Why High Oil Prices Are Now Affecting Europe More Than the US

The world is presently sharing a limited supply of oil. When oil prices rise, oil production doesn’t rise very much, if at all.

Figure 1. Brent oil spot price and world oil supply (broadly defined), based on EIA data.

The issues then become: Which buyers get the oil? What uses get priced out of the market?  Which countries are disproportionately affected?

It seems to me that this time around, Europe, and in particular the Eurozone, is the area of the world getting hit the hardest by high oil prices. Part of this has to do with the relative level of the Euro and the US dollar. If we look at the price of Brent oil (a European oil) in Euros (Figure 2), we find that prices are as high now as they were in mid-2008.

Figure 2. Dated Brent average monthly oil prices, expressed in Euros, based on IndexMundi data.

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Pipeline changes to fix WTI/Brent spread are likely to add new problems

For many years, Brent oil (a European grade) and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil, a US grade, sold at close to the same price. Starting in January 2011, WTI price dropped below Brent, at times by more than 20%.

When the price of WTI dropped, the prices of quite a few other grades of oil (especially in the Midwest, but perhaps elsewhere) were affected as well. To get an idea of how much the overall impact was, I compared the price refiners pay for oil to that of Brent and WTI (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Average refiners acquisition cost, Brent oil price, and WTI oil price, based on EIA data.

I found that the drop in the prices refiners pay for crude oil prices is much more akin to the drop a person would expect if 40% of crude were affected, than the small drop one would expect if only WTI itself were affected. The price change during 2011 did not seem to be due to changes in average viscosity or in sulfur content either.

Some of the types of crude that have been hit by lower prices are those from the Alberta. Recently, there have been proposals by Canadian companies to try to fix the problem. Enbridge announced that it is buying a 50% stake in the Seaway pipeline, and will reverse its direction, so that it will carry crude oil southward, from Cushing to the Gulf, instead of northward, as soon as the second quarter of 2012. In addition, TransCanada has announced the it wants to build the segment of the Keystone XL pipeline from Cushing to the Gulf, possibly starting as soon as January 2012.

The question now is what impact the proposed pipelines will have. Will they even out the Brent/WTI price disparity, and, at the same time, cause the prices of other crudes, such as Canadian and Bakken crudes, to rise as well? Or will the pipeline adjustments fix only part of the problem, and add new problems at the same time? In my view, the latter seems more likely, for reasons I discuss in this post.

For those who are interested, I wrote a post in February giving more background, which can be found here.
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Why are WTI and Brent Prices so Different?

We have all heard at least a partial explanation as to why West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent prices are so far apart. We have been told that the Midwest is oversupplied because of all of the Canadian imports, and the crude oil cannot get down as far as the Gulf Coast, because while there is pipeline capacity to the Midwest, there isn’t adequate pipeline capacity to the Gulf Coast. I have done a little research and tried to add some more context and details. For example, the opening of two pipelines from Canada (one on April 1, 2010 and one on February 8, 2011) seems to be contributing to the problem, as is rising North Dakota oil production.

There are two pipelines (Seaway – 430,000 barrels a day capacity and Capline – 1.2 million barrels a day capacity) bringing oil up from the Gulf to the Midwest. It is really the conflict between the oil coming up from the Gulf and the oil from the North that is leading to excessive crude oil supply for Midwest refineries and the resulting lower price for WTI crude oil at Cushing. Demand for output from the refineries remains high though, so prices for refined products remains high, even as prices for crude oil are low. This mismatch provides an opportunity for refiners to make high profits.

There are various ways of fixing the problem. Bringing less oil up from the Gulf would seem to be part of the solution. Conoco Phillips, one of the owners of the Seaway pipeline (and an owner of Midwest refineries), says it is not interested in reversing it.  But lower prices by themselves would seem to result in less oil being shipped through the pipelines up from the Gulf, and may at least partially fix the problem.

Trucking and rail transportation of oil to the Gulf Coast may also be part of the solution, but arranging this may take some time, because of the large quantities involved. If shipping by train or truck is worked out, I would expect that the price of WTI will move closer to Brent, to reflect the additional shipping cost involved, perhaps $10 or $15 a barrel. The availability of this solution should help to cap the spread between West Texas Intermediate and Brent.

Figure 1. Comparison of Brent and West Texas Intermediate spot prices, based on data of the US Energy Information Agency.

Inspection of Figure 1 indicates that the gap between Brent and WTI prices started in December 2010, and has widened in 2011. Below the fold, I show some more details about what is happening and the prospects for getting the gap fixed.
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