Across much of the U.S. Facilities in the Midwest are about 70 percent full, while the East Coast is at about 85 percent capacity. This has some analysts beginning to wonder if the U.S. has enough room to store all its oil. Ed Morse, the global head of commodities research at Citigroup, raised that concern on Feb. 23 at an oil symposium hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “The fact of the matter is, we’re running out of storage capacity in the U.S.,” he said.
If oil supplies do overwhelm the ability to store them, the U.S. will likely cut back on imports and finally slow down the pace of its own production, since there won’t be anywhere to put excess supply. Prices could also fall, perhaps by a lot. Morse and his team of analysts at Citigroup have predicted that sometime this spring, as tanks reach their limits, oil prices will again nosedive, potentially all the way to $20 a barrel. With no place to store crude, producers and trading companies would likely have to sell their oil to refineries at discounted prices, which could finally persuade producers to stop pumping.
Oil investors appear to be coming around to the notion that a lack of storage capacity could lead to another price crash. In the futures market, hedge funds have spent the past few weeks cutting their bets that oil prices will rise. Instead, they’ve built up a record short position, increasing their wagers that prices will fall. During a March 11 interview on CNBC, Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn said he’s concerned the U.S. is running out of storage, particularly as refineries enter their seasonal maintenance period, to prepare for the summer driving season. Around this time they usually cut the amount of crude they buy. Cohn said prices could go as low as $30 a barrel.
The math on this can be a bit tricky. The U.S. Department of Energy measures oil storage capacity twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. As of September 2014, the U.S. had 521 million barrels of working capacity, up from 500 million in 2013. That includes the space inside tank farms and on-site at refineries. It doesn’t, however, include the amount of oil that can be stored in pipelines or storage tanks near oil wells; nor does it include the amount of capacity in tankers off the coast, in transit from Alaska, or on trains. Of the 449 million barrels of total crude stocks, about 327 million are stored in tank farms or on-site at refineries.
According to data from the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. is using about 63 percent of its storage capacity, up from 48 percent a year ago. “We have more space than some people tend to believe,” says Andy Lipow, an energy consultant in Houston. The most recent estimate of storage capacity also doesn’t include tanks built since September in North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas, he says.
Running out of room inside the nation’s storage tanks might be the only way to keep companies from pumping more oil. “These producers have kept chugging away when they should have been shutting down,” says Dominick Chirichella, co-president of the Energy Management Institute, a New York-based advisory group. “At some point, the fact that supply is outstripping demand has to have its moment of truth.”