The U.S. Has Too Much Oil and Nowhere to Put It

Overflowing storage tanks could lead to another drop in prices

Photo Illustration: Braulio Amado; Source: Alamy (2)

Seven months ago the giant tanks in Cushing, Okla., the largest crude oil storage hub in North America, were three-quarters empty. After spending the last few years brimming with light, sweet crude unlocked by the shale drilling revolution, the tanks held just less than 18 million barrels by late July, down from a high of 52 million in early 2013. New pipelines to refineries along the Gulf Coast had drained Cushing of more than 30 million barrels in less than a year.

As quickly as it emptied out, Cushing has filled back up again. Since October, the amount of oil stored there has almost tripled, to more than 51 million barrels. As oil prices have crashed, from more than $100 a barrel last summer to below $50 now, big trading companies are storing their crude in hopes of selling it for higher prices down the road. With U.S. production continuing to expand, that’s led to the fastest increase in U.S. oil inventories on record. For most of this year, the U.S. has added almost 1 million barrels a day to its stash of crude supplies. As of March 11, nationwide stocks were at 449 million barrels, by far the most ever.

Not only are the tanks at Cushing filling up, so are those across much of the U.S. Facilities in the Midwest are about 70 percent full, while the East Coast is at about 85 percent capacity. This has some analysts beginning to wonder if the U.S. has enough room to store all its oil. Ed Morse, the global head of commodities research at Citigroup, raised that concern on Feb. 23 at an oil symposium hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “The fact of the matter is, we’re running out of storage capacity in the U.S.,” he said.

If oil supplies do overwhelm the ability to store them, the U.S. will likely cut back on imports and finally slow down the pace of its own production, since there won’t be anywhere to put excess supply. Prices could also fall, perhaps by a lot. Morse and his team of analysts at Citigroup have predicted that sometime this spring, as tanks reach their limits, oil prices will again nosedive, potentially all the way to $20 a barrel. With no place to store crude, producers and trading companies would likely have to sell their oil to refineries at discounted prices, which could finally persuade producers to stop pumping.

Oil investors appear to be coming around to the notion that a lack of storage capacity could lead to another price crash. In the futures market, hedge funds have spent the past few weeks cutting their bets that oil prices will rise. Instead, they’ve built up a record short position, increasing their wagers that prices will fall. During a March 11 interview on CNBC, Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn said he’s concerned the U.S. is running out of storage, particularly as refineries enter their seasonal maintenance period, to prepare for the summer driving season. Around this time they usually cut the amount of crude they buy. Cohn said prices could go as low as $30 a barrel.

Is Oil Facing a Storage Problem in the U.S.?

The math on this can be a bit tricky. The U.S. Department of Energy measures oil storage capacity twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. As of September 2014, the U.S. had 521 million barrels of working capacity, up from 500 million in 2013. That includes the space inside tank farms and on-site at refineries. It doesn’t, however, include the amount of oil that can be stored in pipelines or storage tanks near oil wells; nor does it include the amount of capacity in tankers off the coast, in transit from Alaska, or on trains. Of the 449 million barrels of total crude stocks, about 327 million are stored in tank farms or on-site at refineries.

According to data from the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. is using about 63 percent of its storage capacity, up from 48 percent a year ago. “We have more space than some people tend to believe,” says Andy Lipow, an energy consultant in Houston. The most recent estimate of storage capacity also doesn’t include tanks built since September in North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas, he says.

Still, the amount of space available in the tanks at Cushing is getting tight. The storage hub will run out of room by Memorial Day, says Stephen Schork, who runs energy consulting company Schork Group. As long as oil stays cheap, he says, traders have an incentive to store it. Cushing has room for roughly 71 million barrels of oil, up from about 50 million in 2010. One of the biggest owners of tanks there is Canadian energy distributor Enbridge. “We don’t have much room left, but we’re still answering the phones,” says Mike Moeller, who manages the company’s Cushing tank farm. “Not everybody who calls is going to get space.” He says monthly lease rates in the spot market have gone from dimes per barrel to more than a dollar in some cases.

Even with prices less than half what they were last summer and storage capacity growing scarcer, U.S. oil output has continued to rise. Through February, U.S. daily crude production reached 9.3 million barrels, about 1 million barrels more than a year ago. The massive storage buildup has provided oil companies with a phantom demand for their crude. Many hedged production before prices got too low, taking out futures contracts that guarantee a certain price. That’s allowed them to sell oil for a price higher than the going rate of $49 a barrel, keeping many profitable despite lower prices.

Running out of room inside the nation’s storage tanks might be the only way to keep companies from pumping more oil. “These producers have kept chugging away when they should have been shutting down,” says Dominick Chirichella, co-president of the Energy Management Institute, a New York-based advisory group. “At some point, the fact that supply is outstripping demand has to have its moment of truth.”

The bottom line: A record 449 million barrels of oil are being stored in the U.S. Shrinking storage capacity might lead to another drop in prices.