Refiners Crash as Exports From Shale Boom Threaten CostsDan Murtaugh and Joe Carroll
U.S. oil refiners dropped while producers and midstream companies advanced on speculation that easing restrictions on crude exports will raise prices for some of the crude fueled by the shale boom.
Investors reacted swiftly after Pioneer Natural Resources Ltd. and Enterprise Products Partners LP said the U.S. Commerce Department gave them approval to export ultra-light crude processed at gathering facilities in the fields of south Texas. The ruling is seen as loosening a four-decade old prohibition against most crude shipments abroad.
“Yesterday, the market said there’s zero percent chance we’ll export crude oil,” David Pursell, an analyst at Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. in Houston, said in a phone interview. “Today we woke up and there’s a finite chance.”
Refiners were hit hardest. Increased exports of crude may reduce the price advantage U.S. plants have enjoyed in recent years as growing domestic production caused supply gluts within the country’s borders. U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate strengthened by 93 cents a barrel versus European Brent oil today.
Phillips 66, the largest U.S. refiner by market value, tumbled 4.2 percent, the biggest drop in a year. Valero Energy Corp. fell 8.3 percent and Marathon Petroleum Corp. lost 6.3 percent, both the largest declines since November 2011.
Pioneer jumped 5.2 percent. The company said yesterday it produces about 43,000 barrels of oil-equivalent a day from South Texas’s Eagle Ford shale, and most of that is ultra-light condensate that must be stabilized in the field before being transported.
The company petitioned the Commerce Department that the stabilization method, which involves heating the condensate in a distillation tower to remove the most volatile hydrocarbons, should meet the legal definition of refining crude, which would make it eligible for export. The government confirmed that interpretation, Pioneer said in a statement.
The U.S. produces more than 1 million barrels a day of ultra-light condensate, most of which comes from the Eagle Ford, Amrita Sen, chief oil economist at Energy Aspects Ltd. in London, said in a telephone interview.
Most of that condensate goes through some sort of stabilization process, she said. What isn’t known is whether all forms of stabilization will meet Commerce’s approval, according to Sen.
Other producers active in the Eagle Ford benefited from the idea that they could get global prices for barrels with a minimal amount of processing. EOG Resources Inc. gained 2.7 percent, the most since May 6. Chesapeake Energy Corp. rose 2.5 percent, and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. climbed 2 percent.
Enterprise, the largest midstream company by market capitalization, advanced 1.4 percent after receiving the same ruling from the government.
The company will be able to use its pipelines, storage terminals and docks on the Gulf Coast to keep processed condensate segregated from non-exportable crude while transporting it from oil fields to tankers, Houston-based spokesman Rick Rainey said by phone.
Once exported, the condensate could be used as feedstock for oil refining or petrochemical plants, as diluent to be mixed with heavy crude, or for power generation, Rainey said.
Other midstream companies with assets in south Texas benefited from the ruling. Magellan Midstream Partners LP gained 0.6 percent, while Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP rose 0.4 percent to the highest level since Jan. 28.
“To the extent that additional condensate is produced in response to the private rulings, we may see additional shipments on the Double Eagle Pipeline system which transports condensate from the Eagle Ford to our terminal in Corpus Christi,” Bruce Heine, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based spokesman for Magellan, said by e-mail. “With the terminal’s multiple existing ship berths that can accommodate large vessels, we are positioned to serve the export market if it develops.”
Magellan and Kinder are among companies building condensate splitters along the Texas Gulf Coast. Splitters are simple refineries, designed to separate condensate into products like naphtha, kerosene and gasoil that can be exported or processed further in the U.S.
Magellan’s Corpus Christi splitter is fully supported by a long-term contract with commodity trader Trafigura Beheer BV, and won’t be affected by the Commerce rulings, Heine said. Kinder, which declined to comment, has a contract with BP Plc to purchase the feedstock and sell the products from its Houston Ship Channel plant, which will start operating in November.
Companies that are evaluating splitters but don’t have contracts will likely be deterred by the ruling, and expansions of the already-planned plants are probably now off the table, Michael Blum, a New York-based senior analyst for Wells Fargo Securities, said in a research note today.
“There is a risk you could have some stranded assets,” Michael Wojciechowski, head of Americas downstream research for Wood Mackenzie Ltd., said by telephone from Houston. “It does call into question the viability of and the need for these condensate splitters.”