A tale of crudes: Anybody got a big rig?
This post is a guest contribution by Dian Chu, market analyst, trader and author of the Econforecast blog.
On Wednesday, Feb. 16 Israel said Iran is sending two warships into the Suez Canal on way to Syria, and that the action is considered a “provocation.” Due to the long history of bad blood between Israel and Iran, this very possible scenario was enough to even send the bear-infested NYMEX crude oil futures volume surging midday.
West Texas Intermediate (WTI) on Nymex rose to just below $85, while Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange spiked $2.17 higher to $103.81 a barrel–a 29-month high–widening the WTI-Brent spread to a new record near $19.
High Middle East Tension
As the worst Israel-Iran conflict scenario failed to materialize, at the close Friday Feb. 18, Brent crude oil for April settled at $102.79 while WTI for April delivery rose to $89.71, narrowing the spread to $13.11.
Crude Glut at Cushing, OK
However, WTI’s premium disappeared about a year ago and in recent days it has been trading at more than a $10/bbl discount to Brent mainly due to rising inventory levels at Cushing OK, the delivery and price settling point of Nymex crude futures (See Chart).
WTI Undervalued by $12
WTI Premium May Never Return
For now, between the two oil markers, Brent seems to have the pricing momentum since it is undersupplied, and more likely to be jolted by the geopolitical unrest in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) due to Europe’s close proximity to the region, and the end markets Brent serves.
Cushing Logistic Fix by 2014
Many analysts don’t see infrastructure could improve at Cushing any time soon to move crude to the coast and world markets, while oil production from Canada and U.S. oil shales like the Bakken play in N. Dakota are set to rise adding to the glut.
Credit Suisse, for example, sees it will most likely be 2013 or 2014 before the pipeline infrastructure could improve the situation at Cushing.
Beneficiaries – Gulf Coast Crudes
Among producers, the largest beneficiaries of this Brent premium include Canada’s Nexen Inc. (NXY) and Talisman Energy Inc. (TLM), and U.S.-based Apache Corp. (APA).
Product Prices Trend With Brent
Beneficiaries – Midwest Refiners
So, only a few Midwest refiners (PADD 2, where Cushing is) with access to Cushing are able to take advantage of this WTI pricing anomaly. Delek US Holdings Inc. (DK), Frontier Oil (FTO), Holly Corp. (HOC), Western Refining (WNR) and Valero (VLO) are among the lucky ones that could see higher earnings in coming quarters.
Anybody Got A Big Rig?
However, the economics of these alternative transportation modes–trucks in particular–would only work if the spreads stay elevated at the current levels. According to Bloomberg, the WTI-Brent spread between the June contracts already dropped to $9.41 from $11.35 on Feb. 16. And capacity limit of these alternative transports will be another factor.
ConocoPhillips already said it isn’t interested in reversing the Seaway pipeline that brings crude from the U.S. Gulf Coast to Cushing, Ok. So, with Cushing storage near 39 million barrels, barging, rail, trucking, and possibly some pipelines reverse flows may help ease the bottleneck at Cushing and narrow the WTI-Brent spread, but they are unlikely to significantly improve the WTI predicament in the next 18 months or so.
Source: Dian Chu, Econforecast, February 20, 2011.
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