There’s always a risk when you take a new approach to doing or making something that your expectations won’t pan out — that something you hadn’t figured on happens and messes things up. But oh, the satisfaction that comes when the stars align exactly as you foresaw. The folks who developed Project Traveler, a recently completed Houston-area plant that produces high-value, octane-boosting alkylate from ethylene, isobutane and other widely available and low-cost feedstocks, know that good feeling, as we discuss in today’s RBN blog on the project’s economics. 

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 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. 

Refineries with hydrofluoric acid alkylation units account for about 40% of total U.S. refining capacity. Many in the refining sector are concerned that an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal to compel refineries to conduct exacting studies of newer, alternative alkylation technologies could be leveraged to discourage and effectively ban HF alkylation, and as a result, potentially lead to more refinery closures. The U.S. already has lost more than 1.3 MMb/d of refining capacity since 2019 — losses that exacerbated the run-up in motor fuel prices through the first half of last year — and the specter of another round of refinery closures on the horizon looms large. In today’s RBN blog, we consider the challenges that refineries with HF “alky” units might face if they were required to replace them.

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.

Since 2019, more than 1.3 MMb/d of U.S. refinery capacity has been either shut down for economic reasons or converted to renewable diesel production. The decline in the nation’s ability to produce gasoline and diesel hampered the refining sector’s response to the post-COVID demand recovery and exacerbated the big run-up in motor fuel prices that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. Now, there may be a new threat to U.S. refining, namely the possibility that a proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule on hydrofluoric-acid-based alkylation could, over time, spur an even larger round of refinery closures. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our look at alkylate — a critically important part of the U.S. gasoline pool — the prospective regulation and its possible effects.

A potentially important factor affecting the supply of octane — the primary yardstick of gasoline quality and price — has been lurking in the background over the last few years. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Tier 3 gasoline sulfur standard applies to all refiners and importers who deliver gasoline to the U.S. market, and while delayed compliance requirements and the onset of the pandemic have blunted its full impact to refiners and consumers so far, the implications of meeting the new standard are beginning to take shape. In today’s RBN blog, we explain how the Tier 3 specs are linked to octane supply, where octane destruction comes into play, and how refiners are adapting to the octane-sulfur squeeze.

Alkylate is an important and valuable part of the U.S. gasoline pool, prized for its high octane, low volatility and low sulfur content. There are two primary catalysts that refiners can opt to use in the production of alkylate: hydrofluoric acid, or HF, and sulfuric acid, or H2SO4.  Each is quite popular, with HF and sulfuric acid technologies each representing about half of domestic alkylation capacity — and with those shares varying significantly on a regional basis. While refiners have been safely operating both types of “alky” units for many decades, HF alkylation for some time has been in the crosshairs of the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently proposed that refiners be required to undertake extensive evaluations of potentially safer alternative technologies. It’s hard to know for sure, but if EPA’s proposed rule is made final it could ultimately force many refineries to make very costly changes — into the hundreds of million dollars per unit — or maybe even shut down entirely. In today’s RBN blog, we look at alkylate, how it’s made, and the potentially profound effects of the impending regulation.

While we’ve seen up-and-down spikes in stock market indices, cryptocurrency values and the prices of crude oil and motor fuel in recent years, the price of one important commodity has been quietly but relentlessly rocketing higher — octane, the primary yardstick of gasoline quality and price. The steady rise in octane prices is tied in part to the fundamental change in how octane is valued, with the retail market now being impacted more by demand than production costs. In today’s RBN blog, we look at why octane prices have climbed over the past decade and what market factors are limiting its supply.

In these uncertain times, with the energy transition in flux and a recession looming, it takes moxie for a company to make a major capital investment in an energy-related project, especially one that could arguably be called the first of its kind. But that’s what’s happening at a site along the Houston Ship Channel (HSC) in Pasadena, TX, where Next Wave Energy Partners, which is now completing an ethylene-to-alkylate plant, is planning an adjoining ethanol-to-ethylene facility that will enable the company to produce bioethylene, renewable alkylate and/or sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), depending on market demand, production economics and other factors. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the ins and outs of Next Wave’s Project Lightning.

The thinking behind Next Wave Energy Partners’ late-2019 decision to build a first-of-its-kind ethylene-to-alkylate plant was that a combination of NGL production growth and new ethylene supply — plus increasing demand for alkylate, an octane-boosting gasoline blendstock — would be a win-win-win for ethylene producers, refiners and Next Wave itself. Now, with construction of the plant along the Houston Ship Channel approaching the homestretch, things are shaking out very much as the company had anticipated — even better, in fact. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the progress being made on Next Wave’s Project Traveler plant and the market forces validating the company’s final investment decision (FID).

Over the past five years, the price differential between regular and premium gasoline has been widening steadily.  According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), as of July 2017 the premium -vs.-regular differential reached $0.53/gallon — more than double the differential in 2012. This has produced cringe-worthy experiences at the pump for consumers requiring the premium grade and an incentive for refiners to optimize the gasoline pool.  Consequently, refiners have been making operational adjustments and capital investments to squeeze additional high-octane components out of their feedstocks. Today we examine the premium-regular gasoline differential, provide a primer on gasoline blendstocks and octane levels, and discuss some contributing factors to the widening divide between the pump prices of 87- and 93-octane gasoline.

On December 18, 2015, Congress and President Obama ended the 40-year ban on U.S. crude oil exports to countries other than Canada. Today the arbitrage window doesn’t make much economic sense for most exports – Light Louisiana Sweet on the Gulf Coast is about the same price as Brent in the North Sea.  But the prospect of selling crude abroad remains tantalizing for a depressed U.S. upstream, and U.S. producers have begun to consider the possibilities for more significant export volumes.  But does the U.S. have the right stuff?  Will the qualities of U.S. crudes be competitive in global markets?  In today’s blog, we begin a series to consider the qualities of U.S. crudes that are likely to be favored by international crude buyers.

The U.S. refining industry appears to be transitioning from an era of high margins and record throughputs. Falling crude prices at first increased refining margins – especially as demand for cheap refined products like gasoline expanded. Now product inventories are brimming and margins are squeezed. As we explain today the industry can look forward to an extended period of low crude prices while regulatory requirements and the pace of economic growth largely drive refined product trends.