Last year, the impending implementation of International Maritime Organization’s rule mandating the use of lower-sulfur marine fuels starting January 1, 2020, widened the price spread between rule-compliant 0.5%-sulfur bunker and the 3.5%-sulfur marine fuel that has been a shipping industry mainstay. Traders’ thinking was that demand for high-sulfur bunker would evaporate in the run-up to IMO 2020, as the new rule is known. But since early January, the spread between low- and high-sulfur fuel at the Gulf Coast has narrowed from nearly $11/bbl to less than $2/bbl. The culprit is a shortage of heavy-sour crude caused by a number of factors. Today, we begin a two-part series on low-sulfur vs. high-sulfur fuel and crude values as IMO 2020 approaches.
Permian crude oil production continues to march steadily upward, headed toward 3.0 MMb/d sometime in the next few months. Most of the recent growth responsible for pushing total U.S. output past 10 MMb/d has come from increases in Permian volumes. Pipeline capacity out of the super-hot play is on the ragged edge of maxing out, and a myriad of new projects to relieve capacity constraints are in the works. Why then has the price differential between Midland, TX, and the Gulf Coast dropped over the past few weeks? Why did the Brent vs. WTI/Cushing spread crater? And what does this all mean for Midland-to-Gulf Coast transport deals getting struck for $2.00/bbl or less? Today, we look at these developments, try to make sense out of the Permian/Midland crude oil market, and consider what the future might hold for West Texas barrels moving to the Gulf Coast.
Two months ago, U.S. crude oil exports skyrocketed, and they have averaged 1.6 MMb/d since mid-September, driven by a Brent-WTI differential above $6/bbl — higher than it has been in over two years. At one point, the steep differential and surging exports were blamed on Hurricane Harvey, then on renewed OPEC discipline and a political risk premium associated with a shakeup in the Saudi hierarchy. But the reality is that these factors are only small pieces of the equation, with pipeline transportation bottlenecks from Cushing and the Permian down to the Gulf Coast being much more important factors in the widening Brent-WTI price spread. Today, we begin a blog series examining how these pipeline capacity constraints triggered the expanded price differential, and how the differential then enabled high crude oil export volumes.
Since last winter, the price gap between light crude oil and heavy crude — otherwise known as the light-heavy differential — has narrowed considerably. In February, the price difference between Louisiana Light Sweet crude (LLS) and heavy Maya crude on the Gulf Coast was almost $10/bbl, providing an advantage to refiners who have invested in cokers and other equipment that allows them to run a heavier crude slate. But since June Maya has on average sold for only about $5/bbl less than LLS. Today we examine the shrinking price gap between light and heavy crude and its effect on coking and cracking margins.
A year ago (April 2015) the price spread between Light Louisiana Sweet (LLS) the St. James, LA benchmark light crude and Permian West Texas Intermediate (WTI) delivered to Houston was roughly $2.50/Bbl. In the first quarter of 2016 – following the end of the crude export ban and the crash of crude prices below $40.bbl – that spread narrowed to 30 cents/Bbl. This price differential change has thrown a wrench into traditional Gulf Coast price relationships that encouraged the flow of crude east from Houston to Louisiana. Further changes are expected as pipeline projects due to be completed in the next two years will deliver Bakken and Permian crude direct to St. James. Today we wrap up our series on St. James with a look at changing crude prices and flows.
The St. James, LA crude trading hub provides feedstock to 2.6 MMb/d of regional refining capacity as well as refineries in the Midwest. St. James is also an important distribution hub for crude from North Dakota, South Texas, the Gulf of Mexico and onshore Louisiana as well as imports arriving at the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP). Crude storage and midstream infrastructure at St. James has been expanding in recent years as the trading hub handles larger volumes of domestic production. Today we begin a new series looking at infrastructure and crude pricing at St. James.
Following the news that regulations restricting the export of U.S. crude had been lifted, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude rallied to a slight premium over its international counterpart Brent for 6 days at the end of December 2015 – apparently leveling the playing field between the two rival light sweet grades. Is this the green light for a surge in U.S. crude exports? Not hardly. In fact, it is the other way around. Prices for WTI need to be well below Brent for exports to make economic sense and – according to the futures market – that is not happening anytime soon. Today we conclude our analysis of the Brent/WTI price relationship with a look forward to 2016.
Yesterday (August 3, 2015) Brent crude closed under $50/Bbl for the first time since January 2015. At that price expensive crude-by-rail (CBR) freight costs to the East Coast leave Bakken producers with netbacks not much over $30/Bbl. Yet CBR shipments to the East Coast were still over 400 Mb/d in May 2015 according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). By 2017 there should be adequate capacity to get all Bakken crude to market by pipeline. But direct pipeline competition against rail to the East Coast is not expected until at least 2020. Today we look at the future of East Coast CBR.
Western Canadian Select (WCS) – the benchmark for Canadian crude sold at Hardisty in Alberta fetched just $32.29/Bbl on Friday (July 24, 2015) down 60% from $81.34/Bbl a year ago in July 2014. That year has seen big changes in the U.S. oil market with drilling rig cutbacks and declining new production rates. The challenges for Canadian producers have not changed much in the short term – with transport capacity to market still top of the list. Trouble is that every time transport congestion occurs it pushes price discounts higher and lowers producer returns. Today we discuss the relationship between Western Canadian crude production and prices.
U.S refiners have been processing a lot of crude so far this summer and utilization rates remain high. Crude production has leveled off and is expected by the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Short Term Energy Outlook to decline slightly during the second half of 2015. But the early summer market sentiment that drove crude prices up to $60/Bbl on the back of these fundamentals appears to have lost steam. Today we conclude our analysis of short term crude price prospects.
Average margins for a Gulf Coast condensate splitter have been about $5/Bbl better in 2015 than they were in 2014 but are still about $4.75/Bbl worse than an equivalent Gulf Coast 3-2-1 crack spread. The economics of condensate splitters have also yet to be tested in an environment if – as could happen later this year – crude production begins to decline. Are condensate splitters a better investment than just exporting lightly processed condensate under relaxed export regulations? Two companies considering projects seem to have reached different conclusions recently. Today we continue our update on splitter projects with a look at economics.
Since the start of the shale oil boom in 2011 crack spread margins for Midwest refiners have averaged about $23/Bbl. Once written off refineries on the East Coast have averaged $16/Bbl this year so far (2015) and California refiners are currently enjoying average $24/Bbl crack spreads. Refinery utilization at the Gulf Coast has averaged close to 90% for the past 4 years and 92% in the Midwest. Today we review buoyant margins and operating levels at U.S. refineries.
In spite of a brief respite provided last week by increased geopolitical risk in Saudi Arabia, crude oil prices are still in the $50/Bbl range – down more than 50% since last Summer - and inventories at Cushing and on the Gulf Coast continue at record levels. The fall in crude prices was initially consistent across markets with international benchmark Brent trading within $1/Bbl of U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Gulf Coast marker Light Louisiana Sweet (LLS) in January 2015. But since February the relationship between Brent, WTI and LLS has changed as the build up of Cushing inventories weighs on prices in the Midwest. Today we provide an update on crude price differentials at The Gulf Coast.
While producers are licking their wounds after a more than 50% oil price crash, refiners have continued to enjoy healthy margins – even in the face of the largest refinery strike since 1980. Strong refining margins, supported by an ongoing boom in refined product exports, continue to encourage high levels of refinery utilization in the Gulf Coast region – home to more than 50% of U.S. refining capacity. Today we look at how Gulf Coast refiners are faring after the oil price crash.
A new light sweet crude oil trading market is developing in Houston at the Magellan Midstream Partners East Houston terminal – delivery point for that company’s Longhorn and BridgeTex (50/50 owned with Plains All American) pipelines delivering crude from the Permian Basin. Light sweet crude from the Permian is also known as West Texas Intermediate (WTI) the domestic U.S. benchmark crude - widely traded at Cushing, OK where it underpins the CME NYMEX futures contract. Today we review the developing market and the price relationships that underpin it.