February 20, 2011

Unprecedented Spread in Oil Prices

The spread between the price of West Texas Intermediate crude, which trades in New York, and Brent, which trades in London, reached nearly $19 last week (though it subsequently fell to around $13). A spread in the teens is unprecedented. Here's a chart from Jim Bianco showing what's up with prices:

Fortune explains the reasons for the difference:
Increased flows from Canadian tar sands and the Bakken shale fields in the northern Great Plains have sent oil flooding into Cushing, Okla., where the WTI crude contract is priced. But because pipelines are set to run into Cushing, not out, much of that oil is going into storage rather than into refineries. Oil stockpiles in Cushing hit their highest level in seven years last month. 
Gasoline prices have followed the Brent price upward. East Coast gas is priced off the Brent crude because its refineries import oil from European terminals.

The South is also feeling the squeeze, as Fortune explains:
Take Louisiana Light Sweet crude, a fuel blend favored by refiners in the south who are cut off from the WTI market. The spread between WTI and Louisiana Light recently hit $21 a barrel, another record. 
Running off the WTI glut could ease the pressure on Brent and Louisiana Light prices. But the glut isn't going anywhere any time soon.

Pipelines that take oil out of Cushing are at least two years away, and oil companies that stand to rake in fat refining profits aren't exactly looking to rush that timeline.
Here's another piece of good news:
A study released last month by IHS Global Economics says a 25-cent rise in the gasoline price, all else equal, will reduce employment by some 600,000 jobs over the following two years. And the steeper the rise, the more jobs that stand to be lost.
Early Warning has a chart of the Brent-WTI spread over the last twenty years:

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