Has the high cost of fuel got you down? Why not buy your own oil refinery? That's apparently what Delta Air Lines is considering. With jet fuel purchases constituting one of the largest operating costs for carriers like Delta, and with several refineries in the Northeast US facing permanent closure due to poor profitability, it's not hard to see why this idea would seem attractive, at least superficially. However, there are a host of reasons why most of the press I've seen on this story is negative, including today's Heard on the Street column in the Wall St. Journal, entitled, "Delta Chases Fuel's Gold." The fundamental problem is the same one that has made me skeptical about the benefits of airlines investing in the production of renewable aviation fuel: Any advantageous pricing they may choose to provide to their airline division must come at the expense of lost opportunities for the fuels business, because the value of that fuel is set by the market.
How a company should reflect such opportunity costs in its inter-departmental transfer pricing is an age-old problem. I dealt with this routinely when I traded refined products for Texaco's west coast refining and marketing business in the 1980s. The marketing department always wanted to receive the output of the refineries at a lower price than we were charging them, so that they could capture market share and justify investments in new and remodeled gas stations. But making them look good at the cost of the refineries just made it harder to justify the investments needed to keep the refineries operating efficiently and in compliance with current and future regulations. Delta might buy ConocoPhillips' Pennsylvania refinery at a low price today, but they could be forced to invest at least as much within a few years to meet new gasoline sulfur regulations or other changes. It doesn't trivialize the situation to put it into the category of no free lunches.
Then there's the question of reorienting a refinery to make a lot more jet fuel that it has done historically, as one article suggested Delta was considering. Modern refineries are fairly flexible, and it would be possible to do that to some degree, though within limits that would require significant investments to exceed, making the proposition look much less attractive. Moreover, refineries optimize their output every day to make the slate of products that yields the highest profit, as crude and product prices fluctuate. Steering a less flexible course would almost certainly make the facility less, not more profitable, and it's only on the market because it wasn't sufficiently profitable as it was.
The only scenario in which I could see this idea actually working to Delta's benefit is if the refinery closures now being planned tightened the supply of jet fuel into the New York market so significantly that Delta was able to effectively corner that market, forcing other airlines to pay it a significant premium, either in cash or in jet fuel supply in other locations, while artificially keeping costs for its own flight operations low and allowing it to expand its share of the important NY air market. But New York isn't some isolated inland location, and they'd always be competing with jet fuel cargoes brought in by vessel, or with fuel shipped from Gulf Coast refineries via the Colonial Pipeline, which is expanding to meet the new demand its faces in light of the pending refinery closures. They might eke out a few extra cents, but would that be enough to justify taking on the enormous capital and operating costs--not to mention the substantial operating risks--of owning a refinery? If Delta has discovered some enticing angle I've missed, I'd love to know what it is.