A Tale of Two Prices
A number of you have contacted me asking some variation of the same question.
How can the price of oil be declining, yet the price of gasoline remain so high?
At close of trade yesterday, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) benchmark futures crude oil contract for the near out month in NYMEX trade had declined 2.6% for the week and 4% for the month.
However, the same contract for RBOB (Reformulated Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending) – the NYMEX gasoline futures standard – was up 1.6% for the week and 4.2% for the month.
Normally, we expect that movements in the crude oil price, as the single-largest component in oil product prices, would pretty much dictate where gasoline is headed.
And in normal circumstances, that is usually the case.
Welcome to the Unusual Pricing Case
The current gasoline phenomenon results from several factors:
- Refinery capacity utilization;
- The continuing outsized spread between WTI and Brent oil prices in London; and
- The mix of increasing unconventional domestic oil flow (shale, heavy, tight oils produced in the U.S., synthetic oil from oil sands coming down from Canada); and
As to the last point, the unconventional production actually adds cost to the extraction-upgrading-processing sequence.
Put simply, while we are using more of this new “replacement oil” than we ever have (a good thing for those concerned about reliance on imports from abroad), its use is also adding to the price at the pump.
Of greater importance, however, is the second element: the WTI-Brent pricing environment.
We have talked about this spread on a number of previous occasions. Brent is again selling higher by about 20% to the price of WTI.
That’s important when factoring in the actual cost of the feeder stock for refineries.
While the WTI price has been going down (until this morning), Brent has been more subdued. In fact, the Brent price is down only 0.5% over the past month and is slightly higher (also about 0.5%) over the past week.
This year, the U.S. market is likely to be importing on average about 45% to 47% of what it needs on a daily basis. Only a few years ago, that market was dependent on imports for two-thirds of its requirements.
Additionally, American domestic daily production will be close to 10 million barrels, a level not seen since the mid-1990s. That is a result of the acceleration in unconventional extractions in places like the Bakken in North Dakota, the Monterey in California, and Eagle Ford in Texas, as well as for prospects for new basins like the Utica in eastern Ohio.
There’s another important question that needs to be asked at this point. If we are becoming less dependent on imports, and if we are receiving more local production, doesn’t that mean we could be less concerned about that WTI-Brent spread?
The Higher Brent Price is Still a Significant Factor
For one thing, using that spread (so long as Brent remains higher priced than WTI by double digits) contributes to the refinery margin.
That margin, by the way, refers to the difference between what it costs to produce and what price the resulting products could be sold for in the market; it’s where the refinery actually makes its profits.
For another, traders are active in what is called the “crack spread.”
This is the difference between future contract prices for crude oil and similar contracts for oil products such as gasoline (RBOB) and heating oil.
That means, even though nationwide we may be less reliant on imports than we were a few years ago, that higher Brent price still factors significantly in the determination of the gasoline price.
At the same time, the rising domestic sourcing contributes to the higher price, too, given the greater cost of the unconventional crude. This is also the case with imports from Canada, heavily based now on upgraded production from oil sands.
However, the factor of Canadian imports will be figuring more prominently in American pricing as we move forward, and that plays out differently. Currently, it has actually created a discounted oil glut in the Midwest because of dwindling pipeline capacity.
This has produced a kind of refinery equivalent to the downward pressure on crude oil prices resulting from the storage surplus in Cushing, Okla.
This is good if you live close to the refineries that benefit from the glut in the Midwest… but not so good if it is translated into the wider national picture.
See, evening out the flow of Canadian crude that costs more to process will tend to increase the average retail price further down the line. A preliminary study recently concluded that completion of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline would result in about a 4- to 6-cent rise per gallon in gasoline prices overall.
We need to distinguish between the national security argument (greater reliance on domestic production) and price. They do not move in the same direction. The essential reason we became more dependent upon imports, until recently, was the cost. Foreign production was cheaper to buy.
However, if a whole range of issues are moving up the international price (i.e., the Brent price) abroad, concerns over the higher cost of domestic production decline.
The international nature of that market, however, means we cannot avoid its impact at home altogether.
And that point is driven home by the current disconnect between oil and gasoline prices.