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Houston — The fate of Phillips 66's and Trafigura's planned Bluewater oil export terminal offshore of Corpus Christi, Texas, remains uncertain as the coronavirus pandemic has sapped global crude demand, and caused US production to fall.

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Phillips 66 said June 9 that travel limitations during the pandemic are further delaying the federal licensing process and that a final investment decision from the Houston-based refining giant and Trafigura remains "many months" away. Back in November, the US Maritime Administration suspended the Bluewater application timeline, allowing Phillips 66 more time to submit additional information and analysis.

Trafigura, a global energy trader, joined the Bluewater project as a 50-50 partner in February, opting to abandon its competing Texas Gulf Terminals project.

The update from Phillips 66 comes after MARAD stopped the clock this week on what's considered the leading deepwater project proposal, Enterprise Products Partners' Sea Port Oil Terminal, called SPOT, offshore of Houston. The delayed licensing and market impacts of the pandemic have combined to effectively push the potential completion of SPOT from 2022 to 2023.

As for the Bluewater project, Phillips 66 said the company remains focused on finalizing right-of-way agreements with key landowners, pre-construction engineering and permitting.

"The [Bluewater] joint venture partners believe in the long-term value of this critical energy infrastructure project," Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuss said in a statement. "While we are still many months away from a financial investment decision, we continue to assess its commercial and economic viability despite market uncertainty."

As recently as this spring, Phillips 66 had planned to make a final investment decision by the end of 2020.

RACE ON HOLD

Trafigura, which was the first to propose a deepwater crude exporting terminal in 2018, helped ignite the race to build offshore terminals that could accommodate the biggest crude carriers as US crude production and exports surged. There were a bevy of projects in the works, but some have since been canceled or consolidated.

Apart from Bluewater and SPOT, the only other pending application is from Sentinel Midstream's competing Texas GulfLink project offshore of Houston. Enbridge, for instance, dropped its proposal and partnered with Enterprise on SPOT.

And now the coronavirus pandemic has put that race on hold -- if not canceled the race outright. Already, US crude exports in 2020 have fallen from a high of 4.38 million b/d for the week ending March 13 down to 2.44 million b/d for the week ending June 5, according to the US Energy Information Administration. And analysts project crude exports to further plunge in the coming months, as buyers will likely first turn to the roughly 175 million barrels of crude currently sitting in floating storage.

The Bluewater project would be built in deep enough waters to fully load VLCCs to transport crude oil around the world. For now, VLCCs in the area can only partially load at onshore docks and then fill up the rest of the way offshore from other ships in a process called lightering.

Thus far, only one Gulf of Mexico port, Louisiana's LOOP, can fully load VLCCs currently without lightering from smaller ships.

Bluewater, as proposed, would be capable of loading almost 2 million b/d from its offshore position about 21 nautical miles east of the entrance to the Port of Corpus Christi. A VLCC can hold close to 2 million barrels of crude.

Despite its initial first mover advantage, Trafigura's Texas Gulf Terminals proposal fell behind in the permitting process and the Port of Corpus Christi vocally sided with supporting the Phillips 66 terminal instead. Rather than see its project die and have it miss out completely, Trafigura instead partnered with its competitor. Energy analysts argued even before the pandemic that there is demand to only serve one deepwater exporting hub in the Corpus region.