By ELIZABETH DOUGLASS
The ongoing U.S. oil boom has flooded the Gulf Coast with domestic crude to levels not seen in decades, creating a homegrown oil glut in the nation's refining center just as the Obama administration prepares to rule on a pipeline that would add a torrent of heavy Canadian crude to the same region.
It's just the latest in a string of developments that have surprised and roiled oil markets since 2009, when the combination of falling fuel demand and an unexpected surge in U.S. oil and natural gas production began undermining widely held assumptions about the nation's need for imports.
"U.S. oil production is at a point that is changing the entire globe, and this is just more evidence that the U.S. producers are far exceeding anybody's expectations," said Phil Flynn, senior oil analyst at Price Futures Group. "This is part and parcel of the big story - the U.S. energy boom."
Conditions have changed so radically that U.S. refiners are now exporting record amounts of fuel to overseas customers, and there's a parade of tankers delivering Texas oil to refineries on the east coast of Canada. As these and other surprising trends unfold, it's becoming increasingly clear that the controversial Canadian oil import pipeline, the Keystone XL, is not an urgently needed link.
Many benefits being touted by Keystone XL supporters - American jobs, lower oil costs, greater energy independence through lower imports - are already being delivered by the domestic oil rush. The Canadian oil pipeline might expand some of those benefits, but its significance has been eclipsed by surging production in North Dakota and Texas.
"It's not as important as it would have been," Flynn said of the Keystone XL. "Now it's become a political football more than anything."
The pipeline's ardent backers, however, still want it built. Several of the Gulf Coast's largest refiners, for example, spent years and billions of dollars readying their plants to process large amounts of cheap heavy Canadian crude. Those refiners were counting on TransCanada's 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline to carry 830,000 barrels per day of that Alberta oil sands crude from the Canadian border to the Texas coast.
But these days, Texas refiners are doing fine without it. An increasing amount of the diluted tarlike bitumen (dilbit) they seek is being delivered to them by other means, such as railway car and other pipelines. Some refiners are also adjusting their equipment to process more of the domestic light crude that's been gushing into the Gulf Coast.
Still, heavy Canadian dilbit remains the cheapest crude available. And refiners that process it end up with higher profits on all their products, underscoring why they're so eager to flood the region with tar sands imports. This is partly because they can make more diesel from dilbit due to the physical properties of the crude. Diesel fetches higher prices than gasoline in export markets. Light sweet oil grades, including the discounted types now flooding the Gulf Coast, produce a higher volume of gasoline.
"If (Gulf refiners) have to buy the light sweet, they're paying more for the crude, and the whole balance doesn't quite work out the way they want," said David Hackett, president of Stillwater Associates, an oil industry consulting company.
For now, however, what's pouring into the Texas Gulf Coast is mostly U.S. light sweet oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation and the Eagle Ford region of Southern Texas.
Thanks to soaring production in those regions, U.S. total oil output recently rose to 7.9 million barrels per day, the highest level in more than 24 years, according to weekly production data from the federal Energy Information Administration.
Many analysts had predicted that an oil glut would develop in the Gulf Coast, and the first signs of it emerged earlier this year. But the oversupply is particularly pronounced now, because deliveries into the region have been accelerating at a time when many refineries are processing less oil because of winter maintenance work.
Oil inventories in the Gulf region have grown in nine of the last 10 weeks, and topped 197 million barrels on Oct. 25, the highest stockpile ever recorded for this time of year, according to EIA data.
"The Gulf Coast is being filled up with additional U.S. production," said Thomas O'Malley, executive chairman of refiner PBF Energy Inc., during an earnings conference call last week.
Evidence of a regional glut can usually be found in the price of oil, since an oversupply typically forces the cost of crude to fall in comparison to other locales. At midday last Friday, all of the nation's major crude oil varieties sold at steep discounts of at least $8 a barrel less than Europe's Brent, the international benchmark crude oil, according to figures from the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), which tracks energy prices. While international buyers were paying $107 per barrel for Brent oil, for example, U.S. refiners could buy North Dakota Bakken crude for less than $81 a barrel.
At those prices, even East Coast refineries that were big importers of Brent crude can save money and boost profits by purchasing domestic Bakken and having it delivered by rail. The situation has created a surprising reversal of long-standing oil trading patterns between the United States and Europe, said O'Malley of PBF Energy.
"We're seeing things that we certainly wouldn't have forecast as short a time ago as six weeks or eight weeks."
It wasn't that long ago that the oil industry was fretting over a backlog of oil at Cushing, Okla., a critical pipeline and storage hub that sets the price for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil, the U.S. benchmark crude that's traded on the New York Mercantile exchange.
The oil stockpile was surging in Cushing because the nation's pipeline system was designed to carry oil north, from the Gulf, through Cushing to refineries in the Midwest and elsewhere. There were no southbound pipelines to carry the unexpected gusher of North Dakota oil from Oklahoma to Texas refineries. Oil producers and Gulf refiners promoted the Keystone XL as a part of the solution, since it could pick up some of the stranded oil in Cushing on its way to the Texas coast. Obama responded in March 2012 by expediting approval of the southern leg of the pipeline so it could carry crude from Oklahoma to Texas. TransCanada began construction five months later and may complete it as early as this month.
Over the last two years, however, a series of other pipeline and railway projects emerged to ease the Cushing glut. The existing Seaway pipeline was reversed and expanded to carry oil from Cushing to Houston. Other pipeline connections have opened to carry crude from the most prolific Western and Southern Texas oil regions into various coastal refining and shipping centers, bypassing Cushing altogether. With each new connection, the Cushing logjam eases and a surge of oil arrives in the Gulf.
"It used to be all roads lead to Cushing ... now you've got all these pipelines and they go to the Gulf Coast," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at OPIS.
Some market watchers see the current excess as a temporary imbalance, and are not convinced that the Gulf glut and the widespread oil discounts will last. Once refineries get back to full production, the extra oil could quickly disappear, they note. Others question the staying power of the surge in new domestic oil production, which relies on fracking, a drilling process that draws crude out of tight geologic formations in a manner that appears to deplete the oil deposits more quickly than traditional wells that tap into underground pools of crude.
For now, at least, those doubts are not being borne out. The reversed Longhorn Pipeline, for instance, now ferrying crude from West Texas to Houston, just increased its capacity to 225,000 barrels per day.
Since the beginning of 2012, about 1.4 million barrels per day of pipeline capacity has been added to usher crude into the Texas Gulf refining center, and that number grows to nearly 2 million barrels per day once you add in rail and over-the-water oil deliveries, according to Sandy Fielden, director of energy analytics at RBN Energy LLC, an industry consulting firm.
And more - much more - is on the way.
When the Keystone XL's southern leg opens, it will carry 700,000 barrels per day from Cushing to the Texas coast, effectively eliminating the remaining backlog in Cushing. Add in new pipeline capacity from the Texas Permian Basin, new railway facilities and moves to increase transportation via barge and tanker, and the Gulf can expect more than 2 million barrels per day of new inbound oil capacity, Fielden said this week in an article for RBN.
All told, between 2012 and 2015, more than 4 million barrels of oil transportation capacity will have been added - all of it aimed at Texas refineries. Those refineries have a combined processing capacity of 3.7 million barrels per day, he noted.
"With growing U.S. and Canadian crude production showing no sign of easing up, sooner or later, these kinds of crude volumes will be making their way into the Texas Gulf Coast region. And when they do, there will be more crude than refineries can handle," Fielden said. That raises the question: What is going to happen to the excess supplies?
(InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization that covers clean energy, carbon energy, nuclear energy and environmental science. More information is available at http://insideclimatenews.org/.)