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Could Renewable Diesel Crush Oil Demand?

Source The Ghana Report

With the benchmark diesel price used for most fuel surcharges down for the fifth week in a row, diesel consumers should be reveling in the fact that market trends appear to have completely thrown out concerns about the Middle East conflict and are focused on the markets for both diesel and gasoline as primary drivers.

The Department of Energy/Energy Information Administration average weekly retail diesel price fell 4.6 cents Monday to $3.848 a gallon. The five consecutive declines have taken that price down 21.3 cents a gallon during, and the price is now at a level not seen since the end of January.

Whatever impact that oil markets may have felt from the conflict in Gaza, the Iran-Israel back-and-forth and the diversions of shipping away from the Red Sea (which may have faded from the news but continue) are apparently having no impact on oil prices. A reaction to those developments would tend to be macro in nature and would generally impact crude more than products.

But market weakness continues to show up in products markets, including diesel. And diesel in particular is getting a great deal of focus of late.

Diesel is increasingly being viewed as one of the primary reasons for the gradual fall in oil markets that has been occurring since early to mid-April. Whereas a few months ago, the rising price of oil was primarily attributed to a tight market for gasoline, the more recent weakness in oil overall is being laid firmly at the feet of the diesel market.

In his weekly report released Sunday, energy economist Philip Verleger noted that diesel weakness is becoming more structural because of the growing role of renewable diesel, which is made not from petroleum but from feedstocks such as plant oils and animal fats, including those captured in grease traps at restaurants.

In the report, Verleger noted that weekly EIA data on distillate consumption in the U.S., which is about 90% diesel, has been running anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 barrels per day less than pre-pandemic levels. While some analysts are looking at that and concluding it is the function of a slow trucking market, Verleger’s report cited the fact that the data isn’t capturing the consumption of renewable diesel.

“Taxes and regulations promulgated by the US Environmental Protection Agency have prompted refiners to convert crude oil processing facilities to produce renewable diesel, making more renewable fuel available,” Verleger wrote. “The higher renewable diesel use will cut US petroleum consumption. At this juncture, it seems that none of the … most-quoted forecasts of global oil demand have been adjusted to account for this replacement.”

Refining company earnings calls with analysts often feature management discussion of renewable diesel and its impact on the refiners’ bottom line. For example, on the latest Phillips 66 call, CEO Mark Lashier reviewed the company’s expanding renewable diesel operations and said that as a result of them, “we have gained valuable operational experience and market knowledge that positions us for success in our expanding renewable fuels business.”

But on the latest round of calls, talk about the weak diesel market — its crack spread against Brent crude is down about 20 cents a gallon in two months — did arise.

The view that diesel demand is weak was rejected by Gary Simmons, the executive vice president and chief operating officer at Valero. He said on the company’s first-quarter earnings calls that diesel sales at Valero are about 2% higher than those of a year ago.

But he added that he expects diesel demand will be “flat to slightly down compared to last year.” “However, some of the freight indices appear to be turning, and indicate we could start seeing better demand,” Simmons said.

Brian Mandell, executive vice president of marketing and commercial for Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX) said on the company’s call that even though Ukraine’s attacks on Russian refining capacity have probably taken about 200,000 barrels per day of Russian diesel supplies off the market, diesel prices have been suppressed by the warm winter in the northeastern U.S. — where heating oil, a distillate, is heavily used for home warmth — and by refiners coming out of maintenance season strong.

But the result has been reduction in refinery operating rates in Europe and Asia because of refining margins for distillates, which he said are around breakeven.

 

The weak market for products relative to crude is most visible in the 3-2-1 crack spread, a basic indicator of refinery probability. It is calculated by taking the price of two barrels of gasoline plus one barrel of diesel, converting it to a price per barrel and subtracting the price of crude, either Brent or West Texas Intermediate.

The Brent 3-2-1 on Monday, based on CME prices, fell to close to $21 a barrel. Two months ago, in mid-March, it was approximately $29.

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