US seaborne oil exports hit record high for fifth consecutive month

The following is text of a news release from BIMCO:

(LONDON) — U.S. exports of crude oil have, since August 2018, continued to rise every month, with a new record high in January of 9.6 million tonnes. Exports rose in January on the back of increased sales to Europe, which rose from 2.7 million tonnes in December to 4.8 million tonnes in January.

A strong end to 2018 meant that volumes for the full year totaled 87.4 million tonnes, 96.7 percent higher than the 44.4 million tonnes exported in 2017. This is good news for the crude oil tanker sector, with an additional 143 VLCC loads (300,000 dwt) or 287 Suezmax loads (150,000 dwt) needed in 2018 compared to 2017.

In January, the Netherlands was the largest importer of U.S. crude oil, beating Canada even when considering total and not just seaborne exports. South Korea, the biggest importer of seaborne crude oil exports in 2018, fell to fourth place in January 2019. Until the summer of 2018, China was the largest, accounting for 23.3 percent of all seaborne exports in the first six months of 2018, took nothing in January.

“Although small volumes of U.S. crude oil were sent to China in November and December, following a three-month pause in the trade, BIMCO did not take this as a sign that tensions between the two countries had eased, and were therefore not surprised by the lack of exports to China in January. A positive outcome from the ongoing trade negotiations is needed if this trade is to return to levels seen before the trade war,” said Peter Sand, BIMCO’s chief shipping analyst.

Although volumes were record high in January, tonne mile demand dropped following a record-breaking peak in December. U.S. seaborne crude oil volumes generated 83.8 billion tonne miles in December, falling 19.7 percent to 67.3 billion in January, still over twice as many as in January 2017.

A drop in the share of exports to Asia meant that average sailing distances were shorter. Exports to Asia fell from 4.9 million tonnes in December to 3.2 million tonnes in January, with a large drop from South Korea (2.3 million tonnes in December to 0.8 million tonnes in January). After China stopped buying U.S. crude oil when the two nations’ relationship soured, South Korea bought much of the crude oil that would otherwise have gone to China. Exports to South Korea rose by 318 percent compared to 2017, making it the largest buyer of seaborne crude oil in 2018. This limited the impact of the trade war on tonne mile demand for the crude oil tanker market.

“The importance of Asia cannot be underestimated when considering how U.S. crude oil exports impact the shipping industry. In 2018, 71.5 percent of tonne mile demand generated by U.S. crude oil exports originated from exports to Asia. The sudden drop in exports to Asia in January was therefore particularly harmful to the crude oil tanker shipping industry. VLCC earnings rose to 53,121 USD per day in November, when vessels are being fixed for the following month, before falling again in January when tonne mile demand dropped,” said Sand.

From Houston to the Netherlands, a ship has to sail around 5,000 nautical miles, while a trip from Houston to South Korea is around 15,500 nautical miles, tripling the distance and employing crude oil tankers for much longer.

By Professional Mariner Staff