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Largest U.S. refiner Valero now permanently shutting capacity

Valero Energy has just announced it is shutting down its Delaware City Refinery.  This is a major news announcement because refiners should be seen as a canary in the coalmine for end-user demand and Valero is one company in the oil patch which has been loath to cut workers to improve the bottom line. This announcement is an indicator that, despite a technical recovery, the economy still has major obstacles to overcome.

Business Wire reports:

Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE: VLO) announced today it intends to permanently shut down its Delaware City refinery due to financial losses caused by very poor economic conditions, significant capital spending requirements and high operating costs. The shutdown will affect approximately 550 employees at the plant.

Valero notified refinery employees today of the impending shutdown, and will immediately begin negotiations with the refinery’s unions regarding the effects of the plant closure and the employees’ severance packages. A safe and orderly shutdown of the refinery will commence immediately. Valero remains committed to its marketing businesses in the Northeast and will continue to reliably supply its customers, partially through higher throughput rates at the company’s other refineries.

“The decision to permanently close the Delaware City refinery was a very difficult one,” said Valero Chairman and CEO Bill Klesse. “We have spent the last year diligently trying to avoid this situation, and I have worked closely with Gov. Markell in an effort to find a different outcome. Earlier this fall, we shut down the gasifier and coking operations in an attempt to improve reliability and financial performance, but the refinery’s profitability did not improve enough. Additionally, we have sought a buyer for the refinery, but feasible opportunities have not materialized. At this point, we have exhausted all viable options.

“We realize that the decision to close the refinery affects many employees, their families, and the community. We are thankful to our employees for their service, and we will treat them fairly during this difficult period.”

In the fourth quarter of 2009, the company expects to report a pre-tax charge of approximately $1.7 billion to $1.8 billion, or $2.00 to $2.15 per share after taxes, related primarily to asset impairment, employee severance and other shutdown costs. The company estimates the cash portion of the pre-tax charge will be in the range of $125 million to $150 million. The current and historical financial results of the affected operations will be shown as discontinued operations in the company’s financial statements.

The new CEO Bill Klesse came to Valero via Ultramar Diamond Shamrock (UDS), which Valero acquired at the top of the market in 2001. So, company ethos may be different than under Bill Greehey who was very committed to community. And Delaware City is an old Getty/Shell-Motiva oil refinery and a legacy asset of Blackstone-controlled Premcor, the company run by former Tosco head and Salomon Brothers commodities trader Tom O’Malley. So, it was not core to Valero’s operations. Valero already cut staff there in September. And the Shell-Motiva JV had serious operating difficulties with the asset before offloading it to Premcor.

Nevertheless, this was a refinery which has been upgraded significantly to process less expensive heavy, sour crude oil. The fact that Valero is laying off workers and shuttering the entire site tells you that the situation is bad. They are saying in effect “we cannot continue to operate at a loss through this business cycle.” If Valero can’t make money, no oil refiner can.

I see this in a macro context as a sign of cyclically weak end-user demand.  I do think peak oil is for real but the world is awash in oil and oil products right now.  Witness the recent post by FT Alphaville’s Izabella Kaminska, which points to a glut of distillate entering the season of high distillate demand:

We feel it’s Olivier Jakob at Petromatrix who really expressed the matter best on Friday. As he wrote (emphasis FT Alphaville’s):

As per our Tuesday ad hoc note on floating stocks; on a crude equivalent basis all of the OPEC and half of the IEA estimated oil demand growth for 2010 is already parked at anchor in floating stocks and these idled cargoes filled with oil are getting more and more attention.

By the end of the winter there is likely to be as much distillates afloat as in the total US at the end of winter 2007 and we expect that it will be more and more difficult for some of the Wall Street commodity banks to avoid mentioning the subject and to continue to hide the floating storage fill-up as “demand from emerging economies”.

The ICE Gasoil contango is currently widening and this will not work towards the reduction of these floating stocks. In an environment of spare refining capacity the only solver to the growing floating stocks of Distillates is a sharp reduction in OPEC supplies [ahem…Daily Mail], but only lower prices would trigger that.

The only answer that we see to GOD (Glut of Distillate) is a flat price correction sharp enough to force more OPEC supply cuts.Starting 2010 with WTI at 80+$/bbl and a contango in a low demand environment there will not be much returns to be expected from commodities by some of the largest financial institutions; hence with the evidence of the GOD being harder and harder to hide we would not be surprised if in a few weeks some of the Wall Street commodity banks start to change their tune and start to publicize the GOD. A flat price correction would anyway be needed in the first quarter to allow a repositioning from the large financial players at better entry levels.

Which, of course, doesn’t mean banks have been hoarding oil in a bid to drive the prices up. It means, if anything, they’ve been too slow to acknowledge the extent of the oversupply in the market and degree of muted demand, as well as depended too much on the idea that economic recovery will help spur demand by the year’s end.

Meanwhile, as Jakob states, the solution to the glut lies in Opec shut-ins — not more output.

The fact that oil is trading at $80 a barrel in this climate should tell you that it is trading more as a financial asset than on supply/demand imbalances. Is this why Warren Buffett is buying yet more oil assets? Watch refining margins; they are telling indicators.

Disclosure: I have owned owned shares and call options in Valero and other refiners for a number of years, but I sold all positions in 2007.

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.

11 Comments

  1. Dr. Duru says:

    In the short-term, yes, this is a deflationary indicator. However, once gasoline demand starts to surge again (as it will eventually), this capacity destruction will cause gasoline prices to rise much faster than anyone might expect. So, I would be more concerned with higher gasoline prices over the longer horizon.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Can you please expand on the Warren Buffett comment? I’m not sure that I follow it.

    • Warren Buffet has been buying shares in oil companies (principally Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips). This suggests he thinks oil is a (long-term?) good investment. Why he is investing and whether these are longer-term bets is still unclear.