- The revival of US oil production is spurring new investments in refineries, including the restart or new construction of small refineries near these resources.
- How well such investments perform will depend on both the longevity of shale oil production and policies concerning its export.
The number of US refineries has fallen steadily, from 301 in 1982 to 143 last year. Because this mainly involved the retirement of smaller, less efficient facilities, while larger refineries "de-bottlenecked" or expanded, US refinery capacity actually grew over this period. It's generally cheaper to expand an existing facility, leveraging its infrastructure and experienced staff, than building a "grassroots" facility.
The hurdles facing new refinery construction in the US have been compounded by environmental regulations covering permits, emissions and product specifications. The time when a new entrant could simply distill light crude oil, sprinkle in some tetraethyl lead and other additives, and sell a full slate of refined products is long gone. New refineries in North Dakota, Texas and Utah are apparently focused on producing diesel fuel from the shale, or "tight" oil in the Bakken, Eagle Ford, and Uinta shales, respectively, and selling the rest of their output to other refiners or petrochemical plants as feedstocks .
With diesel demand in the producing areas booming, thanks to the needs of drilling rigs and the trucks that haul water, sand and equipment, as well as oil from leases not connected to pipeline gathering systems, this opportunity could last as long as the drilling-intensive shale development does. In other words, the demand aspiring refiners see appears to be linked directly to their source of supply.
Meanwhile larger plants, such as several of Valero's Texas refineries, are in various stages of investments to enable them to process more light oil, reversing a multi-decade trend of investment to handle increasingly heavy and sour (high-sulfur) imported crudes. As with the smaller refineries, this shift requires high confidence in the long-term availability and favorable pricing of these high-quality domestic crude oil types.
The reasonableness of that assumption depends on the longevity of tight oil production. Large conventional inland oil fields typically reach peak output within a few years and then decline gradually, with long plateaus. Whether shale deposits, with their distinct geology, will follow the same pattern remains to be seen. Despite a few projections suggesting that tight oil output of the major shale basins could soon peak and decline rapidly, most mainstream forecasts suggest a long life for these resources, particularly as the technology to develop them continues to improve.
For example, in its latest Annual Energy Outlook, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) anticipates US tight oil production reaching 4.8 million barrels per day (MBD) by 2021, before gradually declining back to levels near today's in 2040. By contrast BP's just-released Energy Outlook 2035 sees comparable growth over the next few years but little subsequent decline, with tight oil at 4.5 MBD in 2035. Meanwhile, ICF International recently issued its Detailed Production Report, projecting shale/tight oil production in the US and Canada to reach 6.3 MBD by 2035, including 1.3 MBD from the tight oil zones of the Permian Basin of Texas.
The other big uncertainty concerning the availability of light tight oil for new or expanded US refineries depends on federal export policy, which I addressed in a recent post. This issue is highly controversial. A quick reversal of existing rules would be surprising, though as the New York Times noted, possible compromises under existing law could facilitate an expansion of crude oil exports beyond current shipments to Canada. While unlikely to dry up domestic availability of tight oil, such measures could shrink the current discounts for these crudes, compared to internationally traded light crudes like UK Brent. That seems less of a risk for small, simple, inland refineries than for larger facilities, especially those near coastal ports.
This isn't the first time investors have considered the need for new US refineries. There was similar interest after hurricanes Katrina and Rita slashed Gulf Coast refinery output for several weeks in 2005, though it ultimately led nowhere. If today's circumstances prove more supportive, it will be because the US hasn't experienced anything comparable to the shale revolution since the 1920s and '30s, when rapid oil production growth was accompanied by a wave of refinery construction, though in a very different business and regulatory climate. If that parallel holds, consumers stand to benefit from the resulting increase in competition.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.