The price of Brent crude fell below $50 a barrel for the first time since May 2009, and while E&P companies scale back their operations and watch profit margins shrink, throughput at refineries is approaching record-breaking levels.
In the first week of December, domestic refiners processed approximately 16.6 million barrels of crude oil per day, the most since 1989 according to Energy Information Administration (EIA) data. Operating rates also rose above 95% for the first time since 2005, resulting in an increased supply of gasoline and lower prices at the pump for American consumers.
Downstream oil and gas sector profitability is inversely correlated with crude prices. As global oil markets continue to slide, it becomes cheaper for refiners to manufacture petrochemical-related products such as gas, diesel, and jet fuel. In the coming months, many analysts expect downstream players’ earnings to outperform the U.S. equity market, and as many large corporations who’ve added refining assets to their portfolio are discovering during this downturn (e.g., Exxon, Chevron), having an integrated business model pays off.
The question that many within the industry are now asking is how long refineries can stay ahead of plummeting crude. There’s typically a lag period between oil price fluctuations and what Americans end up paying at the pump, and if gas prices fall too far, refiners will start to see diminishing returns.
In the current market, downstream companies can continue to be profitable, but whether crude prices will drop enough for that not to be the case is still something that remains to be seen.