US refiners reap rewards from LatAm fuel shortage
August 14 2016 10:08 PM
Idle supply vessels float in Guanabara Bay in front of a gas storage facility across from Petrobras’s Comperj oil refinery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on April 12, 2016. Petrobras has ended up with four unfinished refinery projects amid the slump in oil prices and a corruption scandal that broke in March 2014 when police arrested a former refining chief, accusing him of involvement in a pay-to-play scheme.


The Latin American refinery bust has proved to be a boon for US fuel makers.
From Brazil’s Petroleo Brasileiro to Mexico’s Petroleos Mexicanos, state oil companies have failed to complete nine projects worth at least $36.4bn that would have supplied 1.2mn barrels of gasoline and diesel daily. US refiners have stepped up to help fill the gap, with exports almost doubling in the past six years, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Falling oil prices, high levels of debt and failure to find partners to help finance the plants are among the reasons cited by Pemex, Costa Rica’s Refinadora Costarricense de Petroleo SA and Colombia’s Ecopetrol SA for postponing their plans. Brazil’s Petrobras has been slowed by the price drop as well as a corruption scandal.
“Refinery investment plans in the region have really fizzled out over the past year or so,” Mara Roberts, a BMI Research analyst based in New York, said in an e-mail. “Latin America is keen to take in growing US supplies.”
US exports to the region have been rising steadily and reached a record 1.88mn bpd this year. Latin America now accounts for 42% of America’s fuel exports, up from 38% a decade ago. US fuel output increased 4.1% over two years to a record 19.9mn bpd in 2015, EIA data show.
Companies including Valero Energy Corp, Marathon Petroleum Corp and PBF Energy Inc have boosted the operating rates of their refineries, and with US domestic demand growing more slowly, the outlet to Latin America is helping sop up excess fuel supply. The utilisation rate was at 93.3% in the week ended July 29, the highest since November.
Buoyed by cheap oil and gas from shale formations, US refiners increased runs and invested in export terminals, said John Auers, executive vice president of Turner Mason & Co, a Dallas-based consulting firm. Latin America is an “obvious” destination for the US fuel because of its proximity to the Gulf Coast and the delays in building refineries there, he said.
“It’s a hand and glove situation,” Auers said. About 25% of Latin America’s fuel demand is currently met by the US, he said.
A vessel carrying gasoline or diesel from the Gulf Coast can deliver to Mexico in two days compared with at least 15 for a cargo coming from European rivals.
“We have a competitive advantage going to Mexico and South America,” Gary Simmons, Valero’s senior vice president of supply and international operations, said on the company’s July 26 earnings call.
US refiners are facing competition from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where exports are surging. Brazil imported diesel from China and Hong Kong in May for the first time in at least five years.
“Certainly we are seeing stray barrels from the Middle East coming into LatAm, and we could see more if European distillate demand deteriorates, but US Gulf Coast refiners are well- positioned to take advantage of LatAm demand growth,” Andrew Echlin, a New York-based analyst with Energy Aspects Ltd.
Petrobras has ended up with four unfinished refinery projects amid the slump in oil prices and a corruption scandal that broke in March 2014 when police arrested a former refining chief, accusing him of involvement in a pay-to-play scheme. The former chief, Paulo Roberto Costa, was found guilty of money laundering and is currently under house arrest after agreeing to cooperate with the investigation.
West Texas Intermediate crude, the US benchmark, rose 2.3% on Friday to $44.49 a barrel.
Brazil’s state-controlled energy company halted construction of two 300,000-bpd refineries, the Premium I and Premium II plants. It stopped work on the 165,000-bpd Comperj petrochemical complex and postponed an expansion of the Abreu e Lima refinery.
In response to a request for comment, Petrobras said decisions on the construction of new refineries will be announced as part of its next five-year investment plan. The next plan should be released in September, chief financial officer Ivan Monteiro told reporters last week. Ecuador’s ministry of strategic sectors, which is in charge of the project to build the new Pacifico refinery, didn’t return calls and e- mails seeking comment. Valero, Marathon and PBF declined to comment.
Pemex shelved plans to build the 300,000-bpd Tula Bicentenario refinery and is seeking partners to operate its six existing plants after posting 15 consecutive quarterly losses. Last year for the first time Mexico imported more gasoline than it produced.
Pemex declined to comment on plans for future or existing refineries.
Ecuador’s government is seeking partners to build the Pacifico refinery, a project that would process 300,000 bpd. Colombia’s Ecopetrol said it suspended the expansion of the Barrancabermeja plant until oil prices recover. Costa Rica’s national refiner cancelled plans to expand the country’s only plant.

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