Harvey’s global impact signals growing US clout in oil markets

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 US in the global oil industry.


When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the US exported just 800,000 bpd of mostly refined products. Today it ships more than six 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 US Gulf of Mexico have mounted as the US 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 are already amassing an armada of tankers to send European gasoline to the US 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 US 12 years ago, the International Energy Agency released emergency petroleum reserves. This time around, there is no need as global inventories remain high, according to the IEA, although the agency “stands ready to act,” it said on the 28th August.


The US Department of Energy released a small amount of crude from strategic reserves on the 31st August, 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 the 30th August.


Flooding and power failures have reduced US 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 US East Coast. Its operator shut its main diesel line late the 30th August and planned to halt its gasoline link a day later.


The move drove up US gasoline wholesale prices above US$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 US 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 US, while Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela and several Central American nations also buy significant quantities of US fuels. Brazil purchases about 400,000 bpd of US 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 US diesel. European gasoil rose above US$500 a ton on the 31st August, 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. “This will accelerate stock-draws in the rest of the world.”