John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

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.