LONDON (Reuters) - Traders are chasing gasoline and diesel cargoes and drawing volumes away from Europe to prepare for a particularly heavy round of refinery works around the world.
The buying spree has soaked up fuel even as many refineries have been running flat out, while the surge in demand has sent tankers on unusually erratic routes.
This has underpinned a bullish oil market that has pushed crude prices to two-year highs.
Buyers from Venezuela to Singapore, still recovering from the loss of millions of barrels in U.S. refining in the autumn due to Hurricane Harvey, are now grappling with upcoming refinery closures for repairs in the Middle East.
With Latin America’s own refineries running at a fraction of capacity due to lack of maintenance, the region has been taking much of the diesel coming from the U.S. Gulf Coast.
To compensate, U.S. East Coast buyers have pulled in diesel cargoes that had been destined for Europe, including one siphoned from a 2-million-barrel vessel that was built to carry crude from Asia.
“Demand has come in stronger than people anticipated,” said Robert Campbell, head of oil products research with Energy Aspects, adding that the increase in demand for products stocks in advance of early-year maintenance came faster than expected.
In the past, diesel cargoes rarely left Europe, a region that imports nearly 20 percent of its needs and which traders till recently termed a “dumping ground” for the fuel. But exports have surged from Europe since Hurricane Harvey.
Gasoil stocks in independent storage in Europe’s Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp hub held near three-year lows below 2 million tonnes this week even as winter demand for heating fuel looms. At that level, stocks are 42 percent lower than the 2017 high hit in May and about half the record hit last year.
Total ARA stocks also hit their lowest this year as gasoline heads out of Europe. Data from industry monitor Genscape shows 3.6 million tonnes of gasoline and reformate, a component used to make the motor fuel, left Europe for China, Singapore and the Middle East in the past two months.
By some estimates shipments are at least 20 percent above the same period last year. Several traders said roughly 1 million barrels per day loaded in the past week alone, bound for the Middle East and Far East.
“That’s a ridiculous volume of exports,” one trader said.
Iranian gasoline production shortages forced Iran to import more cargoes. But buying is mainly being driven by refinery maintenance work planned for first quarter of 2018, particularly in Saudi Arabia, said Campbell and several traders.
“We’re talking about a very large amount of crude capacity that’s coming off,” Campbell said, adding it would lead the Middle East region to continue importing into early next year.
Demand for gasoline cargoes is keeping stocks from building significantly, even though refineries worldwide are running at more than 96 percent of capacity, their highest in more than three years, according to estimates by analysts JBC.
“Inventories for gasoline and diesel have fallen significantly, and we see the market as having rebalanced from this perspective,” JBC said.
“Together with little spare capacity and still-strong demand, we expect relatively erratic movements in cracks to keep market participants on their toes,” the firm added.
Additional reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar; Editing by Edmund Blair and David Evans