Energy Prices Bouncing To Start Tuesday After Monday Saw 11-Month Lows For Gasoline And Oil Prices

Market TalkTuesday, Nov 29 2022
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Energy prices are bouncing to start Tuesday’s session after gasoline and oil prices dropped to 11-month lows on Monday, while distillates reached their lowest levels since the start of the war.

Less than 6 months ago, the cheapest wholesale regular unleaded gasoline in the country was going for $4.18/gallon, and today the most expensive is going for $2.36 and several spot markets have prices below $2. The bounce in futures puts the chance of a technical collapse on hold for now, but if support around the mid $2.20s breaks, there’s a good chance we’ll see gasoline futures fall below $2 this winter as well.

The drops have been even more dramatic for distillates, with NYH spots dropping $1.75/gallon in just 3 weeks and most other regional cash prices touching their lowest levels since late February. Distillate basis values are also trading at historically weak levels across most of the country, with 5 out of the 6 major cash markets seeing a discount of 24 cents or more to December futures, while the NYH is the only market left trading at a premium. That weakness in basis differentials suggests there is excess physical supply at several of the major origin points around the country, while elevated rack prices in numerous markets suggest there are still shortages at the destinations, as transportation bottlenecks continue to confound the supply network.

RINs have continued their steady march higher, touching fresh 18-month highs, and coming within striking distance of new all-time records, a day before the EPA is obligated by court order to release its mandates for the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2023 and beyond. 

Meanwhile, the EPA has approved a fuel pathway for Chevron to co-produce biofuels from soy oils at its refinery in LA after a 2-year review. While the EPA’s approval limits the firm to generating D6 RINs for now, this type of co-processing could eventually be a game changer in that refiners may no longer have to fully convert their petroleum operations in order to produce biofuels, and may add to the lingering regret from those companies that already have.

The risk of a US rail strike seems to have decreased after the President and congressional leaders agreed to support legislation to block a walk-out, forcing the holdout unions to accept the deal negotiated in September.   

While the Atlantic hurricane season is down to its last couple of days, with no tropical threats in site, refinery row along the US Gulf Coast is included in a severe weather watch that is expected to see numerous tornadoes form over the next 24 hours. While the most severe areas are forecast to be well north of most Gulf Coast refineries, power outages and other damage could still cause some disruptions to facilities in the region.

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Market Update 11-29-22

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Pivotal Week For Price Action
Market TalkTuesday, Jan 31 2023

ULSD Prices Drop Despite Looming Russian Supply Ban

ULSD continues to lead the energy complex lower as January winds to a close, dropping from a high of $3.58 one week ago to a low of $3.0570 this morning. Crude oil and gasoline prices have also come under heavy pressure, but have lagged far behind the moves in ULSD, which has pushed prompt diesel crack spreads by down by $12/barrel in just a week.

Why exactly diesel prices got so weak so fast is a bit of a mystery given that inventories remain well below their seasonal ranges, refineries across the country are running below normal levels due to a rash of unplanned issues, and the embargo on Russian diesel shipments starts this weekend. 

The warmer than expected winter has certainly eased concerns of more severe shortages of natural gas and heating oil across Europe and the US North East, but European natural gas prices have been rebounding as temperatures are expected to drop again next week, and French workers are attempting to block more fuel deliveries today as part of the ongoing strikes against state pension reform. 

Recession expectations could be a factor in this pullback, as they were during the last 2022 selloff as earnings season is showing that US consumers are slowing down purchases, while the FED is poised for another rate hike tomorrow.   

Liquidations by the hedge funds that added new bets on higher prices last week, just in time for this pullback could also be at play, although we won’t get to see that data again until Friday. 

The drop could be a sign of the classic “buy the rumor, sell the news” trading phenomenon with the upcoming Russian embargo, particularly given that exports have surged in recent weeks as buyers race to beat the deadline. 

There’s also a real possibility that there simply is not a fundamental reason at all for this price pullback, and it has more to do with the big speculative funds that can be the fair weather fans of commodity markets, or the trading algorithms that account for most daily volume being programmed to sell after an 82 cent rally from a low of $2.76 in early December to $3.58 last week.

Whatever the cause, ULSD is now breaking its weekly trendline that propelled prices higher for 7 weeks, and sets up a test of the January lows at $2.92 if they can’t manage a bounce in the next day or two.  Then again, if they do bounce, this 50 cent pullback in 5 trading days may be seen as nothing more than the latest big swing in an extraordinarily volatile market and a good buying opportunity for anyone that has a fuel budget.

Pretty much everyone expects the FED to raise rates by 25 basis points tomorrow, with the CME’s fedwatch tool showing a 99% probability of that outcome, and 85% that they’ll raise another 25 points in March.   The big question is whether or not the FED will be done raising rates after that, with traders fairly evenly split in their bets on the rates beyond the next two months.

Exxon, Marathon and P66 all reported earnings for Q4 today, and surprised no-one with their strong results, even though refining margins pulled back from the record levels set earlier in the year. 

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Pivotal Week For Price Action
Market TalkMonday, Jan 30 2023

Energy Futures Tumbling Again to Speculator's Chagrin

Diesel futures are leading the energy complex lower for a 2nd straight day and have dropped 24 cents from Friday’s highs. In total, ULSD futures are down 39 cents from the highs set last Tuesday, and the bulls are now in rally-or-else territory as the 6-week-old trend line is suddenly under pressure. The moves for RBOB have been less dramatic, with gasoline prices “only” dropping 11 cents since Friday morning’s highs, which leaves more room to fall before gasoline threatens its weekly trend-lines.

The big selloff looks like it will have several hedge funds wishing for a do-over after adding to their bets on higher fuel prices last week. The big 5 NYMEX and ICE contracts all saw healthy increases in long positions held by money managers in the latest report from the CFTC, while Brent, WTI and ULSD contracts also saw heavy short covering, just before those bets on lower prices would have paid off.  

Open interest in crude and refined product contracts saw another week of healthy increases, making it appear that the recent reduction in volatility has more traders getting comfortable returning to the petroleum space after many bailed out during the chaotic trading in 2022.

The timing of this latest pullback in diesel prices is particularly curious given that we’re now less than a week away from the highly anticipated embargos on Russian distillates taking effect.  European imports of Russian diesel have surged in recent weeks to get supplies in before the restrictions take place, which may be causing some short-term excess supply, although longer term there are still major concerns about distillate supplies globally.

There’s another winter storm warning issued to oil and gas pipeline operators in Texas this week, but the freezing temperatures aren’t expected to extend south into the refinery zone along the Gulf Coast, so we should not see a widespread impact from this system like we did in December.   

A study published by the Environmental Integrity Project is getting a fair amount of press as it highlights the water pollution caused by US oil refineries and the failure of the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act.  The study could end up being a catalyst that forces the EPA to update its 40-year-old standards for wastewater disposal or may be ignored if higher fuel prices become a bigger news story again this year.

Baker Hughes reported a drop of 4 oil rigs drilling in the US last week, offset for a 2nd straight week by an increase in natural gas drilling rigs. Notable this week was that the decline in oil drilling was almost all in waters off the Louisiana coast, while the Permian basin saw a net increase of 3 rigs. 

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Pivotal Week For Price Action
Market TalkFriday, Jan 27 2023

Energy Markets Seeing Modest Gains To Start Friday's Session

Energy markets are seeing modest gains to start Friday’s session, chipping away at the heavy losses we saw earlier in the week.  

If prices end near current levels, gasoline prices will be down about a penny for the week while distillates will be down by a nickel, and the weekly charts still have a higher high and higher low than last week, keeping the upward trend intact. 

While the pullback Tuesday and Wednesday eased immediate concerns of another runaway rally for fuel prices, warning signs are already flashing that retail fuel prices are back up to $3.50 per gallon during some of the weakest demand of the year, while refiners are still able to blend large amounts of butane into fuel to stretch supplies. With inventories already low and numerous refineries struggling, the stage is set fundamentally for a big rally in the weeks ahead, and technical indicators suggest there’s plenty of room for more upside as the upward trend started in December is still intact despite this week’s selling.

Are we striking or not? That seems to be the question for French unions that tried again Thursday to disrupt operations at refineries and nuclear power plants Thursday, but saw participation wane as cold temperatures increased heating demand and increased the risk of backlash for interfering with fuel deliveries. There’s another strike planned for next week, so the risk to supplies remains if that lasts more than a day or two.

Chevron reported record profits in 2022, even though Q4 earnings pulled back substantially from the prior 2 quarters as fuel prices retreated. The company’s refinery earnings were more than triple 2021 levels, in what is certainly going to be a theme for the rest of the earnings releases upcoming. Of course these companies remain easy targets for politicians wanting to place blame for high fuel prices. The “drill more or else” mantra is probably overlooking that while the on shore rig counts have stagnated, the offshore business is booming once again

While refined products are recovering, natural gas prices have continued to slide, dropping below $3 for the first time since May of 2021 as inventories swell and weather reports suggest that much warmer winter than previously forecast is still in the cards. Those cheap prices may not last long however as the Freeport LNG Export facility received FERC approval to begin the long process of restarting its operations. That facility accounted for 15% of US exports before a fire last June and has kept domestic prices suppressed as those supplies were stranded inland.

Click here to download a PDF of today's TACenergy Market Talk.