June 12, 2020 / 12:52 PM / 20 days ago

Column: U.S. gasoline consumption rebounds, jet stays depressed

LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. petroleum consumption is rebounding strongly, led by gasoline, as stay-at-home orders are lifted, but recovery in diesel has been erratic, and there is no sign of a return in jet fuel use yet.

Taxis are seen at a gas station while gasoline price has been declined due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York, U.S., March 14, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The total volume of petroleum products supplied to the domestic market reached 17.6 million barrels per day (bpd) last week, up from a trough in the middle of April of just 13.8 million bpd.

The total products supplied, a proxy for consumption, has recovered to around 83% of its pre-lockdown rate, from just 65% when the lockdowns were at their most intense.

Gasoline consumption, hit very hard by stay-at-home orders, has rebounded the most strongly and consistently as restrictions on personal mobility have eased.

(Chartbook: tmsnrt.rs/3hfPhOV)

The volume of gasoline supplied has been rising by around 5% per week for nine weeks, and is now running at 82% of the seasonal average for the last five years, up from just 55% in mid-April.

Gasoline has accounted for three quarters of the total acceleration in products supplied since the height of the lockdown, according to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

By contrast, distillate fuel oils, including road diesel, were initially hit less hard by the lockdown, but have shown a more gradual and faltering recovery as the restrictions have eased.

The volume of distillate supplied has recovered to 82% of its five-year average, up from 70% in early April (“Weekly petroleum status report”, EIA, June 10).

Jet fuel, crushed by the collapse in domestic and international passenger airline travel, has slowed to less than 40% or even 30% of its pre-lockdown rate and shows no clear sign of recovering yet.

REFINERY LOGISTICS

The uneven rebound has left refiners struggling to match fuel production with consumption given limited short-term flexibility in their distillation systems.

Refiners have focused on producing the right volume gasoline but that has left them with a surplus of middle distillates, including diesel and jet.

Since there is little demand for jet fuel, middle distillates that would normally be sent to aviation customers have instead been diverted to the diesel pool.

Jet production has been cut by around 1.1 million bpd while distillate output is unchanged compared with pre-lockdown rates.

The result is jet inventories remain close to normal; gasoline inventories are high but now stable; while diesel inventories are surging.

Refiners will likely restrain crude distillation and gasoline production modestly over the next few months to bring gasoline stocks back to more normal levels and avoid running out of storage for diesel.

But the problem of excess diesel is unlikely to be solved until aviation and jet fuel consumption starts to recover to absorb some of the excess middle distillates again.

John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.

Related columns:

- Stuck with too much diesel, U.S. refiners need to restrict runs (Reuters, June 4)

- Global diesel use likely to be depressed all year (Reuters, June 2)

Editing by Susan Fenton

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