Low fuel prices: A Christmas present?

Low fuel prices: A Christmas present?

U.S. crude oil supplies were still swelling as of early November

This year's low gasoline and diesel fuel prices are easing the farm margin squeeze. But what's in the crystal ball for 2016?

For a glimpse, we looked to the independent Oil Price Information Service and Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration for the latest signals. And that signal is: Bottom-side support; upside limit.

While the petroleum industry hopes oil prices will rebound soon, record global stocks suggest low gasoline and diesel prices may stay through winter.

At October's end, U.S. crude oil inventories in commercial storage were still increasing, despite lagging domestic output.

The squeeze on oil refining margins is something corn and dairy farmers can relate to: In November, for instance, refining margins per barrel sold were $6.12 at Tyler, Texas – down from $19.05 in 2014, and $8.71 at El Dorado, Kansas – down from $11.51 a year earlier, according to OPIS

While some oil market watchers expect oil production and its flow to refineries to slow, the International Energy Agency's statistics suggest otherwise. October's American Petroleum Institute report noted oil production and supplies of major products through September grew at a faster rate than demand. And for the first time ever, global oil stocks topped 3 billion barrels.

At October's end, U.S. crude oil inventories in commercial storage were still increasing, despite flagging domestic output. So U.S. producers have cut back. But inventories were still swelling due to lower refinery utilization rates and steady imports.

That's why Ian Taylor, CEO of Vitol, a Rotterdam-based global energy and commodity trading company recently noted he would be surprised if oil prices traded above $60 a barrel in 2016. As of Nov. 3, crude oil averaged $47.90 a barrel.

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Current stock and price trends
Through October, U.S. gasoline and distillate stocks remained well above the three-year average, as tracked by the Energy Information Service. That has kept retail gasoline and diesel fuel prices on the slow slide. Here's a peak at EIA's Nov. 2 numbers:

• The U.S. average for retail gasoline was $2.22 per gallon. (That has since dropped).

• Gulf Coast gas was cheapest, at $1.92 a gallon.

• West Coast gas was highest – even without higher-priced California in the mix – at $2.32.

• East Coast and Midwest gasoline averaged in the middle, at $2.11 and $2.27, respectively.

• U.S. highway-use diesel fuel averaged $2.48 a gallon.

• Gulf Coast retailers posted the lowest diesel prices, at $2.29 a gallon.

• West Coasters posted the highest retail diesel average – again without California – at $2.55.

• East Coast and Midwest retail diesel prices were also in the middle, at $2.49 and $2.52, respectively.

As usual, the seasonal weather cool-down brought a warm-up in in U.S. residential propane prices. They edged higher from $1.90 a gallon a week earlier to $1.92 a gallon for the week ending Nov. 2, according to the EIA. Residential heating oil prices remained at $2.43 a gallon.

The bottom line
Take advantage of current low gasoline, diesel and propane prices while you can. Buy ahead on signs of wholesale market weakness. Track and catch clues to those weaknesses on EIA's weekly updates.

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