The price of gasoline in the U.S. is on the rise again.
Futures prices for RBOB ("Reformulated Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending"), the NYMEX futures contract for gasoline, are up over 11% for the year, and a full 6.6% of that increase has come in the past month.
In fact, gas is up 2.4% over the past week alone. Today, the average retail price is 4 cents higher per gallon than a year ago.
And you can bet that as we move into the "official" start of the summer driving season, the worst is yet to come. Prices will be headed even higher.
So with all the hoopla surrounding our newfound oil wealth and our legitimate move to become energy self-sufficient in as little as a decade, why are gas prices still climbing?
Let me explain…
More Oil Doesn't Necessarily Mean Lower Prices
But first I need to clear the record about what this new largess in unconventional oil actually means. Then I'll identify the two primary causes of higher gas prices, along with a third catalyst that is waiting in the wings.
Now it is quite true that the main element in the cost of refined products remains the price of crude oil. However, the reason America became so dependent upon foreign imports in the first place is that they were cheaper.
It was simply less expensive to produce abroad and transport than it was to extract from the declining conventional oil base inside the U.S.
By the time we reached the point where 68% of our daily oil needs were being met by imports, U.S. domestic production was largely coming from mature fields in what was rapidly becoming one of the most expensive places in the world to extract oil.
At the time, more than 60% of all daily U.S. production was coming from stripper wells. On average, these wells provide fewer than 10 barrels of oil a day while bringing up 15 to 20 barrels of water for each barrel of the crude.
Shale and tight oil is now completely changing that dynamic, although there are indications the cost of production is beginning to move up. Nonetheless, the financial attraction of importing has appreciably declined (along with a welcome rise in the security of supply).
By 2025, the U.S. is now projected to have cut its daily import needs by more than half from the highpoint only a few years ago. Only about 30% of that requirement will need to be imported. Additionally, just about all of the volume sourced will be coming in from Canada.
So that should allow us to parlay the newfound subsurface wealth into lower overall refiner product prices, right?
Well, in a single word, no.
First, while one side of the trading scale (imports) may be declining, the other (exports) is rising… and fast. Today, American refineries are now leading the world in the export of oil products, especially when it comes to gasoline and diesel.
Now, it's true. We do have fewer refineries than we had 20 years ago, but the aggregate production capacity has actually improved thanks to technological advances and increases in refining capacity at the remaining plants.
These refineries are also processing a larger cut of crude passing through them, and in many cases have been refurbished to process heavier grades of crude. This latter point becomes especially important with the oil sands product moving down from Canada.
About the Author
Dr. Kent Moors is an internationally recognized expert in oil and natural gas policy, risk assessment, and emerging market economic development. He serves as an advisor to many U.S. governors and foreign governments. Kent details his latest global travels in his free Oil & Energy Investor e-letter. He makes specific investment recommendations in his newsletter, the Energy Advantage. For more active investors, he issues shorter-term trades in his Energy Inner Circle.