Washington — US Gulf Coast refiners have been increasing their imports of a crude oil residue from Russia in response to both sanctions on Venezuelan crude exports and declining prices of high sulfur fuel oil ahead of International Maritime Organization's revamp of marine fuel sulfur regulations.
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The trend could be complicating plans to ramp up pressure on the Maduro regime with additional sanctions on Venezuelan crude flows, analysts said.
At issue is US imports of residuum, which the US Energy Information Administration defines as a residue from crude oil after distilling off all but the heaviest components, with a boiling range greater than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Residuum is the bottom of the bottom, the thickest of the thick," said Mason Hamilton, a petroleum markets analyst with EIA, who has been tracking the increase in US imports of residuum.
For its import data, EIA groups residuum into the "unfinished oils" category. The US imported an average of 634,000 b/d of unfinished oils through the first 11 months of 2019, according to EIA, up from 611,000 in all of 2018. US imports of unfinished oils climbed as high as 762,000 b/d in October, the highest monthly average since September 2013, when the US imported 770,000 b/d of unfinished oils.
Gulf Coast refiners imported over 192,000 b/d of residuum through the first 11 months of 2019, a 75% increase from 2018 and the highest annual average since 2013, when regional refiners imported 207,000 b/d of residuum, EIA data shows. Residuum imports by Gulf Coast refiners climbed as high as 316,000 b/d in August, according to the EIA.
According to Hamilton, the increase in residuum imports by Gulf Coast refiners is due to both sanctions imposed in January 2019 that prohibited crude and refined product flows between the US and Venezuela, and the lead up to the debut of the IMO regulations, as some refineries looked to counter sinking prices for high sulfur fuel oil.
Many US refiners have been blending residuum with lighter crudes to compensate for declining imports of heavy crude from Iraq and the complete loss of heavy crude from Venezuela. In November, Gulf Coast refiners imported about 1.35 million b/d of heavy crude, compared with 1.96 million b/d in November 2018 and 2.09 million b/d in November 2017.
As residuum imports by Gulf Coast refiners have increased, the amount of the crude residue sourced from Russia has increased too.
According to EIA monthly data, US imports of unfinished oils from Russia averaged 472,000 b/d in November, the most since May 2013, when the same amount of unfinished oils was imported from Russia. Imports of Russian unfinished oils accounted for two-thirds of total unfinished oil imports by the US in November, compared with about one-third of all unfinished oils imports in November 2018, according to EIA.
Gulf Coast refiners' increased reliance on Russian residuum could be one of the factors deterring the Trump administration from imposing sanctions on state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft as it continues to receive Venezuelan crude as debt repayment and sell it to Chinese and Indian buyers.
A senior Trump administration official told S&P Global Platts in August 2019 that the US was prepared to sanction Rosneft if it continued to trade in crude oil and fuel with PDVSA, but analysts said those sanctions have yet to be imposed because of the expected impact they may have on the global oil market.
Administration officials have recently ramped up warnings against Rosneft for its continued support of Maduro.
"As several administration officials have noted, the Russians may soon find that their continued support of Maduro will no longer be cost-free," Elliott Abrams, the US Department of State's special representative for Venezuela, told reporters Thursday.