Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The East Coast Refinery Gap

I see that ConocoPhillips has announced it will idle its 185,000 barrel-per-day Philadelphia area refinery, as a prelude to selling it or closing it permanently. Combined with the recent announcement that Sunoco would exit the refining business and sell or close its two refineries in Philadelphia, this amounts to just under half of the operating refining capacity on the US east coast, and that's counting PBF Energy's Delaware refinery, which is apparently in the process of starting up again after having been sold last year by Valero. If none of these three facilities finds a buyer, the resulting closures would leave a large gap in the east coast petroleum product market that must be filled either by shipping more products via pipeline from the Gulf Coast, to the extent capacity permits, or by means of increased imports from Europe and Canada. East coast gasoline and diesel prices could be higher for years to come.

The story in Reuters gives a good overview of the circumstances leading to Conoco's decision, and you've read about most of these factors in previous postings here. Topping the list is the persistent divergence of crude oil prices between the US mid-continent and the global oil market, due to a bottleneck at Cushing, OK resulting from several factors. Last week the gross margin ("3:2:1 crack") for importing crude priced at the level of UK Brent and turning it into gasoline and diesel or heating oil for the northeast market stood at a breakeven, and it's only a few dollars a barrel in the black today, after yesterday's market recovery. That's not much of an inducement to hang onto massively complex, capital-intensive facilities and to continue investing in them to keep them in compliance with ever more stringent regulations. Sometimes it just makes more sense to take a write-down and sell to someone else, who then starts with a lower capital base and has a better chance of making a return--not unlike the restaurant business. The problem in this environment is that it's not obvious who would step into the shoes of Sunoco and Conoco in Philadelphia. A few years ago buying refineries from integrated companies that wanted to redeploy their capital was a thriving game, with lots of players. Not so much, now.

Conoco's timing on this move is interesting, too. If it were only a question of margins, I'd think they'd wait to see how much profitability improved after Sunoco's plants shut down. Instead, it appears they are focused on a bigger picture. Even if they don't find a buyer, closing a marginal or money-losing facility will improve their overall refinery portfolio as they prepare to spin off the refining and marketing business, while allowing them to use the capital expenditures they won't have to put into the Trainer refinery for more lucrative opportunities like shale gas, which the company has been touting in a series of ads. That probably makes sense for the company's shareholders, though it won't do much for consumers in my neck of the woods, especially if the company's larger New Jersey refinery meets the same fate.

Oil refining has always been a tough business, with its occasional good years normally more than offset by years or decades in the doldrums. But the combination of reduced demand from the recession-weakened economy and the increased supply of biofuel--mainly corn ethanol, so far--has increased the pressure. When I ponder all this it makes me wonder why so many startups are so eager to get into the fuels manufacturing business, even if it will be based on biomass rather than oil, when they will ultimately be exposed to similar market forces.

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