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Why Americans May Pay More for Gasoline This Spring

Gasoline prices could be a bit more costly for U.S. consumers this spring, thanks to the bankruptcy of a European refiner, the industry’s latest casualty.

The U.S. east coast already sees the threat of a temporary spike in gasoline to $4 or more per gallon for the summer driving season and could pay some of the highest prices in the nation, due to the shutdown of refining capacity in that market.

Refining margins have compressed, as oil prices have risen. On top of that, U.S. demand has continued to drop—down about 4 percent in the last quarter so analysts expect any rise in prices in the spring peak season to be temporary.

Over the last several years, the refining industry has moved to shut down about 1 million barrels per day of east coast refining capacity, the latest of which is the St. Croix Hovensa refinery, closing next month.

The bankruptcy filing Tuesday by Swiss-based Petroplus, which operated five refineries or 4 percent of European capacity, adds another uncertainty and illustrates the interconnections within the international refining market.

One of the largest European refiners, Petroplus’ bankruptcy throws into doubt the fate of the two refineries it was still operating—the U.K. Coryton refinery, which serves the London market, and the Ingolstadt, Germany refinery. Petroplus had previously shut three refineries due to credit constraint and was forced to close the remaining two after it failed to get credit.

Barclays analysts, in a note, point out that the Petroplus shutdown on top of other refinery closings “does provide a breather to the otherwise ailing refinery margins and helps to erase almost all of the current 1.5 mb/day overcapacity in the market.”

They note that developing countries, however, are adding refining capacity at a record pace, with China and India adding four million barrels a day this past year.

Petroplus was supplying about 19 percent of the U.K.’s gasoline and 11 percent of its diesel demand, according to Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates.

The U.S., meanwhile, imports about 100,000 barrels per day of gasoline from the U.K. “We’re getting a number of different grades of gasoline from the U.K., many of which end up in the Northeast,” he said. U.S. east coast gasoline demand was about 3.1 million barrels per day in 2010, with imports satisfying about 25 percent.

Lipow said the Petroplus refining system had been supplying Europe with about 250,000 barrels per day of diesel at a time when Europe is importing 500,000 barrels from the U.S.

Barclays analysts, in a note, said the gasoline likely to gain most on the Petroplus shutdown is summer grade RBOB, the reformulated gasoline blend sold in New York harbor. Hovensa was a big producer of that product. RBOB on the Nymex today was barely changed at $2.783 per gallon and was in fact slightly lower Tuesday, but it has risen about 3 percent in the last month.

“I think when you add that (Petroplus) to the Conoco and Sunoco refinery closings, that’s why you’ve seen the gasoline market rally. Tightening supplies have been underpinning the market’s rally,” said Gene McGillian, analyst with Tradition Energy.

McGillian said gasoline demand has been at very low levels, but any increase, like the seasonal demand from summer driving, could put pressure on prices. “If you see any kind of sizeable upswing in gasoline demand, and you have lesser front end capacity putting out gasoline, especially in the Northeast and now from Europe, there’s a good chance any kind of increasing demand is going to cause a price spike,” he said.

Analysts say the seasonal increase should start in mid-March and peak in April or May. According to AAA, the national average for regular gasoline is currently $3.381 per gallon, with some of the highest prices in the Northeast and California.

If the 220,000 bpd Coryton is shut down permanently, its biggest customer British Petroleum will look to source from other refineries. According to wire reports, Europe has sufficient spare capacity, and Essar Energy reportedly agreed to supply at least one major U.K. fuel retailer with products form its Stanlow refinery in northwest England.

PricewaterhouseCooopers is administrator for Petroplus U.K. operations. Lipow said Coryton could be kept open, with a different operator.

“The good news is U.S. demand is four percent lower than this time last year so that helps the supply situation. The bad news is the refining capacity was oversupplied so product prices have to rise to give the refiners better profit margins or otherwise you’ll see more of them going out of business,” said Lipow. “Probably the next expectation is to see refiners going out of business on the west coast.”

Follow Patti Domm on Twitter: @pattidomm

Disclaimer

  • Patti Domm

    Patti Domm is CNBC Executive Editor, News, responsible for news coverage of the markets and economy.

  • A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

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  • JeeYeon Park is a writer for CNBC.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JeeYeonParkCNBC

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