Gross inputs to US refineries exceeded 17 million barrels per day (b/d) in each of the past four weeks, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)—a level not previously reached since EIA began publishing weekly data in 1990. The rolling four-week average of US gross refinery inputs has been above the previous five-year range (2010-14) every week so far this year. The record high gross inputs reflect both higher refinery capacity and higher utilization rates.
Lower crude oil prices and strong demand for petroleum products, primarily gasoline, both in the United States and globally, have led to favorable margins that encourage refinery investment and high refinery runs. Refinery margins are currently supported by high gasoline crack spreads (the difference between the price of crude oil and the price of specific petroleum products extracted from it) that reached a peak of 66 cents per gallon (gal) on 8 July, a level not reached since September 2008.
For the past several years, distillate crack spreads have consistently exceeded those for gasoline, but since May, this trend has reversed.
From 2011 to 2014, distillate crack spreads (calculated using Gulf Coast spot prices for Light Louisiana Sweet crude oil, conventional gasoline, and ultra-low sulfur distillate) averaged a 24 cents/gal premium over gasoline crack spreads. Since May 20, Gulf Coast gasoline crack spreads have averaged 17 cents/gal higher than for distillate crack spreads.
Higher demand for gasoline is supporting these margins, according to the EIA. Total US motor gasoline product supplied is up 2.9% through the first five months of 2015, and trade press reports indicate that demand is also higher in major world markets such as Europe and India so far this year compared with 2014. Total US petroleum product supplied (a proxy for demand) is up 2.5% through the first five months of the year compared with 2014. Much of the refinery output is reaching global markets, as net exports are 19% higher this year through May.
US refinery runs tend to peak in the second and third quarters of the year when demand for gasoline is greater because of increased driving in the summer. In its July Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA estimated that refinery runs will average 16.7 million b/d from April through September and then decline slightly in the fourth quarter to 16.2 million b/d before falling further to 15.8 million b/d in the first quarter of 2016. Following the winter period of lower demand and refinery maintenance, EIA’s STEO expects US refinery runs will reach new highs next summer, averaging 16.9 million b/d in third quarter of 2016.