The highest number of Saudi oil shipments in years are making their way to the United States this month, threatening to make an already dire situation in the U.S. oil industry even worse.
With oil demand crashing in the lockdown and storage capacity filling up fast, more Saudi oil imports is the last thing the U.S. oil market needs right now.
In times of lockdowns and social distancing, inventories in the U.S. are soaring, storage capacity is stretching thin in many areas, producers are idling rigs and curtailing production, and some regional grades are priced so low that they could soon turn negative. In other words, producers may have to pay their customers to help them get rid of the oil they have pumped.
As if this wasn’t enough to depress U.S. benchmark oil prices, a wave of Saudi oil is making its way onto tankers, headed for America this month, various tanker-tracking data estimates show.
In early April, tanker-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg showed that Saudi Arabia – the world’s top oil exporter – was making good on its promise to flood the world with oil even as demand collapses, with a surge in tankers carrying Saudi crude to the United States.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the volume of Saudi crude en route to the United States is seven times higher than the typical monthly intake of Saudi oil in 2019.
The tankers were loaded before OPEC+ struck a new agreement to take 9.7 million bpd off the market in May and June when Saudi Arabia had embarked on an aggressive price war for market share after the previous OPEC+ deal collapsed in early March.
On April 1, when the previous agreement expired, Saudi Aramco boasted that it was “breaking records to supply 15 tankers with over 18.8 million barrels of oil,”
“As the world demands economic stability, Aramco remains committed to supplying the world with energy.”
However, three weeks later, the world demands anything but more oil—demand is crashing by 30 million barrels per day (bpd), and even the new production reduction agreement can’t do anything to erase the glut in April and the coming weeks.
Saudi Arabia more than doubled its shipments to the U.S. in March—to 829,540 bpd from 366,000 in February, according to TankerTrackers, which tracks oil flows via satellite images. In the first two weeks of April, Saudi Arabia sent 1.46 million bpd to the U.S., TankerTrackers data showed, as cited by CNBC. An unnamed Saudi official, however, refuted the March and April data.
The Saudi official told CNBC that the Kingdom was targeting 600,000 bpd in exports to the U.S. in April.
Saudi Aramco owns the 600,000-bpd Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, Texas—the largest U.S. refinery in terms of crude oil processing capacity.
According to tanker tracking data compiled by Bloomberg, Saudi Arabia had loaded seven supertankers for the U.S. in the first week of April, but just two more tankers since then.
But even 600,000 bpd of Saudi oil flows to the U.S. in April would be more than a year-high, as per EIA data. After June last year, U.S. crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia had not exceeded 500,000 bpd, as per the latest available data updated to January 2020.
The increased Saudi shipments in April come at the worst possible time for the U.S. oil industry. With plunging consumption and growing global glut, everyone in the industry is suffering
“We are seeing fast and furious gasoline demand destruction. The latest data reveals demand levels not seen since spring of 1968,” AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano said at the beginning of last week.
Prices of some grades in Texas are nearing negative territory, with customers bidding to pay only $2 per barrel for South Texas Sour and $4.12 a barrel Upper Texas Gulf Coast last week, Bloomberg reported, citing pricing bulletins.
“The pressure on storage capacity in North America is becoming intense, with the tanks at Cushing, Oklahoma, set to reach effective limits by the end of next month; companies are running out of places to put the unwanted oil that they are producing. In the physical crude markets many US blends are selling at deep discounts to WTI futures,” Ed Crooks, Vice-Chair, Americas, at Wood Mackenzie, wrote last week.
More Saudi oil will aggravate this already dire market situation, potentially speeding up additional and deeper forced production curtailments in the U.S. shale patch in the coming months.