Ships, trains, caves: Oil traders chase storage space in world awash with fuel

As onshore storage runs out, oil producers, refiners and traders are turning to tankers and floating facilities to hold excess supply. (AFP)
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Updated 23 April 2020

Ships, trains, caves: Oil traders chase storage space in world awash with fuel

  • Desperate brokers weigh up ‘oddball options’ amid plunging global demand

LONDON: Oil traders are struggling to find enough ships, railcars, caverns and pipelines to store fuel as more conventional storage facilities fill up amid abundant supply and plummeting demand due to the coronavirus crisis.

Dozens of oil tanker vessels have been booked in recent days to store at least 30 million barrels of jet fuel, gasoline and diesel at sea, acting as floating storage, as on-land tanks are full or already booked, according to traders and shipping data.

That adds to about 130 million barrels of crude already in floating storage, sources said.

Demand for oil and its products has tumbled as much as 30 percent as governments around the world have told citizens to stay home to prevent the virus spreading — grounding planes and leaving cars parked up. But the world remains awash with oil supplies.

OPEC, Russia and other major producers have forged a deal to curb production, but it will only reduce supply by about 10 percent and it does not kick in until May.

It is hard to gauge the world’s total oil storage capacity, but signs that the limit is being reached are increasingly obvious. Rising sea storage is one indicator, as it is more expensive than storing onshore and can be technically complex.

HIGHLIGHTS

•Traders books dozens of tankers to store oil at sea.

•Tankers with diesel diverted from Europe to US.

• Most European capacity already booked.

Oil producers, refiners and traders are also turning to more unusual tactics, such as storing crude and fuel in railcars in northeastern US or in unused pipelines.

Europe’s northwestern refining and storage hub still has space, but experts say most of the remaining capacity has already been booked.

Salt caverns in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries were either full or fully booked.

“We are now working on the most oddball storage locations, really tough locations where there are operational constraints,” said Krien van Beek, a broker at ODIN — RVB Tank Storage Solutions in Rotterdam.

The US has some refined products storage space left in the area from the mid-Atlantic to the Southeast and along the Gulf Coast, said Ernie Barsamian, CEO of the Tank Tiger, a US terminal storage clearinghouse.

But he said more preferable product storage sites, such as deepwater ports in New York Harbor and Houston, which are close to the demand centers, were no longer available.

“The big tanks where you pull a ship in and empty the whole thing, that’s all gone. What you have is pots and pans,” he said.

In the US, onshore storage tanks are mostly reserved for local refineries which are using railcars to store crude, as well as gasoline and diesel.

“Even the railcars are going to get stacked with product,” said a US-based broker who asked to remain anonymous.

In hubs with a little space left, such as Chicago, tank operators can charge a premium. 

With the market oversupplied, oil prices have plunged to their lowest levels in two decades. This week, US Western Texas Intermediate made an unprecedented dive into negative territory, so sellers had to pay people to take it.

Despite the plummeting crude price, some refineries which are able to find space can still make money producing fuel.

“Margins are OK because there is more flexibility in the products market relative to crude,” a senior official at a European refinery said.

And nimble traders are creating new storage options. Tanker vessels carrying more than
1.5 million barrels of diesel have been diverted in recent days from their European destinations to the New York region to anchor in storage.


‘Dubai will be my new Beirut,’ say grieving Lebanese workers

Updated 13 August 2020

‘Dubai will be my new Beirut,’ say grieving Lebanese workers

  • About 350,000 Lebanese now live and work in the six Gulf nations

DUBAI: Just days after the enormous blast that shattered Beirut, Ali Hammoud found himself looking down on the rubble from an airplane window, leaving behind his family and hometown.

Born and raised in Lebanon’s capital, the 30-year-old IT engineer finally decided to head for Dubai after the explosion destroyed his last hopes of ever seeing Beirut prosper.

“It’s not easy at all, but I had to finally leave. I feel I’ve betrayed the city I love to death, but there is nothing left for me there except depression,” Hammoud said after arriving in the Gulf emirate.

“Now I can start a professional career, live in peace and send money back to my family,” said Hammoud, who had spent a year looking in vain for work before the Aug. 4 disaster that left more than 170 people dead and compounded Lebanon’s financial crisis.

Like many of his compatriots longing for safety and stability, the young man has applied for a job in Dubai. He joins tens of thousands of Lebanese who helped build a glitzy city that reminds them of their parents’ tales of the glamor of old Beirut — but with glimmering skyscrapers instead of Ottoman-era and French colonial villas.

Last week’s explosion of a long-neglected stock of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port ripped through the vibrant coastal city known for its rich history as well as legendary nightlife and cuisine.

The fact that Lebanese officials had long tolerated a ticking time-bomb in the heart of the Mediterranean city has served as proof to many of the rot at the core of the state apparatus.

“My aim is to overcome the guilt of leaving,” said Hammoud. “Dubai will be my new Beirut.”

Long before the explosion, Lebanon was heading downhill fast. The country was mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, with runaway inflation and bank capital controls fueling angry street protests.

Political life in the country has been dominated for three decades by former warlords who exchanged their military fatigues for suits.

Among Sunni Muslim, Christian and myriad other groups, the most powerful force is the Shiite Hezbollah movement.

After years of systematic corruption, unsolved assassination cases, wars with neighboring Israel, and lack of basic services, many Lebanese now see the country’s elite as fighting over the spoils. They are viewed as beholden to their personal and sectarian interests, rather than the good of the nation of 6 million.

“I can’t explain how frustrated I am. I had to leave my country years ago because of those warlords. They stole from us and now they kill us?” said Firas Rachid, a 31-year-old salesman who has lived in Dubai since 2016.

Beirut, once famous for top educational and medical establishments, has lost much of its pre-civil war identity and its reputation as an oasis of enlightenment.

Millions of Lebanese, from doctors to engineers, to teachers and other professions, have emigrated over the years, seeking a better life in the Gulf and beyond.

About 350,000 Lebanese now live and work in the six Gulf nations, more than 100,000 of them in the United Arab Emirates alone, mostly in Dubai.

“Why Dubai? We drive in lanes here, we don’t fear militiamen holding guns to our heads, we have basic services, and we get paid well,” said Rachid. “My parents always describe Beirut as a hub for the region in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but this is exactly what Dubai is now.”

In his book “My Story,” Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum recalls his first visit to Beirut, years before the civil war that brought the “Paris of the Middle East” to its knees.

“In the early 1960s, its streets were clean, neighborhoods beautiful, its markets modern. It was a source of inspiration for me. I had a dream for Dubai to become like Beirut some day,” he wrote.

Decades later, Dubai has become a magnet for millions of Arabs whose countries have been ravaged by poverty and conflict.

Jordanians, Palestinians, Moroccans and others have opted to build their future in the desert city.

It does not have the history or cultural heritage of their homelands, but for many it is a fair tradeoff for peace and financial security.

At a basketball game in Dubai last year between two Lebanese clubs with different sectarian ties, there was no violence, no sectarian chants, only the slogan: “Three, two one! We are one!“