refining

When the price of the Tier 3 sulfur credit hit a new high of $3,600 in October 2023, the tradable sulfur credit for gasoline moved from the background to center stage in refining circles. And while credit prices have retreated slightly to about $3,400, they still represent a nearly 10-fold increase over two years and translate to a Tier 3 compliance cost of almost $3/bbl, raising concerns from refiners in a highly competitive market. In today’s RBN blog, we look at how refiners are adapting and the investments that could reduce the cost of compliance. 

The impending startup of Canada’s government-owned Trans Mountain Expansion Project, better known as TMX, will add exit capacity for Western Canadian crude oil production and is expected to redirect at least some of Alberta’s output toward California and Asia and away from its traditional North American markets, including complex refiners in Eastern Canada and the U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast. Among them, Gulf Coast refiners, who have become the “price-setting” consumers of heavy Western Canadian crude, are expected to be the hardest hit. In today’s RBN blog, we examine the Gulf of Mexico production and imported grades that might become stand-ins for the “lost” Canadian barrels. 

The price of the Tier 3 gasoline sulfur credit hit $3,600 in October, up by a factor of 10 since 2022 and roughly in line with the all-time high reached in 2019. The high price of this important credit is a direct indicator of the true cost of compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Tier 3 gasoline sulfur standard and has raised some alarm recently in refining and financial circles. In today’s RBN blog, we give some specific examples of how refiners and investment analysts are reacting. 

We’ve reached the two-year anniversary of the reversal of the joint-venture Capline crude oil pipeline. With its current north-to-south flow, it adds to the few conduits that can move oil from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, specifically the St. James, LA, oil hub. Flows have been on a steady climb since southbound service began in December 2021, but volumes appear to be short of its available capacity, and there are looming headwinds. In today’s RBN blog, we examine whether Capline’s flows could be affected by the impending startup of the Canadian government-owned Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX). Could rising Alberta production be its golden ticket?  

When you’re in competition for billions in federal dollars, you need more than just a sensible approach and a strong economic case. You need a real competitive advantage. That’s what Hy Stor Energy believes it has with its proposed Mississippi Clean Hydrogen Hub (MCHH). It sees off-the-grid renewable power and extensive salt-dome storage capabilities as the surest path to decarbonization for a myriad of industrial needs. In today’s RBN blog, we look at the overall strategy behind the MCHH, the plan to produce 100% green hydrogen, and how Hy Stor hopes to beat the competition and secure Department of Energy (DOE) funding for a regional hydrogen hub.

U.S. production of hydrogenated renewable diesel (RD), which is made from soybean oil, animal fats and used cooking oil, is growing faster than expected. That may sound like good news for the renewable fuels industry, but it comes with the fear that the rapid growth might push RD production levels well past the mandates set by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), potentially triggering a sudden crash in Renewable Identification Number (RIN) prices that — if it happens — would rock the market. In today’s RBN blog, we estimate the likelihood and possible timing of such a market-shaking event.

The world consumes about 100 MMb/d of liquid fuels, which are critically important to every segment of the global economy and to nearly every aspect of our daily lives. The size and scope of this market means it’s impacted by all kinds of short-term forces — economic ups and downs, geopolitics, domestic developments and major weather events, just to name a few — some of which are difficult, if not impossible, to foresee. But while these events can sometimes come out of nowhere, there are some long-term forces on the horizon that will shape markets in the decades to come, even if the magnitude of these changes might be up for debate. One is a move to prioritize alternative fuel sources rather than crude oil, but a meaningful shift won’t happen as quickly as many forecasts would indicate — and that has big implications for liquid fuel demand and the outlook for U.S. refiners. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss these issues and other highlights from the recent webcast by RBN’s Refined Fuels Analytics (RFA) practice on their newly released update to the Future of Fuels report.

U.S. production of hydrogenated renewable diesel (RD), made from soybean oil and animal fats like used cooking oil, is growing faster than expected. That may sound like good news for the renewable fuels industry, but it comes with the fear that the rapid growth might trigger a sudden crash of Renewable Identification Number (RIN) prices that — if it happens — would rock the market. In today’s RBN blog, we have a go at describing what that might look like.

U.S. refiners have been enjoying some very good times the past couple of years. Most important, refining margins have soared due to a tight global product supply/demand environment brought on by, among other things, the post-COVID demand recovery, refinery shutdowns, Russia/Ukraine war effects, and high natural gas prices. Traditionally, the bulk of refining margins have come from (1) robust “crack spreads” (the general yardstick for measuring overall refining sector health, simply by taking the difference between a basket of refined products and key light sweet crude markets like WTI Cushing or MEH) and (2) the lower crude-input costs that many refineries benefit from, either because of location-related advantages or their ability to process lower-cost crude like medium and heavy sours. But location discounts have narrowed in recent years due to the buildout of pipelines and, as we discuss in today’s RBN blog, the big quality discounts that complex refiners relished through much of last year and the first few months of 2023 have withered. The question is, why?

It seems logical that shifting over time to aviation fuel with a lower carbon footprint would represent the most practical way for the global airline industry to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But for that shift to happen, there needs to be an economic rationale for producing sustainable aviation fuel and, despite a seemingly generous production credit for SAF in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), that rationale is a least a little shaky when compared to renewable diesel (RD) credits available today. In today’s RBN blog, we conclude our two-part series on SAF with an examination of RD and SAF economics (which are remarkably similar), the degree to which existing SAF incentives may fall short of RD, and what it all means for SAF producers and production.

Around the world, there’s a strong push to put aviation on a more sustainable footing and reduce the industry’s greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Increasing the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) — a close cousin of renewable diesel (RD) — is key to this effort. But while the economic case for producing RD in the U.S. has been compelling for some time thanks to government subsidies, the returns on investment for producing SAF appear more dubious, despite a seemingly generous production tax credit for SAF in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). As we discuss in today’s RBN blog, the incentive for making jet fuel is likely too small — and too short-lived — to overcome the higher cost of production for SAF compared to RD, and additional incentives may be needed to spur meaningful increases in SAF production.

As environmental protection and decarbonization efforts have ramped up in the past few decades, policymakers around the world have come up with a variety of schemes to lower industrial emissions. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 committed developed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a defined amount from 1990 levels by 2012. The treaty was never brought up for ratification in the U.S. Senate, which unanimously opposed it because developing nations — such as China — weren’t included. Across the Atlantic, the Kyoto Protocol was received much more favorably, with all 15 members (at the time) of the European Union (EU) ratifying the treaty in 2002. In 2005, the EU launched the Emissions Trading System (ETS) as a mechanism to help reduce emissions from power plants, industrial facilities and commercial aviation, covering nearly half of total EU emissions. In today’s RBN blog, we explain the European cap-and-trade system, examine how the ETS is affecting the EU’s refining industry as a whole, and drill down to the refinery level to discuss disparities in carbon-cost exposure from one refinery to the next.

Over the past couple years of energy market turbulence, pretty much everyone has come to acknowledge that the U.S. — and the rest of the world — will continue to require refineries and refined products for decades to come. It’s also likely, though, that U.S. refiners, like their European counterparts, will be required to do more to reduce the volumes of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated during the process of breaking down crude oil and other feedstocks into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other valuable products. And, thanks to new federal incentives, it might even make sense for refineries to capture and sequester at least some of the CO2 they can’t help but produce. In today’s RBN blog, we begin a series on refinery CO2 emission fundamentals, the differing policies that are applied here in the U.S. and abroad, and how those policies might ultimately influence refining competitiveness.

If you buy premium gasoline, you’ve probably noticed its price differential versus regular has been increasing in recent years. That is a sign of the rising value of octane, the primary yardstick of gasoline quality and price. In this blog series we’ve examined a new gasoline sulfur specification called Tier 3, which is causing complications for U.S. refiners looking to balance octane and gasoline production while still meeting the regulatory limits on sulfur. In today’s RBN blog, the fourth and final on this topic, we provide an analysis of the obscure Sulfur Credit Averaging, Banking and Trading (ABT) system, which allows refiners to buy credits to stay in compliance with the Tier 3 specs. The price of these credits quintupled in 2022, another sign of a tight octane market that will be attracting increased attention in the months and years ahead.

Senior refining executives were called to Washington, DC, in June, around the time U.S. gas prices hit their high-water mark for the year, as the government sought recommendations about how to increase the supply of gasoline. One suggestion made to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm was to relax sulfur specifications on fuels, including the Tier 3 gasoline sulfur specifications. But what is the connection between those rules and the U.S. refining system’s ability to produce gasoline? In today’s RBN blog, we explain how the Tier 3 rules constrain gasoline supply capacity in the U.S. and discuss ways to break free from those chains.