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Oil game: paying to park a supertanker

Just when you think things can’t get any weirder, invariably they do. With the world awash in oil, the price of gasoline in these parts rose 20 cents or more in March, and the farmer’s lifeblood, diesel, was up by about 7 cents.

Thanks to the global economy in the toilet, demand for oil is so stagnant that current per barrel prices of near $50 are little more than a third of the $147 peak last summer.

Supplies of natural gas, the key ingredient for nitrogen fertilizer production, are also abundant — current inventories are 218 billion cubic feet above the five-year average and 270 billion cubic feet above a year ago — but while the price for natural gas is down 60 percent or more from a year ago, fertilizer prices haven’t shown corresponding decreases and are still significantly higher than five years ago.

Oil storage facilities within the U.S. are at near capacity, as is the government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the largest stockpile of government-owned emergency crude oil in the world. Nearly three-fourths of the authorized 1 billion barrel capacity is now stored in the four underground storage sites created in salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Supply is so much exceeding demand, even with production cuts by OPEC, that oil companies and traders are trying to capitalize on a situation called “contango” (try dropping that one in dinnertime conversation), which occurs when distant delivery prices for futures are greater than spot prices.

Here’s where it gets creative: They’re leasing giant supertankers, used to transport oil worldwide, filling them, and parking them offshore in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere — at a cost of as much as $75,000 per day.

Each tanker can hold about 2 million barrels, and it’s estimated 80 million barrels of oil are involved in this waiting game. That’s almost enough to supply world demand for one day.

They’re buying the oil at today’s prices and storing it, waiting for demand and price to go up so they can (hopefully) sell at a profit.

While consumers are getting some relief from the $4-plus gasoline prices of last summer, the reprieve hasn’t been the result of crashing demand for oil, but the crashing of the global economy. Had it not been for the banking/fiscal fiasco that wiped out millions of jobs, shut businesses, derailed the housing market, destroyed decades of personal savings, and took the world to the brink of a depression, we’d still be paying through the nose to fill our vehicles.

When the fiscal crisis eases and economies rebound, we may be hit with a double whammy, some analysts are warning. Stronger economies will increase the demand for oil, but needed production capacity may not be there because there wasn’t sufficient investment in new supply during the economic downturn.

The collapse in oil prices could end up cutting the growth in future oil supply in half, compared to what would have been anticipated during the period of high prices, according to a report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, which says 7.6 million barrels per day of potential future net growth may be at risk from 2009 to 2014.

If demand growth is eventually far greater than expected, if low oil prices persist, and if production growth stalls even more than expected, “a new period of tight supply and strongly rising oil prices could mark the next turn in the oil cycle,” the report says.


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