Harvey's global impact signals growing U.S. clout in oil markets

By Javier Blas on 8/31/2017

LONDON (Bloomberg) -- World energy markets, from butane in Asia to diesel in Europe and gasoline in Latin America, are feeling the ripple effect of Texas’s deadly storm, highlighting the growing role of the U.S. in the global oil industry.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the U.S. exported just 800,000 bpd of mostly refined products. Today it ships more than 6 MMbpd of crude and fuels, an increase driven by a boom in shale production, the end of a ban on crude exports and the expansion of several refineries.

"The global implications of a stormy season in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico have mounted as the U.S. has emerged as a global energy hub," said Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup Inc. in New York.

The effect of Tropical Storm Harvey on oil markets is opening an almost unprecedented opportunity for traders to make money, shifting around crude and refined products by ship. They’re already amassing an armada of tankers to send European gasoline to the U.S. and Latin America, while Asian countries are snapping up cargoes of liquefied petroleum gases -- butane and propane mostly -- to replace the loss of exports from Texas.

"The concentration and connectivity of the most important energy region in the world is going to test global energy security," said Jamie Webster, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the U.S. 12 years ago, the International Energy Agency released emergency petroleum reserves. This time around, there’s no need as global inventories remain high, according to the IEA, though the agency “stands ready to act,” it said Aug. 28. The U.S. Department of Energy released a small amount of crude from strategic reserves on Thursday, meeting a request from a single refinery for extra barrels.

Refining offline

The country’s oil system remains severely handicapped after Harvey made a second landfall between Texas and Louisiana on Wednesday.

Flooding and power failures have reduced U.S. fuel-making capacity by about 4.25 MMbpd -- a quarter of the country’s total and equivalent to the refining capacity of France and Germany combined. The drop in output has cut supplies to the major Colonial pipeline, which takes gasoline from Texas and Louisiana to the U.S. East Coast. Its operator shut its main diesel line late Wednesday and planned to halt its gasoline link Thursday.

The move drove up U.S. gasoline wholesale prices above $2/gal for the first time since July 2015. As traders scrambled to cover their positions, they sent the price spread between the most immediate futures contract and subsequent deliveries sharply higher.

While fuel prices rally, crude markets are stumbling. With refineries across Texas closed -- including the largest U.S. plant -- oil demand has dropped, putting pressure on prices from West Texas Intermediate to Brent. WTI is down 1.7% this week.

Harvey’s full impact will only be known once refiners assess the damage to their flooded plants. Unlike during Katrina and Rita, most were able to carry out a controlled shutdown ahead of the storm, reducing the chance of long-lasting equipment problems.

Still, a short-term supply squeeze will have far-reaching effects. Latin America relies on imports from Texas and Louisiana. Mexico buys half its gasoline from the U.S., while Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela and several Central American nations also buy significant quantities of U.S. fuels. Brazil purchases about 400,000 bpd of U.S. petroleum products, up from just 15,000 a day in 2005.

Europe will also feel a crunch if the refinery shutdowns continue because the region imports U.S. diesel. European gasoil rose above $500 a ton on Thursday, heading for its highest close since February.

"The amount of oil lost to Harvey by the rest of the world will quickly accumulate," said Olivier Jakob, founder of energy consultants Petromatrix GmbH in Zug, Switzerland. "This will accelerate stock-draws in the rest of the world."

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