Opinion

This Week in Petroleum: Lowest crude oil imports since 1986 indicate changes in U.S. Gulf Coast crude oil supply


Lowest crude oil imports since 1986 indicate changes in U.S. Gulf Coast crude oil supply

U.S. Gulf Coast crude oil imports averaged 1.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in March 2019, the lowest level since March 1986 and significantly lower than the peak of 6.6 million b/d in March 2007. Preliminary weekly data indicate that Gulf Coast crude oil imports have averaged about 1.9 million b/d through April and May (Figure 1). Falling crude oil imports into the U.S. Gulf Coast so far in 2019 are the result of both recent events and continuing longer-term trends. Recently, sanctions on Venezuelan imports and heavy refinery maintenance have reduced imports. At the same time, imports to the Gulf Coast have also decreased because of sharp declines in imports from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) following an agreement among members to reduce production and because imports are being replaced by increased production of domestic crude oil. Together, these trends have fundamentally changed how the Gulf Coast region is supplied with crude oil. In the past five consecutive months, the U.S. Gulf Coast has exported more crude oil than it imported (net exports), and since 2015, it has consistently received more crude oil from other regions of the United States than it has sent to other regions (net receipts).

Figure 1. U.S. Gulf Coast crude oil imports

Gulf Coast crude oil imports are typically lower in the early months of the year as refineries reduce runs as part of their seasonal maintenance. This year, planned maintenance activity was higher than usual. The four-week average of gross refinery inputs in the Gulf Coast fell from 9.6 million b/d for the week ending January 4, higher than the five-year (2014-18) maximum and 648,000 b/d higher than the five-year average, to a low of about 8.6 million b/d from mid-February until mid-April. Although 8.6 million b/d of gross refinery inputs is more than the Gulf Coast's five-year average level for the period, eight consecutive weeks of relatively flat refinery runs is longer than normal during refinery maintenance at this time of year. This extended period of lower refinery runs for longer in the early months of 2019 reduced the need for crude oil imports, contributing to the more-than-three-decade-low crude oil imports during this period.

Around the same time, the U.S. government announced additional sanctions on Venezuela that included limitations on crude oil imports from Venezuela. In 2018, 20% of all Gulf Coast crude oil imports were from Venezuela, an annual average of 498,000 b/d. The Gulf Coast was the destination for 98% of all U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude oil in 2018. Because of the imposition of sanctions, refiners in the Gulf Coast sharply reduced imports of Venezuelan crude oil. Between January and March 2019, Gulf Coast imports of crude oil from Venezuela fell by 498,000 b/d to 47,000 b/d in March. As a result of the Gulf Coast reductions, U.S. four-week average imports from Venezuela fell from 603,000 b/d for the week ending January 25 to 12,000 b/d for the week ending May 31 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. U.S. crude oil imports from Venezuela

An additional change in Gulf Coast crude oil imports occurred following a November 2016 agreement by OPEC members to cut crude oil production. As a result of the production cuts, many OPEC members reduced exports to the United States in favor of growing markets in Asia. One year after the production-cut agreement, crude oil imports from OPEC processed at Gulf Coast refineries had fallen 562,000 b/d from 2.1 million b/d in November 2016 to 1.5 million b/d in November 2017. Imports of crude oil from OPEC members into the Gulf Coast continued to decline, falling to 1.4 million b/d in 2018 and down to 513,000 b/d in March 2019 (Figure 3).

Figure 3. U.S. Gulf Coast processed crude oil import sources

Before the OPEC production cuts in 2016, the Gulf Coast had already started reducing crude oil imports because of rising domestic production and changes in domestic crude oil pipeline infrastructure. Gulf Coast crude oil production increased from 2.7 million b/d in 2008 to 7.9 million b/d in March 2019. Much of this increased crude oil production was of light sweet crude oil that allowed Gulf Coast refineries to reduce imports of light sweet crude oil from foreign sources. Then pipeline infrastructure that once took imported crude oil from the Gulf Coast and delivered it to other regions of the United States was reversed, instead delivering increased domestic crude oil production and imports from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. By 2015, this reversal meant that the Gulf Coast changed from being a net shipper of crude oil to other U.S. regions to being a net recipient. More recently, as imports have declined and crude oil exports have expanded, the Gulf Coast actually exported more crude oil than it imported for five consecutive months (Figure 4).

Figure 4. U.S. Gulf Coast crude oil supply/demand balance

Because of all these changes combined, foreign-sourced crude oil receipts at Gulf Coast refineries accounted for an average of 36% of Gulf Coast refinery crude oil inputs in 2018, compared with 73% in 2008. The sources of those imports have also changed, with Canada and Mexico accounting for 54% of all imported crude oil processed in Gulf Coast refineries in March, representing a new high.

U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices fall

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell nearly 2 cents from the previous week to $2.81 per gallon on June 3, more than 13 cents lower than the same time last year. The Gulf Coast price fell nearly 5 cents to $2.42 per gallon, the West Coast price fell nearly 4 cents to $3.60 per gallon, and the East Coast price fell more than 3 cents to $2.66 per gallon. The Midwest price rose more than 3 cents to $2.75 per gallon and the Rocky Mountain price increased slightly, remaining at $2.98 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell nearly 2 cents to $3.14 per gallon on June 3, nearly 15 cents lower than a year ago. The West Coast price fell more than 2 cents to $3.76 per gallon, the Rocky Mountain and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 2 cents to $3.16 per gallon and $2.88 per gallon, respectively, and the Midwest and East Coast prices each fell over 1 cent to $3.03 per gallon and $3.15 per gallon, respectively.

Propane/propylene inventories rise

U.S. propane/propylene stocks increased by 2.5 million barrels last week to 68.3 million barrels as of May 31, 2019, 9.1 million barrels (15.4%) greater than the five-year (2014-2018) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast inventories increased by 1.2 million barrels, and Midwest and East Coast inventories each increased by 0.7 million barrels. Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 7.2% of total propane/propylene inventories.



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