High diesel prices ripple through economy

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Gasoline prices have dropped as much as a dollar a gallon since early summer, easing a financial strain on many people. But the price of diesel, the fuel that moves trucks, trains, barges, tractors and construction equipment, has remained stubbornly high, helping to prop up the prices of many goods and services.

On Thursday, a gallon of diesel fuel in the United States cost $5.36 on average, according to AAA. That was down from a record of $5.82 in June but well above the $3.64 it cost a year ago. (A gallon of regular gasoline averages $3.80 nationally and $3.60 in Minnesota.)

The surge in diesel costs has not garnered the attention from politicians and the public that the jump in gasoline prices did, because most of the cars in the United States run on gas. But diesel prices are a critical source of pain for the economy because they affect the cost of practically every product.

“The economic impact is insidious because everything moves across the country powered by diesel,” said Tom Kloza, the global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service. “It’s an inflation accelerant, and the consumer ultimately has to pay for it.”

Sherri Garner Brumbaugh, the president of Garner Trucking in Findlay, Ohio, said the weekly cost of fueling one of her heavy-duty trucks in September was $1,300, more than double the $600 she paid two years earlier. “A good portion gets passed onto my customers with a fuel surcharge,” she said.

Both gasoline and diesel prices are tied to the price of oil, which is set on the global market. The price of each fuel immediately shot up after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. But their paths have diverged sharply. Over the last year, the cost of diesel has ballooned by over 40%, compared with 11% for gasoline.

Diesel prices are high because the fuel is scarce worldwide, including in the United States, which in recent years became a net exporter of oil and petroleum products. Oil analysts said there were simply not enough refineries to meet the demand for diesel, especially after Russia’s energy exports fell when the United States, Britain and some other countries stopped buying them.

Diesel inventories are always a bit low in the spring and fall, during agricultural planting and harvesting seasons, but this fall supplies are at their lowest level since 1982, when the government began reporting data on the fuel.

The tightest market is in the Northeast, where oil refineries have closed in recent years and where the diesel crunch is complicated by winter demand for heating oil. The two fuels are virtually the same but are taxed differently. An especially cold winter could make the situation worse by increasing the demand for heating oil.

While Russia’s war in Ukraine sent diesel prices soaring, the current situation is partly the result of an interconnected, slow-building series of events that extends across the globe. Some analysts trace the roots of the U.S. diesel shortage to a fire at Philadelphia Energy Solutions in 2019, which forced the refinery to shut down, taking out one of the Northeast’s important diesel producers.

But refineries have been closing elsewhere. Over the last several years, 5% of U.S. refinery capacity, and 6% of European refinery capacity, has been shut down. A few refineries closed or scaled back because of the collapse in energy demand in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Some older refineries were shut down because they were inefficient, and their profits weren’t large enough for Wall Street investors. Other refineries were closed so that their owners could convert them to produce biofuels, which are made from plants, waste and other organic material.

“Because we shut those refineries down, we don’t have enough capacity,” said Sarah Emerson, the president of ESAI Energy, a consulting firm.

As much of the global economy recovered in 2021 and 2022, demand for diesel climbed quickly. But then, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration banned Russian oil and petroleum imports, which amounted to 700,000 barrels of diesel and other fuels a day, much of it intended for the Northeast.

Diesel prices have also soared so much higher than the cost of gasoline in part because of a decision by the International Maritime Organization several years ago to require most oceangoing ships to replace their high-sulfur bunker fuel with less polluting fuels starting in 2020. That has slowly increased demand for diesel over the last two years.

“A substantial amount of diesel is needed in the new bunker blends, and that is a hidden demand for diesel molecules,” said Richard Joswick, the head of global oil analysis for S&P Global Platts. He estimated that the global shipping fleet was now consuming half a million barrels of diesel a day, or roughly 2% of the world’s supplies.

At the same time, while American refiners are now making tidy profits, 30% of their production is being exported. Latin America has become a particularly profitable market, as American diesel replaces fuel from Venezuela, where the state-controlled oil sector has been hobbled by corruption, mismanagement and U.S. sanctions. Some American diesel also goes to Europe.

The impact of exports on domestic prices has led some analysts to speculate that the Biden administration could eventually restrict exports to boost supplies at home. But energy experts said that might not have the desired effect because diesel had become a globally traded commodity. Denying Latin America fuel could also backfire because many countries in the region sell crude oil to the United States.

“We have a symbiotic relationship with Latin America on diesel and crude,” Emerson said. “We can disrupt that, but it doesn’t immediately fix the problem.”

The global diesel shortage was also exacerbated by labor strikes at French refineries this fall. And utilities in Europe have been stockpiling diesel in case they cannot find enough natural gas to fuel their power plants.

Russian diesel has continued to flow to Europe since the war began, but stricter sanctions that the European Union plans to impose on Russia in February could potentially cause havoc to the diesel business of traders, banks, insurance companies and shippers.

Still, some energy experts said prices could soon begin to ease.

Help may be on the way from an unlikely source: China. In recent months, China has been loosening export controls on diesel. Its exports rose from 200,000 barrels a day in August to 430,000 barrels a day in September, and the country has the capacity to sell even more, according to estimates by ESAI Energy.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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