Most Popular Blogs of 2022

Well, you might say energy markets got smacked upside the head in 2022. After a decade of energy abundance, a meltdown in demand in 2020, and what looked like a budding recovery in 2021, energy security had devolved into a back-burner issue. After all, why worry about existing fuel sources when they would soon be replaced by waves of renewable and sustainable fuels? Then, literally overnight, the world changed on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Prior assumptions about energy security were out the window. Suddenly, the availability, source of production and, of course, the price of traditional energy were front-and-center. In fact, those priorities swiftly overshadowed energy-transition goals. We could see that shift in focus every day at RBN by monitoring the website hit rate of our blogs to see which ones garnered the most interest. This year, all of the top blogs were in some way tied to energy security. So today we dive into our Top 10 blogs based on the number of website hits to see how energy security has permeated all aspects of energy markets.

Last week, even as natural gas day-ahead prices went negative in the Permian’s Waha Hub in West Texas, spot prices at northern California’s PG&E Citygate last week traded at a record-smashing $55/MMBtu, according to the NGI Daily Gas Price Index — close to 100x the Waha price. Other hubs west of the Continental Divide also surged to record levels, while markets just east and north of there were largely unruffled — a sure sign of bottlenecks for moving gas into West Coast markets. This is just the latest instance of severe gas supply shortages and constraint-driven price disruptions out West in recent years (even ignoring Winter Storm Uri and the Deep Freeze of February 2021). Moreover, it’s arguably taking progressively more benign market events to trigger similar or worse shortages. What’s going on? In today’s RBN blog, we break down the factors driving the latest Western U.S. gas price spikes.

Over the past nine months, the frac spread —a rough-cut measure of the value of extracting NGLs from raw gas at gas processing plants — has taken a terrifying plunge, from $9.82/MMBtu in early March to only $2.16/MMBtu on Monday. Given that the frac spread is the differential between the price of natural gas and the weighted average price of a typical barrel of NGLs on a dollars-per-MMBtu basis, a 78% nosedive like that suggests that something is seriously out of whack, and that at least some market players are taking a real hit financially. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the frac spread, the drivers behind its recent freefall, and what it would take for gas processing margins to rebound.

The U.S. market for distillates has been crazy the past few months — especially in PADD 1 —  and given all that’s going on, it’s likely to stay that way for months to come. Inventories of ultra-low-sulfur diesel, heating oil and other distillates are at their lowest levels for this time of year since before the EIA started tracking them 40 years ago and diesel prices are in the stratosphere, all despite diesel crack spreads being in record-high territory — a strong incentive for refineries to churn out more distillate. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the many factors affecting distillate supply, demand, inventories and prices and take a look ahead at where the market may be headed next.

Lower 48 natural gas production this month hit a once-unthinkable milestone, topping the all-important psychological threshold of 100 Bcf/d for the first time. Volumes have remained at record highs through mid-September, with year-on-year gains expanding to a breathtaking 7-9 Bcf/d above last year at this time (when hurricane-related shut-ins were in effect). The record production levels coincided with a seasonal decline in weather-related demand, as well as the ongoing outage at the Freeport LNG export terminal. Remarkably, however, even with all-time high, ~100 Bcf/d natural gas production and Freeport LNG offline, the Lower 48 gas market balance averaged tighter year-on-year — a testament to just how strong consumption has been lately, and for much of this summer for that matter. In today’s blog, we look at how the supply-demand balance has shaped up this month and where it’s headed near-term.

We’ve seen this movie one too many times. Just when natural gas prices are rallying across the world to multi-year or historic highs, another monkey wrench gets thrown into the workings of the Western Canadian gas market, imploding its suite of price markers. Last week, gas prices in Western Canada collapsed to mere pennies and even went negative for a time due to an unfortunate combination of pipeline restrictions and record-high production — a situation that will cost the region’s gas industry billions if left unchecked. In today’s RBN blog, we examine the root cause of the latest price collapse and when a turnaround might be expected.

The momentum for U.S. LNG right now is powerful. With Europe’s efforts to wean itself off Russian natural gas boosting long-term LNG demand and Asian consumption expected to grow even further, there has been a strong push for new LNG projects in North America. So far, that has helped propel two U.S. projects, Venture Global’s Plaquemines LNG and Cheniere’s Corpus Christi Stage III, to reach a final investment decision (FID). With these two projects getting a green light, total export capacity in the U.S. will be at least 130 MMtpa — or 17.3 Bcf/d — by mid-decade. That top-line export capacity could be much higher, however. There are currently eight U.S. Gulf Coast pre-FID projects with binding sales agreements, and a handful of projects that are fully subscribed in credible non-binding deals. If all those projects go forward, it would add a staggering 86 MMtpa (11.4 Bcf/d) of export capacity to the U.S., pushing the total toward 30 Bcf/d, or 225 MMtpa. In today’s RBN blog we look at U.S. LNG under development, how high export capacity could go, and the implications for the U.S. natural gas market.

We are only two months away from the official start of propane heating season in the U.S., and inventories are 3.5 MMbbl lower than last year, or 2.6 MMbbl below the five-year week-on-week low. Volumetrically, it’s a story very much like last summer: Propane exports are running high and while production is up it’s not increasing fast enough to get inventories back to where we would like to see them. But propane prices are not behaving at all like last year. At this point in 2021, the price of propane was moving higher, both in absolute terms and relative to the price of crude oil. This year, prices have been falling for the past four months and are much weaker relative to crude than a year ago. With low inventories and low prices, what are the prospects for the propane market being prepared for the upcoming heating season? And what are the risks if there's a cold-weather surprise? We’ll consider those issues and more in the blog series we begin today, focusing first on how we got here.  

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.

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.

Prompt CME/NYMEX Henry Hub natural gas futures prices averaged $4.54/MMBtu this winter, up 67% from $2.73/MMBtu in the winter of 2020-21 and the highest since the winter of 2009-10. Prices have barreled even higher in recent days, despite the onset of the lower-demand shoulder season, with the May contract hitting $6.643/MMBtu on Monday, the highest since November 2008 and up more than $1 from where the April futures contract expired a couple of weeks ago. Europe’s push to reduce reliance on Russian natural gas has turned the spotlight on U.S. LNG exports and their role in driving up domestic natural gas prices. However, a closer look at the Lower 48 supply-demand balance this winter vs. last suggests that near-record domestic demand, along with tepid production growth, also played a significant role in drawing down the storage inventory and tightening the balance. Today’s RBN blog breaks down the gas supply-demand factors that shaped the withdrawal season and contributed to the current price environment.

At first glance, it would appear that President Biden’s announcement regarding the release of up to 180 MMbbl of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next six months could have a significant impact. After all, it would, in a sense, increase the flow of U.S. oil into the market by almost 9% –– 11.7 MMb/d of current U.S. production plus an incremental 1 MMb/d from the SPR — and boost global supply by about 1%, which is no small thing. There are a few unknowns, though, such as (1) how much sweet crude oil and how much sour will be released, (2) where the pipelines connected to the four SPR sites could take that oil, (3) whether those pipelines have sufficient capacity to absorb the incremental flows out of SPR, and (4) what the ultimate market impacts of the SPR releases will be. In today’s RBN blog, we look at the president’s announcement and its implications.

The world is in desperate need of more crude oil right now and anybody with barrels is scouring every nook and cranny for any additional volume that can be brought to market. Some of that may come from increased production, but the oil patch is a long-cycle industry, just coming off one of the most severe bust periods ever, and it will take time to get all the various national oil companies, majors, and independents rowing in the same direction again. For now, part of the answer will be to drain what we can from storage — after all, a major purpose of storing crude inventories is to serve as a shock absorber for short-term market disruptions. To that end, the U.S. is coordinating with other nations to release strategic reserve volumes to help stymie the global impact of avoiding Russian commodities. Outside of reserves held for strategic purposes though, commercial inventories have already been dwindling as escalating global crude prices have been signaling the market to sell as much as possible. Stored volumes at Cushing — the U.S.’s largest commercial tank farm and home to the pricing benchmark WTI — have been freefalling for months, which raises the question, how much more (if any) can come out of Cushing? In today’s RBN blog, we update one of our Greatest Hits blogs to calculate how much crude oil is actually available at Cushing.

WTI is selling for north of $120 a barrel, gasoline and diesel are retailing for more than $4.10 and $4.80 a gallon, respectively, and, with Russia continuing its unprovoked war against Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine prices for hydrocarbons easing by much anytime soon. As startling as the recent spikes in crude oil and refined products prices may be, however, it’s worth keeping in mind that, in real-dollar terms, prices for these commodities have been considerably higher in the past, including through much of the 2006-14 period and back in 1979-81. And don’t forget, the car, SUV, or pickup you’re driving today consumes about two-thirds as much fuel per mile, on average, as the vehicle you (or your parents) drove back when Ronald Reagan was running for president and Pink Floyd’s The Wall was the best-selling album. In today’s RBN blog, we put today’s “record-breaking” prices for crude oil and motor fuels in perspective.