February 21, 2024

After big gain last week, key diesel benchmark price holds steady


After two weeks of trading in the futures market during which the price of ultra low sulfur diesel shot higher before sliding back down, the benchmark retail diesel price did much the same, coming in unchanged this week.

The Department of Energy/Energy Information Administration average weekly retail diesel price effective Monday was $4.109 a gallon, the same price as last week. It’s the second time since July that the price has not moved.

The stability stands in sharp contrast to what happened last week, when the price at the pump, according to the DOE, was up 21 cents a gallon from the prior week, a large gain but only the sixth-biggest one-week jump since the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

The stability is ironic because underneath that lack of movement is a great deal of movement in the ultra low sulfur diesel price but in an up-and-down direction that has brought that benchmark price to a level it was at about two weeks ago.

On Feb. 5, ULSD on the CME commodity exchange settled at $2.7248 a gallon, marking a gain of 6.48 cents from the prior week’s close.

From there, it moved up to $2.9642 a gallon in just four days before beginning a move down, interspersed with some daily increases in the slide, that brought the settlement Tuesday to $2.7315 a gallon, a one-day drop of 7.51 cents.

News stories that appeared extremely bullish just 10 days ago seem to have faded from the market’s memory. The diversion of crude and oil products away from the Red Sea and the Suez Canal is firmly under way, yet the trends in markets have been downward.

The monthly International Energy Agency report last week did show inventories of middle distillates including diesel in European members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — market-focused countries — running well below average. The weekly inventory report of the EIA showed U.S. ULSD inventories getting tighter once again as well.

But even as the diversions around southern Africa and away from the Suez Canal continued, Bloomberg reported that Indian diesel exports that would normally have gone to Europe were “flooding” Asia. Although that means markets are bearing higher freight costs due to the diversion, it also means that global supplies are not affected and prices will eventually adjust to that reality.

Not only has the outright price of ULSD on futures markets declined, the physical market spreads in various U.S. key regions are weakening as well.

According to data from DTN, the spread between the CME ULSD price and physical pipeline barrels in Chicago has weakened to minus 24.5 cents a gallon Tuesday from minus 9 cents a gallon on Feb. 7. In the Gulf of Mexico market, the decline is to minus 9.5 cents a gallon from minus 1.75 cents a gallon on Feb. 12. And in Los Angeles, the spread has weakened to plus 7.5 cents a gallon from plus 13 cents a gallon on Feb. 8.

Overall, the 3-2-1 spread, which is a basic measure of refinery profitability and the strength of gasoline and diesel relative to crude, finished trade Tuesday at about $23.80 a barrel, based on settlement prices for crude and RBOB gasoline on the CME. That’s the lowest since Jan. 10, even as refinery maintenance season — which reduces product output — should be in full swing within the next two weeks, thereby reducing supply of refined products.


Within the flat price for the DOE/EIA price, used as the basis for most fuel surcharges, were some significant swings. In particular, the Rockies price was up 15.2 cents a gallon to $3.957, still more than 15 cents a gallon less than the national average


Although prices in the Rockies are generally lower than in the rest of the country, it is not a region with tremendous ability to bring in product from other parts of the country by water or pipeline. The Phillips 66 refinery in Billings, Montana, suffered a fire last week, likely driving the price in the Rockies higher. At 60,000-barrels-per-day capacity, Billings is one of the largest refineries in the Rockies.

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