Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Americans Are Doing Everything They Can to Drain Oil Inventories

  • U.S. crude exports and refinery inputs advance to records
  • Gas-guzzling is hot again as demand hits highest level ever

There’s a loud sucking sound coming from the depths of oil storage tanks across the United States.

The combined effort of American drivers, gung-ho refiners and exporters are starting to reduce the nation’s oil stockpiles, an outcome that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has been hoping to see since it agreed to cut production in November. Last week total U.S. crude exports, gross refinery inputs and demand for gasoline all pushed to records in weekly preliminary data released Thursday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Refinery runs are ridiculous. I posted a meme where it’s the line from Top Gun,” said Mason Hamilton, an EIA analyst by phone from Washington, D.C. “‘I feel the need to run the refinery full out.’ Maybe U.S. refiners were inspired by last week’s Top Gun sequel announcement.”

Crude inventories have now dropped below last year’s high, falling for the eighth consecutive week to just under 510 million barrels, following OPEC’s vow last week to extend cuts to production through March to balance the global market. American refiners processed a gross oil total of 17.7 million barrels a day even as the profit to turn crude into gasoline hovers near the five-year seasonal low. The spread closed at $18.90 a barrel Thursday on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

“Crack spreads, which are the signals to run or not, to me they’re not flashing ‘go for it all out,’” Hamilton said.

When it comes to American drivers’ revived thirst for burning gasoline, the economics are a lot less complex. A typical 50-cent surge in springtime retail gasoline prices didn’t happen this year, according to data collected by AAA, the nation’s largest motorist group. That prompted Americans to U-turn their spending habits after finalized EIA data released Wednesday reflected first-quarter consumption slipped 0.4 percent from a year earlier.

The past two years had “exceptionally strong” demand growth, said Paul Cheng, an equity research analyst at Barclays in New York. “We think we should be growing at 0.4-0.8 percent this year,” he said by email. Gasoline demand last week climbed to a record 9.822 million barrels a day, EIA data show.

As for the crude that remains in stock after U.S. refiners go gangbusters this summer? It’s seen plenty of demand, particularly from Asian buyers, who are ramping up purchases of the light, sweet crude that comes from U.S. shale formations. Oil exports totaled 1.3 million barrels a day last week, the most in EIA data begun in 1993. Even off-spec cargoes can be used for blending or refinery testing, Hamilton said.

“For now, U.S. crude oil exports are something that everyone’s keeping an eye on,” he said. “We need to sit back and watch the show before we can understand it.”

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