U.S. shale is surging, threatening to take even more market share away from OPEC. But the prospect of U.S. oil edging out barrels from the Middle East is not nearly as simple as it might seem.
Oil coming from the major shale plays in the U.S. is light and sweet, while a lot of oil coming from OPEC is medium or heavy, and often sour. A lot of refining capacity along the U.S. Gulf Coast, built up over years and decades, is equipped to handle heavier forms of oil. Before the shale revolution, refiners made their investments in downstream assets assuming the oil they would be using would come from places like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Lighter shale oil is perfectly fine for making gasoline, but not the best for making diesel and jet fuel. Medium and heavy oil is needed for that.
But refiners have a tidal wave of light sweet oil on their hands, perhaps too much. The U.S. refining industry could max out its ability to swallow up light sweet oil from the shale patch, as the FT reports, particularly as U.S. shale drillers are expected to add upwards of 4 million barrels per day (mb/d) over the next five years.
Meanwhile, heavy crude production has waned as of late, with sharp declines in output in Venezuela and Mexico in the past few years. Shipments from Canada face a bottleneck because of fixed pipeline capacity. The result has been a somewhat tighter market for heavy oil, which refiners want to process into jet fuel and diesel.
In the years ahead, demand for gasoline could start to slow down as vehicles become more efficient and EVs start to gain more market share. Meanwhile, diesel demand has grown much faster, and will likely jump in 2020 as new regulations on dirty fuels from the International Maritime Organization take effect. That could force the shipping industry to switch from residual fuels to diesel, perhaps adding as much as 2 mb/d of demand for diesel, the FT reports.
In other words, volumes of lighter oil suited for gasoline production are soaring while production of medium and heavy oil used for diesel is flatter, even as diesel demand is poised to grow quickly. And refining capacity capable of handling light oil might not be up to the task.
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