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Washington — Higher global demand for lighter crudes will boost prices by $2/b next year as shippers comply with the January 1 marine sulfur cap, but the price impact will dissipate as the market adjusts, US Energy Information Administration chief Linda Capuano told Congress on Tuesday.

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At the same time, EIA sees downward price pressure on crude and refined products as slower global economic growth trims oil demand growth and expands oil inventories, Capuano told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

While Capuano testified that implementation of the International Maritime Organization's 0.5% sulfur limit would have relatively muted price impacts, she said many unknowns remain about how global shipping and refining industries will respond.

"In the short term, smaller, more remote ports may face logistical and fuel availability issues compared with larger, more active ports," she said. "However, we believe that supply patterns will evolve over time, and shipowners will adjust to potential short-term dislocations of fuel."

EIA expects Brent crude to average $60.51/b in 2020, up from an expected 2019 average of $63.93/b. Brent averaged $71.19/b in 2018.


Capuano said current high refining margins are driving global refiners to maximize low-sulfur distillate fuel output.

"Much of the US refinery capacity, in particular, is well-positioned to produce low-sulfur diesel fuel," which will push utilization rates above 90%, Capuano said.

US refinery utilization is expected to rise from 90% in the first quarter of 2020 to 95% in Q2, before falling to 92% in Q4, EIA said Tuesday in its Short-Term Energy Outlook.

The looming shipping rules have caused the premium for low-sulfur fuel oil to spike in recent months, Capuano told Congress.

The spread between low- and high-sulfur residual fuels at New York Harbor widened to $41.15/b so far in December from $16.73/b July, according to S&P Global Platts assessments.

"EIA forecasts that demand for high-sulfur residual fuel oil in the bunkering market will shift to low-sulfur alternatives as a result of the IMO specification change," EIA said in its STEO report. "To prepare for this demand shift, ship operators have started to replace their high-sulfur fuel oil stores with low-sulfur fuels, which has contributed to the increase in the differential between low- and high-sulfur residual fuel oil."


On US retail oil product prices, Capuano said price premiums for low-sulfur fuels would be offset by lower crude prices next year. "As a result we expect the 2020 gasoline and diesel retail prices at the pump to be similar to those in 2019," she said.

EIA projected US retail gasoline prices would average $2.56/gal in 2020, down from $2.60/gal in 2019, with retail diesel at $3.09/gal in 2020, up from $3.06/gal in 2019.

Capuano said higher global demand for lighter crudes as a result of the IMO rules will contribute to the trend of rising US net oil exports. The country flipped from a net oil importer in September.

Asked what role LNG will play in the transformation of the global shipping fleet, Capuano said shipowners essentially face three options for complying with the IMO rules: buy low-sulfur fuel made from light sweet crudes, buy a scrubber that converts high-sulfur fuel, or buy an LNG-powered ship.

"It really becomes a question of getting the right fuel to the right place at the right time," she said. "Shipping routes will adjust over time."

-- Meghan Gordon,

-- Edited by Jim Levesque,

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The US Oil Policy Podcast: Weekly analysis of US oil policy news from our senior editors covering the Capitol.