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.