Opinion: As Fuel Exports Ramp Up, Will Prices Follow?

DeHaan on why this remarkable growth could signal market movements

BOSTON -- As winter arrives in the United States and overall demand declines, refined products have been moving out at a rapid pace. The seasonal rise in exports is fairly normal as refiners resist selling too much fuel in a saturated domestic market, but the trend has been building over time.

According to the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Weekly Petroleum Status Report for the week ending Dec. 9, 2016, exports of petroleum products hit a new all-time high, surpassing 5 million barrels per day (bpd), an 85% increase vs. the same period five years ago. This is an eye-popping 317% increase from 10 years ago.

While some may suggest demand is high domestically, 30% of products coming out of refiners are destined for a nondomestic market, painting a far different picture. In fact, the EIA has spent nearly the entire year revising domestic gasoline demand figures downward. The export market is becoming a bigger factor that certainly helps alleviate a buildup of products. But it is also diverting so much material that one can easily provide evidence that such lofty export numbers help support higher gasoline prices by diverting inventories from the United States to other countries.

Such high exports may, in the future, affect gasoline prices in an even larger way. Recall the refinery kinks in California that led to extreme tightness in gasoline supply there. Several groups blamed high exports that continued during outages for pushing California gas prices higher. It is common sense to agree, but the same situation could be a harbinger of what's to come as exports continue to rise, placing gasoline markets in the United States at more risk for pricing volatility.

Perhaps the most susceptible to the wave of exports are U.S. motorists who are paying more for gasoline than if products stayed closer to home. Gas-station owners could also be pinched at the pump as a result of a tighter fuel market as product heads for other markets.

Exports are sure to continue rising in the next few years as U.S. refiners enjoy access to cheap energy to fuel their facilities, keeping costs down, while also seeing less labor disruption than counterparts in Europe and cheaper landlocked Canadian oil. But for now, keep an eye on exports for potential market movements, especially ahead of Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) specification changes coming this spring that could impact how large discounts for the higher-spec material go.

Patrick DeHaan is senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy. Reach him atpdehaan@gasbuddy.com.

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