On Saturday, September 14, 2019, an attack damaged the Saudi Aramco Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Abqaiq oil processing facility is the world’s largest crude oil processing and stabilization plant, with a capacity of 7 million barrels per day (b/d) or about 7% of global crude oil production capacity. On Monday, September 16, the first full day of trading after the attack, Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices experienced the largest single-day price increase in the past decade.
On Tuesday, September 17, Saudi Aramco reported that Abqaiq was producing 2 million b/d, and they expected its entire output capacity to be fully restored by the end of September. In addition, Saudi Aramco stated that crude oil exports to customers will continue by drawing on existing inventories and offering additional crude oil production from other fields. Tanker loading estimates from third-party data sources indicate that loadings at two Saudi Arabian export facilities were restored to the pre-attack levels. Likely driven by news of the expected return of the lost production capacity, both Brent and WTI crude oil prices fell on Tuesday, September 17.
Crude oil prices are the biggest factor for the retail price of gasoline, the most widely consumed transportation fuel in the United States. Each dollar per barrel of sustained price change in crude oil translates to an average change of about 2.4 cents per gallon in petroleum product prices. On Monday, September 16, U.S. average regular retail gasoline prices averaged $2.55 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Update.
EIA estimates that Saudi Arabia was producing 9.9 million b/d of crude oil in August. Estimates from the Joint Organizations Data Initiative (JODI) indicate the country exported 6.9 million b/d during July, the latest month for which data are available. Estimates from a third-party tanker tracking data service, ClipperData, indicate Saudi Arabian crude oil exports in August remained at 6.7 million b/d. Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production and export levels are each 0.5 million b/d lower than their respective 2018 annual averages.
Although U.S. imports of crude oil from Saudi Arabia have declined during the past three years—and recently hit a four-week average record low of 380,000 b/d in the week ending September 6—the United States still imports about 7 million b/d of crude oil. As a result, a tighter global crude oil market and increased global crude oil prices will ultimately increase the price of crude oil and transportation fuels in the United States.
Global inventories of crude oil are the most readily available alternative source of supply during a supply outage. JODI data indicate that Saudi Arabia held nearly 180 million barrels of crude oil in inventory at the end of July 2019. Saudi Arabia can use these inventories to maintain a similar level of crude oil exports as before the attack, assuming the production outage doesn’t last long, which Saudi Aramco indicated in its update on September 17.
As of September 1, commercial inventories of crude oil and other liquids for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members were estimated at 2.9 billion barrels, enough to cover 61 days of its members’ liquid fuels consumption. On a days-of-supply basis, OECD commercial inventories are 2% lower than the previous five-year (2014-18) average.
The United States has two types of crude oil inventories: those that private firms hold for commercial purposes, and those the federal government holds in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) for use during periods of major supply interruption. Weekly EIA data for September 13 indicate total U.S. commercial inventories were equivalent to 24 days of current U.S. refinery crude oil inputs. The SPR holds additional volumes equivalent to slightly more than 37 additional days of current refinery inputs for a total of about 62 days.
The supply coverage provided by oil inventories can also be measured by days of net crude oil imports (imports minus exports). By this metric, as of June 2019, the United States could meet its net import needs by drawing down the SPR for 162 days. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act states the President may make the decision to withdraw crude oil from the SPR should they find that there is a severe petroleum supply disruption. The United States has used the SPR in this capacity three times since its creation: in 1991, at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm; in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina; and in 2011, to help offset crude oil supply disruptions in Libya.
More analysis—particularly of spare capacity available to produce more crude oil—is available in the latest This Week in Petroleum. EIA is closely monitoring the developments related to the oil supply disruption in Saudi Arabia and the effects that they have on oil markets. EIA’s findings will be reflected in the October Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), scheduled for release on October 8.