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Short-Term Energy Outlook

Release Date: April 9, 2019  |  Next Release Date: May 7, 2019  |  Full Report    |   Text Only   |   All Tables   |   All Figures

Summer Fuels Outlook

EIA’s Summer Fuels Outlook focuses on prices and consumption of gasoline, diesel, and electricity (see the motor gasoline table and electricity table). Consumption of these fuels typically peaks during the summer months.

Gasoline and Diesel

U.S. Motor Gasoline: EIA defines April through September as the summer season for gasoline and diesel use in the United States. EIA expects the retail price of regular-grade gasoline will average $2.76 per gallon (gal) during summer 2019, down from an average of $2.85/gal last summer. Gasoline prices are forecast to be lower this summer compared with last year primarily because Brent crude oil prices are expected to average $7 per barrel (b) lower than last summer. Monthly average retail prices of gasoline are forecast to increase from an average of $2.74/gal in April to a summer peak of $2.83/gal in June before gradually falling to $2.66/gal by September.

Daily and weekly national average prices of gasoline can differ significantly from monthly and seasonal averages. Significant differences also exist across U.S. regions, with monthly average prices in some areas exceeding the national average price by 50 cents/gal or more. Unplanned refinery outages or other disruptions to supply can also lead to regional product prices rising higher than forecast levels. EIA forecasts average summer retail gasoline prices to range from a high of $3.27/gal in the West Coast, Petroleum Administration for Defense District (PADD) 5, $2.51/gal in the Gulf Coast (PADD 3).

Because gasoline taxes and retail distribution costs are generally stable, movements in U.S. gasoline and diesel prices are primarily the result of changes in crude oil prices and wholesale margins.

EIA forecasts that the Brent crude oil spot price will average $67/b ($1.60/gal) this summer, compared with an average of $75/b ($1.78/gal) last summer. Any difference between actual crude oil prices and EIA’s forecast would likely be directly reflected in the retail price of fuel at the pump. Consequently, absent other factors specific to the gasoline and diesel fuel markets, each dollar per barrel of sustained price change in crude oil compared with the forecast translates into a 2.4-cent-per-gallon change in product prices.

EIA expects U.S. wholesale gasoline margins (the difference between the wholesale price of gasoline and the Brent crude oil price) will average 41 cents/gal this summer, which would be 6 cents/gal higher than last summer and 4 cents/gal lower than the five-summer (2014–18) average. EIA forecasts gasoline margins to be lower than the five-summer average as a result of EIA’s expectation that gasoline inventories will generally remain higher than the five-summer average.

U.S. gasoline margins were low for the first two months of 2019. Gasoline inventories in the United States and other major petroleum product storage hubs, such as Singapore and Europe’s Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) hub, began 2019 at the highest levels in more than five years. The high inventory levels globally suggest that gasoline production had been outpacing consumption. As a result, the wholesale to gasoline margin averaged 7 cents/gal in January, the lowest margin for that month since 2014. However, gasoline inventories in both the United States and ARA have fallen back within the five-year range, according to the most recent data. Falling inventory levels have put significant upward pressure on gasoline margins recently, with March margins averaging an estimated 34 cents/gal. In 2019, the increase from February to March was the largest increase in gasoline margins for over that period in a data set going back to 1994, but margins in March were still 3 cents/gal lower than the five-year average for that month.

The market’s expectation of uncertainty in monthly average gasoline prices is reflected in the pricing of futures and options contracts. New York Harbor reformulated blendstock for oxygenate blending (RBOB) futures contracts for July 2019 delivery that were traded during the five-day period ending April 4 averaged $1.89/gal. The probability, calculated based on prices for futures contracts and implied volatility of options, that the RBOB futures price will exceed $2.25/gal (roughly consistent with a U.S. average regular gasoline retail price higher than $3.00/gal) in July 2019 is 6%. Using the same methodology, the probability that the RBOB futures price will fall lower than $1.75/gal (roughly consistent with a U.S. average regular gasoline retail price lower than $2.50/gal) is 28%.

Over the course of 2019, EIA forecasts that the average regular-grade gasoline retail price will be $2.60/gal, and gasoline retail prices for all grades will average $2.71/gal. These prices would result in the average U.S. household spending almost $100 less on motor fuel in 2019 compared with 2018. This decrease would be the first annual decrease in motor fuel expenditures in three years.

For summer 2019, EIA forecasts U.S. motor gasoline consumption will average 9.54 million barrels per day (b/d), up 29,000 b/d (0.3%) compared with last summer’s level and nearly the same as the record summer average set in 2017. Highway travel is forecast to be 1.3% higher than last summer. The forecast increase in highway travel is largely because of growth in employment and population. The effect of the increase in highway travel is forecast to be partially offset by a 1.0% increase in fleet-wide vehicle fuel efficiency.

Finished motor gasoline is supplied by four sources: domestic refinery output, fuel ethanol blending, imports of gasoline and gasoline blending components, and withdrawals from primary inventories. EIA expects that domestic refinery production, including gasoline blendstock output, will be 80,000 b/d higher this summer than last summer. Fuel ethanol blending into gasoline this summer is projected to increase by 19,000 b/d from last summer’s level to 970,000 b/d, which would be nearly 10.2% of total gasoline consumption. Forecast total gasoline net exports (including blending components) are up by 92,000 b/d from last summer’s level. If this forecast for net exports is realized, it would mark the first time the United States was a net exporter of gasoline on average for a summer since 1960. EIA expects the rate of gasoline stock withdrawals to be 22,000 b/d higher than last summer, when gasoline stocks were largely unchanged. With higher anticipated withdrawals of gasoline stocks, stocks are expected to end the summer driving season about 3% lower than last summer. However, gasoline stocks are still expected to end the summer higher than the five-year average.

At the beginning of the summer driving season, on April 1, 2019, U.S. gasoline stocks totaled 236.1 million barrels, 3.5 million barrels less than a year ago but 0.6 million barrels more than the five-year average for beginning-of-season stocks. This summer, EIA forecasts that the total gasoline stock draw will average 22,000 b/d. EIA forecasts total gasoline inventories to end the summer at 232.0 million barrels, 7.6 million barrels lower than last year’s level at that time but 6.4 million barrels higher than the five-year average. Stock withdrawals have become an increasingly significant source of motor gasoline supply for the summer season in recent years, having averaged 59,000 b/d during the summers of 2013–17. However, withdrawals averaged close to zero last summer when strong refinery output and falling demand left inventories largely unchanged.

Diesel fuel: EIA expects consumption of distillate fuel, which includes diesel fuel and heating oil, to average 4.1 million b/d this summer. This level would be up 24,000 b/d from last summer’s consumption and would be the highest summer distillate consumption since 2007. For all of 2018, distillate demand growth was the second highest of any year since 1977. Last year’s growth was driven by a combination of more economic growth, industrial output, international trade activity, and oil and natural gas drilling activity. All of these factors contributed to more trucking activity. Based on macroeconomic forecasts from IHS Markit and EIA’s crude oil and natural gas production forecast, EIA expects growth in all of those areas again this summer, but at a more moderate pace, contributing to the slower forecast distillate demand growth.

Distillate fuel is supplied by four sources: domestic refinery output, biodiesel blending, withdrawals from primary inventories, and imports. EIA expects refinery output of distillate fuel will average 5.4 million b/d this summer, up 117,000 b/d from last summer. Biodiesel production is forecast to average 139,000 b/d this summer, up almost 17,000 b/d from last summer. Projected net exports of distillate fuel average 1.3 million b/d this summer, up about 71,000 b/d from last summer.

EIA estimates that distillate inventories started the summer at 127.8 million barrels. This level is slightly lower than the 130.4 million barrels recorded at the start of last summer and 9.4 million barrels lower than the five-year average. Distillate inventories typically build during the summer season in preparation for the winter heating season. This summer, EIA forecasts that the build will average about 51,000 b/d, up from the 36,000 b/d build recorded last summer and higher than the five-year average summer build of 33,000 b/d. Forecast end-of-summer stocks are 137.2 million barrels, similar to the 137.1 million barrels recorded at the end of last summer and 6.1 million barrels lower than the five-year end-of-summer average.

EIA’s forecast wholesale diesel fuel margins average 48 cents/gal this summer, 5 cents/gal higher than last summer’s level and 8 cents/gal higher than the previous five-summer average. Diesel margins are forecast to be higher than in recent years because of the continuing growth in both U.S. and global distillate consumption.

Despite higher wholesale diesel prices as a result of increasing refining margins, lower crude oil prices are expected to drive forecast retail diesel prices lower this summer compared with last year. EIA forecasts that diesel fuel retail prices will average $3.09/gal this summer, down from an average of $3.22/gal last summer but still higher than the five-year average of $2.95/gal.

One source of uncertainty for diesel markets during the summer of 2019 is preparations in the global refining and shipping industries for the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) new regulations (IMO 2020) that limit the sulfur content in marine fuels to 0.5% by weight, a reduction from the previous limit of 3.5%. EIA forecasts that adjustments required by market participants to comply with IMO 2020 will put upward pressure on diesel refining margins. Although EIA anticipates that global petroleum markets will be most acutely affected by the new IMO regulation during 2020, some effects could become apparent in mid-to-late 2019. The timing and magnitude of the effects resulting from IMO 2020 are highly uncertain.

Electricity: For electricity consumption and generation, EIA considers the summer period to run from June through August. Both consumption and generation of electricity in the United States typically peak in July or August, primarily because of widespread air conditioning use in the residential and commercial sectors. One proxy measure of electricity consumption for space cooling is cooling degree days. According to forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. cooling degree days from June through August this summer will be 9% lower than last summer and 3% lower than the 10-summer (2009–18) average.

EIA expects the typical U.S. residential customer will use an average of 1 ,026 kilowatthours of electricity per month this summer, about 5% less than the same period last year, as a result of cooler forecast temperatures. This summer’s temperatures are forecast to be cooler than last summer throughout all regions of the United States. Summer-over-summer changes in average household electricity usage range from 2% less consumption in the South Atlantic states to 9% less consumption in West South Central states.

EIA expects the average U.S. residential electricity price from June through August, 2019, to be about 2% higher than last summer, primarily as a result of higher generation fuel costs. Prices are expected to be higher this summer in all regions of the country except the Middle Atlantic. Forecast price changes range from a decrease of 0.5% in the Middle Atlantic Census division to a 4.2% increase in the West North Central States.

For total customer bills across most regions of the country, EIA’s lower expected electricity usage more than offsets EIA’s forecast higher electricity prices. As a result, EIA expects average residential electricity bills will be slightly lower this summer compared with last summer. EIA forecasts the typical U.S. residential electricity bill will average $137 per month this summer, which is 3.5% less than last summer. The typical customer’s summer electricity bill varies throughout the country, depending on the need for air conditioning. In the Pacific states, electricity bills are forecast to average $119 per month (4.5% lower than last summer), and in the East South Central area, forecast bills average $157 per month (2.4% lower than last summer).

Lower expected consumption of electricity this summer contributes to EIA’s forecast of lower U.S. total generation by utility-scale power plants—averaging 12.7 terawatthours per day during June, July, and August, which is 1.9% lower than average U.S. generation last summer.

Natural gas fuels the largest share of generation by the electric power sector, supplying a forecast 40% of total U.S. generation this summer, up from 39% last summer. In contrast, coal-fired power plants are forecast to supply 25% of total electricity generation compared with 28% last summer.

EIA’s summer forecast increase in natural gas-fired generation and forecast decline in coal generation are a result of two factors. First, EIA expects the average price of natural gas for power generation this summer will be 15% lower than last summer, while it expects coal prices will rise by 2%. A second reason is the change in the mix of generating capacity. An estimated 13.9 gigawatts (GW) of new natural gas generating capacity has come online or is scheduled to come online in the 12 months ending August 2019. Offsetting this new capacity is 5.4 GW of coal-fired capacity that is expected to retire during the same period.

Nuclear power fuels a forecast 18% share of generation, the same as last summer. The share of generation from conventional hydropower is forecast to be 6% this summer, which is up slightly from last summer. Renewable energy sources other than hydropower are forecast to contribute 10% of total summer generation, up from 9% last year. Most of the growth in summer renewables comes from wind power, which is expected to have about 10 GW of new capacity added during the 12 months ending August 2019.

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