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What Crashing Refining Margins Mean For Oil Markets

What Crashing Refining Margins Mean For Oil Markets

Refinery

Oil prices have plunged to one-year lows, but refiners in certain parts of the U.S. are not benefitting from cheaper crude.

According to new data from the EIA, refining margins for motor gasoline have fallen to five-year lows. “Flattening year-over-year growth in gasoline demand in the United States, combined with high levels of refinery output, have contributed to low or negative motor gasoline refining margins for refiners along the East and Gulf Coasts,” the EIA said on November 27. Gasoline refining margins have been declining since August.

In November, U.S. gasoline demand is expected to have averaged 9.2 million barrels per day (mb/d), down 262,000 bpd from a year earlier.

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Meanwhile, prices for distillates, such as diesel, are much higher. The discrepancy is notable, and the markets for gasoline and distillates have diverged sharply this year. The forthcoming 2020 International Maritime Organization regulations on sulfur content in maritime fuels is set to push extremely dirty heavy fuel oil out of the mix for ship-owners. One of the most important replacements for fuel oil be diesel and gasoil – in other words, distillate demand is set to spike at the start of 2020. In anticipation of these regulations, distillate prices are seeing upward pressure.

With diesel prices on the rise and gasoline prices heading in the other direction, refiners might want to maximize diesel output. However, things aren’t that simple. As the EIA notes, for every barrel of crude oil processed in a refinery, it tends to yield twice as much gasoline as it does diesel. “As a result, although gasoline margins have been low recently, refiners cannot completely stop making gasoline in favor of other petroleum products, such as distillate,” the EIA said.

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