U.S. inventories of distillate — especially ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) and heating oil — are at their lowest pre-winter level in three years after falling during the summer months for the first time since inventory records started being measured in 1982. Rising diesel exports are one culprit; another is the shutdown of a number of Gulf Coast refineries during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey. The good news is that distillate prices have been increasing, as have the margins for refining crude oil into distillate — both encouraging refineries to ramp up their diesel/heating oil production. Today, we look at recent developments in the distillate market and what they may mean for diesel and heating oil prices this winter.
For most of 2017 — with the month after Hurricane Harvey hit the western Gulf Coast being a notable exception — U.S. distillate production has been at or near record levels; according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), through the last week of October, production of ULSD and other distillate has averaged 4.94 million barrels/day (MMb/d) this year, up 3.6% from the same 10-month period last year. But despite the fact that U.S. distillate production is up — and finally back to pre-Harvey levels of more than 5 MMb/d as of the week ending October 27 — distillate inventories, which had been riding high through 2016, have been tumbling for several months in 2017 (yellow line in Figure 1), and are nearing their lowest levels of the past five years. (The gray-shaded area in Figure 1 represents the range of distillate stocks in 2012-16.)