Factors That Influence Refined Products Outputs

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Refinery operations are unique from one facility to the next. Although crude oil is always the input, the outputs from that same barrel of crude oil are variable and depend on a host of different crude oil refining controls.

FOUR FACTORS THAT DETERMINE THE MIX OF CRUDE OIL REFINED PRODUCTS

Each refinery has some degree of control over the mix of products they produce based on these key factors: 

  • TYPE OF CRUDE OIL (CRUDE SLATE)
  • REFINERY CAPABILITIES
  • MARKET DEMAND FOR PRODUCT
  • VARIANCE BY GEOGRAPHY

Let’s dive into how each of these factors affects crude oil outputs and their associated prices.

1. TYPE OF CRUDE OIL

While valuable in their own respect, not all types of crude oil are created equal. Two main subcategories of crude oil exist: light or sweet vs. sour or heavy. An economy’s crude oil refining process will be largely dependent on what kind of crude oil they have available.

Light or sweet crude oil contains far less sulfur than its counterpart, making it easier to manufacture during the refining process. It is known for its quality and is scarce in the marketplace, trading at a premium. Light or sweet crude oil is commonly used to produce large amounts of and ultra-low sulfur gasoline or ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD).

dopple chart showing the quality of U.S. Crude Oil Imports by Foreign Country ranging from the degree the source crude is heavy or light and sweet or sour

Conversely, heavy or sour crude contains higher levels of sulfur. Because it is a “dirtier” type of crude, it is more expensive to refine and requires more specialized equipment. Complex refineries prefer to use heavy or sour crude for the diesel refining process because it leaves room for better margins. This is creating new challenges for refiners amid a changing regulatory landscape.

2. REFINERY CAPABILITIES

The degree to which a refinery can produce each fuel type is dependent on each facility’s capabilities. The type of crude oil available influences what refined products are more economically viable for the refinery to produce, but the refinery operations will ultimately make it possible.

Cleaner burning fuels like Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) or gasoline require more complex operations, whereas “dirty” fuel types do not. As the global crude oil landscape shifts toward cleaner-burning fuels, refineries are pressed to continue to update and innovate within their infrastructure to keep pace.

Investment in technology not only contributes to the type of refined product output, but it also can increase efficiency.

3. MARKET DEMAND FOR PRODUCT

Gasoline and ultra-low sulfur diesel comprise approximately 70 percent of a typical barrel of refined product outputs. For these fuel types, the role of demand and consumer sentiment is heightened, because they tend to be consumer-focused products. This can motivate the mix of a refiner’s slate of finished products depending on its market.

For example, the U.S. refining infrastructure is tailored to produce predominantly gasoline for its highly passenger-vehicle-dependent landscape. In markets with less demand for gasoline, operations would likely trend more towards uses that benefit its specific economic needs—like marine fuels in port cities.

Throughout 2020, unprecedented disruptions have emerged surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) behavior that dramatically influenced crude oil prices, and thus, the refining landscape. For refiners, a market this over-supplied will likely motivate adaptations to capacity, operations, and refined outputs as the market slowly return to normal. 

4. VARIANCE BY GEOGRAPHY

Across the globe, the composition of a barrel of refined products varies based on the above criteria—the type of crude extracted or imported, refining capabilities, and shifting market demand.

The map below highlights the breakdown of refined products for the OPEC nations compared to the United States. Though OPEC is largely recognized for crude oil production, the cartel accounts for approximately 30 percent of global refined product outputs. The pie charts indicate substantial differences in the output of residual fuels, as the lower refinery complexity of OPEC nations results in greater production of heavier, less valuable petroleum products like residuals.

map with associated pie charts that compare U.S. refined products made from crude oil with OPEC outputs. The U.S. output is majority gasoline and distillates, whereas OPEC is more balanced.

Each nation’s product disposition varies greatly, further revealing the uniqueness of each refining region and the price implications that exist.

Understanding refinery operations to understand your transportation budget

Every market for both crude oil and its refined products has unique conditions that influence crude oil prices, diesel prices, gasoline prices, and other products. For transportation managers looking to understand and get ahead of their fuel budgets—for both over-the-road and for marine—identifying the factors that influence fuel prices enables more transparent and proactive budgeting. It also enables your organization to make informed decisions through times of uncertainty. 

Read more about the full suite of refined product outputs made from crude oil here

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