loss of supply. In its highly publicized June 15 letter to U.S. oil executives, the administration acknowledged this as it demanded refiners reactivate lost capacity and increase production. In today’s RBN blog, we summarize the shutdowns which have taken place in the U.S. and discuss the reasons behind those closures.
In film and television, the “boxed crook” trope is where a condemned person is sought as a last-ditch effort to pull off some impossible mission or overcome a formidable opponent. In return, the convict is typically offered amnesty or other consideration by the operatives in charge. Millennials will probably think of the recent Suicide Squad movies. For Generation X, The Rock starring Sean Connery was a great example. And for the boomers, it was The Dirty Dozen. Our current situation in the U.S. energy sector may not be quite as thrilling as those movies but the same plot elements exist. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the predicament faced by industry and political leaders and begin to sort out the various proposals to put a lid on prices and restore energy security.
In the next few days, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will hold an emergency meeting with leading energy executives to discuss steps E&Ps and refiners could take to increase crude oil production, refinery capacity and the production of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, all with the aim of reducing prices. The prelude to the get-together was less than ideal, though. In a June 14 letter to the top brass of four integrated oil and gas giants and three large refiners, President Biden criticized them for “historically high refinery profit margins” and for shutting down refining capacity before and then during the pandemic. In addition to rejoinders from the companies, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) defended their actions, discussed the complexity of refined products markets, and asserted that the Biden administration’s statements and policies have actually discouraged investment in refining and oil and gas production. Is there a middle ground here? In today’s RBN blog, we look at the high-level correspondence and discuss how at least some compromises might be possible.
For several years now, no single topic has caused more angst in refiners’ quarterly earnings calls than the seemingly arcane topic of renewable identification numbers, or RINs, which can have a big impact on a refiner’s financial performance. RINs are a feature of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires renewable fuels like ethanol and bio-based diesel to be blended into fuels sold in the U.S. And depending on your point of view — farmer, refiner, blender, consumer, politician — you may have a very different perspective regarding RINs’ role as a tax and a subsidy. In today’s RBN blog, we dig into the fundamental aspects of RINs at the root of this long-running controversy and examine the role of RINs as a mechanism for forcing renewables into fuels.
Last month, in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest ruling in a long-running dispute with refiners over the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), EPA denied 36 petitions from refiners seeking exemptions to their obligation to blend renewables like ethanol into gasoline for the 2018 compliance year. At the core of this dispute are two contradictory premises about Renewable Identification Numbers, or RINs. One premise says the RINs system adds cost that hurts refiners’ profitability, while the other says refiners’ profitability is not affected. Can two seemingly contradictory premises be true? In today’s RBN blog, we begin an examination of the issues surrounding RINs and the degree to which the cost affects refiners’ and blenders’ bottom lines.
U.S. diesel inventories are at their lowest level for May since 2000 and East Coast stocks recently hit their lowest mark for any week or month since the EIA started tracking them in 1990. Crack spreads for diesel — and, more recently, for gasoline — have gone parabolic, giving refiners the strongest financial signal ever to produce more diesel and gasoline as we enter the summer travel season. More jet fuel too. The problem is, U.S. refineries already are running flat-out. And Europe? It’s facing big cuts in crude oil and refined-products imports from Russia as well as much higher prices for — and possible shortages of — oil and natural gas, the latter being the primary fuel for operating refinery hydrocrackers, which upgrade low-quality heavy gas-oils into high-quality diesel, gasoline and jet. It’s a mess, and not easily fixable, as we discuss in today’s RBN blog.
It took a while, but domestic air travel is finally returning to pre-pandemic levels and international travel to and from the U.S. is showing signs of recovering too. As a result, U.S. production of jet fuel has been rising steadily in recent months and, since most jet fuel needs to be transported long distances from refineries to airports, so have flows of jet fuel on U.S. refined products pipelines. All of that is good news, but as pipeline flows rise, so may the stresses on some elements of the U.S. refined products/jet fuel distribution network, including pipelines, storage facilities and “last mile” jet fuel delivery trucks. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our look at jet fuel, this time with a look at the extensive web of U.S. refined products pipelines.
Just over two years ago, the jet fuel market experienced an almost existential shock. In the space of only six or seven weeks, demand for the refined product plummeted by more than 70% as COVID-related lockdowns and air-travel restrictions were implemented. Fortunately, life in the U.S. has been returning to normal — albeit with some bumps along the way — and demand for jet fuel (a.k.a. “jet”) has been rebounding to near pre-pandemic levels. That re-emphasizes a nagging challenge, though, namely transporting large volumes of jet from refineries and import docks to hundreds of major and minor airports. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our look at jet fuel, this time with an examination of where it's produced and consumed, and how it gets from refineries to airports.
Over the past few weeks, many U.S. refiners reported even-stronger-than-expected first-quarter results, and it’s likely their good fortune will continue. Why? Despite the skyrocketing price of crude oil — refiners’ primary feedstock — the prices of the gasoline and diesel they produce have risen even more. And it’s that now-yawning gap between crude oil and refined-products prices that’s been driving refining margins — and refiners’ profits — to near-historic levels. Refining margins, like the character and capabilities of thoroughbreds like “Rich Strike” in Saturday’s amazing Kentucky Derby, are unique to each refinery because of their different sizes, equipment and crude slates (among other things), but there’s a tried-and-true way to estimate the refining sector’s general profitability, as we discuss in today’s blog on U.S. refiners’ sky-high crack spreads.
The jet fuel market has been on a wild ride the past two-plus years. First, demand for the refined product took an unprecedented, COVID-induced nosedive in February and March 2020. By May 2020, Gulf Coast prices for jet fuel had plummeted to less than 50 cents/gal (from just under $2 at the start of that year) and refiners had slashed production to 505 Mb/d (from just under 1.9 MMb/d). It was a tough few months — the recovery from the market’s bottom was neither quick nor consistent. Domestic air travel is finally back, but with international travel slower to rebound, total jet fuel supply and demand are still off of their pre-pandemic levels. Jet fuel prices are taking off, though, last week hitting their highest mark since July 2008. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the jet fuel market: how it’s rebounding, how it works and how it’s changing.
California has a long history of leading the U.S. in environmental regulations and of taking federal environmental rules to the next level. Back in the 1960s, for example, the state became the first to regulate emissions from motor vehicles. In more recent decades, it has led the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these progressive regulations migrate to other states over time, which adds significance to a Northern California environmental agency’s recent decision to put stricter limits on emissions from refinery fluidized catalytic cracking units, or FCCUs. In today’s blog, we discuss the new regulation and its potential implications.
We all hope that by the time you read this the operators of the ransomware-impacted Colonial Pipeline will have been able to restore service to more of the 5,500-mile refined products delivery system — maybe even to all of it. In any case, the shutdown of the Houston-to-New-Jersey pipeline system on Friday both exposes the vulnerability of the North American pipeline grid to malevolent hackers and reveals how, by its very nature, that same grid offers at least some degree of redundancy and resiliency built into it. A lot of that ability to respond to a crisis, whether it be a pipeline leak or a hack by an Eastern European criminal group called DarkSide, involves what you might call “market-inspired workarounds” — alternative suppliers reacting to an anticipated supply void and potentially higher prices by jumping into action. Today, we look at what the ransomware attack on the U.S.’s largest gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel transportation system can teach us.
The U.S. and Canada make quite a team. Friends for most of the past century and a half — and best buddies since World War II — the two countries have highly integrated economies, especially on the energy front. Large volumes of crude oil, natural gas, NGLs, and refined products flow across the U.S.-Canadian border, and a long list of producers, midstreamers, and refiners are active in both nations. One more thing: since the mid-2000s, the development of U.S. shale and the Canadian oil sands in particular has enabled refiners in both countries to significantly reduce their dependence on overseas oil — a big victory for North American energy independence. However, due to its smaller population and economy, Canada typically gets far less attention than its southern neighbor, so in today’s blog we try to right that wrong by discussing highlights from a new, freshly updated Drill Down Report on Canada’s refining sector.