Friday, July 18, 2008

Farewell to $4?

The price of oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange has dropped $15 per barrel in less than a week, bringing us the first closing price under $130 since June 5. It is premature to suggest that this marks the start of a major correction back to sub-$100 territory, but it's noteworthy that this appears to be happening largely due to the weakening of demand, particularly in the US, where gasoline sales are now down around 3% compared to the same time last year--even more if we adjust for the additional ethanol being blended in under this year's higher Renewable Fuel Standard target. If the oil price stabilized here and refining margins remained weak, the national average retail price of gasoline would shortly drop back below $4.00/gallon. Although that wouldn't mean we'd never again experience prices that high, it would be very interesting to see how a return to the mid-to-high $3 per gallon range would affect consumer psychology.

At the very least, this week's drop should deflate some of the recent oil market hysteria, which was making $200 oil and $6 or $7 gasoline seem like an immediate inevitability, on the strength of little more than self-fulfilling prophesies and jitters about a possible conflict with Iran--something that has had the market on edge since oil was under $50. But while that other mainstay of expensive oil, demand growth in the developing economies, continues apace, the market cannot for long ignore a 3% aggregate drop in petroleum demand from a country that still accounts for nearly a quarter of the world's oil imports. Small fractions of large numbers can have a big impact.

Refiners remain caught in the middle, as they have been for most of the last year. With demand responding to high prices and the soft US economy, refiners are making very little money turning oil into gasoline. Weak demand has forced them to absorb a large chunk of the recent increase in oil prices. Nor does it seem likely they will be able to hang onto more of the margin as oil prices drop, because US gasoline inventories are building at the rate of roughly 2 million barrels per week, despite refiners shifting their operations to produce record quantities of diesel, partly at the expense of gasoline output. Refiners have room to increase crude runs, but at these margins, they are probably better off maximizing distillate and purchasing any gasoline shortfall abroad. But while these conditions have benefited consumers in the short run, they could set the stage for higher product prices in the longer term, by making the economics of refinery expansions less attractive.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there was a spate of concern about the nation's refining system. No new refineries had been built since the 1970s, and too many were concentrated along the Gulf Coast. All that talk came to nothing, but the exceptional margins that existing refineries were earning for several years kicked off some significant refinery expansions, including the Motiva and Marathon projects in the Gulf Coast that will effectively add the equivalent of a brand new refinery inside the boundaries of two existing facilities--a model currently under consideration by some nuclear plant operators.

Now, this might seem like an odd time to build more refining capacity, with demand falling and over a third of the country convinced that we'll get most of our energy from renewable sources within a few years, according to a new API/Harris Interactive survey. But even if we don't end up using more oil in the future, the kind of oil US refineries can process matters greatly in the global market. Although some analysts are skeptical that Saudi Arabia can deliver on the sustained output increases they have promised, one of the main reasons the market has largely yawned at the prospect of another 2 million barrels per day of Saudi crude is that much of the incremental oil will be of low quality--just the kind that these refinery projects are designed to handle. If refining margins don't recover soon, projects like this could be slowed down or deferred, and additional heavy, sour crude oil production will have less impact on the global price of oil--and that would affect us all at the gas pump.

In the meantime, no one should become complacent, even if average gasoline prices soon fall below $4 for a while--though probably not in California. Global supply and demand remain pretty tightly balanced, and we're now never more than one or two events away from a big spike in oil prices or refining margins. While we might soon spend a bit less at the gas pump, we'd be better off pocketing any savings, rather than turning them into a rebound in fuel demand.

No comments: