For the past seven weeks, the United States has been producing and importing an average of 1 million more barrels of oil every day than it is consuming.
NEW YORK — The U.S. has so much crude that it is running out of places to put it, and that could drive oil and gasoline prices lower in the coming months.
For the past seven weeks, the United States has been producing and importing an average of 1 million more barrels of oil every day than it is consuming. That extra crude is flowing into storage tanks, especially at the country’s main trading hub in Cushing, Okla., pushing U.S. supplies to their highest point in at least 80 years, the Energy Department reported last week.
If this keeps up, storage tanks could approach their operational limits, known in the industry as “tank tops,” by mid-April and send the price of crude — and probably gasoline, too — plummeting.
That longer-range forecast is despite the seasonal rise in gas prices that consumers have been seeing at the pump. The national average price of gasoline is $2.44 a gallon. That’s $1.02 cheaper than last year at this time, but up 37 cents over the past month. (In the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area, the average Tuesday was $2.93, which is 57 cents lower than a year ago but still up 65 cents from last month, according to AAA.)
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“The fact of the matter is we are running out of storage capacity in the U.S.,” Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citibank, said at a recent symposium at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Morse has suggested oil could fall to $20 a barrel from the current $50. At that rock-bottom price, oil companies, faced with mounting losses, would stop pumping oil until the glut eased. Gasoline prices would fall along with crude, though lower refinery production, because of seasonal factors and unexpected outages, could prevent a sharp decline.
Other analysts agree that crude is poised to fall sharply — if not all the way to $20 — because it continues to flood into storage for a number of reasons:
• U.S. oil production continues to rise. Companies are cutting back on new drilling, but that won’t reduce supplies until later this year.
• The new oil being produced is light, sweet crude, which is a type many U.S. refineries are not designed to process. Oil companies can’t just get rid of it by sending it abroad, because crude exports are restricted by federal law. The oil-export ban was put in place after the 1970s Arab oil embargo, ostensibly to protect Americans from gasoline shortages and price spikes. But oil companies and energy economists argue it’s outdated in an era of enormous U.S. oil and natural- gas production.
• Foreign oil continues to flow into the U.S., both because of economic weakness in other countries and to feed refineries designed to process heavy, sour crude.
• This is the slowest time of year for gasoline demand, so refiners typically reduce or stop production to perform maintenance. As refiners process less crude, supplies build up.
• Oil investors are making money buying and storing oil because they can lock in a profit for delivery later.
The delivery point for most of the oil traded in the U.S. is Cushing, a city of about 8,000 people halfway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa at an intersection of several pipelines. The city is dotted with tanks that can, in theory, hold 85 million barrels of oil, according to the Energy Department, though some of those tanks are used for blending or feeding pipelines, not for storing oil.
The market-data provider Genscape, which flies helicopters equipped with infrared cameras and other technology over the city twice a week to measure storage levels, estimates Cushing is two-thirds full.
Hillary Stevenson, who manages storage, pipeline and refinery monitoring for Genscape, says Cushing could be full by mid-April. Supplies are increasing at “the highest rate we have ever seen at Cushing,” she says.
Full tanks — or super-low prices — are not a sure thing. New storage is under construction at Cushing, and there are large storage terminals near Houston, in St. James, La., and elsewhere around the country that will probably begin to take in more oil.
Also, drillers are cutting back fast because oil prices have plummeted from $107 a barrel in June. And demand is showing signs of rising.
While the Energy Department reported another enormous rise in crude stocks last week, up 8.4 million barrels from the week earlier, it also reported that diesel and gasoline supplies fell more than expected. That leads some to conclude that demand for crude will soon pick up, easing the surplus somewhat.
But many analysts believe oil prices will fall through the spring, before summer drivers start to relieve the glut.
Meanwhile, oil companies are focusing on an effort to persuade Congress to lift the longstanding ban on oil exports.
“We shouldn’t put domestic producers at a competitive disadvantage by limiting the available markets,” Ryan Lance, CEO of Texas-based ConocoPhillips, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
Scott Sheffield, CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources, also based in Texas, was making the same push Tuesday in front of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, arguing the industry’s struggles with low oil prices are worsened because companies aren’t allowed to ship American crude oil to foreign nations.
The plunge in oil prices has led companies to slash costs and lay off workers. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas predicts 140,000 jobs in Texas alone could be lost by next year as the reverberations of the oil slowdown ripple throughout other parts of the state economy.
Arguing against lifting the ban, though, was Delta Air Lines, which told the House energy subcommittee that allowing exports would hurt consumers by threatening to raise prices for gasoline and other fuels.
“Why would any policymaker want to risk jeopardizing the current consumer benefits we are experiencing and institute a policy that would benefit only a narrow sector of the economy?” asked Graeme Burnett, board chairman of Monroe Energy, Delta’s refining subsidiary.