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US gasoline exports to Mexico hit record high on refinery issues, strong demand

Houston — Mexico's record-low refinery production and growing consumer demand helped push US gasoline exports there to a new high in October, a trend that has boosted prices in both countries.

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Gasoline exports to Mexico climbed 1.86 million barrels to 12.08 million barrels in October, according to US Energy Information Administration data released Friday, the highest total since that data started being tracked in 1993. The previous peak was 11.42 million barrels in December 2010.

Mexico is by far the largest importer of US gasoline, taking in 45.8% of the 177.4 million barrels of finished gasoline the US exported through October of this year.

That export demand has pushed prices to unseasonably strong levels in the US Gulf Coast, which typically sees demand weaken during the fall and winter months.

The outright price for Gulf Coast pipeline-delivered conventional gasoline was assessed at $1.7098/gal Thursday, its highest price since August 18, 2015. Conventional gasoline is the main grade exported to Mexico, as it does not require ethanol blending.

"I think [Mexico has] come to accept the fact that it makes more sense to import products from more efficient refineries right next to them on the Gulf Coast than to keep wasting money on their own inefficient system," said John Auers, executive vice president at refinery consultants Turner, Mason & Co.

The main issue plaguing Mexico's 1.6 million b/d refining capacity is "chronic underinvestment in downstream investments over the years," said Luis Miguel Labardini, a partner of Mexico City-based Marcos y Asociados consultancy. Another hurdle is the difficulty in processing the heavy sour crude the country produces.

Mexico's refined product production is at its lowest point since Pemex started tracking the data in 1995, despite domestic sales climbing to a record high. Refinery production has averaged 1.137 million b/d through November 2016, including 332,900 b/d of gasoline, while the country's domestic sales of gasoline were 821,500 b/d during the same period.

That inability to meet growing domestic demand with its own production has forced Mexico to increase more expensive imports, driving up its own prices.

On Tuesday, Mexico's Energy Regulatory Commission announced that the nation's average retail regular gasoline price would climb to 15.99 pesos/liter starting January 1, a 20.1% increase from the December level.

The commission said the jump was "due to the increase in international fuel prices and does not involve any modification or creation of taxes."

"They have a real problem," a market source said. "Product outages, and their infrastructure does not support the volume of imports they currently require."

The port of Tuxpan on Mexico's East Coast is the main import location, which a source said is under pressure from the steady stream of Gulf Coast barrels imported from both term and spot purchases. There is a project already underway to expand the delivery terminal and storage capacity at Tuxpan, one of a handful of private-sector projects announced after Mexico's 2014 energy reforms.

Mexico also launched its first open season for refined products pipelines and storage facilities on December 20. Pemex currently has 959,000 barrels of refined products storage capacity, and 267,000 b/d of capacity in its pipelines.

--Joshua Brown,

--Beth Brown,

--Edited by Annie Siebert,