27 May 2007 - 15:01
  • News Code: 105691

As India marches forward, it is inevitable that the country"s energy consumption will also increase. The total oil bill constitutes almost 40 per cent of the total imports. India primarily imports crude oil of the Oman-Dubai sour grade and the Brent sweet in the ratio of 58:42.

Prices in the oil market have been concentrated around three main regional crude oil benchmarks, or `marker" crudes: West Texas Intermediate (WTI) from the US, Brent Blend from the UK North Sea and Dubai, or Fateh, from the UAE.

 

Crude oil is graded on the basis of its specific gravity (API) and the sulphur level. Higher API gravity degree oil values have a greater commercial value. The lower the level of sulphur, the sweeter and the more preferred the oil.

 

West Texas Intermediate (WTI) is the underlying commodity of the NYMEX oil futures contracts. It is of very high quality with an API gravity of 39.6 degrees (a `light" crude oil), and containing only about 0.24 per cent of sulphur (a `sweet" crude oil). It is ideal for refining products such as low-sulphur petrol and low-sulphur diesel.

 

Brent is a benchmark for oil from Europe, Africa and West Asia and is traded on the ICE exchange (London). Its API gravity is 38.3 degrees (a `light" crude, but not as `light" as WTI), while it contains about 0.37 per cent of sulphur (a `sweet" crude, but again less `sweet" than WTI). Brent blend is ideal for making gasoline and middle distillates.

 

As a result of the gravity and sulphur differences, WTI is preferred by refiners and is processed into high-value products such as petrol, diesel, heating oil, and jet fuel. It typically trades at a $1-2/barrel premium to Brent. However, in recent times, it has been seen that WTI trades at a heavy discount (as high as $7 per barrel) to Brent. Logically, WTI is a higher grade crude and should trade at a higher price. So, what is the reason for this divergence from the norm?

 

One reason is that the North Sea fields from where Brent is sourced are fast depleting. Brent prices were pushed up in March by a port strike at the Fos-Lavera oil terminal near Marseille (France). During the 18-day long strike, almost 60 vessels, including 39 oil and six gas tankers, were stranded outside Europe"s second-largest import hub.

 

The Marseille port is the world"s third largest oil hub with 64.2 million tonnes moving through it annually. It was feared that the strike could lead to the shutdown of nearly half of France"s refineries. This could have slashed 7 per cent of European refinery capacity or 1.10 million barrels per day. As refined oil is turned into petrol and then sent by tanker to the US, the strike was affecting not only the Europeans but also the Americans, just ahead of the peak summer demand season.

 

No sooner had the strike in Europe settled than concerns arose in the US. Cushing, Oklahoma, is the most significant crude oil trading hub in North America. The US Energy Department reported that oil stockpiles in Cushing were nearly at their full storage. Aided by refinery shutdowns due to fire and maintenance, inventories rose 3.8 per cent to 28 million barrels for the week ended April 13, 2007 — the highest since April 2004 when the Department began reporting on supplies there.

 

Nigerian and Iranian oil grades are also priced according to a Brent-based formula. As the political situation gets tense, Brent shows a bigger increase in prices.

 

PIN/Thehindubusinessline.Com

News Code 105691

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