After tracking within $1/Bbl or so of each other for years, international benchmark Brent crude suddenly began to trade at a higher premium to US benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) in 2010. The Brent premium widened out as far as $28/Bbl in November 2011 and averaged $18/Bbl in 2012. But during 2013 the relationship calmed down some to average $11/Bbl and in 2014 so far has averaged $8.11/Bbl – closing lower at $5.17/Bbl yesterday (June 10, 2014). Today we provide an update on the Brent/WTI crude price relationship.
Current US crude production is over 8.4 MMb/d – up 50 percent since the start of 2011 (see Like A Bat Out of Hell). The rapidly changing dynamics of the US crude market over the past three years as a result of this surge in production have caused upsets and volatility in crude oil price relationships. None more so than between the two most widely traded crudes in the world – US benchmark and CME NYMEX futures delivery grade West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and its international rival North Sea benchmark Brent.
WTI and Brent are both light sweet crudes with similar refining qualities that should be priced about the same if they are trading in the same market. Historically that was the case before 2010 and WTI and Brent prices tracked closely - with WTI generally having a slight premium over its international rival – reflecting the freight cost to ship Brent to the US. At this time, Brent and similar light sweet crude grades were regularly imported at the US Gulf Coast since domestic production did not meet local refinery needs. But a little over three years ago in August 2010, WTI began to trade at a discount to Brent because of a build up of crude inventory at the Midwest Cushing, OK trading hub. Growing crude production in North Dakota and Western Canada overwhelmed Midwest refinery needs and got caught in a Cushing glut because of inadequate pipeline transport capacity to Gulf Coast refineries. The WTI discount to Brent widened out as far as $28/Bbl in November 2011 and averaged $18/Bbl in 2012. In effect US domestic crude was landlocked at Cushing and its price was heavily discounted versus coastal grades.
Then during 2013 the Brent premium to WTI collapsed to less than $1/Bbl in July as surging Midwest and Texas crude production began to bypass Cushing and reach Gulf Coast refineries – ending the market disconnect. But from mid-September to the end of last year Brent prices took off on their own track, leaving WTI behind as the spread surged back to $19/Bbl at the end of November (see Why 2013 Was The Year of Daft Punk for the Brent/WTI Spread). This time the disconnect was caused by a glut of domestic light sweet crude at the Gulf Coast that pushed out imported supplies and severed the trading ties between Brent and WTI. This new situation was confirmed by the behavior of a third crude, Light Louisiana Sweet (LLS) – the Gulf Coast light sweet crude benchmark. Instead of tracking Brent – as they had during the past three years, LLS prices began to track WTI (see Goodbye Stranger) meaning that the Gulf Coast market for light crude had become domestic instead of international. From that point forward the relationship between LLS and WTI assumed more importance for the US crude market than that between Brent and WTI.
So far in 2014 the dominant story in the US crude market has been a continued flow of crude towards the Gulf Coast as more pipeline capacity opened up from Cushing in the shape of the 700 Mb/d Cushing Marketlink southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. The impact on crude inventories has been quite dramatic. The two charts in Figure #1 below tell the story using data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). On the left is crude oil inventory at Cushing, OK showing that stocks this year have drained significantly (red line) versus the 5 year range (gray shading) and the 5-year average (blue line). Since the end of January Cushing stocks have fallen nearly 50 percent from 42 MMBbl to under 22 MMBbl – their lowest level since October 2008. The right hand chart shows where most of those crude supplies headed to – the Gulf Coast region. There crude inventories this year (red line) have risen from 166 MMBbl in January to an all time record 216 MMBbl in mid-May before dropping back to 207 MMBbl last week (May 30, 2014) an increase of 41 MMBbl or 25 percent so far this year.