Energy Business

Pipeline Reverses Refiners Fortunes... An Apparent Overreaction (ENB, COP, VLO, MPC, TSO, WNR, CVI, XOM, CVX, BP, EPD, TRP, RDS-A)

The announcement from Enbridge Inc. (NYSE: ENB) that it would acquire the 50% stake in the Seaway pipeline system owned by ConocoPhillips Corp. (NYSE: COP) and reverse the pipeline’s flow direction, pushed up the price of WTI crude yesterday and pushed down the share price of US refining stocks.

Valero Energy Corp. (NYSE: VLO) shares closed down more than -9% on the day. Marathon Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: MPC) closed down nearly -12%, Tesoro Corp. (NYSE: TSO) closed down nearly -10%, and Western Refining Inc. (NYSE: WNR) was off -13.5%. CVR Energy, Inc. (NYSE: CVI) shares plunged more than -16%.

The major integrated oil companies with refining operations also experienced a down day, with Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) off about -1%, Conoco down about -3%, Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) down about -2%, and BP plc (NYSE: BP) down about -0.5%.

All this carnage over a 150,000 barrel/day pipeline that currently carries almost no oil from the Gulf Coast to the storage tanks at Cushing, Oklahoma, and will not be reversed until sometime later next year. The US consumes about 9 million barrels/day of crude just for transportation use, so less than 2% of that crude should not have such an outsized effect on refiner stocks.

The Seaway pipeline transaction, the other 50% of which is owned by Enterprise Products Partners L.P. (NYSE: EPD), was merely the trigger. Refiners’ profits have been strong in recent months as those with access to WTI and cheaper crudes have been able to price the refined output based on Brent crude input costs. The differential once reached nearly $28/barrel. The price difference closed to about $11/barrel yesterday and is around $8/barrel this morning.

Brent prices are falling, but not as fast as WTI prices are rising. The reversal of the Seaway pipeline means that landlocked WTI can now get to the Gulf Coast refineries where it will be priced the same as Brent. As the two crude prices converge, refiners will not be able to feast off that differential.

Another factor weighing against the refiners is the start-up of the Bakken Oil Express, a tank-car train running from North Dakota to Louisiana. The first train-load of crude left North Dakota on November 7th with 70,000 barrels, with current rail capacity of 100,000 barrels/day expected to increase to 250,000 barrels/day. Rail transport of crude and refined products has risen by more than 9% in the past year, to about 7,600 tank-cars/week.

The price of Brent is falling because production from Libya has ramped quickly, to reach about 700,000 barrels/day already, more than half its total production before the upheaval of last Spring. Full production of 1.3 million barrels/day could be reached before mid-2012, again keeping downward pressure on Brent pricing.

The final factor pushing WTI prices up is the tentative agreement between TransCanada Corp. (NYSE: TRP) and the state of Nebraska on a new route for the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. This pipeline could carry up to 1.1 million barrels/day when (if) it is built. Because Canada’s synthetic crude is priced even lower than WTI, getting this pipeline into service is critical to oil sands producers who want to see the differential between synthetic crude and WTI/Brent close if not disappear altogether.

TransCanada has said that it is considering moving ahead with the section of the Keystone XL that runs from Cushing to the Gulf Coast and Enterprise has said that it will scrap plans for a new pipeline from Cushing to the Gulf but now plans to expand the Seaway pipeline to as much as 400,000 barrels/day by 2013. The two pipelines combined could carry nearly 1 million barrels/day from Cushing to the Gulf.

That million barrels represents crude that would not need to be imported by ship to the Gulf, but rather than lowering crude prices, it would raise them. That raises refiners’ input costs and raises the price of gasoline at the pump for consumers.

BP and Royal Dutch Shell plc (NYSE: RDS-A) probably stand to gain the most of any of the integrated oil companies from the new outlets to the Gulf. Shell is a big producer from the oil sands and BP is upgrading its refinery in Indiana to process the heavy Canadian synthetic crude, as well as owning production properties in the US midwest.

Refiners’ stocks are likely to take more losses today, though not as bad as the beating they got yesterday. Big oil companies could lose a bit more today, but the rising price for crude more than offsets any hits to their refining operations.

Paul Ausick

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