Energy Business

Refining Sector Woes Going From Challenging To Worse (TSO, VLO, MPC, WNR, CVI, XOM, CVX, COP, BP)

One of the largest crude oil refiners in the US, Tesoro Corp. (NYSE: TSO), this morning lowered its earnings guidance for the fourth quarter, projecting a loss of -$0.55 to -$0.80. The consensus estimate for Tesoro had been for EPS of $0.70. Shares are down about -7% in the first half hour of trading, and other independent refiners like Valero Energy Corp. (NYSE: VLO), Marathon Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: MPC), Western Refining Inc. (NYSE: WNR), and CVR Energy Inc. (NYSE: CVI) are also getting taken down. Major integrated companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX), ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), and BP plc (NYSE: BP) are also down, but by very much less.

In its announcement Tesoro pointed out the obvious problem:

The discount of WTI to Brent during the fourth quarter narrowed by $18/bbl, dropping from $26/bbl at the end of September to $8/bbl at the end of December. This market price movement impacts fourth quarter results in two ways. First, by reducing benchmark margins at our refineries that run WTI-priced barrels and, second, by reducing the margin on long-haul foreign crude oil barrels indexed to WTI.

Every independent refiner will get hit by this to some degree and we’ve taken a look at what the impact on each might be.

Valero is expected to post EPS of $0.84 in the fourth quarter. The country’s largest refiner owns 16 refineries with a daily throughput volume of 3 million barrels. It is also one of the world’s largest makers of ethanol. Half the refineries are located along the US Gulf Coast, and in the company’s latest investor presentation, WTI margins had fallen from around $26/barrel to around $15/barrel. The company’s Brent margins have stayed relatively flat, at around $10-$11/barrel. To counteract that somewhat, Valero expects to refine about 75,000 barrels/day from the Eagle Ford shale play in the first quarter of 2012. The company is also planning to expand its distillate production to capture the higher margins available from diesel fuel, especially in Europe. Valero hasn’t said anything yet about its fourth quarter earnings, but the company’s stock is down nearly -4% on Tesoro’s report. If Valero revises its earnings estimate — which is likely — another drop of at least that amount is likely.

Marathon completed its spin-off from parent Marathon Oil Corp. (NYSE: MRO) last June. The company owns six refineries and 51% of the company’s crude supply comes from either the US or Canada. The company’s WTI-Brent differential was nearly $23/barrel in the third quarter of this year compared with less than $3.50/barrel in 2010. No data is available for the fourth quarter, but it’s difficult to see how Marathon can avoid getting caught in the same bind as Tesoro and Valero.

Western Refining owns two refineries with a total throughput of 151,000 barrels/day. The company’s operating margin through the first three quarters of 2011 is around $20/barrel. All of Western’s crude is domestically sourced and priced as WTI. This is a nice advantage when Brent pricing is more than $25/barrel higher, but as the differential narrows, Western has to come up with some other way to make profits. This company could get stung badly on WTI pricing.

CVR Energy owns two refineries with a combined throughput of 185,000 barrels/day. Both are located in the Midwest and about 75% of the feedstock is domestically sourced WTI. CVR gets some portion of its feedstock from the Bakken area, which gives the company an additional break on crude pricing because Bakken crude trades at a small discount to WTI. Rising WTI prices will certainly hurt margins for CVR, but probably not as badly as the narrower differential will hurt other refiners.

One last word about Conoco, which is planning to spin-off its refining operations into a separate company. The spin-off was set to happen by mid-2012, but unless refining margins return to what they were last summer, Conoco might have a hard time convincing investors that they’re getting a good deal from the split.

Paul Ausick

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