Bleak outlook for U.S. oil refiners
Even by the standards of a deep-cyclical industry, the “golden age” of oil refining has proved remarkably brief, lasting no more than three years, before giving way to a new dark age.
Particularly in the United States, refiners have returned to the state of chronic unprofitability that plagued the industry before 2005.
U.S. refiners now have too much capacity and produce the wrong products (gasoline) in a fuel economy increasingly dominated by ethanol and diesel. Capacity cuts of as much as 0.5-1.0 million bpd (equivalent to 4-8 average refineries) and expensive investment to reconfigure the system to increase the diesel yield seem inevitable.
EVAPORATING PROFIT MARGINS
In May 2007, U.S. refiners paid an average of about $64 a barrel to acquire high quality West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude (less for other grades) and sold gasoline for $97 per barrel – a margin of $33 per barrel or 52 percent.
By November 2008, U.S. refiners were paying $62 to acquire WTI but selling gasoline at a loss for just $52 – a negative margin of $10 or 16 percent.
Other outputs are still profitable (notably diesel and heating oil) and many refineries will have acquired lower-quality crudes for less than the WTI price. The overall gross margin was still (just) positive.
But the NYMEX benchmark 3-2-1 crude oil-gasoline-heating oil has shrunk from $30 per barrel to just $3. Once operating costs (including natural gas, electricity, water and catalysts) as well as capital expenditures (building, maintaining and upgrading refineries) are taken into account, the industry is making little or no profit.
Demand for gasoline and other refined products has been falling for more than a year, initially in response to high prices and now as a result of a weakening economy, leaving refiners with a huge overhang of unused capacity.
The total volume of refined products supplied to the domestic market averaged just 19.2 million barrels per day (bpd) in the four weeks ending Nov. 21, down 1.7 million bpd (8 percent) from 20.9 million bpd in the same period last year. The volume of motor gasoline supplied (9.0 million bpd) was down 300,000 bpd (3.3 percent) compared with last year (9.3 million bpd).
Refiners have responded with run cuts and record exports of both gasoline and distillates to avoid flooding the domestic market and collapsing prices further.
Operating rates have been below year-ago levels since the start of 2008 (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/US_RFRT1208.gif).
Refineries processed 15.2 million bpd of crude and other inputs in the week ending Nov. 21 – using just 86.2 percent of their 17.6 million bpd maximum capacity, and leaving more than 2 million bpd of crude distillation capacity idle.
Refiners also sent increasing volumes of refined products abroad to avoid flooding the domestic market. Refiners and merchants ramped up gasoline exports from 38 million barrels in Jan-Sep 2007 to 50 million in Jan-Sep 2008 (+32 percent) and distillate exports from 52 million barrels to 146 million (a massive increase of +182 percent).
It has not been enough. By Nov. 21, reported gasoline inventories stood at 200 million barrels (22.3 days of supply) up from 197 million barrels (21.2 days cover) in 2007.
Refinery gasoline is increasingly squeezed out by ethanol. U.S. ethanol production has tripled from 260,000 bpd in Sep 2005 to 640,000 bpd in Sep 2008, with another 80,000 bpd of ethanol imported. As a result, ethanol is cutting almost 750,000 bpd of demand for fossil-fuel refinery-derived gasoline (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/US_GSETH1208.gif).
In Sep 2005, some 8.9 million bpd of gasoline was supplied to the domestic market, of which 8.7 million bpd came from refineries and just 0.3 million bpd was sourced from ethanol distilleries.
Three years later, in Sep 2008, the volume of gasoline supplied had fallen 400,000 bpd to 8.5 million bpd. But while the volume of ethanol sourced from distilleries had risen by 0.5 million bpd to 0.7 million bpd, the volume of gasoline sourced from refineries was down by a massive 1 million bpd to 7.7 million bpd.
Roughly half the refinery demand lost over the last three years is due to increased ethanol (500,000 bpd), while the remainder is due to cyclical factors (400,000 bpd).
The displacement of refinery gasoline is an explicit objective of federal policy to reduce U.S. oil imports. It has been accelerated by the surge in crude oil prices during 2007-2008, encouraging widespread voluntary blending of cheaper ethanol into the domestic fuel supply.
But increased blending volumes threaten to strand many U.S. oil refineries as white elephants with no long-term future. Refinery utilisation rates have been trending down since the start of the decade, but the loss of demand has accelerated notably since widespread ethanol blending commenced in 2005 (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/US_RFRTA1208.gif).
As a result, there is an increasingly wide gap between system capacity and actual throughput. More than 2.0 million bpd of crude distillation capacity is sitting idle. The last time the refining system had more than 1 million bpd of spare capacity was in the early 1990s, when refiners responded by mothballing facilities and closing plants, cutting capacity by more than 500,000 bpd between 1992 and 1994 (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/US_RFRTB1208.gif).
Even with refinery shutdowns, the long-term outlook is bleak. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects gasoline consumption will increase from around 142 billion gallons in 2006 to 151 billion gallons in 2030 (based on an increasing population and rising car use, partly offset by improved fuel efficiency).
But the fossil-fuel content of that gasoline is scheduled to drop from 136 billion gallons to just 125 billion gallons as the ethanol content rises from 5.5 billion gallons to 25.8 billion gallons to comply with Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) targets.
As if falling demand and the increasing challenge for ethanol were not enough, U.S. refiners face a deeper structural problem.
Most of the world relies on diesel rather than gasoline for transportation fuel and heating demand. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) the world consumed just 0.75 gallons of gasoline for every gallon of diesel in 2005, and the refinery system was configured to produce the two fuels in roughly the same proportion (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/FL_CNSP1208.gif).
The U.S. petroleum economy is highly unusual in that it is tilted towards consumption and production of gasoline. The United States consumes almost two gallons of gasoline (1.97) for every gallon of diesel; the European Union consumes only 0.40 gallons and China consumes 0.48 gallons.
Until recently, that led to a mutually beneficial trade, with the United States exporting surplus diesel, while Europe and China exported surplus gasoline (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/REFINEPRDS1208.htm).
But U.S. refiners now face the problem that in the fastest-growing parts of the petroleum economy (China, Asia, the Middle East and Africa) the marginal demand is for diesel, while their marginal supply is gasoline, for which demand is stagnating.
The global economy now faces a structural surplus of gasoline and a structural shortfall of diesel. By implication, the world has too much capacity for producing gasoline (much of it concentrated in the United States) and not enough capacity for producing diesel (especially in Asia).
As a result, U.S. refiners face increased competition in their domestic market from imported gasoline, while they struggle to produce enough diesel to sell abroad. This mismatch explains why U.S. diesel exports have risen much faster in the past year than gasoline, even though it is the domestic gasoline market which is most oversupplied.
The United States now has too many refineries for its increasingly ethanol-based economy, and they produce the wrong product mix for a dieselised global economy.
U.S. refiners have begun to reduce gasoline production (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/EIA_REFGS1208.gif) and prioritise distillates (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/EIA_REF1208.gif). But yield changes have been marginal (1-2 percentage points), reflecting the technical limitations of the existing refinery units.
In the short to medium term (12-24 months), it seems virtually certain U.S. refiners will have to cut total capacity sharply, perhaps as much as 0.5-1.0 million bpd, 4-8 average refineries. In the longer term, they have no choice but to undertake substantial capital expenditures to shift the system towards more diesel.