Opinion

Houston Is Down But Not Out


The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey has left devastation in its wake. It dumped some 27 trillion gallons of water on the states of Texas and Louisiana, causing an estimated US$75 billion in damages.  From the energy perspective, there were worries that coastal refining centres would be swamped, taking out some of America's largest refineries, which had shut down as the storm approached. In the immediate wake of the storm, WTI crude oil prices dipped while gasoline prices jumped – as the market predicted that Gulf refineries would be shut for a long while, which would reduce crude intake and cause gasoline shortages.

That didn't really happen. By Monday, WTI and US gasoline prices were getting back to pre-Harvey levels. It's true that some two million b/d of refining capacity was disrupted by Harvey, but half of that is already back. All major sites in Houston and Corpus Christi have either restarted or in the process of restarting. The second largest site in the US, ExxonMobil's Baytown, is already ramping back up to full production. Motiva in Port Arthur, the largest in the US, is still offline, but processing is expected to resume soon. The Doomsday scenario of the Gulf refining network been taken out for months was avoided. The refining business is getting back to usual. On the demand side, it is estimated that some 500,000 cars were flooded across Texas by Harvey. Those cars won't be driving again. Their owners won't be in a position to purchase a new car again soon as well. Worries that gasoline would be at a severe shortage, therefore, were unfounded.

In fact, where Harvey is having the most impact is in a surprising place – onshore. This is the first major storm to hit since the shale revolution took off. Gulf hurricanes are not surprise to offshore producers – 20% of offshore Gulf production was shuttered over the weekend, but no lasting damage was suffered with production resuming and losses estimated at a mere 330 kb/d. It is true that the US is a lot less dependent on offshore Gulf production since inland shale production started booming. But for shale players, Harvey is their first taste of Mother Nature's wrath. The Eagle Ford shale field in Texas was in direct path of Harvey, with some 500,000 b/d of output taken offline – almost half of its usual production. Even when the storm moved away, it left flooded roads and muddy fields in its wake. These will have to subside before production can resume, which could affect 10% of US shale output for at least a month. Further afield, while Harvey didn't affect the prodigious Permian basin, output there is dependent on pipelines and ports that pass through Houston. Magellan Midstream, for example, closed its Longhorn and Bridgetex pipelines during the storm.  It has since restarted them, along with Colonial Pipelines' Line 1 gasoline pipe, but it is a reminder that so much of American production, refining and export capacity straddles a long coastline that is vulnerable to storms more than a quarter of the year. That applies as much to the string of LNG terminals being built on the coast, as it does to the shale drilling sites far inland.

There is more to come. Harvey was the first major hurricane to make landfall since Wilma in 2005, but it was actually a Category 4. There is a Category 5 – the highest level – currently barreling through the Caribbean. Hurricane Irma is on a course to hit Puerto Rico, Dominica, Cuba and eventually Florida. The governor Florida has already declared a state of emergency. Though there are no major US refining centres in Irma's path (but some 450 kb/d in the Caribbean will be closed), the storm would sap gasoline demand in its wake – weakening gasoline prices at a time when refining margins are still dicey. And the hurricane season isn't even over yet. 


Harvey, while devastating to the population, turned out to be relatively harmless on the energy infrastructure front. The US Gulf will be hoping it stays that way for the rest of 2017.


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